A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
For anyone who’s been living under a rock, the phenomenon of Squishy McFluff, the invisible cat is the best thing to happen to kids’ books since Dr Seuss. Well, from a parent’s point of view anyway. And we hear that kids like them too. So I was particularly excited to get my mitts on the latest offering from that troublesome fantasy feline, and ask Pip, the rhyming queen of east London, all about it.
Young Ava is very excited
To see Nanna Dot
(who’s rather short sighted)
Nan’s fun! And she’ sunny!
And if that’s not enough,
Can Ava’s Mad Nana SEE
So, Pip, We know you’ve told the story many times, but for anyone who hasn’t heard, where did the brilliant, hilarious Squishy McFluff come from?
Ha! So, when my elder daughter Ava was about two and a half, she had a real imaginary kitten, who she called Cat (her imagination only stretched so far, clearly). She described Cat to me in great detail. He was really tiny and fluffy and cute, and – importantly – he was very, very real to her. We had to feed him, and bathe him and stroke him. I mostly found the whole thing quite funny. Dan and I kept sitting on Cat (because we didn’t know where he was, of course). Not so funny were the times when I had the girls all strapped into the car to set off somewhere, then Ava would announce she’d forgotten Cat, and we’d have to get unstrapped and go back into the house to get him. I was writing a column at the time, called Terrible Twos, about the trials and tribulations of owning a two year old, and I wrote about Cat there. If you read that column you’ll see that it was very much the basis for the first book. I almost just re-wrote the column as a rhyming children’s story (several additions to the story came later). When I decided to write more stories about the invisible kitten, I realised he’d need a name. For some reason (honestly, I don’t know why), I’d given Ava a nickname – Squishy McFluffy. The cat was an extension of Ava, so it seemed perfect he should have her alias. But more words rhyme with McFluff than with McFluffy. So, there he was.
Have you always been good at rhyming?
While, as a young child, I wrote lots of rhyme,
Pre-Squish, I’d not rhymed for quite a long time.
I guess, if you have it, it’s something that sticks.
(Perhaps like a leach? Or, what are they? Ticks?)
‘Cos when writing, that rhythm inside is so neat,
And each story I think of is thunk to a beat.
But then writing must cease. The laptop must close.
Yet the beat in my head, well, it just never goes!
So doing the shopping, or planning a dinner
(To nourish the children or make me much thinner),
My innermost thoughts remain rather restricted…
They rhyme. All the time. Thus, I feel quite afflicted 🙂
Is Mad Nana Dot based on anyone you know, or *might* actually be related to? And how *might* she feel about being immortalised in this way?
Yup! My mum. When my editor at Faber saw the MS and I told her Mad Nana Dot was inspired by my mum, she said: “Oh my, no-one in your family is safe, are they?!” And they’re NOT. Anyway, it’s her own fault. You see, Mum did this bonkers thing which gave me the idea for Mad Nana. She used to have a nice grown-up bathroom, all stylishly accessorised in black and faun. Then I took Ava and Ruby to stay one weekend, and Mum had (permanently) replaced everything – shower curtain, towels, mats, flannels – with this insane pattern, massive multi-coloured dots. It’s a bit like Damien Hirst’s spots, but much, much brighter and bigger. I asked her what the heck she’d done to her bathroom, and she told me she’d changed it because she thought the girls would like it, and think it was funny. Who does that?! Ha ha! Anyway, they did/do like it, and did/do think it’s very funny. So that was what gave me Mad Nana Dot’s name – and I filled in some of the blanks with other things my mum has done (like putting up her Christmas tree in October one year). Mum loves it though. I mean, she knows… if the glove fits.
Your daughters are the purrfect (see what I did there?) age for Squishy books. Do they offer you any advice?
That’s an excellent gag Nikki. 🙂 Yes, Ava is now six, and Ruby is five, so they are the perfect age for the Squishy books. They both sometimes offer up ideas for Squishy McFluff’s antics. However, what they don’t know is that it’s what they do themselves in every day life that give me the real ideas. Them and other children I know. It’s purrfect really (it’s catching!!) – they see Squishy as a separate entity, but in fact he is merely the embodiment of his owner’s curiosity and mischievousness. Squishy IS Ava. So all I need to do for ideas is soak up the motives and behaviours of all the mischievous children I know. Squash them together and I get more Squishy!
Without wanting to give too much away, Squishy McFluff: Meets Mad Nana Dot ends with the birth of Ava’s sister, baby Roo, which is done so beautifully that I defy anyone not to get a bit misty eyed. How do you feel about being responsible for mums all over the country blubbing at bedtime?
Aah! Yes, the last page. Only recently have I been able to read it without welling up. I needed to get a grip though, because I might be reading it in public soon. Actually, I hope I do have parents blubbing at bedtime. Or at least saying: “Aww!”. That would be AMAZING. One of my objectives with the Squishy stories, right from the start, was that they’d have something to say to parents too – not just the funny stuff, where mums and dads might laugh and knowingly roll their eyes, but also something about the family dynamic, something about love and patience. Bringing a new baby in to the home is a massive thing for any family. I love that Ava has her invisible kitten to help her work out how she feels about this noisy Baby Roo character.
Squishy has already visited many schools and festivals, and he travels in a real wicker cat basket. What is the children’s reaction when an imaginary cat comes out?
Priceless! Usually a mixture of reactions actually. I build the tension a bit by making everyone stay very quiet, and taking Squishy out of his basket very slowly. Some children look bewildered. Others nudge each other and make this face: o_0 Quite often there are a few children who immediately say: “I can see him!” For those who can’t ‘see’ Squishy, I clarify with: “What’s up? I did tell you that Squishy McFluff is an invisible cat!” What’s so lovely, though, and so brilliant about children, is that despite confirming that Squishy is definitely extremely invisible, I never have any lack of hands shooting up when I ask for volunteers to hold him, and help me keep him busy with an invisible fish so that we can read the book.
After a successful career as a journalist, does it surprise you to have found fame and fortune with an invisible cat?
Fame and fortune might be pushing it, Nikki! But yes, of course. It doesn’t feel like very long ago that I had absolutely no idea I could be an author for children. I started by writing a short, rhyming story about a naughty invisible kitten, which I thought children might like and find funny – and since then I’ve been swept along by a series of events and several brilliant people who’ve helped turn that story into something which is now actually in the hands of children. It’s fantastically surprising! I feel lucky it happened for me.
I have to ask, being a responsible imaginary cat owner, have you had Squishy neutered yet?
He’s still a bit young for it, to be honest. But that’s good because it gives me time to find an imaginary vet to carry out the procedure (and time for me to imagine the money to pay for it), before Squishy McFluff grows up and meets an imaginary girl cat. Christ, can you imagine?!
Are there any more Squishy Stories coming out?
Yes! The fourth Squishy McFluff book will be out at the beginning of October and I am massively excited about it, because it’s a Christmas story. Or, perhaps a Squishmas story. It’s called Secret Santa. Being able to weave together the magic of Ava’s imagination with the magic of Christmas was so much fun. The book is already with my fantastic illustrator, Ella Okstad, and I’ve seen the roughs. Her illustrations are superb, my favourites so far. Squishy McFluff: Seaside Rescue will be the fifth in the series, out February 2016 (it’s very dramatic, Squishy gets lost at sea). The sixth, I have yet to start writing, but I think it’s going to be set at a village fete. There might be a giant marrow. And before any of that, in May, my first picture book comes out. It’s called Daddy’s Sandwich and it’s about a little girl who gets carried away making a snack for her dad, with all his favourite things.
The first Squishy book came out almost exactly a year ago. What has been your favourite Squishy moment so far?
Although I was initially nervous about doing them, the festivals have been amazing. Such an experience, and brilliant to meet so many excitable children and see them engaging with Squishy. Apart from that, learning that I could write a Christmas book, and actually writing Secret Santa, was a massive highlight. It brought back all the magic of Christmas as a small person. It made me tingle.
We can’t wait to see what Squishy gets up to with those baubles! Many thanks, Pip and Squishy!
Pip Jones is author of the Squishy McFluff series, which is published by Faber Children’s. The first book, Squishy McFluff: The Invisible Cat! won the inaugural Greenhouse Funny Prize in 2012, and was recommended by The Booktrust in its Best Books Guide 2014. The second Squishy title published in August 2014, the third is due to publish in February 2015. In addition, Pip has written a picture book, Daddy’s Sandwich, which will also be published by Faber, in May 2015. In a previous life, Pip wrote and edited features about glamorous things, such as fast cars and travel. Continue reading…
BOOKS: SQUISHY MCFLUFF: THE INVISIBLE CAT! | SQUISHY MCFLUFF: SUPERMARKET SWEEP! | SQUISHY MCFLUFF: MEETS MAD NANA DOT! | SQUISHY MCFLUFF: SECRET SANTA | SQUISHY MCFLUFF: SEASIDE RESCUE! | DADDY’S SANDWICH
Nikki Sheehan is the youngest daughter of a rocket scientist and went to a convent school in Cambridge where she was taught by real nuns in habits. Her writing was first published when she was seven and her teacher sent a poem she had written into a magazine. She always knew she wanted to be a writer, but, for some reason she can’t remember she did a degree in linguistics followed by psychology. Nikki’s first job was subtitling the Simpsons. She then retrained as a journalist and wrote features about child psychology for parenting magazines and the national press. Continue reading…
BOOKS: WHO FRAMED KLARIS CLIFF?