Last January I discovered a fabulous YouTube Channel / Instagram account called ‘Lights Out with Louise’, an account created during lockdown, aimed at children under seven and consisting of the delightful Louise Courtney reading a bedtime story. Re-establishing contact with Louise and hearing all she had been up to was a delight and inspired me to do a ‘Humans of Clevedon’ feature on her which you can read about here:
Louise was in touch recently to tell me about two Bristol-born authors, Steve Gunning and Chris Wheeler whose newly published book Santa’s Secret Agents will be featured on Lights Out With Louise some time in November. Louise knows I buy for lots of little ones at Christmas and also knows how keen I am to promote anything Clevedon related, and the book features, albeit small, an illustration of our wonderful Clevedon Pier. Steve who moved to Clevedon ten years ago and is a big supporter of the Pier, was delighted with the idea of featuring it in the book and has every intention of doing a whole illustration based on the Pier in the next book that he hopes to illustrate.
This beautiful book with its thirty two pages of wonderful illustrations, is aimed at children aged five to ten and the publisher is Carraway Publishing. Priced at £9.99 the hardback version of Santa’s Secret Agents is available on-line from Waterstones as well as in-store at all good bookshops. Being a huge supporter of buying local, I will most definitely be buying mine from Alistair at the wonderful Books on the Hill who like all of our fabulous independent shops here in Clevedon served us so well during the lockdown. Alistair has a national profile for a number of reasons but more recently for realising his dream of creating an adult range of dyslexia friendly books. You can read about this here:
Steve and Chris will also be doing book-signings and readings at many bookshops as well as a tour of North Somerset and Bristol primary schools in the run up to Christmas. If you’d like more information on events, a preview of sample pages as well as downloadable colouring sheets for both younger and older children, you can find them here:
As well as being visually delightful, the illustrations are detailed and complex, will provide hours of pleasure and provoke those all important questions and answers which support comprehension skills and encourage critical thinking skills as the children search for clues and symbolism in the story.
The story is all about how Santa knows which children have been naughty or nice all year and truly deserve the presents on their Christmas lists. From Summer holidays to Halloween and everything in between, Santa’s Secret Agents, under the command of Jolly Saint Nick (a.k.a. Double Ho 7) and Mrs Claus are always watching but where are they hiding? It’s an invitation for children and adults alike to go on the (sleigh) ride of their lives and discover the magic and mystery of Christmas and the secret world of Santa and his crack(er) team of elves, with all of their gadgets and gizmos, who can be found everywhere and are watching your every move.
Santa’s Secret Agents makes an ideal Christmas gift for all those who believe in Santa and has year round appeal as the story follows children at home, in the garden, on the beach, during Halloween and at school. The book will also be hugely popular with adults too, with its humour and tongue-in-cheek spy references, as Santa sits down to ‘a glass of milk, shaken, not stirred’.
Jane Shergold, Founder at Carraway Publishing said:
‘the charming wit, delightful verse and captivating illustrations will be popular with children and parents who are excited to explore the hidden and magical world of Santa and his all-seeing elves’.
“The early feedback from children, parents and booksellers has been really positive. They adore the humorous tongue-in-cheek verse and of course the in-jokes for all Bond fans, young and old, that are vividly brought to life through the detailed and inventive illustrations.”
“We really wanted the story’s rhymes and pictures to be something children (and adults) would want to come back to over and over again, first because you would find something new and then because you just liked them. We hope the book will inspire kids’ imaginations and become something that they can share with future generations.
I was keen to know a little bit more about the authors. Steve was taught to draw by his father when quite young and later he would become known to friends, family and colleagues for his beautiful hand-drawn greetings cards. His creative talents have also found an outlet in writing, directing and acting in school and amateur dramatics.
Chris lives with his wife and two children in Bristol, who, thanks to Santa and his elves are (usually) well behaved! Chris found that he had a way with words when he won his first poetry competition aged six. Gradually he moved from poetry to song writing and ended up performing all over the UK and Europe. Unfortunately that didn’t pay the bills so he was forced to get a “proper” job and it was there that he met Steve.
Two artists trapped in day jobs bonded over their shared love of loud rock music, writing, drawing and their questionable sense of humour.
I was curious as to what had inspired the book and Chris explained it had all been related to a long car journey and two bored, misbehaving children which caused him to warn them that Father Christmas would know that they were being naughty because of course “Santa can see through the sunroof.”
We’ve all been there and I can just hear his tones of exasperation and desperation!
“I spent most of the rest of that fateful car journey ignoring the children entirely as my head began to fill with ideas and rhymes and puns. When I first brought the concept to Steve it was just a simple idea and a few verses. Together, with the support of our patient and loving families, through the twists and turns of life, at least one narrative reboot and a global pandemic we were able to turn it into a fleshed-out story and then, with Steve’s wonderful illustrations, a complete book. The finished product has far-exceeded our expectations and we are indebted to Carraway in helping us to share it with the book-buying public.”
I was very interested as to the writing process and how lockdown had impacted on their progress. Steve explained that he and Chris had talked for a long time about writing something together and had begun talking seriously about various ideas a few years ago but it wasn’t until Chris had his flash of inspiration in the car with his children that their imaginations were fired up by the thought of Santa using his elves as secret agents to keep a track of naughty children.
It wasn’t long before they had Mrs Claus in charge of the computers (updating the naughty list on her “Yule log”) and Santa “planting” his elf agents in the garden. But it did take a long time to get to a final version, with a complete re-write at one point, when they decided it should be Santa replying to children’s letters rather than the original version that was written by someone who’d been naughty and hadn’t received any presents. The change played havoc with the rhyme scheme but once they’d worked through it they were delighted with the outcome.
Fortunately, Steve was able to work hard on the illustrations during the first lockdown and had finished them by about August. The pictures were all hand drawn and then coloured using good quality pencil crayons. The originals were then scanned and tidied up just a little on the computer.
One of Steve’s objectives was to get a mixture of vintage imagery and modern technology into the pictures – a kind of steampunk Santa with a 21st Century spy-tech twist, something he definitely achieved!
Then began the long process of turning the words and pictures into a book. Luckily Chris’ wife met Jane Shergold of Carraway Publishing purely by chance. Their very patient publisher gave them a huge amount of help; getting the books printed, getting the word out and buckets of encouragement. They were very nearly published in time for Christmas 2020 – but not quite! Having decided there wasn’t enough time to get things absolutely right they delayed until this year and are glad they did, believing they now have a much better book.
It’s not easy getting a new book published, a sentiment expressed by Jane Shergold who commented:
“Although it can be a tough challenge for new authors to break through and join the canon of established Christmas favourites such as The Snowman or The Jolly Christmas Postman, thanks to the power of today’s word-of-mouth marketing available through social media, new writers have the opportunity to reach out and quickly grow a large following.”
And that’s exactly what I’m doing here in my writing of this blog post and sharing on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FACESofClevedon Twitter: https://twitter.com/facesofclevedon Instagram: @facesofclevedon
If you buy a copy, which we hope you will, perhaps you’d share your thoughts on social media too – Steve is on Instagram @stevegunning and would love to hear from you.
As Santa’s Secret Agents is a new publication, the only reviews available are from family and friends so I am including several of these:
“Brilliant! The illustrations are so immense, detailed, absorbing – words very nearly fail me! Congratulations. Well done you! I am going to have to put in an order for at least two more at Christmas time for the young people in my family. Perhaps I should consider getting some for the children as well!” Jean N.
“Just put our daughter to bed where she wanted “the Christmas book” for the third time since Sunday. She’s definitely a fan! She particularly likes me to point out the which children are behaving badly in each picture”. Kate W
“I don’t know about children but I want a copy! Overall if I had been given this book as a child I hope I would have kept it to enjoy it all over again” John B.
And how could I not include this beauty? The source of inspiration for this beautiful book!
“I am very proud of my Daddy and Uncle Steve for making this book. I love it.” Megan aged 8 (Chris’ daughter)