Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet are interviewed by Michelle Pauli
‘It’s only a drink…’ is not the way picture book partnerships generally begin. But, were it not for those imploring words from Paul Linnet to Sue Hendra in a Brighton pub 12 years ago (with Hendra – eventually – agreeing to a date), there would be no Supertato, Norman, Barry, Gordon or Wanda.
Hendra and Linnet, the picture book world’s most delightfully silly couple, came up with the idea for their first book, Barry the Fish with Fingers, on their first date and haven’t stopped creating since. Now celebrating the publication of the fifth book in the Supertato series, Supertato: Veggies in the Valley of Doom, their relationship has evolved into a unique partnership where they both conceptualise, write and illustrate their books collaboratively.
Supertato, a cape-clad superhero potato who battles his arch-nemesis Evil Pea in every adventure, is their best-loved character. Even the choice of these vegetables has a link to their history as a couple. After taking a romantic selfie at a festival they noticed that Linnet’s head was ‘huge, like a potato!’ while Hendra’s was a ‘tiny pea head!’ she laughs. They tried out various settings for the characters, from a compost heap to a city with a New York skyline, before settling on a supermarket at night, after all the shoppers have gone home, suggesting a secret world. ‘It all came together perfectly, this safe world that also felt like it was big enough to be full of possibilities, full of dangers, with limitless potential,’ says Hendra. For the child, ‘it is whatever world the reader exists in – it could be their house or school or town. It contains good and evil and a thousand tales,’ adds Linnet.
So far, among those tales have been a sports day at the supermarket (and the arrival of the fabulous Gloria the watermelon), a Christmas-themed escapade with the Evil Pea’s most dastardly plan yet (“Operation Freezification!”) and now a hide and seek adventure that, for the first time, takes the vegetables into a whole new aisle of the supermarket and shows a softer side to Evil Pea (or does it…?)
All the books, as well as being genuinely laugh out loud funny for both little readers and those who read to them, share a sense of pace that Hendra and Linnet credit in part to the mildly comic-book feel of the books.
‘I loved the idea of visually introducing the concept of the graphic novel into a picture book,’ says Hendra. ‘So even the layout of the first book and the way that it’s drawn is influenced by the cell-style of comic books in ever such a light touch way. We had to make some compromises and so it’s not too shocking in its layout but it really does get across that graphic novel sense of pace. The first book gets quite frenetic.’
‘Our brand of silliness can be enticing to a reluctant reader’
The layout also aids the accessibility of the books, which is important to Hendra and Linnet and is frequently noted by teachers, who tweet to the pair their gratitude for books that work so well in the classroom at getting children of all reading abilities engaged and excited.
‘What makes me so proud is that we go to visit children in schools and wherever we are, even in places where the teachers tell us that the children don’t really have books and don’t get read bedtime stories, they know our books. I’m really happy with that achievement,’ says Linnet.
While praising independent bookshops and Waterstones, the pair also pay credit to their publishers for persuading major supermarkets to stock their books, enabling even more children to have access to them.
‘It’s about getting books into children’s hands, that’s what’s important,’ comments Hendra. ‘It’s been a happy accident that our brand of silliness can be enticing to a reluctant reader who gets into the silliness.’
They were delighted to have their silliness recognised in the inaugural Lollie awards in 2015 when they won the picture book category with I Need a Wee, the tale of Alan the bear who is in a rush to get to the loo on time (and who is going to make a reappearance next year in a lift the flap book), and believe passionately in the ideals of the prize, which seeks to bring funny to the fore.
‘We’re very serious about being silly’
‘We’re very serious about being silly,’ says Hendra, firmly. Linnet agrees. ‘People don’t always value comedy and silliness because they don’t quite see what it is. But when you take the thing in front of you and you look at it in a different way to make it funny or make up a silly story about it, that’s a way of understanding the world around you. It’s what scientists do, they look at something in a different way to understand it better. It’s using a part of your brain to see something from a different point of view and therein lies empathy. Being silly is really important and it can have so much creative power.’
While it was the shared love of silliness Hendra and Linnet discovered on that first date that led to their burgeoning romance, their individual backgrounds also meshed in a way that perhaps made working together almost inevitable. Having graduated with a degree in illustration, Hendra was working in Brighton for an illustration agency. Linnet, meanwhile, had studied graphic design in Derby but pursued music full-time until moving to Brighton, where he’d grown up as a child. ‘Bored stiff’ in his new computing career, Linnet popped into Hendra’s studio one day where she was working on some technical illustrations (‘not quite my forte,’ she observes dryly). Linnet pointed out that the rocket she was drawing would never fly and started scribbling over her work. Soon they were working together on Hendra’s jobbing illustrator work, with Linnet doing the spread design and technical shapes before Hendra brought in the colour and texture, crucially enabling her to take on more work at a time when they were expecting their child.
Unfortunately, it also meant that Paul’s contribution slipped under the radar as the work had to be in Hendra’s name. ‘It didn’t seem like it was that important but we didn’t know that Barry the Fish with Fingers was going to be really popular and would lead to another book and another book. I feel like we’re still paying that price today when Paul doesn’t get mentioned and recognised,’ says Hendra, visibly upset at the lack of credit for Linnet in a shared career that includes Norman the Slug with the Silly Shell, Nobot the Robot with No Bottom, Wanda and the Alien (now a TV series) and many more.
Nowadays that is being redressed and earlier books that had only Hendra listed as the author and illustrator now have both names when they are reissued and, slowly, there is growing recognition that they are a 50/50 partnership. Even without that earlier history, it is perhaps inevitable that there will be some confusion, given that their way of working is so rare, with not just ideas and words but sketches and artwork batted back and forth and worked on equally. However, as well as marvellous picture books it also leads to a very productive workflow. Along with more Supertato adventures they have three books coming out with Macmillan plus books written for Hodder, illustrated by Nick East (of Goodnight Spaceman fame).
‘It was the missing piece of the jigsaw to meet Paul, a fellow nitwit,’ says Hendra. And all fans of brilliantly silly books created by endearingly silly couples should be very glad she did say yes, in the end, to ‘only a drink’.
Michelle Pauli is a freelance writer and editor specialising in books and education. She created and edited the Guardian children’s books site.
Barry the Fish with Fingers, Simon and Schuster, 978-1847385161, £6.99
Supertato: Veggies in the Valley of Doom,
I Need a Wee, Simon and Schuster, 978-1471120879, £6.99
Norman the Slug with the Silly Shell, Simon and Schuster, 978-1847389763, £6.99
Nobot the Robot with No Bottom, Simon and Schuster, 978-0857074454, £6.99
Wanda and the Alien, Red Fox, 978-1849410182,