Rod Campbell joined us at GNHQ in September 2012 for a live webchat to celebrate the 30 year anniversary of his much loved classic Dear Zoo. Over 5 million copies have been sold to date.
Rod has been making children’s books for over 30 years and is also the creator of the popular pre-school character Buster. Ingeniously simple, with touches of gentle humour, Rod’s books are loved all over the world by children, parents and teachers alike.
Q: When you wrote Dear Zoo did you have any idea that it would become such an enduring classic? What do you think is the secret of its success? barbarab
A: No, not at all. And I'm still amazed that it's so popular 30 years later.
As for the secret of its success: that's a difficult question to answer. I think small children love lifting the flaps to find the animals and they can do this over and over again and still enjoy it, unlike adults who get bored rather quickly. The story has a logic they understand and the ending is rather satisfying.
The rhyming text means that they can quickly join in and enjoy the whole experience.
Q: We love Dear Zoo! Was there anything specific that helped you to come up with the idea? milliesmum
A: In the 80s flap books were rare and I came across one and thought that flaps would be a good way of enticing very young children into books. The flaps would have to make sense but when I thought that children love animals it was then a question of deciding how to use the flaps. And I suddenly thought of how explorers in the old days would send animals to zoos in crates. So the problem was solved.
I needed several different animals going from big to small, a simple rhyming text and the ending sort of solved itself.
Q: Some of the best books (like yours!) appear to be so simple, but there's a magic quality to them that grabs millions of children. What do you think that magic ingredient is? Banbury
A: Well thank you for thinking that. I think it may have something to do with the fact that the book is made for them and perhaps shares their view of the world around them. Also for the very young the flap element and the discovery of what's behind always delights the child.
Q: How did you get started as a children's author? And what advice would you give to someone else who would like to follow in your footsteps? Nanette
A: I got involved in children's books quite by chance. I was a scientist and gave it up to paint. I spent nine years painting - and painting and decorating - and during that period somebody showed some of my drawings to a children's publisher. I was asked to illustrate a simple book and that's where it all started. I felt completely at home.
The most important thing is to write about things you know for a particular age group. I, for example, am quite unable to write for older children. It is also important to know what is available for children by browsing in bookshops and libraries and look out for books that you think you would have liked to have written and feel you have the talent so to do.
Q: Is it difficult to put yourself inside the mind of a small child? frangipane
A: I suspect that for most people it is. It was only when I started to do books for a children's publisher that I realised that I actually had a talent for it (ie putting myself inside the mind of a small child)
I think doing books for small children you do have to be able to see the world from their point of view and quite by chance I had an instinct which has served me quite well up til now.
Q: Dear Zoo, like so many children's books, is gloriously simple. Do you spend your life explaining to people that writing books for small children isn't as easy as you make it look? minerva
A: I think most people assume that it is easy and don't even bother to ask. The difficulty is having a good idea and trying to work out the best way of putting the book together. Simple texts look as though they've been done on the back of an envelope but in fact they do take time to get the balance and rhythms right.
Q: How do you decide who will illustrate your books? My grandchildren pick their books according to the pictures, whereas I go for the overall look of the book, particularly how sturdy it looks! whenim64
A: Well it's me who does the illustrations actually. I regard myself as a "maker" of books and the text, illustrations and even the format of the book are all part of what I do.
Q: How do you go about illustrating your books? I think the pictures are utterly charming - it's their simplicity that is so lovely. coldwork
A: The illustrations of course depend on the idea of the book. I like the pictures to be clear and unambiguous and match the text and be understandable to the child.
Text and pictures often evolve together and to let you into a little secret, quite often the book starts form the back forwards. I have an idea and know how it should end and then try to create the sequence which builds up to that.
Q: We love your book! What's your favourite animal? (Doesn't have to be in a zoo!) bakergran
A: I don't really have a favourite - and not even a pet - but if I did have a pet I think I'd choose a Jack Russell, you know those little brown and white dogs with bright eyes, full of energy and adorable!
Q: Is it difficult to have a big success relatively early in your career? underwhere
Q: Some children's authors make a fortune. Can you set out to do this, do you think? zither
A: The thing that I would like to say is that one should simply do whatever interests you in the best way you can, without any thought of success or anything else like that. And if one has some talent it's possible that whatever you create will be noticed in time.
Q: My grandchildren are big fans of the Buster books. Which of your books do you like best and why? louli
A: That's something I'm asked quite a lot and I always have the same answer. The latest book you do one has strong feelings for but just as, if you have four children, how do you answer that question about which you like best? You like them all, perhaps in different ways.
Q: How did you decide which animals should "be sent" ? Why did you choose a camel for instance and not a tiger or a zebra? Gillybob
A: The choice of the animals in some way was dictated by my wanting to go from big to small so the flaps changed size. I wanted to use well-known animals and those that had different characteristics. You asked why there isn't a tiger. Well it's too similar to the lion. A zebra is an interesting animal to have and I suppose one could have sent it back because it was too stripy. I think it was similar in size to the camel too (and to be perfectly honest it didn't cross my mind!)
Q: Does what children like change over time? lolling
A: I don't honestly believe that children change from generation to generation. And the fact that Dear Zoo is still enjoyed today rather bears that out for me. I think that modern parents perhaps feel their children should have all the latest technological bits and pieces and overlook the importance of introducing their children to books. Quite apart from their obvious value in the learning to read process, children need their imagination stimulated and to discover the world contained within the covers of a book.
Q: Ebooks for children have really taken off in the last year. How do you think digital publishing will affect children's books? Will they become more like animations? sofasogood
A: I think ebooks will find a place for older children but in my view have a limited role to play for the very young. The young child needs physical participation in the book to make the experience real and they are able to control their participation in the book. There are ebooks or apps made from original children's books - Dear Zoo is a case in point. From my point of view the app which has a reading of the book on it extends the experience by offering the child the chance to extend their interaction with the characters in the story.
I think this is valid but in no way should supplant the original book itself. Many e treatments become games and I think for the very young this is inappropriate.
Q: Which books did you enjoy as a child? And which children's books influenced your work? dorabella
A: Enid Blyton - who has been overlooked in recent years but whose books I read right through my childhood from Famous Five, Secret Seven to the adventure stories. She wrote page-turning stories for each age group which is an extraordinary thing to be able to do and started many children on a secure path to reading.
As to which books influenced my work - Eric Hill (Spot) and Eric Carle were pioneers of introducing flaps (and holes) into children's books and have influenced several generations of illustrators, myself included.
Q: Do you write with a particular child in mind? damealice
A: I can't say that I do because I tend to rely on my instinct for what will work. In the early days, when I had put a rough of Dear Zoo together, I went next door to show it to a friend's 18 month-old child whose reaction, on first reading together, was to say "Again". Second reading produced the same reaction but louder. And so it went on.
This was an important event for me because it made me understand how children become confident with familiarity of a story (and in this case opening flaps) Children know how to relive the original experience as if it's the first time, something we tend to have lost as adults.
Q: You write books for babies as well as young children. What's the best age to introduce a baby to picture books? Sweetheart
A: You can't start too soon. Choose something very simple, not a lot of text, some clear, straightforward pictures and go through it together when you have a quiet moment to spend with your child (or grandchild). Let them go through it in their own time and as often as they like. Be sure to converse with them and ask questions and point at pictures. And you'll both have a wonderful time!
And a couple of comments:
I accompanied my daughter today as she took my grandson for his developmental check up. He entered the room and immediately his little face lit up with a great big grin as he spotted a familiar book and said; "Oh good, Dear Zoo, it's my favourite!" It was the very first book I bought him and he absolutely loves it. So thank you Rod Campbell. grannyactivist
I have used Dear Zoo so many times! As a teacher with children in nursery classes & (repeatedly!) with my grandchildren who have all loved it. I have also used it with older children when helping them to try to write a book for young children. Not as easy as it looks! I have bought several copies over the years for gifts too. It works well on different levels..littlies love lifting the flaps and the repetition but as they get older the possibility of a pet giraffe or lion is an exciting and silly idea which is so appealing and very funny. nanaej