QuestFriendz Meets… STEM Author Pip Jones
As a STEM children’s book publisher, we love talking to other STEM writers and hearing about the inspiration for their books. So, we are beyond excited to be interviewing STEM sensation Pip Jones, author of the hugely successful Izzy Gizmo picture books. Over to you Pip…
You’ve written a number of brilliant children’s books, including the hilarious series, Squishy McFluff. Can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey and how you first got published?
I’ve been writing my whole life (it was a hobby when I was a kid and then I worked in newspapers and magazines), but I came into children’s books in a slightly unusual way. Back in 2012, I had a parenting column and I’d written a post about my elder daughter Ava (then a toddler) who had an imaginary kitten – a very funny but challenging family experience! I decided to re-write that column as a children’s story, which I enjoyed, so I wrote a couple more with the same characters, Squishy McFluff and Ava. I never actually submitted those stories to agents, as is the usual route into book publishing. Before even considering doing that, I just happened to come across an advert for the Greenhouse Funny Prize writing competition – so I entered them into that and, a few weeks later, I heard I’d won. My prize was representation by my agent Julia Churchill, and she secured a four-book deal with Faber and Faber a couple of months after that. The ninth Squishy McFluff book is currently being illustrated, and I’ve written lots more besides, including the Ruby Roo picture book series, the Piggy Handsome series and two Izzy Gizmo books.
What inspired you to write the Izzy Gizmo books? Were you thinking about the growing importance of STEM in today’s curriculum when you wrote it?
In all honesty, I wasn’t thinking about STEM when I wrote the first draft, I was just thinking this will be a great character with a great story, all in the context of her funny machines and with the themes of perseverance and empathy. I always come to story ideas from the starting place of ‘what will kids love?’ much more than ‘what does the market or the curriculum need or lack’? But once the first book was complete, I could of course see it could be an important book in that respect. There is much more now but, when I wrote the first draft at the end of October 2014 (picture books can take a long time to make!), there was surprisingly little in the way of STEM fiction for children, which would inspire them in that mindset.
Lillicorn, one of the main characters in our new SuperQuesters children’s book series publishing 3rd May is similar to Izzy in that she’s always asking questions and trying to solve problems. Is the character Izzy Gizmo based on anyone? Did you deliberately choose a female role model?
Yes, I did deliberately decide the character should be female. I always say that Izzy Gizmo is a little bit me (based on my childhood spent in the garage with my grandfather while he tinkered and invented things, as well as my own silly ideas for bonkers machines), and a little bit my daughters too. I suppose what I really mean is, Izzy is a little bit most girls, she’s very normal; all children are curious and girls, just as much as boys, might like fixing and mending and building and bashing things with hammers. What’s more, girls may enjoy and be brilliant at all those things whether or not they like to wear pink tutus!
In Izzy Gizmo and the Invention Convention, Izzy experiences failure but, together with her friend Fixer, learns from her mistakes. Why do you think it’s important that children are exposed to failure?
Because it’s how everyone grows and learns to do things better – and that doesn’t stop once you reach adulthood! When I take Izzy Gizmo into schools, I like to tell the children about famous inventors who, of course, never got their inventions bang on the first time. Or how some inventions which we rely on every day are the result of contributions by many different people – the light bulb for example. Sometimes I even admit how many versions of Izzy Gizmo there were before the story was good enough to be a book! I think it’s important for kids to understand that trial and error, failure before success, is a human thing, not a child thing. Knowing that adults have to ‘try and try again’ sometimes too encourages perseverance (even if it is preceded by natural frustration).
Were you a little inventor as a child? What do you think makes a good invention?
I spent lots of time at weekends with my grandad when I was little. He showed my sister and I how to hold things in a vice, how to use a saw safely, how to hammer nails in and check if electrical circuits were working. He’d make little gadgets to use round the house. He actually made and installed his own burglar alarm! So, I did all that and I loved it but I wouldn’t say I was an inventor as a child – I was a writer! When we weren’t in the garage, I’d sit at my grandad’s desk and write stories and poems. I own that desk now. In reality, the ‘inventor’ part of me is actually the creative side of me which likes to think up magnificent machines for Izzy and Fixer! I’m so happy, though, if Izzy Gizmo encourages children to look at the world around them and think ‘how does that work?’ or ‘how could that be done better?’. I guess a good invention is one which genuinely helps in some way – I do think we humans have an awful lot of stuff which is actually superfluous to our needs! In schools, I really enjoy showing the children some super bad inventions to make them laugh (and take them back to ‘not everything works out’). The Dynasphere, for example, invented by J.A. Purves in 1930 was absolutely bonkers, should you wish to look it up!
Why do you think it’s important for children to develop an interest in STEM from a young age?
Young children are particularly inquisitive, so it’s the perfect time to give them challenges which promote critical thinking, problem solving, working collaboratively and so on. I think capturing their imaginations during this really formative stage gives children a ‘buzz’ for the sense of achievement they get from persevering to a successful outcome, too – that buzz and those skills will stay with them, and help them in many areas of their lives. As well as all that, we live in a highly technological world – and one which is in a bit of a pickle. Izzy Gizmo and the Invention Convention has messages of reduce/reuse/recycle, anti-greed and harnessing renewable energy and, while Izzy’s ‘Tool-Fix-Recycle-o-Matic’ won’t save the world, we’re going to need bright young minds to continue coming up with highly creative and complex solutions to the greatest problems the human race has ever faced. No pressure, kids!
What are your five favourite STEM children’s books?
An Engineer Like Me, by Dr Shini Somara (ill. Nadja Sarell), is a picture book about a girl whose curiosity about the world drives her to delve deeper and discover how things actually work.
Mariella, Queen of the Skies, by Eoin Colfer (ill. Katy Halford), is a sweet early reader about a girl who uses her inventing skills to avoid bedtime!
Women in Science, by Rachel Ignotofsky, features female trailblazers throughout history. It’s inspiring for boys and girls alike.
Counting on Katherine, by Helaine Becker (ill. Dow Phumiruk), tells the amazing true story of mathematical genius Katherine Johnson, whose calculations saved the Apollo 13 mission, bringing the spacecraft and astronauts safely back to Earth.
Stephen Hawking (a Life Story), by Nikki Sheehan (ill. Mike Phillips), is a super lively (and illustrated, which is lovely to see in a book for 9-11 year olds) re-telling of the late physicist’s life and work.
I’ve just realised most of my picks feature females! It’s great there are lots out there and it’s always worth saying that STEM fiction or non-fiction about girls and women are always brilliant for boys, too.
Thank you so much for talking to us Pip. We can’t wait for your next book!
SuperQuesters is a brand-new book series published by QuestFriendz for super problem-solvers and curious creators aged 4-8. The first instalment, SuperQuesters: The Case of the Stolen Sun by Lisa Moss and Dr Thomas Bernard is out on 3 May and available to pre-order at www.questfriendz.com/books