BLOG TOUR: We chat to Peter Bently and Claire Powell about The King's Birthday Suit
The King's Birthday Suit by Peter Bently and Claire Powell was one of our most-anticipated releases of 2021. This is about a fashion-obsessed ruler who needs to find an outfit like no other to dazzle all the guests at his birthday party. A rhyming retelling of classic fairy tale The Emperor's New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen, it's even more hilarious than the original, with exquisite illustrations. Published by Bloomsbury on 29th April, The King's Birthday Suit is destined to be a classic. As soon as it arrived, it became an instant favourite in our house with both my four-year-old and their older, six-year-old sibling (read our review). We were incredibly excited to chat to author Peter Bently and illustrator Claire Powell as part of the virtual tour for this spectacular book...
10 questions with author Peter Bently
Peter Bently won the Roald Dahl Funny Prize for Cats Ahoy! and King Jack and the Dragon was an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year. He has written approximately 70 children's books (wow!) and lots have been translated into several languages. You can learn more about Peter's books and his upcoming events on his website. How did you get the idea for a retelling of The Emperor’s New Clothes? And/or what is your relationship to the original tale?
Actually, it started with another and much less well-known Andersen story called The Jumping Match, which my wife was rereading in her old volume of Andersen tales. She said it would make a good picture book and I agreed. While I was thinking about this story, I started to look at other Andersen tales. The Emperor’s New Clothes has always been a personal favourite and I realised it was an obvious candidate! In verse, of course. (PS. The Jumping Match – which I have titled The Great Royal Jumping Match – is coming next!) Versions of this story have been around since 1035! Why do think its popularity has endured for so long? As a child I was always amazed that the adults in the story could seriously believe the king was wearing clothes. Which of course is partly the point of the story – I love it that the bubble of pretence (and pretentiousness) is in the end popped by a child. She is like Greta Thunberg – telling the adults the naked (literally) truth. I think that accounts for the story’s appeal down the ages – it connects to the widespread mythic trope of the wise child, holy innocent, or Fool, who uses the privilege of youth or holiness or “foolishness” – what we would probably call neuro-atypicality – to speak truth and denounce adult foibles.
What aspect of writing this book did you find the most challenging? Doing Andersen justice! Also, the usual mechanics of writing in verse – finding the right words and rhymes, keeping it funny, and condensing the story into a picture book length while keeping the essential elements.
We love how funny The King’s Birthday Suit is. Even the king’s name, Albert-Horatio-Otto the Third, is hilarious (although my four-year-old insists we call him “King Nudie-Man” when we read it). Did his triple-barrelled name come easily and early to you, or was he called something else in previous drafts? I did have fun experimenting with various triple-barrelled first names to fit the verse pattern – at various points his first name was Archibald and I think I toyed with Hubert-Horatio-Edward for a while! I wanted something that didn’t sound specifically English – something a bit more pompous and Middle-European, pre-1914 – which of course sounds mildly ridiculous in a modern setting. The tabloid headlines in the endpapers are fantastic, especially how fickle the media appears in them. Was there anything in particular that inspired these and were they there from the beginning or did you get the idea as the book developed? I got the idea as the story developed. My first writing job was in journalism, and it was great fun playing around with various tabloid-style headlines. I liked the idea that the fashionista, frivolous king was an absolute gift that went on giving for his kingdom’s popular press – much like our own royals.
How did it feel to see Claire’s illustrations for the first time? Well, this book was quite long in the gestation because we couldn’t find quite the right illustrator – until Claire came along. I thought her drawing, colour and design were so brilliant and stylish and perfect for the story. I was pretty much blown away – and relieved that we had at last found the right illustrator! Do you have a favourite spread from the book? There are so many visual treats it’s hard to choose. I love the fashion designers turning up at the palace (they include a couple of portraits of actual designers…) and the spread of the two tricksters pretending to weave while the courtiers etc. are trying to listening at the door. And, of course, the denouement!
How do you write such sophisticated and successful rhyming texts? Does rhyming come naturally to you or do you have to work at it? That’s kind of you to call them sophisticated and successful – it’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing. I think to an extent you do need an “ear” for rhyme and especially rhythm or metre (once you have found your basic rhythm, the words tend to fall into place). But it’s something that can be learned with practice. Although even with experience it isn’t always easy finding rhymes, and you also have to avoid being too clever for your young audience. If you are having a problem finding a rhyme for a word, simply change the word.
Are you as funny as your books and do you have a favourite joke? That’s not for me to say! I do like a laugh though. Here’s a joke: What’s brown and sticky? A stick. Sorry. I’m a big Tim Vine fan. Here’s another: “I saw an ad today. It said ‘TV for sale. £1. Volume stuck on full.’ I thought to myself, I can’t turn that down.” King Albert-Horatio-Otto the Third is obsessed with fashion. Is there anything that you’re fanatical about?
Definitely not fashion! People being kind to others. Apostrophes. Decent coffee. Oh, and I guess saving the planet.
10 questions with illustrator Claire Powell
Claire Powell is the illustrator of several picture books including Octopants and The Night Before the Night Before Christmas by Kes Gray. Claire is a former graphic designer who has shaped the identity of many brands and you can see more of her work on her website.
What inspired you to set the story in the 1920s?
Well, I took inspiration from lots of eras and design trends, but the 1920s is a favourite time period of mine so there ended up being more of that than anything else. I think it was a very beautiful time for fashion, furniture and design, so elegant, luxurious and well designed. I have a few art deco pieces at home, the shapes are so interesting - I have a round bookcase for example, not sure you'd find that nowadays. Sometimes I think things appeal to you and you're not even sure why... I feel the same about twiglet crisps
What did you find the most challenging about this project?
The crowd scenes for sure! I'd never artworked anything that big or complex before and I didn't know how to approach it. There was a lot of head scratching and no-one can really help you at that point because it's a personal preference as to how you like to work. In the end, I just went for it but looking back I defo did them the hard way. I learned a lot, let's put it that way!
The images are so vibrant – how did you create such stunning scenes with so many colours that complement one another?
Ahhhh that's down to the colour workshops I did with Juliet Doherty in Cambridge. I LOVE colour but I was never taught the theory of it. I did graphic design at uni and I used to get frustrated when I started working on books because I didn't understand how to put colours together. Juliet helped me understand colour theory and this book would have been a totally different one had it not been for the time I spent with her. I was inspired by the illustration of the fifties and sixties - Bernie Fuchs, Mac Conner and painters like Pierre Bonard and Anthony Fry. I spent a lot of time colour researching and created a colour sketchbook of swatches. Ultimately it came down to trying things out - some scenes took a while and several colour combinations before I hit on something that was working. Bloomsbury also asked me to brighten some areas a little to appeal to a younger audience which was the right decision. I want The King's Birthday Suit to have a broad appeal, so as many people as possible can enjoy it.
Do you have a favourite spread from the book and if so, why is it your favourite?
I have a few but if I had to choose it would be the loom scene. I was thrilled when Bloomsbury and Peter agreed to go with the red, I honestly thought they'd say it was too conceptual. I'm really proud of the composition on that spread - the waiters and King's staff all leaning at the door was a joy to illustrate.
My 6-year-old loves the ensemble worn by the party guest in the white feather and turquoise tiara and necklace. Do you have a favourite of the party guests’ outfits?
Good question! I have a few favourites, but I always liked the purple haired, elderly lady in her simple, yellow chequered shift dress with green balls on the trim and her pink eyeshadow. I aspire to be that glam when I'm her age.
The king’s jumpsuit is inspired by one worn by Elvis - how did you get the idea for this, are you a big Elvis fan?
Yes, I love Elvis! As he was the King of rock n' roll and Albert-Horatio is an actual King I thought it would be fun to do a homage. I also thought the King in the book would be pompous and vain enough to think he would look as good wearing a jumpsuit as Elvis did... which he obviously doesn't!
We love the king’s cat and how they steal each scene – how did you get the idea for all their antics, and is the cat inspired by a real feline?
I initially drew the cat with the little girl, as though she had a pet cat that she took everywhere. But when I read the text I realised that she only features at the end and readers might be confused as to why there was suddenly a cat there so I changed it to the King's cat - long suffering but ultimately much more clever than he.
I think my favourite human character is the leery duchess at the birthday party, do you have a favourite character?
That's easy. My favourite characters are the tailors. I loved drawing them in their smart suits. I'm quite into untrustworthy characters - they are a dream to draw. The scene where they're pretending to cut out the fabric is probably my favourite of them, those smiles go on forever!
There are so many characters and they all have such distinct and convincing (and amusing) facial expressions. Did you do a lot of research/study a lot of faces when preparing for this project?
No not at all. That's something that comes naturally - I don't know how or where from but it just does. I get a sense of how a character would behave as I draw them and I find it easy to imagine them as a real person, how they'd talk, walk etc - the faces and expressions just appear and sometimes I'm surprised myself. I can't really explain it.
King Albert-Horatio-Otto the Third is obsessed with fashion. Is there anything that you’re fanatical about?
Currently, house plants. I'm trying to learn how to keep them nice and green and leafy. I'm better at buying them than caring for them but I'm trying to change that! I'm also obsessed with vintage books and art supplies. I do not need any more pencils or plants so if you see me buying some, stop me!
A huge thank you to Bloomsbury and Kaleidoscopic Book Tours for having us on this tour and our complimentary copy, and to Peter and Claire for answering all of our questions!
Don't forget to visit all the other stops on the tour to learn more about this beautiful book: Thursday 06 May Picture Book Snob Interview The Merry Bookworm Extract & Review Friday 07 May Mama Bear's book hour Review Varietats Review & Guest Post Saturday 08 May book_mouse2020 Review Donna's Book Blog Review Sunday 09 May Katrina Reads Review Victoria Wilks Writes Review Monday 10 May @all_books_great_and_small Review @real_mother_booker Review Tuesday 11 May Splashes into Books Review Dash Fan Book Reviews Review Wednesday 12 May The Bumbling Blogger Review & Interview Primary Teacher Bookshelf Review & Guest Post