This week we were thrilled to speak with children’s book author, Jonathan Emmett.  Some of you may have recently seen one of Jonathan’s Mole and friends series, ‘Bringing Down the Moon’ read on CBeebies by actress Sally Phillips.   We wanted to find out more about Jonathan’s inspiration for these lovable characters and how he went on to build a series of stories around them.

Hi Jonathan, thanks for speaking with us. Let’s start off with a little bit about you.  How did you come to find yourself writing for children’s books?

I’ve always enjoyed inventing stories, and writing and illustrating had been a hobby of mine  since primary school age. I started writing specifically for children while I was working as an architect. I sent stories off for five years before one was finally accepted by a publisher.  Unfortunately that first book was pulled from publication at the last minute and I had to wait another 18 months before another was accepted, but I’ve been writing for children ever since.

Ah – a true testament that perseverance pays off!  What is your process when it comes to putting pen to paper.  Where do you find your inspiration?

It’s nearly always “fingers to keyboard” rather than “pen to paper” for me. I’m mildly dyslexic and have always found writing with a pen a little difficult and frustrating. I’m not sure I could have been a professional writer without a word processor to highlight my mistakes and help me organise my ideas.

But to answer your question “where do I find my inspiration?” Everywhere and anywhere. When my kids were little I got lots of ideas from the things that they said. I also draw a lot of inspiration from films, TV and video games. Several of my picture books have come about as a result of early collaboration with illustrators and in these instances, the illustrator has supplied the initial idea (sometimes in the form of an image) and I’ve written a story in response to it.

Tell us a little bit about how Bringing Down the Moon developed into four other stories featuring Mole and his friends.  Did you always know they would have more adventures together?

Bringing Down the Moon was always intended to be the first in a series of books about Mole and his three friends, but the series quickly strayed from the path I’d plotted out for it. I’d planned to write four stories,  each one centred on one of the four animal characters in the first book.  The first follow-up story I wrote was called What Friends Do Best and was about Squirrel trying to prepare a meal. Unfortunately my original publisher didn’t think it was a suitable follow up, but I was able to adapt it for a new cast of characters in a new setting and it was taken by another publisher.  One reason the Squirrel story was turned down was that they were keen for another story centred on Mole. I’d been working on a story about a mouse who wanted to move home and I realised that, having just recast Mole and his friends OUT OF one story, I could recast them INTO this one – which is how the second Mole and Friends story, No Place Like Home came about.

By this time Vanessa Cabban had completed her illustrations for the first book.  Vanessa’s dominant use of blue in the illustrations was really striking and I liked the idea of No Place Like Home having a different dominant colour, so the story is set in spring time when everything is green. This colour theme was carried through to the third and fourth books (which are predominately white and brown), but we dropped it for the fifth book.

Indeed, Vanessa worked with you on all five of the Mole and Friends series with beautiful illustrations that really brought their world to life.  How did you find each other – did you reach out for an illustrator or seek Vanessa specifically?

For most picture books the publisher suggests the illustrator and this was the case with  Bringing Down the Moon.  Walker Books  showed me some of the illustrations Vanessa had just completed for Down in the Woods at Sleepytime by Carole Lexa Schaefer and it was obvious that Vanessa was the perfect choice of illustrator for Mole and his friends.

One of the advantages of collaborating on a picture book with another person is that you can draw on their strengths to create something richer than you could have achieved on your own.  Vanessa brought her own distinctive charm, warmth and humour to all the books that we collaborated on.  Vanessa and I created seven books together and became good friends, so I was very sad when she passed away in 2014.

Do you have a favourite out of the five Mole and Friends stories?

I know that sales-wise I should say that all five are all equally good, but I think the odd-numbered stories (the 1st, the 3rd and the 5th books) are a little bit better than the even-numbered ones.  My favourite story is the the 3rd book, Diamond in the Snow,  but I think Bringing Down the Moon has the best illustrations.

New editions of the Mole and Friends series are being released this year.  Could you tell us a little bit about why they’re being relaunched?

The original editions were published on a piecemeal basis over a ten year period and some of them had gone out of print.  They were not really tied together as a series, so if you read one, you might not be aware that there were four more to explore. The relaunch brings all five books back into print and presents them as a unified series for the first time.

What do you think makes a great children’s book?

Any book that can engage directly with a reader’s interests and enthusiasms is a ‘great children’s book’ for that particular reader. Of course, it’s a lot easier to engage a reader’s enthusiasms if you are genuinely enthusiastic about the things you are writing about.

And finally, what was your favourite book growing up?

I have so many,  but probably my favourite childhood picture book was Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.  As an adult I can appreciate that it’s beautifully illustrated with a deftly written text that reads wonderfully aloud, but as a four-year-old it was the sheer nightmarish scariness of the Wild Things, with their “terrible roars”, “terrible teeth”, “terrible eyes” and “terrible claws” that drew me in. Their wildness was in stark contrast to the tameness of most other picture books then and now.

Jonathan, thanks so much for sharing your insights with us today, and best of luck with the relaunch of the series.

You can find out more about Jonathan, Mole and friends, and his other works over at scribblestreet.com