Eoin Colfer on Imaginary Fred and Picture Books

Eoin Colfer is the author of the well-loved Artemis Fowl series and has penned a whole host of books for children and adults. His latest project is a collaboration with author and illustrator Oliver Jeffers, and it's one that we're very excited about! Imaginary Fred is a beautiful and funny book about the power of friendship. In this interview, Eoin gives us an insight into his writing process and Imaginary Fred.

What stories did you enjoy reading when you were little?

I remember being very obsessed with Vikings when I was young. There was a Scandinavian series of books called Noggin the Nog and Nogbad the Bad and I loved it. My dad used to make up Noggin the Nog stories, which I'm sure was illegal in copyright terms, but we never published them or spread them around! I spent a lot of time trying to draw Vikings and reading about Noggin the Nog – he was my little picture book obsession when I was younger.

I remember being very obsessed with Vikings when I was young

How do you test out your ideas?

I'm very secretive, so I don't tell anybody anything- it's almost a compulsion! I just send it to my agent. I don't know if that's a good idea because you're living on your nerves: until you get a response back you've no idea if it's any good or not. That's how I work. Sometimes, if my wife asks me, I'll show her, but she doesn’t ask me very much!

What do you do when you get stuck with a piece of work? How do you progress?

In that situation I really like an extreme sport that I do: parachute jumping. I go up to this field in Kilkenny. When you're free falling through the air and you have 30 seconds, you think: you know what, I could really die! I find I get good ideas in those 30 seconds!

How did you get into parachute jumping?

Well this is the weirdest thing, and when you think about it it's not funny, but my wife bought me a parachute jump as a Christmas present. What does that say? Some insurance papers and a parachute jump!

Cover of Imaginary Fred
How long did the process of making Imaginary Fred take?

The writing took about a month and the illustration about three months. We did a lot over Skype and over letters and Oliver posted over the pictures. It was a very nice process.

Would you say that you wrote the book with a specific age group in mind?

I think I wrote it with a lower age group in mind – it would be kind of a step between very young picture books and chapter books. It's a little slot in between those two niches. I think it's a book that you might start off reading to your child and then they may go back to themselves, and it would be a nice chapter book for them to read. So maybe the book can be read alone by those aged 6 upwards, and under that it can be read by to the child by their parents. Hopefully it's a book that has no upper age limit.

Why do you think was a good story to be told in a picture book format?

This was a story that I'd had for a while and it was never right for me. Then, when I met Oliver, I realised what was missing: it needed illustrations and a lot of the story needed to be shown rather than written down in words. That was one of the first things Oliver showed me – how to think visually.

Picture books are often seen as a stepping stone to chapter books, how do you feel about that?

Oh yes, several studies have shown that kids who have been read to as very young children take to reading by themselves much more easily and have a much higher reading level than kids who haven't been read to, so it's vital – this [Imaginary Fred] would be another step along in that process. So maybe you've read How to Catch a Star, then you could move on to ‘Fred’, then you could move on to Artemis Fowl. They [picture books] are just absolutely vital.

Do picture books work as a format for handling more difficult subjects for older children?

I think that picture books historically have never shied away from the big topics – that doesn't mean they're setting out to teach anybody a moral, they're just dealing with life as it is. Kids have to live life just as much as adults.

Do you have any advice for our Bookbug audience in how to engage children with books?

Speaking as a longtime teacher, the big thing is to make books available and also to paint them in a positive light to give them a really good rep without forcing them on kids. It's the same as the messages we were talking about with picture books: if you force it on a kid they will just run away from it, so you just have to make it look like a good and a desirable thing. It's a thin line to walk and it's a hard thing to do. I spent a lot of my teaching career trying to get kids to read books with mixed results. And of course it's true what they say that some books are better than others with reluctant readers, and also those books are another step towards chapter books, so if you can find a book that your kid likes…my son, for example, is into [football], so I got him into some sports-centred books and he really liked those. Every parent will probably be best placed to know what their child might like.

Picture books historically have never shied away from the big topics

What was your favourite thing about your local library when you were growing up?

When I was a child my dad was an academic and he was studying for his Masters or his Doctorate. He would bring me and my brother Paul down to our local library and he would stay there for three or four hours. That was where I learnt to really love reading, so I have a lot of time for libraries and librarians. I don't think we're under quite as much pressure in Ireland as the UK libraries, but still it's a hard time. I think librarians are the ones who spread the gospel in our world – actually they're a fantastic resource. They can talk to your child for 10 minutes and will be able to recommend five or six books for them, so if you're really worried about your son or daughter not reading, get down your local library and have a chat with a librarian and you'll be amazed at what's available.

Can you tell us a bit about your time as Children's Laureate in Ireland?

My Laureate project was stories, specifically. There have been three laureates: Siobhan [Parkinson] – she focused on libraries and promoting libraries, then there was Niamh [Sharkey] and she focused on illustration – she put together a huge travelling exhibition called ‘Pictiur’ (which is Irish for picture) which went all around the world. And then my project is story. I wanted to bring it right back to basics and I always felt that the way I was brought into the fold of reading and storytelling was through my dad telling me all the stories I told you about earlier. I felt that if more kids were exposed to storytellers, then it might really inspire them to do some reading or writing themselves. So we put a roadshow together with a pool of about 20 writers and we travelled around the country and descended on schools or on remote areas of the islands. I think it's something that Scottish Book Trust does a bit as well – I remember doing a tour with them a few years ago of islands and remote areas and just bringing writers to kids who would not normally see writers and storytellers. So it's been a huge success and it's ongoing. We've also done an anthology which has just come out called Once Upon a Place. All the monies raised from that are going to send more writers into more of our schools so the project will continue after I have finished.


Stand by for tomorrow, when we'll be interviewing Oliver Jeffers on the Bookbug blog!

Check Eoin Colfer giving a hilarious presentation about his books and the craft of writing in our recorded Authors Live event, which is supported by some fabulous teaching resources. You can also check out Oliver Jeffers's Authors Live event!

Top image credit: Michael Paynter