Dubai Festival of Literature and Ahmed Mansoor

opening ceremony

I went to Dubai to speak at the fantastic Emirates Literature Festival last month. Just before it opened a number of authors announced that they were boycotting the festival because of the UAE’s human rights record.

There was also a thoughtful petition by Human Rights Watch and English Pen as well as the campaign to boycott. I agreed to sign the petition but I thought and still do think there are much better ways to encourage free speech than by boycotting a literary festival. Emirates festival is the largest literary festival in the Arabic speaking world and I think we should be doing all we can to encourage dialogue everywhere but surely especially in the middle east where there are differing perspectives we can all learn from. Chris Cleave puts it a lot better than I could here.

Anyway, during the lead up to the festival a number of activists were tweeting to me encouraging me to boycott etc etc and i struck up a conversation on twitter with Ahmed Mansoor, one of the UAE’s leading activists who was previously imprisoned. We ended up meeting for a coffee and I was so shocked by his story that i feel obliged to write about it here:

‘the only thing clear in this country is it’s opacity!’

Ahmed Mansoor is an Emirati writer and poet who has a masters in IT. He did his IT studies in the US and on his return he was involved in setting up a discussion website in the UAE (hewar means dialogue). The discussion threads that emerged were topics like politics, human rights, news from international media which is banned domestically. The website became popular and the UAE government managed to shut it down and imprisoned some of those responsible. Ahmed became more and more politicised by the actions that were going on around him that he and other intellectuals/activists initiated a petition calling for political reform. Five of them were imprisoned. He was detained for 8 months and the government ran a smear campaign. They were tried by a closed court which sentenced Ahmed to 3 years in jail and the others to 2 years each. Amnesty deemed the trial grossly unfair and after an international outcry the ‘UAE 5’ were released.

However after his ordeal he had a criminal record and his employer were forced to dismiss him. His passport was also confiscated in a raid on his house and has never been returned, his email and phone were hacked, a new ‘cyber crime’ law was passed by the government (which has been deemed unconstitutional) which means he and others like him will never have ‘security clearance’ and without ‘security clearance’ he has no possibility of getting a job. Then, all of his money ($160,000) suddenly disappeared from his bank account. The nature of its disappearance implicates not only the government but also the bank. When Ahmed was reporting the disappearance of this, his life’s savings, his car tyres were first let down and then his car was stolen… all outside the main court/prosecution building in Abu Dhabi. He was also twice beaten up and received numerous death threats which has made it impossible for him to complete his law studies at university. (He had tried to return to university after he lost his job)

So Ahmed is currently without his life’s savings or a job or a way to leave, but he says many are facing much worse consequences than he has. There are hundreds of political prisoners currently in jail without charge. Often they just disappear. People are terrified to speak out and face a similar fate. As Ahmed says ‘extremism grows when hope for peaceful change evaporates’ and i cant help worrying with him about the wider consequences of such extreme crackdowns. 

Ahmed Mansoor and myself

Despite these stories there was so much else I saw in Dubai that seemed hopeful about the UAE. The festival itself was incredibly inspiring. The astronaut Chris Hadfield gave an incredible talk aimed at inspiring children into science and exploring the unknown and poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy made I call out to support womens day on the opening ceremony. I did school visits as part of the festival, all were very multicultural and open, one of the classes I taught had 110 children from an incredible 33 different countries, and the schools were some of the best equipped i have ever seen. One of my friends is an academic advisor working with institutions there and he raves about the enthusiasm of the young people and the set up that he works with. The country has developed at a faster pace than literally anywhere else in the world and has achieved an incredible amount in just a few decades. Hopefully the politics can be changed equally quickly. 

Ahmed Mansoor won the Martin Ennals award in 2015
(Ennals was the first head of Amnesty International)

You can read about it on the BBC here

Please consider supporting Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. Ahmed’s story made me appreciate the fantastic work they are doing all the more.


one of my school visits

One of my school visits in Dubai


By | 2017-09-02T02:15:04+00:00 April 14th, 2016|Tags: , , , , , |0 Comments

Royal London Hospital


I was recently commissioned to create artwork for the newly opened children’s ward in Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel. Here is a little bit about the commission:

00 all roomsignage


I wanted to make the signage understandable for the youngest children. As well as numbering the rooms I had the idea of ‘animal-ing’ them, giving each door and room an animal theme, actually I got the idea from one of my favourite artists, Katsumi Komagata. There’s a lion room, a parrot room, a fish room etc. Each room has the same elements but with a different animal, for example the lion room has the lion’s face labeled on the door, a framed print of the the lion and cub hiding in the grass, a framed woven rug of the lions portrait, and two vinyl stickers of the two lions chatting and running hidden somewhere on the walls.

 bedroom door CH1lion




The hand-woven rugs are all made by a fair trade group which I helped set up in Nepal. I thought that one of the nice things about using rugs was that they give a soft cosy feel to the room which otherwise feels a little cold and sterile.


Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 13.18.18  Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 13.19.14 Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 13.18.40  DSC03209 DSC03148  DSC03136      DSC03111Playroom with rug copy


In the corridors and shared spaces I wanted to make use of the large space to their best effect and so made a life-size grouping of different animals all together including a huge elephant and dinosaur peering down from the ceiling. They are all being looked after by a monkey dressed as a doctor. There is also a very long snake which runs the entire length of the corridor.

 Family kitchen corridor doors openCH copyEntrance corridorCH copy Family kitchenCH Recpt desk with doctor CH

In the playroom for a bit of fun there are five monkeys dressed in doctor’s white coats playing jazz  

jazz band playroom.CH.

Along the length of another corridor is a giant 31 metre colourful snake being examined by another monkey doctor with a stethoscope.

Ward printsCH    IMG_0854        Bedroom door3CHBedroom rug2CH Bedroom printsCH

00 6rabbit             00 5parrot

Vital Arts, who commissioned this also worked with some of my favourite artists on other wards including Donna Wilson, Morag Myerscough, Miller Goodman, Tord Boontje and Bob and Roberta Smith. This work for NHS public hospitals is all gratefully funded by private and corporate donations.

Take a look at the other beautiful commissions in the press coverage below.

We were even on the 6 o’clock BBC News!

Creative Review
Digital Arts Online

By | 2017-09-02T02:15:06+00:00 February 21st, 2015|Tags: , , , , , , |3 Comments

Childrens Books Ireland Poster


I was commissioned to do this image last year for the fantastic Childrens Books Ireland. CBI are the National Childrens Books Organisation in Ireland and aim to foster a love of reading and books amongst children. The image was commissioned by them for their literature and CBI annual conference, the theme was ‘Stories are for Everyone’, a dream illustration job, it’s rare to get to do posters with a message that you can wholeheartedly agree with. CBI were extremely generous to grant permission for its re-use it for International Bookgiving Day 2015 which is in two days on the 14 Feb. Thanks so much to CBI for this ….get involved with bookgiving day on valentines day #giveabook

By | 2017-09-02T02:15:07+00:00 February 13th, 2015|1 Comment

CLPE Power of Pictures: writing ideas for teachers using picture books

I was asked by Charlotte Hacking of CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) to work with a class of teachers in their Power of Pictures course. The course was designed to use pictures and picture books as a starting point into critical thinking, creative writing and literacy. Creative writing and anything to do with language was actually among my own least favourite subjects in school, so initially I felt a bit uncomfortable that I would be trying to help teach teachers how to teach it. But in a way, as i was a reluctant writer myself in school who has now found a way into writing as an adult i might have some ideas.

Charlotte studied art and is very passionate about picture books, she has worked for many years as a teacher before she got involved with CLPE. She designed this course with help from Ed Vere, one of my favourite picture book makers. The approach in introducing books to children was so inventive and interesting to me that i thought i should write this post so i could share it. I was amazed that my book which takes 2 minutes to read could be developed out into such engaging lessons and questioning and excercises over a full day or even several days or weeks. Not only that but in the way it was presented with a few tweaks the same book could work equally well in developing literacy from the very youngest to the older classes in Primary.




We started out by looking at the characters in my book ‘SHH we have a plan’. we made their own version in collage and i showed some videos and pictures of clowns to get us in the mood. Through looking at the picture and characters closely we can learn more about them. Their motivations and attitude and maybe their personality


Next was translating images into words. Charlotte showed a few images from my book with the text removed to the class and they discussed each image. What is going on in each image, possible motivations of the characters and trying to empathise with each one or work out what they were thinking. Charlotte drew a thermometer on the board and everyone tried to think of better and better descriptive words to describe the scene. From ‘funny’ at first to ‘comical’ to ‘farcical’ etc. For the youngest this is a great way to develop oral vocabulary.

For the very young children one of the teachers put feathers all around the classroom one morning and asked the children where they thought the feathers came from which began an engaged discussion on prediction and inference of where the feathers may have come from and she slowly revealed the images from there. sounded like great fun!!


Next was acting out the scenes. A scene with five characters was chosen. It has four characters pointing at a bird each with a slightly different expression or body language and the bird itself. the class was divided into 4 groups of five and each was to act out the scene and think of their own line to say in character. great fun and very entertaining.

Apparently when the teachers tested out this activity with their own class one girl refused to take part because she is against hunting (good for her!!!) The feedback from the teachers was fantastic and very entertaining.


We then went out into the garden and took staged photos of the group attempting to catch the bird. In my books i try and do a before image and an after image so its funny on the page turn. Its quite a fun thing to set up as a funny before and after shot. We tried it out… Not entirely sure whether this will improve anyones writing but they would make great animated GIFs!


Next was laying out all the images from the book in order, but without words, a ‘gallery walk’. They tried to figure out the story and write their own lines for each page.


They then wrote the story from the perspectives of a chosen character from the book.

Only then was the the story finally read out.

Screenshot 2014-12-16 23.16.00

some ideas for making creative writing more engaging.


When i am illustrating, or teaching illustration, i find it less productive to come up with images without any clear starting point. I find the same goes with writing. The more specific the starting point is the better. If i am told i must write about a bear who is angry about something, with a purpose and an audience I can then get creative about thinking about what that bear can be like and what it is he is angry about. Although it is much more limiting than just being told to come up with whatever story I like, in a way it is freeing because it is asking you to think creatively focus on only one or two things rather than working with unlimited options. Apparently one common reason children do not like creative writing (especially boys) is that with writing there is never a correct answer. I think this was probably the case with me actually.

theres lots of ways of finding starting points. here are a few examples.

Choose a character, choose a problem for the character. How does it resolve, or does it resolve?
Pair into twos, invent a character, have a partner invent another character, they get into a fight about something. write about it from each point of view.
Open a dictionary randomly twice to find two words (or more) and make a story about those.


i came to writing by writing simple captions on my illustrations. it is often great fun to try to think of clever one liners for images to spark a story. I made a film using captioned family photographs with a school friend while i was in college. Finding a story from a pile of random photographs or images forces you to think creatively and often has unexpected or very funny results. Also a good way to collaboratively tell a story if a group is each given a selection of images and asked to tell a story together


In a similar way to using random photographs or images a teacher can use groups of objects in a box to suggest a story. A feather from a parrot might suggest a pirate or a jungle. A coin might suggest treasure or a robbery. Children can make up a story suggested by the objects


this was one of Charlotte/CLPE’s idea for each student to take ownership of their own writing. A journal that each student can use to collect things they think are funny or interesting and they can write and draw in it with stickers or any colour pens they wish. They can choose what to write and write for fun. As a writer I always carry a notepad or sketchbook myself around everywhere. I began keeping a sketchbook in secondary school for my art and i really got a lot out of it. I think if i had one of those for writing its possible i would have enjoyed writing as much as drawing. In class after working in their journals volunteers can share some of their work with the class.


Motivates and raises the status of presentation of their written work. It is important to present the work to each other so it is read by friends and classmates. It inspires others and a sense of competition and audience helps motivation. 

By | 2017-09-02T02:15:08+00:00 December 16th, 2014|0 Comments

HAT MONKEY: The making of

Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 11.18.43

In the beginning i thought i could make a simple app myself with a little help from a programmer friend, it didn’t exactly turn out like that. Through a series of twist and turns and introductions it snowballed into something much bigger and better than i thought possible. Its been a very interesting journey so i thought i would share it here.

I’ve always been interested in animation and in fact my degree show project in art college was an interactive character built in flash. When the iPhone came out I was very excited by the possibilities and began looking for ways to get something made. i went to a few LEG Up meetings and Ars Electronica and tried to rope some animator friends into a project together but as I didnt have much money and only a vague plan, nobody was exactly jumping at the idea. Around 3 years ago my programmer friend and neighbour David Muth came on board as a partner. In the meantime i have actually been approached a few times to make my books into apps but i turned those down. I think of books and apps as quite different things. What works well as a story does not necessarily work as an interactive app.

In theory a story with added movement, sound and interaction should be much more engaging than a story without it, but somehow this doesn’t seem to be the case. My own way of storytelling is looking for the essence of a story and trying to heighten that by stripping out everything but it’s essentials. The way the characters look, the pacing, the imagery and text is all designed to focus the story. Adding interaction and other distractions to this way of storytelling is not enhancing the story but the opposite. Throwing distractions such as interaction into the pages would only ruin my storytelling, the audience would be distracted.

In my mind apps are something quite different. They are interactive and need to focus on enhancing that interactivity. With this in mind i began looking at different inspirations that have interaction at their core. The first that came to mind was the lift-the-flap type novelty books, Pat the Rabbit, Eric Hill’s brilliant Spot the Dog etc, these are the sort of books that animation and sound would enhance. What would be the most engaging prompt to interact? I thought ‘helping’ would be a nice engaging interaction. I thought about making an app called HELP where you have to help different characters stuck in different situations, an upside-down turtle or a cat stuck up a tree. I could make their eyes and emotion appeal to us and do a funny reaction when we do help. The only problem is that without any thread connecting them it just becomes a series of unrelated tasks. It seems repetitive after a while. It would be better is if there is one character, if we are requested by the same character each time we can get to know her and her character can then be a source of humour.

Initially my character was going to be a fish because it would require very little animation …they dont have legs! I quickly ran out of interactive things to do with a fish though… i realised to maximise the interactions I needed a humanlike character with arms and the ability to use objects and devices.  I made the character a monkey so that he could do all the things a human can do. I gave him a hat and called him ‘Hat Monkey’, because he arrives unannounced at the front door a little like Dr. Suess’s cat. Finally i decided that actually this monkey would be much more appealing to children if he was just like them. He is 3 feet tall and needs help to do all the things that young children cannot do. He cannot reach the door and the light switch, or turn the pages of a book. I thought it would be a nice twist and perhaps quite satisfying for the children if they could help a monkey do all the things that they cannot do in real life.

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 13.26.53


So i had the idea finally. I was going to animate it all myself and David was going to knit it together in code. My original idea was to have three animations for each scene, a prompt, then a looping animation and finally an on-touch reaction animation. With this simple format we could create every interaction we could think of, throwing a ball back and forth, opening a door, giving monkey a banana, even answering a phone call or a text.  After some time news spread about our app and we were introduced to Berlin based publisher Fox and Sheep. They wanted to buy the app but when they saw our prototype it was clear that my animation wasn’t really up to it. David was also spending more and more time on the project and it started turning into a full time job for him which he couldn’t commit to. Fox and Sheep took over and eventually managed all programming and animation. Which was a relief because it was getting pretty difficult!

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 21.04.06

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 20.43.33

It was pretty frustrating to me initially that all our work and many months of my tedious animation ended up scrapped, but this was all recreated and improved beyond anything I could have done.  I’m very lucky to be working with Fox and Sheep, their apps Nighty Night and Petting Zoo are two of my absolute favourites (read Christoph’s excellent blogpost). As publishers they’ve had great advice and input on how to improve and enhance the interactions and flow. My simple ideas for reactions have turned in multiple responses and actions and even microphone sensor for my phone scene idea so that you can actually talk to monkey. The sound and music is all created by Matt Wand who’s work I have been a big fan of since college. He does the sound and music for my trailers and animation projects and for this he seems to have got so excited about making monkey noises and music that actually we could only use a tiny fraction of them in the final app. It’s a shame because there was SO many nice tracks but we could only use so many. He is in fact releasing them all along with other recent tracks as in his new album which i highly recommend downloading. The amazing animation was created by Egmont and his team at Red Rabbit, all together this app is far better than i imagined it would be when i started out.

I think we have had a very successful collaboration, Fox and Sheep have a lot of experience and helped me understand what would and would not work, I had a lot of wacky ideas similar to the phone scene which were not fully formed.  On the other hand I fought to keep the text screens in the app and so make it more like a book than an app. That way it can function as something shared between adult and child as a read-aloud, as well as a purely solitary activity. Like my books, it has very simple text and can also double as a satisfying early reader with a nice payoff for each sentence read. I think through this push and pull we have made something that is quite unique and I look forward to doing more apps together. We have plenty more scenes to add in over the next few months (they will update automatically) and i have several ideas for other Hat Monkey apps, and other apps in general. Please check back very soon for the next one!*


*hopefully less than 3 years!!

photo 2

photo 3

I gave a 20min talk about creating HAT MONKEY at the Kids Want Mobile conference in Berlin

photo 1

HAT MONKEY is launching in 14 languages now!
I hope you enjoy it, please do send reviews and feedback, we are working on more apps together in future and i hope they can be the best they can be. I’m really excited to be creating these apps alongside my books.

DOWNLOAD it on the App Store:

German: HUT-AFFE
Swedish: HATT APA
Korean: 모자원숭이
Complex/Simplified Chinese: 帽猴
Japanese: おぼうしおさる