When you write a new story, you create the characters as if you’re meeting them for the first time. You get to decide everything about them, from the colour of their hair to what they have for breakfast. As a writer or illustrator you get the envious task of being able to create a new being, in a new world. The opportunities to capture a personality trait in the sentences written or an emotive glance in the illustrations, are marvellously endless.

Without a conceived idea or the drawings to bring those thoughts to life, I believe stories wouldn’t exist. Text and pictures co-exist in harmony once they’re on the pages of the books we love and our world would not be the same without them. Collaborations between those that draw and those that write ensure our shelves are filled with colour and text that follow us into our dreams once we decide it’s time for bed.

One such collaboration I am delighted to share with you is the fantastic team behind Little Door Books fantasy adventure for 6-9 year olds ‘Uncle Pete and the Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep’ – writer, David C Flanagan and illustrator, Will Hughes.

From Orkney to Malvern with a pit stop Uncle Pete would be proud of in Argyl & Bute (to get the thumbs up from Alan Windrum at Little Door Books HQ), let me introduce you to them…

David C. Flanagan is a writer and journalist based in the Orkney Islands, Scotland. Born, raised and educated in Edinburgh, he studied journalism in the city before returning to his ancestral home in the islands where he worked as a reporter on the local weekly newspaper, The Orcadian. He’s been freelance since 2002, providing news, features and content for a variety of publications and websites. David also acts as location manager for film and television crews operating in Orkney. His first book, Board, was published by Fledgling Press in 2015 and recounted his hapless attempts to learn to surf in middle-age, on the wild Atlantic coast of Orkney. He still surfs, by his own admission badly, and also loves skateboarding, fitness training and walking in the Scottish mountains. 

Will Hughes is an illustrator and cartoonist from Malvern in Worcestershire. He studied at the nearby Hereford College of Art which was followed by a degree in Illustration at the University of Edinburgh. His first book ‘What Not To Give An Ogre For His Birthday’ was published by Little Door Books in 2019 and, as you might imagine, tells the story of two children trying to find a present for an ogre who is particularly hard to buy for.

In 2018, Will became part of the Picturehooks Mentoring Scheme where he was mentored by the author and illustrator Petr Horacek. It culminated in an exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 2019. This experience had a big impact on how he works as it encouraged him to use a much broader range of materials and techniques, including collage, alongside the ink and watercolour that he has always used.

With ‘Uncle Pete and the Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep’ book launch blog tour starting with my interview below, let the fun begin!

David, Uncle Pete is about to launch into the world. It’s full of adventure and epic travel scenes taking the reader along for ride with every page turn. Were you inspired by the Orkney scenery when conjuring up the journey Uncle Pete and TM made?

DAVID: Firstly, thanks so much for your interest in the book, Sarah. Orkney does have truly fabulous scenery, but it wasn’t a direct inspiration for the journey, or the settings in the book. I do love forests and mountains though, in addition to the big skies of Orkney, so there are probably elements of place creeping in subconsciously!

I wanted to avoid linking the story to any particular location, just to create that sense of mystery about where the island that Uncle Pete and TM travel to is in the world.

David Flanagan

Who is your favourite character from the book and why? I think T.M is mine, she was ready for anything – cheese and sunglasses, what more do you need!

DAVID: I think TM’s my favourite character too. She’s had a tough time, losing her family to a cat and having to make her own way in the world, but she’s incredibly brave, smart, enthusiastic and full of wonder. She’s new to exploration, but her determination and resourcefulness make her the perfect partner in adventure for Uncle Pete. I also like the mysterious Inky the cat and think we may well see more of him in the future.

WILL: It might be an obvious answer but I think mine would have to be Uncle Pete. I love his attitude of adventure, where he doesn’t plan or worry too much, he just gets on with things and ends up in the most fantastic places. Being pretty disorganised myself, there is something about Pete’s shed made out of baked bean cans and filled with an assortment of who knows what that appeals to me.

Will, your illustrations work perfectly with the text. I thought they were reminiscent of Quentin Blake’s style and showed the chaos that the explorers encountered in fabulous quirky detail throughout. Did it take you a while to get the story and characters in your head or did you instantly know how Uncle Pete, Harry etc would appear from brain to page?

WILL: Thanks a lot, I’m really glad that you liked the illustrations, it is great to hear that you thought they worked with the text because that was the one thing that I thought was most important to achieve when I was drawing them.

I think on a larger scale it was actually quick for me to get an idea in my mind of what the story should look like. Dave evokes the world of the story so well, the sense of adventure where you can hop in an old plane and end up in all sorts of mysterious and wonderful places. After reading it for the first time there were loads and loads of things that I thought ‘that will be absolutely brilliant to draw’ like the ship made out of clouds going past great big whales floating through the night sky — who wouldn’t want to illustrate that!

On a smaller scale with the specific details it did take a bit more time. The story wouldn’t be the same without Uncle Pete and TM and because of that they have got to look ‘right’. With Pete, I had an idea of what he looked like (a big black beard, a bit untidy, like he had been on an adventure or two in his time) but it took quite a few sketches, drawing him in lots of different ways until I got it just right. With TM the main thing was making sure she looked like a mouse and not a rat (because I love drawing cheeky little rats).

For those considering becoming an illustrator, and with your time studying your craft in Edinburgh, any tips for budding artists out there?

WILL: One of my main tips would be to always keep experimenting with and trying all sorts of different techniques, materials and approaches. It is something I started to see the importance of during my degree and saw even more so after university when I was a mentee on the Picturehooks Mentoring scheme. I was mentored by the illustrator Petr Horacek and it was a brilliant experience because he simply encouraged me to try using a much wider range of materials including oil pastels, acrylic paints, colour pencils, and incorporating bits of collage. Just doing this made my work bolder and more confident and it was great fun. You never know how you will work with something until you try it and you never know how that technique, whatever it is, will impact your work as a whole.

I think your illustrations can always develop and change and that is one of the best and the most exciting things about it.

Will Hughes

At the end of the book, the reader perhaps realises this is not the last time we’ll hear from Uncle Pete. Where is he travelling to next? Will he get some sleep too? Are jam sandwiches on the menu?

DAVID: It’s definitely not the last time we’ll hear from Uncle Pete, or TM! Their next journey takes them to the Forest of Lost Things as they reckon that’s a good place to start looking for their missing plane. It’s a very hard place to get to though – it wouldn’t be an adventure otherwise – and there are all kinds of mishaps and surprises along the way. They do get a quick rest before setting off, but they’re not ones for sitting around for too long. And there’ll definitely be more jam sandwiches on the menu. And cheese. And beans. There may also be some squirrels involved…

What’s next for you both? David – what comes after Uncle Pete? Will – you have a picture book out already with Little Door Books (What to Give an Ogre for his Birthday), any plans for further publications? 

DAVID: I’m delighted that the lovely folk at Little Door Books are keen for more Uncle Pete adventures, so my immediate focus is on completing the second book, then plotting what’s next for the duo. Whatever they get up to in the future, it’s fantastic to know Will’s taking care of the illustrations as he perfectly captures the atmosphere and personalities in my stories. I also have a sports related non-fiction book to work on, in addition to the follow-up to my first book, Board.

WILL: Well I am definitely looking forward to illustrating the next Uncle Pete book. I had such a good time working on the first one and I am very excited to see what Dave has in store for the second. I am sure there will be all sorts of brilliant and bizarre things that as soon as I read them I will want to draw. At the moment I am drawing lots of silly creatures for a book of poems for children and hopefully there will be more picture books to come. I have been working on an idea for one for a while about a man who builds extravagant buildings that the rest of the people in the town he lives in are not particularly keen on.

This is just the beginning for David, Will, Uncle Pete, T.M and all the characters you’re about to meet from their new home at Little Door Books. Here’s further links to information, readings and live events from both writer AND illustrator:

Twitter: Little Door Books, David Flanagan, Will Hughes, My Book Corner

Instagram: Little Door Books, David Flanagan, Will Hughes, My Book Corner

What do I think of this fantastic book? You’ll need to wait until the 30th April when I ponder it all on My Book Corner as part of the ‘Uncle Pete and the Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep’ book launch blog tour!

#PicturesMeanBusiness #SupportLocal

illustrations by Will Hughes