Mistaken for a Bear: talking to Philip Ardagh about making a difference, one story at a time

Once upon a time, in a suburb of Paris, I worked with an immensely tall and extravagantly bearded UK author who was taking part in an exchange programme in French schools and libraries. Funny, kind and possessing a gentle eccentricity that delighted his audiences, he was a hit despite the language barriers, and brought a playful thoughtfulness to the classrooms and libraries that we visited.

That was a while ago, but Philip Ardagh has been fully occupied ever since. As the bestselling writer of the Eddie Dickens trilogy and more than a hundred other fiction and non-fiction titles, he’s won the Roald Dahl Funny Prize and the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis, and his picturebook with Sir Paul McCartney, HIGH IN THE CLOUDS, is currently being made into an animated film for Netflix and Gaumont. But despite his busy schedule Philip’s generosity and enthusiasm haven't changed a bit, so when I heard about his involvement in a project giving a platform to untold stories and diverse new voices, it came as no surprise.

Ten Stories to Make a Difference is a series of picturebooks inspired by the theme of difference and crowdfunded by non-profit children’s literature development agency Pop Up, with the support of editing and design professionals from 12 publishers. The series features a mix of well-known and emerging writers and illustrators, and proceeds will support Pop Up’s work in deprived schools and marginalized communities. 

Pop Up’s founder and director is Dylan Calder, and his passion for children’s reading and commitment to create positive change has been inspirational. It’s always worth taking an interest in what Dylan and Pop Up are doing (to read an interview with Dylan for Cast of Thousands, click HERE) and I’ve been following the project’s progress since the Crowdfunding campiagn was launched six months ago.

MISTAKEN FOR A BEAR is Philip Ardagh’s contribution to the series, and it's a pleasure to read and recommend. The story is built around historical fact – the escape of a tiger from Wombwell’s Menagerie in 1839 – and is told from the viewpoint of Paddy, an Irish lad who unloads coal at London’s docks. Paddy has often felt like an outsider, but he isn’t the only character in this story who’s a long way from home. The tiger clearly doesn’t think much of the city or its welcome. And Paddy’s friend Ash could have shared many stories about distant shores, but nobody thinks of asking him - until his knowledge of tigers proves more reliable than other people’s, and Paddy realises that he and Ash have more in common than their job.

Cornered: artwork ©Jamie Beard for Pop Up Projects

Paddy’s sense of connection with the trapped and isolated creature invites us to think about where we belong and how we find our place. A lone tiger facing a mob isn’t well placed to start a discussion about respecting differences and overcoming prejudice. And although the author’s note suggests that Paddy survives his encounter with the Limehouse tiger, the final sentences in this story leave plenty of room for questioning. 

A beautifully designed A5 hardback, MISTAKEN FOR A BEAR is illustrated throughout by Jamie Beard, a Belfast-based artist whose passion for portrait and narrative illustration often focuses on notions of identity, especially in the LGBTQ+ community. The vibrant tiger brings a dangerous splash of colour to the grimy Victorian streets, and inventive details enliven every spread – look out for Mr Clay’s smoking stovepipe hat!

This absorbing little book has a special quality, and I’m delighted to be introducing Philip Ardagh to tell us more about it.

Welcome to Cast of Thousands, Philip, and thanks so much for joining us. Can you tell us about how you got involved with Pop Up and the work you’ve done with them?My first encounter with Pop Up was when Dylan Calder approached me with this crazy idea he had to take over a park in a poor London borough and fill it with a pop-up festival of marquees, each allocated to a different author or illustrator – with a different line-up on the Saturday and Sunday. Each tent had to be themed, and I chose a House of Illusions.

As well as it offering free entry to local people, which included lots and LOTS of children, Dylan’s genius was to get St Martin’s Art College involved, too. They were relocating, so there was an opportunity use vast quantities of materials that might otherwise have ended up in a skip. We each had a budget, but this made the money go even further.

I had the art students build me the corner of an upside-down room with a table, laid with table cloth, plates and glasses on the ceiling, an upside-down portrait on the wall and a dado rail with the stripy wallpaper above it, rather than below. This meant that people could sit on the floor, have someone take a picture on their phone and, when they turned it the other way up, they appeared to be sitting, cross-legged, on the ceiling.

There was a snarling creature in a little cage, which was really a glove puppet controlled by my wonderful assistant on the project, Daisy Jellicoe, for whom I wrote a GLOWING reference when she wanted to get into publishing. She was under a table with a hole cut in the middle of it, to stick her hand through; a real dedication to duty!

I even had a live privet hedge/walking topiary, as well as a professional magician – who ended up acting in Downton Abbey – and a variety of author guests. It really was a wonderful weekend.

Since then, over the years I’ve done a whole variety of Pop Up events in schools in areas with lower literacy rates, and Pop Up conducted research into the impact of these and the results were heart-warming. I was lucky enough do them with my illustrators, including Axel Scheffler (for The Grunts) and Elissa Elwick (for Stick & Fetch Investigate) , and nothing beats seeing them bring characters to life before your very eyes, with just a few strokes of the pen.

artwork ©Jamie Beard for Pop Up Projects


What was it about Ten Stories To Make a Difference that made you want to get involved? 

Well, firstly, Dylan asked me and, when Dylan asks you, you know that the projects going to be thought-through, relevant and important. The idea of pairing well-known authors with less-well known illustrators early in their careers and from diverse backgrounds – and vice versa – and then creating a book together was a great starting point. Then for the theme of the books themselves to be difference was the icing on the cake.

As Brexit and the Trump administration have particularly highlighted, we’re living in a world of extraordinary division and upheaval, with the gap between the have and have-nots - whether in wealth, food, housing or education - widening to Grand-Canyon proportions.

But the flip side of this is a world where the COVID pandemic has thrown up thousands - hundreds of thousands – of examples of selfless and compassionate acts from health professionals to neighbours and volunteers.

We need to be embracing people’s differences – accepting and welcoming them – but, at the same time, creating and sustaining a community of which we’re all a part.


How did the story for this book emerge? Were other people involved at any stage? What kind of research did you do?  

The brief was simple: the theme of ‘difference’, along with a word-count. I also knew that I’d be paired with the Northern Irish illustrator Jamie Beard, whose work is often centred around identity and the LGBTQ+ community. Beyond that, I knew nothing.

Very early on, I decided that I wanted our book to be about that huge melting pot called London which must have one of the most diverse populations in the world, with people from all walks of life, sexual orientation and corners of the Earth. Then I had a vague recollection about an escaped tiger back in Victorian times.

I soon discovered a number of accounts of a boy being caught in an escaped tiger’s jaws in London in 1857 but I also discovered that the incident had been the topic of many articles and even a children’s novelization, but it was a footnote which caught my eye.

Digging deeper, I discovered a description of an earlier incident involving an escaped tiger in London, back in 1839. What really leapt out at me was that the first eye-witness shouted, “Bear!” because he’d never seen a tiger, so I knew I had my story, MISTAKEN FOR A BEAR; a story of difference, of being an outsider.

artwork ©Jamie Beard for Pop Up Projects

Then there was the fact that the incident took place in the Commercial Road, near the London Docks, where goods from all across the Empire were unloaded. The British Empire, a phrase which seems to bring out very different reactions in people. The last piece of the jigsaw to fall into place was revealed in one short sentence; that the one person the tiger harmed was an Irishman who was in one of the many gangs whose job it was to unload coal six days a week. I had my protagonist.

And, under all that coal dust, you couldn’t even tell the natural colour of a person’s skin.


Did the process of creating this book differ from your other books?

I’m well-known for including genuine facts in my fiction, in amongst outrageous and preposterous made-up items masquerading as the truth, but this is the first fiction book I’ve based on a single, real incident.


Were other people involved at any stage?

As time went on, I was allocated an editor and who did that editor turn out to be? None other than the marvellous Daisy Jellicoe, now an editor at Walker Books, who’d been my Pop Up intern assistant all those years before. She was very skilled at making suggestions to help fine-tune my story into the final text in the book. Designer Chloë Tartinville worked directly with Jamie.


How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?

(Chuckles) That’s an excellent question! In the one account of the incident, the escaped tiger killed a dog in a single blow and then played with it like a ragdoll toy, tossing the body up in the air with its mouth. This would have instantly alienated the majority of the readership and I want them to have an empathy for this colourful, wild creature thousands of miles from home in a world of black and greys.


What do you think Jamie’s illustrations have added to your text?  

They are extraordinary.

COVID means that Jamie and I have never actually met face to face but – in addition to the text itself - I provided him with some written notes and a few reference pictures, but he went that extra mile and then some. The clothes, the buildings, the smoke pouring from the chimney pots and filling the air all add an extraordinary extra layer of realism and atmosphere and danger. I couldn’t be more happy.

artwork ©Jamie Beard for Pop Up Projects

What were the biggest challenges of working on this book? The surprises? The rewards?

Like any book, the challenge is to do the story justice, whether based on a real event or not. With a heavily illustrated book such as this, with a limited number of words, it’s important to judge what work the illustrations can do for you. For example, I could limit the number of descriptive passages because Jamie can convey the same message in his drawings, so I could commit those words to something else. The surprises? I’ve just – in the last half hour - received a few copies of the book and it looks, feels and smells fantastic. It’s beyond my wildest expectation, so that’s a very pleasant surprise and reward, too.


What do you think is special or important about this book? What should we be telling audiences about it?
It’s one in a series of books giving a really diverse base of newcomers an opportunity to showcase their talent to the British publishing industry as well as offering a library of top authors telling enjoyable, entertaining and gripping stories about difference and belonging.

There’s going to be an event to launch Ten Stories to Make a Difference on 24th June 2021 which will be shared online from the British Library. If you’d like a FREE ticket, click HERE  to sign up

What are you working on at the moment? What should we look out for next?

Following the success of our picture book BUNNIES ON THE BUS, Ben Mantle and I are now embarking on BUNNIES ON A BOAT and a third BUNNIES book is in the process of being commissioned. The same delivery that brought me copies of MISTAKEN FOR A BEAR also brought me advance copies of the third NINE LIVES OF FURRY PURRY BEANCAT which is THE LIBRARY CAT, illustrated, as always, by Draw-With-Rob’s Rob Biddulph who’s busy working on book four. I’m also working on another – top secret – project with my regular collaborator, the writer/illustrator Elissa Elwick. Meanwhile, I have yet another picture book underway with a wonderful American illustrator, and HIGH IN THE CLOUDS, a book I co-wrote with Sir Paul McCartney and illustrator Geoff Dunbar is currently being made into a full-length animation for Netflix and Gaumont.


You are busier than ever, Philip! So it’s a real testament to Pop Up that you got involved. All the best of luck for your future projects, and thank you again for joining us.
I’ll be blogging about all ten books very soon, so watch this space. But if you’d like to read more about Ten Books to Make a Difference or buy copies directly from Pop Up online, you’ll find their website HERE

There’s also going to be an event to launch the series on 24th June 2021 which will be shared online from the British Library. If you’d like a FREE ticket, click HERE  to sign up. I’ll see you there!


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