An interview with John Kelly, author of illustrated chapter book The Monster Doctor, perfect Halloween reading

John Kelly, author and illustrator of The Monster Doctor


This month's Parakeet pick was an easy one. The Monster Doctor is perfect Halloween reading! Packed with quirky illustrations, it's almost like a graphic novel. It's funny, super silly and a little bit gross - what's not to like? Plus, it inspired some super fun, slimy, monster-licious activities for this month's pack - all perfect for spending Halloween at home.

Here author and illustrator John Kelly tells us how he created The Monster Doctor and all about his own favourite books for kids.

What inspired you to write The Monster Doctor and what came first, the illustrations or the story?

I remember the exact moment the monster doctor was born. I was doodling in my sketchbook and drew an unlucky zombie who – for some reason – had a cricket bat sticking out of his head. My immediate thought was:

1. That's quite funny.
2. But a tennis racquet would be even funnier.
3. I wonder where the zombie would go to get the cricket bat removed.

At the time, as I was writing and illustrating picture books, I wrote The Monster Doctor as one of those. This wasn’t a very good idea. For perfectly understandable reasons publishers weren’t terribly keen on a book for 4-year-olds about dismembered zombies, bile-leeches and industrial amounts of snot glue.

So, after a rethink I wrote The Monster Doctor as a fiction book for children aged 7+. This was a better idea as it gave me more space for silly jokes and gross drawings. Luckily the people at Macmillan are weird enough to be into vomiting dragons and magic porcupines called Nigel, and so decided to publish it.

Who is your favourite character in the book and why?

Delores, the receptionist, is my favourite character because she is grumpy (like me). She also has eight tentacles and is therefore excellent at multi-tasking (unlike me). I’m envious as lots of tentacles would make my life easier. I’d be able to write, illustrate, make coffee, do some filing and moan about social media all at the same time. Also, Delores is the most important person in the Monster Doctor books because she has the key to the surgery’s ‘special’ biscuit tin.

Do you have a favourite place to write and illustrate?

I tend to do different things in different places. Coming up with ideas works best with my eyes closed. I therefore take voice notes lying down on the living room floor until I’m disturbed by the dog licking my face because she thinks I’m seriously ill.

I do the actual first draft of the story in my notebook with a fountain pen. Then I use voice dictation software to put it into a lovely program called ‘Scrivener’. Then I start typing and editing the text. Then I print it out, read it, and edit it all over again. And again. And again. And again a zillion times. And then, when I finally think it’s done, my lovely editor at Macmillan reads it and says, “It’s very nice. But there’s just a few thousand things that need to change.”

Why did you choose to create books for children?

Children are excellent at seeing the world around them afresh. Whereas adults can get a bit stuck in a ‘that’s the way things are because that’s the way things are’ mode. Writing stories for children allows me the freedom look at something we’ve seen before – like a monster blob – and say, ‘What would it be like if a monster blob got a REALLY bad cold?’ Or, ‘What happens when a dragon gets too damp and its flame goes out? How do you relight its fire?’

What was your favourite book as a child?

I was a child in the 1960’s so I read all the usual things like Enid Blyton, Down with Skool!, etc. But what I particularly loved was anything with brightly coloured illustrations. I adored the vast subject range of the Ladybird books, and there was a wonderful magazine series called Look and Learn. This contained incredible cross-section drawings of the kind of atomic powered airliners we’d have in the far-off future world of 1985! And so very early on I got hooked on science-fiction and utterly lost myself in Isaac Asimov, Philip K Dick, Alfred Bester and the now sadly forgotten (and vastly underrated) Robert Sheckley.

Do you have any top book recommendations for our subscribers?

One of my favourite picture books is called The Princess and the Pig by Jonathan Emmett and Poly Bernatene. It’s the story of a pig and Princess who are swapped at birth. It is full of ridiculous things happening and is very funny.

My favourite children’s fiction book (apart from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) was/is A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. Which is odd because I’m usually completely immune to the charms of fantasy. But Earthsea grabbed my heart when I first read it. It is a beautiful story that begins with a poor village boy who longs to learn how to be an all-powerful wizard. But as the series continues through its dark and wonderful sequels, the story turns back in on itself and you begin to see the events, and the world of Earthsea, from a series of different perspectives that change what you think you already know.

Copies of our The Monster Doctor past pack are available to purchase here.

If you've enjoyed this, why not check out more of our author interviews?


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