Pirate Nell's Tale To Tell

Pirate Nell's Tale To Tell

For many couples, being forced to share a work space under lockdown (if you’re both lucky enough to have a job you can do from home) must have come as a bit of a shock. Not so for me and Tom (Thomas Docherty, the author and illustrator). For the past eight years, we’ve both been working from home, creating children’s books – often together. Many of the picture books I’ve written have been illustrated by Tom: The Snatchabook, Abracazebra, The Knight Who Wouldn’t Fight and our latest books, Pirate Nell’s Tale to Tell (published this September) and The Screen Thief! (out next May). A typical conversation between us might range from what kind of dog the greedy pirate Captain Gnash would be (answer: a bulldog) to what colour is the Snaffle (answer: she’s Snaffle blue, of course). We’ve also been juggling school runs, childcare and housework, often working late into the evening so that we can take some time off in the day to look after the kids. Tom and I work as a team, and we’ve always tried to split the housework and parenting as equally as we can. Memorably, one of our daughters declared, aged two: “A good daddy is a hoovering daddy.” So far, so good.

Lockdown inevitably made everything that much more complicated. Suddenly there were four of us working from home, not just two. I usually do my writing in our eldest daughter’s room while she’s at school; luckily for me she keeps her desk tidy, so it’s easy to hot desk. Once lockdown started, she needed her desk, and I found myself circling our small house and garden in search of that elusive ‘quiet place’ to think. Finding inspiration for new stories isn’t easy.

Tom and I divided up our new lockdown roles; he was technical support for the girls, I dragged them out for a walk every afternoon (“It’s good for you!”). He baked bread (once we’d eventually sourced flour and yeast); I baked cakes so we could have ‘afternoon tea in the garden’ – my favourite of our lockdown rituals. We also managed to create a vegetable patch from an overgrown part of the garden. After many hard hours of labour clearing and weeding, Tom (ever the artist) erected elaborate cane structures; I sowed seeds, watered and coaxed shoots in the right direction. It was hugely therapeutic, and we even got a decent harvest.

The days seemed to vanish; between PE with Joe, helping our girls get started on their tasks, making lunch and tea for four, gardening and Zooming the grandparents, there didn’t seem to be much time to focus on work. Add to this the stress and anxiety we were all experiencing, and it seems a miracle we got any proper work done at all. Somehow, I did manage to write one successful new picture book text, All The Things We Carry, in direct response to lockdown. I wrote it to reassure children – and grownups, too – that we are here to support one another, even through hard times. 

Pirate Nell’s Tale To Tell by Helen Docherty is out now by Source Books.

MORE: A day in the life of Helen Docherty