How Tom Gates author Liz Pichon went from struggling at school with dyslexia to writing bestsellers

Liz Pichon and book jacket

Liz Pichon and book jacket - Credit: Archant

It’s no accident that an author who struggled at school should write colourful books that encourage kids to read.

The seeds of Liz Pichon’s bestselling creation Tom Gates were sown at Highgate’s Brookfield Primary where her undiagnosed dyslexia made lessons hard work.

“I have mostly happy memories but my school reports were: ‘very bright, enthusiastic, but shocking at tests,’” says the 52-year-old.

“We used to have a times table quiz at the end of the day and weren’t allowed to leave until we passed. I remember having sleepless nights because I just couldn’t remember them.

“As a dyslexic kid you think of strategies, so I would try to remember one or two and when they came up my hand shot out of its socket to make sure I could answer one.”

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Her saving grace, she says, was that Brookfield was “a fantastically creative school with brilliant music and art”.

“I felt while I lacked on the word side, I could flourish at art, although I was made to feel it was just drawings that went with the real work.”

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Returning to the school last year on World Book Day was “so weird”.

“It hasn’t changed, going up the same steps and into the hall which has this strange pattern on the ceiling. I remember looking up during PE thinking it looked like bales of hay.”

Pichon’s family lived for decades in Boscastle Road.

Her dad, who sold sweets for Rowntree Mackintosh, attended Acland Burghley: “The area was beautiful, I remember swimming in the ponds, but it wasn’t as fancy as it is now.”

Failing to make the grades for Camden School for Girls, Pichon attended St Augustine’s in Kilburn then studied graphic design, worked as a record company art director, before writing and illustrating her first children’s book in 2004, which won the Smarties Prize

“It was the first time I had won any prize. I couldn’t believe it!” she says.

After moving from Highgate to Brighton with her husband and three children she embarked on the Tom Gates books which have sold one million copies, and won the Roald Dahl Funny Prize. With their doodles, cartoons and humour, Tom Gates is hugely accessible to dyslexic kids.

“The amount of emails from people who tell me that… it’s not something I set out to do.

“It came out of wanting to have these page turning moments, to use the fonts, the pictures, the conversations and humour all to tell the story. Children who find reading difficult can get into these books really quickly because everything about them is telling the story.”

What started as an “all about me” book for reception age children, developed into a diary-style tome for nine-year-olds when her publisher asked her to re-write it. Its style aped the comics she loved as a child, and shunned the slabs of text that put her off reading.

“I used to really struggle with lots of text but I always loved books with pictures.”

When she submitted it, her heart sank when the publisher asked if she’d seen Diary of A Wimpy Kid.

“I’d never heard of it but actually its success worked hugely in my favour because publishers were looking for something similar.”

Pichon wanted the vibe between Tom and friend Marcus; to be “annoying but not really mean or spiky with each other.”

“They might roll their eyes but not be horrible. His sister Delia is grumpy and he spends as much time as possible trying to annoy her, but there are elements when you realise she does love him.”

Tom himself is based on Pichon as a child: “That huge enthusiasm for things, getting easily distracted, not quite getting it right.

“I put lots of myself in there, my editor can tell what’s going on in my life from what’s in the latest book. And there’s lots about my dad.

“When Tom’s dad comes to pick him up from school wearing an old pair of wellingtons and jeans tied with string - that was my dad, he’d come back from the allotment covered in mud and pick me up.

“Once, coming back from a school trip I heard my friend saying ‘who’s that old tramp over there?’ I didn’t even have to look, I knew it was him.”

Early academic failure has made success later in life extra sweet. “It took me a while to even think of myself as a writer, I almost can’t believe I have found this thing that I can do and that I absolutely love.”

Liz signs copies of Tom Gates Super Good Skills (Scholastic) at The Children’s Bookshop Muswell Hill on May 31.

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