The Tale of a Toothbrush

by M.G.Leonard

One of this year’s National Non-Fiction November competitions is inspired by The Tale of a Toothbrush: A Story of Plastic in Our Oceans written by M G Leonard and illustrated by Daniel Rieley. NNFN’s coordinator, Chris Routh, was given the opportunity to ask the book’s creators a few questions about its inspiration, development and impact, starting with Maya.

In an earlier blog for the Federation of Children’s Book Groups, you wrote about how working with Lauren St John to form the movement Authors4Oceans made you determined to publish a story for children about the problem with plastic. Could you tell us a bit more about the Authors4Oceans movement.

Maya: The Authors4Oceans movement is a group of over fifty UK children’s and YA authors, including Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson and Chris Riddell. We have gathered together to try and change the book industry’s use of plastic, from stopping shops with cafes from using plastic straws and cutlery, to making publishers think about the jiffy bags they use for mailouts and the plastic that books often get wrapped in. One lone voice, or a single person, can struggle to make a difference, but united as a group we can put pressure on our publishers – who are big businesses – to do better, as well as amplifying ocean conservation messages on our social media channels and in the stories we write.

Did you do any research about the issue before starting to write The Tale of a Toothbrush?

Maya: I always research the issues that arise in my stories. I was particularly inspired by an article I read in National Geographic about the problem with the toothbrushes we make. It seems crazy to me that we make an object for personal hygene that will last 400 years, but that we can only use for three months before we throw it away.

What about you Daniel? 

Daniel: I’ve been aware of this issue for a few years now and I have been really trying to stop buying single-use plastics. I have also taken part in a couple of beach clean ups, so it’s a topic I’m very passionate about. I was really happy to have been given the opportunity to illustrate this story, because it gave me the chance to do a lot more research and help raise awareness through my illustrations. 

Can you tell us about the media you used for the illustrations and how long they took from start to finish

Daniel: For this book I mainly used ink, paint and pencil to illustrate the different objects and characters. I then scanned them in and compiled everything into Photoshop, which gave me the ability to adjust colours and shift any objects if needed. 

I worked on the book over a period of 6 months, and that included the main cover and endpapers. 

Maya, you talked about editing the text once you had seen Daniel’s illustrations – did you meet up at all during this collaborative process?

Maya: Sadly I haven’t yet met Daniel. He doesn’t live in the UK. All of our conversations about the book, as it developed, were mediated by our designer at Walker Books. The Tale of a Toothbrush is the first picture book I’ve written and I was glad of the publishers help to guide me through the process and help me to understand the format.

What about you Daniel – did you make any changes – or even redo any of the spreads?

Daniel: There can be quite a lot of changes during the early stages of a picture book because the aim is to get a good flow of the illustrations from spread to spread and make sure they work well alongside the text. I began by producing a number of rough pencil drawings, working closely with the story I experimented with numerous ideas and tested out different compositions for the various spreads. Once the pencil drawings were approved only smaller changes were needed during the colouring process, which included some tweaks to the colours and adding some extra details.

Maya said that she was inspired by Allan Ahlberg’s picture book story The Pencil. Daniel, are you influenced or inspired by any other picture book illustrators?

Daniel: There are many picture book illustrators that inspire me – Ekaterina Trukhan, Clive McFarland, Blanca Gomes and Marika Maijala to name just a few but for this particular book I was also inspired by Allan Ahlberg’s story – The Pencil. I like the way the objects are brought to life with their simple features and I tried to capture that same energy and emotion for Sammy. 

The book is perfect for getting young children to think about how they can make a difference to a big problem, if only in a small way. Have either of you had any reactions to the book from young readers or their carers?

Maya: I have had messages from parents telling me their children were requesting bamboo toothbrushes after reading the story, and that makes me very happy. I’ve also had grateful messages about the cheery tone to the story and the happy ending. The story of plastics in the ocean can be a bleak subject, but I felt it important to inspire a desire for change using positive energy and it seems that is what this book is doing. I couldn’t wish for anything more.

Daniel: I’ve been tagged in many posts and received several messages through Instagram from carers and book reviewers who have shown their appreciation for creating a picture book based on this important issue. Someone even mentioned recently that they have really taken this message on board and have swapped their child’s toothbrush for a bamboo one. To hear that it has inspired people to make small changes like this, is great!

Is there anything either of you have changed in your own life to reduce your use of single-use plastic?

Maya: I do the simple things, like carry a reusable coffee cup and water bottle, and my family uses bamboo toothbrushes of course. I also employ the services of a milkman, so all my milk and juice is delivered in glass bottles which are collected for reuse. This has reduced the family’s plastic waste dramatically, and I’ve gone back to using bars of soap, rather than plastic dispensers with liquid soap.

Daniel: It can be difficult at times to completely avoid buying products that include plastic, however, there are several things that my partner and I are doing to reduce our single-use plastic consumption. For example, we make our own washing detergent for clothes and store it in glass bottles. We have also stopped buying bottled shampoo and body wash, and instead use organic soaps. When we can, we buy our fruit and vegetables from the local market to avoid plastic packaging. We always carry a metal water bottle with us when we head out so we never have to buy plastic bottles. Something else that we have got into the habit of doing is when we go to a restaurant or cafe, we just make sure they don’t include plastic straws with our drinks, but a lot of places don’t include them anymore, or they use paper or reusable straws instead, so that’s good! 

Many thanks to both of you for your insightful answers and for agreeing to choose the competition winners from our shortlist!

Thank you also to Walker Books for arranging the interview and for sponsoring the competition.

Walker kindly provided activity sheets that can be found here.

For details about how Key Stage 1 children can enter the competition see: Entries should be submitted by Friday 4th December 2020.

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