We were lucky enough to chat to acclaimed children’s author and illustrator Nick Butterworth (whose much-loved books include The Whisperer and Percy the Park Keeper) about doodling, storytelling and the return of his hugely popular animated series, Q Pootle 5.
Great news that Q Pootle 5 is back on CBeebies – how did the idea for the books first come about?
I always think best with a pencil in my hand and I remember I’d been drawing different animal characters. I started to draw the horns of a giraffe which somehow morphed into a little alien – and Q Pootle 5 just popped out of my pencil, complete.
Is there a Q Pootle 5 character that kids or parents tend to like the best?
I think for children, Q Pootle 5 himself is the clear favourite – he’s just a nice guy and the lead character. Parents seem to like the idea of a planet called Dave – everyone knows someone called Dave. I’ve got several friends called Dave and they all think he’s based on them. In a way he is!
Do you have a personal favourite?
I couldn’t choose a favourite, but I do feel protective towards those that might be seen as minor characters. If I see that a character is less prominent, I want to make them the hero of my next story. I like the idea of making them important.
What was it like working with your wife and son on Q Pootle 5?
My wife Annette and I have been a team for... ever! She’s my business partner as well as my best friend. It’s been a real pleasure for us to work with our son Ben whose background is in film and TV. It was actually Ben’s initiative for us to make the series. It’s not just us though – at Blue Zoo, our brilliant animators, there are about 60 people working with us. Then there are probably another 20 or more, working on music, sound effects, voice recordings and, of course, the fantastic actors who have brought so much to the characters. I’m really excited by the new series – it looks stunning.
What are some of your favourite books for children?
I have a soft spot for the stories that my children loved, like Each Peach Plum Pear by Janet and Allan Ahlberg and Mr Gumpy’s Motor Car by John Burningham. I like books you can explore with kids. There are longer stories I also love such as Wind in the Willows and George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl. I wish I’d written Winnie the Pooh.
Do you have any tips for getting little ones interested in drawing?
My experience is that if you put pencil and paper in front of even the youngest child, they’ll start drawing. Sometimes, I used to sit down with my own children, and I’d draw a face and then they’d start adding to it. Energetic scribbling can make a person’s pink hair or a green beard – or it might turn a cat into a hairy, scary monster! Alternatively you can get them to do a squiggle and then you turn it into a drawing of a pig or a spaceship or a ball of string – whatever you can!
What if a parent wanted to create their own story to share with the family?
One thing I found that captured the imagination of my own children was stories about themselves. I’d start telling a story about something exciting in their own lives, like things in their own home – so instead of opening the cupboard under the stairs and finding a vacuum cleaner, we pretended there was a staircase down to a cavernous cellar with spaceships. It might be fun for a mum to get the one who the story is about to do some drawings for it.
How do you get your own ideas down on the page?
Winnie the Pooh said of poetry and hums that they ‘aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you'. This is certainly the case with my work. For instance, with the first Percy the Park Keeper book, I’d been walking in the local park with our old dog, Jake. It was a frosty winter’s morning and I came across the park keeper’s hut. It struck me how cosy and warm it looked inside and I thought about the idea of someone living in the park with all the animals as his friends. I went straight home and wrote the story. Other times, like with Q Pootle 5, it started as a sketch and progressed from there.