Successful Tunbridge Wells author Philip Ardagh is a guest speaker at next weekend’s Children’s Books Festival at Knole. He tells Eileen Leahy what he will be doing at this new event and why it’s important t0 enjoy books as young as possible
“PHILIP is ancient Greek for lover of horses and Ardagh is Irish for high fields,” declares Philip Ardagh when we begin our interview.
The author of a slew of successful tomes, including The Grunts and The Little Adventurers, which have been published in 40 different languages, it’s fair to say Mr Ardagh knows a thing or two about the power of a good book. And this is why he’s been invited as a guest speaker at next weekend’s first Children’s Book Festival at the picturesque National Trust property, Knole, in Sevenoaks.
The likes of Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell, Charlie and Lola creator Lauren Child and Cressida Cowell of How To Train Your Dragon fame will also be there.
Philip, who proudly tells me is ‘two metres tall’ and the owner of a very -‘impressive beard’, which he says most people think is ‘two sewn together’, will be joined at the Saturday session by the illustrator of his Little Adventurers series, Elissa Elwick.
The books, which are aimed at children aged five years and up, are a series of humorous stories about a young group of friends – Sprat, Peanut, Finnegan and Floss – who meet in their top secret Shed HQ every week. The latest book, which Philip and Elissa will be discussing, is Leafy The Pet Leaf– all about the group’s Bring in a Pet day.
“All of them have one, apart from Sprout,” explains Philip. “So Sprout decides to make a pet leaf and the others aren’t overly impressed… but Leafy comes good so the others then make pet leaves – Floss calls hers Dave, which is very nice,” he chuckles before adding, “I better mention the others as they’ll get upset: There’s Finnegan and he has Licky Dog and then there’s Peanut and she brings her pet mouse Pocket with her – you can guess where she keeps that.
“I never had a pet as a child, but I did get to look after the class pet tadpole once.”
Meeting Philip, who will be talking about his new book John Drawbridge – A Medieval Knight in Training on the Sunday, feels like reading one of his books; animated, highly enjoyable and with something funny to snigger at every few seconds.
“I won the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, you know,” he quips mid-sentence, while talking about zooming up the Thames with The Gruffalo’s illustrator Axel Scheffler on last year’s World Book Day. “So when my son says ‘Dad, you’re not funny’ I can say ‘Yes I am, I’m award-winningly funny’ so that’s very useful!”
However, he is incredibly serious about one thing; the importance of getting children to read as early as possible.
“Just sharing a story with a child is a fantastic start. Once you can read and understand what it can bring you, it opens up an infinite number of worlds to you.”
What about children who are difficult to peel away from their phone or tablet? Don’t panic is his advice: “As long as they’re not constantly Face Timing or Snapchatting, devices can be useful. You can read newspapers online, and the great advantage of looking things up on a computer is you can get incredibly sidetracked.
“If you want to find out about a certain type of fish, for example, but it calls up a submarine with the same name, then you’ll probably look at that. It’s quite a fun way of learning. Library trips are similar as you go in wanting one particular book then get sidetracked by looking at something next to it.”
This is another subject which Philip is passionate about. “Our libraries are going through hell at the moment,” he says, referring to the huge cuts and closures.
“I try to be as supportive as possible: I go on marches, I Tweet, because if libraries didn’t exist someone would invent them. They’re amazing places, and all the statistics show that people who get to use them as children have better educational opportunities later on. So any way of getting into books has got to be good.”
He tells me he grew up in a house full of books with a mother and father who loved to read. Would he put this down to his personal writing success?
“I think it helps – and I’m useless at anything else,” he laughs. “I don’t play a musical instrument – which is quite ironic, as Paul McCartney has only written one book and he wrote it with me. It’s called High in the Clouds and in it there’s a crocodile who lives in the sewers – she likes the acoustics because she’s an opera singer and there’s good echo. Paul and I gave her a few lines to sing, which means I can say: ‘Well, I wrote this song with Paul McCartney’.”
Philip, who has had over 100 books published, often talks in schools about the importance of reading.
“Some of those I go to still have school librarians who can recommend what to read or suggest other books to try. Sometimes on their door they’ll have a note saying: ‘This week I’m reading…’.
“I’ve seen some headteachers do this, too, and it’s such a simple, brilliant idea.”
Later this year, the author will be promoting more new tomes, which include What Bear? Where? as well as a definitive guide to Tove Jansson’s books about the Moomins.
This, Philip says, is ‘a dream come true’ since his favourite book of all time is Comet in Moominsland.
Before he goes, the lover of horses and high fields has one final kernel of advice to offer: “The best, best thing is for children to see you reading. Even if you’re just engaging with snippets from the newspaper, it all helps.”
Knole Children’s Book Festival runs from 25-26 March at Knole in -Sevenoaks. For information and tickets, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/knole