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Interview with Ian Brown, author of the Albert the Tortoise series

In November 2022, I spoke to Ian Brown, author of the wonderful Albert the Tortoise picture books, published by Graffeg, about his journey to getting the series published. Ian is also human companion to the real-life Albert the tortoise, and so, of course, I took the opportunity to find out a little more about the chelonian superstar who inspired the series!

You’re a former journalist, now a television writer and producer working on some really big shows, including Top Gear, so how did you come to start writing children’s picture books?

Well, I always have in a way, even from my childhood. Any time I had I was doodling or writing silly little poems. I loved Spike Milligan’s stuff, so nonsense poems, far-out comedy stuff like Python and luckily I was encouraged by a couple of teachers and my parents to do that and so it’s been a dream really. Now, that said, I have this other career, and I was very lucky to do it and have all that, but simultaneously I was always trying to get published. From late teens/early twenties I was sending stuff off and I still have an awful lot of the rejection letters.

Then, fifteen years ago, we took on Albert the tortoise from my wife’s mum. About five years ago, he did go upside down in the garden and I just suddenly had this absolute lightning-bolt moment and the whole story came to me, almost like a small movie.

I spoke to Eoin Clarke, the illustrator of the books, who I was already working with on a couple of animation projects, and I said, ‘do you want to have a go at this tortoise idea I’ve got?’ and he said yes. It turned out that he was also a trained illustrator, which I didn’t fully appreciate at the time.

And, again, I started to send it round and you wait forever for responses and then it’s a no, or you do get a response and then months later that person has moved jobs. But we heard back from Graffeg in Wales. They said ‘we quite like this’ and it took ages to hear again properly about terms, but then suddenly we were there and we’ve gone crazy! Luckily, they’re right behind us. We’re now five books in (with Hugg ‘n’ Bugg, that is – the other series that we do) and book five of Albert is nearly painted. We’ve delivered what might be book six of Albert and I’m very pleased it’s all happening.

The story of your journey to publication is definitely encouraging for writers like me who are in the querying trenches at the moment! Persistence is key, it seems.

Absolutely! I now actually go into primary schools (which I’m thrilled about!) and I can’t tell you how many teachers are now saying to me ‘could you also bring in something about resilience and perseverance?’ and it’s all part of it. You know, a tortoise is very much part of that. If Albert (and I’m sure if Toby) wants to go somewhere, they don’t give in. They just keep going. There’s a rock in the way, there’s a mountain in the way, but they say ‘I’m gonna get there’, and they go round it, they go over it, they go under it, and they keep at it.

Fortunately, I had a great other career, but my mates couldn’t believe it. They were saying, ‘but you’re writing for The Simpsons, you’re writing for Harrison Ford, you’re writing for Pierce Brosnan, you’re working with Jeremy Clarkson, who gets a book out every year – surely he knows people?’ But I didn’t do that. That wasn’t my position. I was very much behind the scenes, writing and producing for people, and I didn’t ever feel it was right to say ‘oh, could you have a word with your publishers?’ or something like that. Because it wouldn’t have worked, actually. It was a completely different thing. You know, Jeremy’s books were all based on his columns for The Times. I just wanted to do it for myself, really, so I just kept at it.

You just have to persevere, and I now advise people to actually target a particular publisher. So, for example, with Albert, I absolutely targeted Graffeg. I spotted that they’d won an award for another series of books they were doing called Gaspard the Fox and that was about a real fox, an urban fox in London. And I thought: real fox/picture-book fox; real tortoise/picture-book tortoise.

Luckily, we’ve got a champion at Graffeg. Someone took a real shine to it. It was absolutely right up their street. It turned out that they loved Eoin’s work. I think Eoin’s pictures certainly helped a huge amount. I’m in the thick of it now and luckily, last year, Graffeg said ‘have you got anything else?’ And talk about perseverance, with Hugg ‘n’ Bugg, I wrote the very first version fifty years ago for school homework about a Himalayan mountain flea. And, luckily again, Eoin came up with some great character designs and here we are! Book one is out and a copy just went to the actual Himalayas. It’s incredible!

I love that story – the idea of Hugg ‘n’ Bugg coming from a school project – and it must be wonderful to see it fully realised all these years later. I'm sure it will give any aspiring writer a boost to think that those things you put away in drawers, or those ideas you had as a child, might blossom into something.

Yes! Don’t throw anything away! Even when lines get chopped from the Albert books, I keep them. Because Graffeg’s way of working is to bring out series of books, four at a time. I have a bit of paper by the bed still and a pen and somehow my brain unscrambles stuff and, in the middle of the night, I think ‘that’s what it should be!’ My wife hates it!

I also say to aspiring writers, you have to go out and say, ‘have you seen my book?’, because people haven’t. You can’t just get published and think: ‘that’s great! I’ve made it!’ It’s down to you to do with it what you can. I’ve written to hundreds of schools, and I’ve heard back from tens probably. The response rate is tiny. The same with bookshops. But you just have to persevere and get it out there. Then, slowly, shops get in touch: ‘Oh we’ve got your book and we love it. Would you come and visit?’ And then people post a picture with your book and, all of a sudden, it starts to roll and it’s just a case of really maximising on all of that.

You’ve given some wonderful advice for aspiring writers there. What advice would you give to writers like me who are using their pets for inspiration?

I suppose what I always say is that I’ve used real things that really happened to real Albert, which are, of course, generic to all tortoises. They do go upside down and kids love that. They’re interested in that. So, it’s a bit of a USP, particularly when I talk about it because I waffle on a bit about real Albert and things that happen to him. On a windy day his food really does blow away and that, again, just came to me. We were outside, I was fiddling with some plants and, all of a sudden, I saw his food go across the patio and I thought ‘crikey, here we go’, and I had to write it all down.

I read an article a while ago which said that when tortoises hibernate or brumate, although everything else goes into stasis and shuts down and their heartrate slows down, their brains remain really active, and scientists think that they might dream. So, I thought, crikey, five months' sleep, he can have a whopping dream! And we were desperate to get the dinosaurs in. Eoin loves dinosaurs! He said, ‘I want to paint dinosaurs!’, so I thought how do I get dinosaurs into an urban garden? A dream!

So, it was real things about real Albert. I would say for anyone writing about your pets, find real things that amuse you or interest you.

Yes, it's very helpful to have your inspiration right there in front of you! As well as Albert himself, were there any particular children’s books or authors that inspired you when you were writing the Albert books?

Well, my favourite is Paddington. My nan used to read Paddington books to me, and my mum and dad did, and I’ve still got the full set of the early ones here from the 60s. And so I would say I focused on that kind of gentle story style that hopefully has a little bit of a message in it – Michael Bond was writing about immigration and tolerance – but we wanted to have a bit about teamwork, kindness, being nice, really. What was weird was that the first two books were ready to go and then lockdown happened, and it was all about shop local, help your neighbours, drop off food, be kind. And all these things were already part of the first book: overcoming little differences, working together, the power of teamwork, how a tiny bit of help can make a huge difference sometimes – and all these things were gaining in importance. We were just sitting, waiting for the book to come out and all this was happening.

Eoin, in particular, used to love the Thomas the Tank Engine books as a kid and so he wanted the illustrations to be a bit more like that, where there was lots of detail in the background. He had this great idea of just zooming everything in and, because he’s also an animation director, he brings so much movement to the images. We wanted a heritage look, a vintage look, so they’re all oil paintings to start with and then they get bunged into the computer system to adjust.

Yes, Eoin’s illustrations are wonderfully detailed. Was the process of working with Eoin on the Albert picture books different to the process of working on animated series with him?

The actual working process was probably very similar. I would write it and he’d go ‘oh that won’t work’ or ‘there are too many bits there where all we’re seeing is Albert on his own’, and then there’s loads of chopping out. That’s the hardest thing for writers I think, but you’ve just got to do it. The next stage is that Eoin storyboards it and most of it works, but then we change things around and the next stage is big full-size roughs of each spread, which is done in a red pencil with my text separate. And then we send that off to Graffeg, the publisher. Hopefully they like it and then they will introduce the text to the page, so we end up with kind of a very rough look to the book with the text. Almost instantly I can see things I want to change, but I don’t do it at that stage because I wait for Eoin to do the final artwork.

There are four books in the Albert series so far, plus the lovely tote bags, t-shirts and Albert calendar. I know you’ve signed a deal with Graffeg for another four books in the series, but can you tell us anything about the new books in the series? And will there be any new merchandise to accompany the books?

Well, I hope there will be more merchandise. We’re talking about all sorts of things. I hate to use the word brand, but hopefully there is a brand growing with Albert. And we’re hoping that the books will be translated – we’re hoping that they will go truly international.

And the next four books – well, I can’t give too much away, but there may be a shed involved, there may be a garden pond involved, a big surprise is another clue. I’m thoroughly enjoying myself and just trying to keep up the pace now. It’s been a hectic few months recently, I’m pleased to say.

You've been very busy! And so has Albert! He is very active and popular on social media and he’s a superstar on tortoise and turtle Twitter! What’s it been like for Albert to engage with not just the humans but also the chelonian community on social media?

I think it’s fascinating because I didn’t realise how big it was, particularly on Facebook. It’s enormous – there are so many groups for tortoise and turtle owners. Albert is quite cheeky on Facebook. He went a little bit viral recently and I don’t know why. I put a picture up of him and it just went crazy and we gained something like 1500 followers in two days! I could barely cope with the comments that you have to reply to because otherwise people think Albert’s being rude and I was switching on and it was 280 notifications or 300 notifications – it was unbelievable!

We seem to have taken off a little bit in America on Facebook in particular and Albert got this amazing invitation to be UK Ambassador for two California turtle and tortoise rescue charities. So he’s now UK ambassador for the California Turtle & Tortoise Club, which helps to rescue and rehome turtles and tortoises and also another amazing thing called Sofa Cushion Challenge. The idea of it is that people pass on the challenge of rummaging through your sofa cushions and seeing what loose change has gone behind there and donating that to Sofa Cushion Challenge. The money goes to the CTTC in California to help their care for turtles and tortoises.

And likewise on Twitter. We’re only touching the surface I think with Toby and Gatsby and all these other tortoises who’ve been on there for ages and I tentatively started the Albert Twitter account. We’re on TikTok with him. There’s a very big star on TikTok called Tiptoe – an American giant tortoise – and his owner, Caitlin. They’re huge. We love engaging, actually – it’s wonderful. And they’ve all been very supportive by buying the books. It’s wonderful that it has had this effect on fans of real tortoises.

I was terribly worried, because the first book is a bit about food and you can’t really show in an interesting and amusing way the real food that tortoises eat, so we had this huge debate amongst ourselves of ‘do we put the big strawberries in? do we do this? do we do that?’ And then we really went to town on those fact files at the back of the books.

I’ve been learning all sorts of things from these fact files! It’s difficult when you’re representing real animals – that fine line between showing something for the story, but also making clear, particularly when you’re writing for young people, what the actual reality is. I think you’ve balanced that really nicely by having those fact files at the back of the books.

It’s very clear on the website too – we put that on the homepage as well: consult experts on feeding and care, think about how long tortoises live, because lots of people go ‘oh we love tortoises, we’re going to get one!’ and I say, well, hold on, think about it because there’s a lot of care, a lot of cost now with heat lamps and equipment and they live a long time and you’ve really got to think about how long you’ll be caring for this animal. It’s not a dog or a cat that has a limited lifespan compared to us. You really have to think about it.

And Albert is living proof of this! He’s been in your wife’s family for a very long time. Do you know where he came from or exactly how old he is?

He was found on a path in Gravesend in Kent near my wife’s home, fifty odd years ago, and, clearly, he had escaped from somewhere, or he had been left there deliberately – we don’t know. But he was of a certain age, and they took him in. They put notices on lampposts, newsagents’ windows, asked neighbours and no one came forward. But fortunately, he found a pretty cushy new home and they named him Albert and that was more than fifty years ago. The best we can say is he is over eighty years old. But his origin, who knows? I suspect that he probably came from North Africa or somewhere originally, either as an egg or just hatched, and it’s incredible to think really.

At the time, eighty years ago, I think tortoises were being brought over as an exotic, fanciful pet for so many people and hardly anyone knew how to really look after them. So, very sadly, lots died, lots didn’t make it through the winter, lots escaped, because people didn’t know they dug so well, lots vanished because they would dig in for hibernation and people thought that they’d escaped and then maybe they’d move home and they’d just leave the tortoise behind.

And I’m now hearing all these stories from people in bookshops who come up and say ‘oh, we used to have a tortoise and one summer it just vanished’. And they still do, of course, but back then, when I was a kid, on Blue Peter they would advise you to paint your phone number on the shell. Of course, it was lead paint then, but people just didn’t know that the shell was a living part of the tortoise and it needed to breathe properly and so there was just so much non-knowledge about their care, and we still don’t fully understand them. You could research forever what to feed them, how to care for them.

And, just to make it even more challenging to look after them, tortoises are notorious escape artists too, aren’t they? In Albert in the Air, Albert escapes from his lovely garden to explore the big city. Has Albert ever escaped in real life?

Albert was a vicious digger in his youth and was always escaping from his previous home. Back where he used to live with my wife's family, he was always digging under the fence and getting out under the strawberry patch, eating other neighbours’ strawberries, but they’d always bring him back or say ‘oh, we’ve got Albert, do you want to come and get him?’ Luckily, they knew him! The original escape, we don’t know about. It would appear he’d come quite some distance somehow, which makes us suspect that he might have been left there, but we just don’t know. Fortunately, he’s not escaped from our garden, but from his previous home it was always next door, next door but one, maybe, if he was on a roll!

And has Albert settled down for his winter nap now?

Oh, he’s gone. He went down a few weeks ago. A lot of tortoises this year have had huge confusion. The 40-degree temperatures really confused Albert. We’ve never seen him dig in as much as that. He was right in the bushes, digging right down to get to cooler ground. We were giving him cooler baths, all sorts to help him cope. Obviously, he’s thoroughly Anglicised – although he’s a tortoise he wasn’t happy at 40 degrees. And then, when it dropped to normal temperatures – 20 degrees – he thought it was October, I think, and so he started to wind down. Eventually he’d just had enough, and he went down about six days earlier than last year. He’s waking up, on average, about two weeks earlier each year, and we assume that’s because it’s warming up.

What do you most miss about Albert when he’s asleep?

Well, it’s that checking on him really. He does really live in the garden. He goes away at night for safety because of urban foxes, but he really just does his own thing in the garden and we check on him every now and then, make sure he’s not flipped over or stuck somewhere. Of course, we position plant pots so there’s room for him to get through but, somehow, he’ll find another angle to approach something and that will wedge him in. They all do it. So it’s that whole thing of ‘shall we check on him? Oh we don’t have to check on him, he’s alright at the moment.’

But it is fascinating, really. They’re just incredible creatures of survival and, the more you read about them, and the more you observe them first hand, they are just really amazing creatures.

They really are! And we’ll be seeing more of Albert soon, won’t we?

Yes. Albert and the Pond is due in Spring 2023. It’s nearly painted, which we’re very excited about!

I can’t wait! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I wish Albert a very happy nap and I’m really looking forward to reading about his new adventures next year!

All the best from Albert.

You can keep up with Albert’s antics on his blog and on Twitter: @AlbertTortoise and Facebook: @AlbertTheTortoise and you can find out more about the Albert the Tortoise series in my Meet Albert the Tortoise blog post.

To find out more about Albert and his books, visit:

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