Penny Dale is an award-winning author and illustrator. Her books, such as Ten in the Bed have been a mainstay of bedtime reading for decades and Penny’s latest book Dinosaur Zoom has just been published by Nosy Crow. She writes about the enjoyable experience of creating a story to delight her young grandson.
Throughout 25 years of producing books I have tried to avoid gender stereotyping. But a few years ago, when I kept hearing statistics about boys struggling with reading and falling behind girls of the same age, I just thought I should try unapologetically, specifically, to produce something that would be really fun and rewarding for boys to read … featuring favourite subject matter and treating it seriously. That doesn’t mean without humour but doing my best to make the subject matter feel as real and exciting as possible. It took most of a year to find the best way to combine dinosaurs and heavy machinery, writing and drawing, into a strong picture book form. It was a concept so easy to say … Dinosaurs driving diggers! Great! But you try squeezing a T rex into an excavator!
Of course girls can enjoy the books too, I’m one after all, and I have enjoyed creating them enormously – no pun intended! But I think there ‘s no harm in being specific from time to time. Also I have become very committed to producing books that work across age ranges, i.e. Suitable for reading to the youngest but with enough content and detail to be a pleasurable reading experience for older children to read themselves and not to be embarrassed to carry around or be seen reading. The covers, don’t (I think), look babyish.
At first my grandson seemed to confirm and almost exceed stereotypes. He was extremely enthusiastic about almost anything with wheels, tracks or an engine. Before he could talk he would sigh and croon and point. If he got near to a car tyre he would pat and stroke it like it was a pet, and one day sighed “di …gaaaa ” as he did so. It was one of his first words! Even tow hitches and latches, chains, trailers … Everything vehicular was “Digger” I was more and more intrigued as I hadn’t led the witness at all, just observed.
As he’s grown he has become so interesting to watch playing and to play with. We set up all kinds of games and scenarios involving vehicles and drivers and farm animals, not always dinosaurs, and more recently Lego and cardboard box buildings. He’s four now so I think maybe some of the things that have an influence on me, mean that to an extent the books are growing up with him, although the main audience will always be very young. He is a really useful consultant and has already got a wider expertise on actual vehicles than I have, he certainly has a bigger collection!
And when we do take a break from all this activity there’s nothing better than sitting and reading a good book. He has lots, but one of the recent favourites when he visits my studio is an edition of ‘Tractor and Machinery’ – not actually a book, but a copy of a magazine I had to research tractor detail, and he loves it! It’s full of photos of tractors of all sizes and vintages and arrays of spare parts which he stares at and absorbs and points at … “Look!, a big tractor!” … ” Look, a muddy tractor!” … “Look, a very old tractor!”. . . And that’s him reading … reading pictures … and we learn together!