Tom Gates a master of excuses, creative storyteller, and middle-school comedian extraordinaire, is the feisty eponymous hero of Liz Pichon’s The Brilliant World of Tom Gates. He made his debut in 2011 from Scholastic U.K., and won the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, and the Blue Peter Book Award. Together with six subsequent titles in the series, it has sold more than one million copies in the U.K. American readers will have a chance to make Tom’s acquaintance when Candlewick releases the illustrated, paper-over-board novel on August 26.
Pichon, who lives in Brighton, England, has written and/or illustrated a number of picture books, including My Big Brother, Boris, which won a Smarties Book Prize Silver Award. The Brilliant World of Tom Gates, her first middle-grade novel, actually began as a picture book, explained the author. “Publishers liked the style but wanted more of a story,” she said. “So I wrote about Tom’s family and as many funny situations I could think of happening to him at home and school. The first draft was in a real composition book, where Tom tells about a disastrous camping holiday he had – complete with doodles, drawings and lots of different fonts to help move the story on.”
The switch in format from picture book to illustrated novel proved propitious: Pichon reported that after her agent submitted the proposal to publishers, seven publishers made offers within two weeks.
Like Tom, whose drawings at school sometimes land him in hot water (as when he draws a portrait of his art teacher that highlights her facial hair), Pichon was also a doodler and comics lover as a child. “ I loved drawing and reading comics, and I was obsessed with Walt Disney and copying different characters,” she said. “After a friend of my mum’s bought me a Walt Disney comic back from America, I joined the Walt Disney club, and received a special comic with loads more color pictures than any of my U.K. comics had. It became a treasured possession.”
Though Pichon had never before written or illustrated for an older audience, she found that The Brilliant World of Tom Gates flowed quite smoothly. “Once I got the format working, I began to realize I must have been storing up ideas for a long time,” she said. “Being the youngest of four and having three children myself, there’s a lot of material to draw on.”
Yet with the new format came new challenges. “I still find the whole writing process a bit tricky,” the author explained. “I tend to think very visually, so I have a picture in my mind of what I want the story to look like. I treat every page as if I was making a picture book by including those page-turn moments. I tend to do the pictures and the story together as a rough, then work on the text separately. I love having more time to set up funny situations and see what the characters might get up to.”
Bringing Tom to These Shores
Karen Lotz, Candlewick’s president and publisher and group managing director of Walker Books Group (who currently splits her time between Boston and London) encountered Tom Gates soon after she and her family moved to England in 2012. “A friend who works at the Cheltenham Literary Festival recommended these books as perfect reads for my son, who was in Year Four at the time,” she said. “I immediately picked one up and laughed out loud on the train all the way back to London. My son also loved them, and it turned out they were favorites of all his new classmates as well.”
Seeing first-hand how easily kids connect with Tom Gates, Lotz contacted Scholastic U.K. to ask if U.S. rights were available, and eventually secured a three-book deal. Candlewick will release Tom Gates: Excellent Excuses in February 2015 and Tom Gates: Everything’s Amazing (Sort Of) in June 2015.
According to Lotz, the appeal of the series is rooted in Pichon’s knack for characterization and illustration. “What I love about Tom is that he is a very authentic and completely ordinary kid – funnies, foibles, and all,” she observed. “The artwork is also a huge plus. It makes perfect sense with Tom’s character and talents to have the books so filled with illustration. Moreover, Liz integrates doodling and text so seamlessly that the novels become extremely accessible and friendly for a wide range of readers.”
The editor also noted that Pichon’s background in graphic design and creating picture books served her well when shaping the visual elements of the Tom Gates novels. “Her sense of the page is superb,” said Lotz. “She pays very close attention to where she places each element, and how humor plays out across a spread and in the timing from page turn to page turn. This is definitely a skill more commonly found among picture book makers. Her graphic design and music background is also evident in the high-impact covers and fantastic fonts and type design.”
Though Lotz commented that some elements of The Brilliant World of Tom Gates – such as Tom and his classmates competing for merit points – may be more familiar to American readers from the Harry Potter books than from their own classrooms, she believes that Tom has universal appeal. “Everything that he goes through with his friends, relatives, and teachers is very relatable, including his missteps and disasters – and moreover, very entertaining!” she said. “I think sharing literature back and forth across the pond makes the world smaller in a good way, helping us realize we’ve got a lot more in common than we might think. And I also can speak from my own family’s experience about how useful books can be as connectors and gateways into other worlds.”
Pichon said she is eager to welcome American kids on board. “It’s been amazing to see how kids have reacted to the books when I’ve visited schools and done events in the U.K.,” she said. “I feel incredibly lucky, especially as I’m having such a great time writing and illustrating these books. And I get a lot of parents, teachers, and librarians telling me how these books have helped ‘reluctant readers,’ which is not something I set out to do. But that’s been fantastic to hear. I can’t wait for the books to be published in America.”
The Brilliant World of Tom Gates by Liz Pichon. Candlewick, $12.99 Aug. ISBN 978-0-7636-7472-4