Friday, 9 March 2018

Deadline Extension Request: Open Letter to Chief Executive of EPSRC.

Dear Professor Nelson

I write to you as Chief Executive of EPSRC, and ask you to immediately make sensible deadline extensions to EPSRC closing dates. This is of course because of the disruption across the University sector.  For example, given the strikes to date, a blanket extension of two weeks to all deadlines within the next month might be appropriate, but I naturally leave the details to you.

For example, I am currently working on a proposal for the UKRI CDT call on the new theme of "Applications and Implications of AI". This was announced only on February 5, with a deadline of March 28.  In the worst case, almost half the duration of the call will be taken up by strike action. I have written about the dilemma this places me under at this address:

Many other staff will be working on this and other calls with looming deadlines. The interaction of the deadlines with the strike could have any and all of the following negative effects:

  • Fewer and lower quality submissions to EPSRC calls than you have a right to expect.
  • Stress on staff at affected institutions under pressure (both from others and themselves) to do the right thing in their view by striking but also to obtain funding for the benefit both of their employer and their career.
  • Overwork at danger to their health by staff who are committed to both strikes and submitting amazing proposals to EPSRC.
  • Potential conflict between staff at a striking university between collaborators on a grant taking different stances.
  • Potential conflict between staff at different universities collaborating on proposals, where one is striking and the other is unaffected (e.g. a post-92 university). 
By making an appropriate extension urgently, EPSRC would not be taking any position on the strikes except that they are happening and are having a massive impact on the work of many thousands of staff. I believe that such a blanket deadline extension would massively foster goodwill across the sector. 

While I deeply disagree with the management at my university about the strike, I do want to emphasise that I have come under no pressure at all from anyone at the University of St Andrews to change my stance because it might help the university obtain such a large grant, and I thank everyone involved for that.

With very best wishes

Ian Gent
Professor of Computer Science
University of St Andrews

Note to anyone reading this.  Please feel free to cut and paste any and all parts of this letter if you wish to recycle for other people who might help.  Also note the petition on this issue here:

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Guest post: Message from an EU Colleague

I do this quite often at Depressed Academics, but this is the first time I have had a guest post on my personal blog. Since I have spoken so vocally about various aspects of the ongoing USS pensions dispute, this person asked me to post this anonymously. All I will tell you is that the person writing this is an EU colleague of mine at this University. Following text unedited that they sent me:

As an instructor and academic at St Andrews I have never put money over  my students or my work. I've sacrificed much of my personal time for the quality of my lectures, practicals and supervision, often working off hours and weekends. In my calculation, I've (happily) overworked to the tune of about 10 to 20 extra hours a week on average, and systematically failed to take all my holidays. I'm not alone here, a large proportion of my colleagues do the same, helping deal with the increasing work load that we have been observing in the last few years.

But the University and UUK now seem to be asking us to, besides the years of increased load ("we have to do more with less", as put by the Head of School) and of lower-than-inflation increases, put in jeopardy a reasonable retirement and make us take most of the risk, without any compensation for that loss, and with weak arguments as to the whys or hows of the situation. Just the fact that UUK has allowed the industrial action to happen, forcing us to go on strike is, in itself, a great disappointment and it has been even more disappointing to see that St Andrews has been one of the institutions vocally defending this position.

The previous principal, Louise Richardson, put it quite eloquently at one of the meetings I attended when she was the principal. She expressed that if she had to make a career decision at the current time (a few years ago) regarding being an early career academic, she would probably do something else. Well, for me it is becoming more clear that, were I to accept the new retirement plan, I would simply be accepting the chance that my retirement would not be enough for me and my family to sustain a decent life in the mid and long term (I'm not talking about luxury here). I cannot accept that risk on top of a salary that, quite frankly, is quite low compared to colleagues of similar standing in similar countries, and an increased workload.

I realise that this is not only the fault of the University or UUK. Successive governments and the overall direction of the country all seem to be conspiring towards transforming this country's higher education sector into a money making machine at the cost of the employees' financial security in old age. But instead of trying to ameliorate the effects, the University and UUK seem to have other priorities and be ready to pass on this enormous cost to us.

I love my job, I love my colleagues, I like St Andrews as an institution. St Andrews has been welcoming to me and offered much opportunity, contributing to my professional development. I am ready "Ever to Excel". I am ready to continue the virtuous cycle of good will and keep putting into the job my 130% percent, but not if I feel short-changed by the institution's management and a fair pension is not prioritised. Perhaps the University of St Andrews has overlooked our situation and taken for granted this good will, from my colleagues and I, that is most likely one of the factors that keep the university in such high regard and at the top of the rankings.

Many of us have other options. I want to stay and this is why I am on strike. However, without a reasonable pension that will help me sustain my family I will just try to go elsewhere where the best and brightest of my colleagues are going, especially in these Brexit times, and where I can have better prospects for a retirement remotely comparable to the kind of retirement that my most senior colleagues are getting now.

Postscript: Many thanks to this person. Two quick reactions. 

First, just as with those who post on Depressed Academics or talk to me in person, I am deeply honoured and moved by the trust that people place in me. Things like this are not always easy to say and the fact that people believe I am the kind of person they can say them to means an awful lot to me. Academia is about lots of things but it is at its best when it is about companionship and collegiality.

Second, I find it almost as sad that people feel the need to put this kind of comment out anonymously. My personal opinion is that, at this University, no harm would befall them for speaking out. But I quite understand the fact that the culture here is not encouraging enough of criticism to ensure that everyone knows that criticism is welcome. And even if my optimistic view is right, I am very sad about the failure to make it clear that unpleasant truths are welcome, 

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Resignation from University Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee

A few moments ago I resigned from the University of St Andrews' Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Here is my email to the Principal explaining this decision.

Dear Sally 

I write to you for three reasons.
First, I write to thank you for your change of position on ASOS deductions. I completely agree with this decision and you deserve full credit for changing your mind and the University position on it.
Second, I write to urge you to move urgently to help resolve the current pensions dispute.  It is entirely clear what the University community's view is, so I would urge you to follow the lead of many others, including (moments ago as I write) our former colleague Louise Richardson, and reverse the position of the University.

Third, I write to resign as a member of the University's Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (ED&I) Committee. 

Too many of us, including me, have failed to "speak truth to power".  I intend to correct this mistake in the future so will start now.  I do not doubt your personal commitment to equality and sincerity of your efforts to enhance it in St Andrews. But the truth is that your efforts to make this University a beacon of equality are doomed to failure without a dramatic change of approach.  

In your email of Monday you said that it is up to the University community to decide our priorities.  The University community has been making this choice for 605 years and for every one of those years has decided that equality is not a high priority.  Yet it should be no more up to the community to decide that equality is a priority than it is for the community to decide that we should care about fire safety.  Equality is a legal and moral imperative that must underlie every decision made in the university, just as (quite rightly) financial imperatives already do.
Pensions are an equality issue. Changes to pensions are likely to differentially detriment workers such as lower paid staff, casual workers, part time workers, those who have taken career gaps, all categories of immense concern in themselves and also more likely to be women than men. Yet the pensions issue has not been discussed in any way by the ED&I Committee. The University should not have considered writing a response to the UUK consultation without consulting this committee. When the University has an ED&I committee that is consulted on key equality issues and whose opinions are listened to, I will naturally be happy to serve on it.

I pay tribute to all the amazing work done by so many talented people in the area of equality at this University. Many of them are colleagues from the ED&I committee and will feel that it is right to continue working on that committee, and I will not attempt to change their minds.  But for me, it is a relief to stop the public pretence that all is well in equality at this University, and that we have any hope of achieving meaningful equality without a dramatic change in approach.

With very best wishes

Ian Gent

Note added 5pm same day: been rushing around all day but wanted to be sure to do two things.

Credit to Mark Pendleton for the phrase "pensions are an equality issue"

And separately wanted to emphasise that my decision is in no way an imputation of bad professionalism or commitment on behalf of the E&DI staff at St Andrews.  

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Why I'm striking for USS Pensions - And why I think you should too

This post is inspired by, not as good as, and much much longer, than: a wonderful post by Kate Cross about why she would encourage everyone to strike in the current UCU-UUK pensions dispute.  Feel free to just read that one instead. Or even just watch this amazing minute of her speech in Dundee a few days ago. 

Being on strike for a couple of days has given me a bit of time to read more about the situation.  I always thought a strike was the right thing to do, but I am completely surprised at how strongly I now feel.  This is because I've been following what's been happening and have been shocked by what I've found out. In some cases these have been out there a while and I only now know about them. In others things have come out recently.   

So here are the things that have made me ever more certain that striking is the right thing to do.  Please join me.  

[Citation Needed]

I really really wanted to put in all the links to justify everything, but eventually it got too late on Sunday night. Feel free to query me about anything. 

Absurd Assumptions 

A group of eminent statisticians wrote a letter to the FT, which among other things skewers some astonishing assumptions like these
  • University salaries will rise 1% above RPI, i.e. 1% above inflation. I can't remember our most recent pay rise that even matched inflation, never mind went above it. At a guess it was before the crash in 2008.   
  • Life expectancy will increase by 1.5 % per year, when if anything they are declining. This assumption was so absurd that when somebody challenged the online pensions model based on this, they changed it to 0.5%.      

The Oxbridge Effect 

Part of the process leading to this disaster was a survey of employers by USS about what risk they wanted, which came out in favour of reduced risk with 42% favouring that option. Except that 
  • One of those for that option was Cambridge university, which declared that it was not the official position of the university because ... I don't know, I suppose they couldn't be bothered.  
  • Several others were individual colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, who were treated as equal voices with all other universities in the system.  One estimate was that about a third of the 42% came from Oxbridge alone.  

USS is doing really really well. 

How badly has USS been doing over the last five years?  12% a year. 

Wow. It's been falling by 12% a year?? Incredible.  No wonder there's a problem. 

No, sorry, I misled you.  It's been growing by 12% per year for five years.  Growing.  That's how well it's doing, even though apparently it's headed for catastrophe.  

And another metric of how well it's doing is the news, discovered on the first day of the strike, that the boss of the USS received an £82,000 pay rise precisely because the USS is doing so well. Just take care to read that right, the rise is £82,000.

Really Really Bad Spin. 

On Friday, the UUK (employers organisation) announced that they wanted to resume talks.  Excellent news.  Except ... they are not prepared to discuss the key issue of reverting the decision which led to this strike.  Which they didn't want to reveal but I found out when the University of St Andrews accidentally forwarded a private email to all (or at least many) staff. 

Or take this headline from a left wing rag: "Vice-Chancellor suggests he deserves salary of £360,000 as he has to oversee huge staff redundancies".  Oh wait, that was the Daily Telegraph.  When the Telegraph is mocking employers in a dispute in their headlines, you know how ridiculous they employers are being. 

Nobody's Proposing the Status Quo

You might think that the union position is pie-in-the-sky everything-is-fine don't-touch-it. Not at all. If the universities suddenly agreed to the union position, we would get pensions that we had to pay for more and then delivered us less.  We are striking for a worse pension, against the alternative of a pension which puts all the risk on staff.  

And the more the employer position is that the current scheme is unaffordable, of course the more their arguments confirm that they are seeking to massively reduce our quality of life in retirement.

The Rewards for Failure as a Principal 

I never used to mind the extremely high salaries university principals get.  Indeed even now I don't think the money a principal or a vice-chancellor gets is a problem.  But there is a very big problem, which is that failure as a principal seems to attract very high rewards.  I think my former boss, now vice chancellor at Oxford, is a wonderful case in point.

I thought she was a pretty good principal and people weren't rude about her while she was here. But on the other hand, the number one goal of her tenure was fundraising around the 600th anniversary in 2013. And she had the most wonderful free gift at the exact start of the campaign, of William and Kate getting engaged.

And the campaign was an ignominious failure. She set out to raise £100 million between 2011 and 2013. It's so far raised £90 million, which doesn't sound bad except it's now 2018, so about 13 million a year instead of 50.

And that failure led to her getting the promotion of the job in Oxford. And a complete inability to defend on the radio her £350K salary or remarks about homophobic professors

What decisions does a University principal make that matter very much to the future of the University?  This is a serious question, because I have no idea.  The two main drivers of university income are teaching and research.  Both of these are driven overwhelmingly by forces outside the management's control, and most especially by the quality of staff and the work they do.  

University principals are not good value for money. And given the money they earn, that's a very big problem.  

Our Principal's Letter

I don't want to beat down too much on our current principal, but a couple of points in the letter she sent to staff are symptomatic of the disconnect between the presentation of the situation and the reality.  

She mentioned that the University runs a small surplus.  I'm sure that's true, but let's remember: the University of St Andrews is a charity. It's legally required to run a small surplus instead of a big one (and hence the word surplus, not profit).   So if we are making too much money, we have to either spend it or put it against the balance sheet in some other way (like incurring debts for planned things like the move to Guardbridge and a new STEM building).  It's not an accounting trick to say we have a small surplus, but the word "small" is meaningless.  (I'm grateful to the person who made this point to me but I don't want to embarrass them by naming them - if it would embarrass them. If not I'm happy to edit and credit them).  

She also mentioned that the consequences of preserving our pensions would be increased class sizes.  But ... A) what is apocalyptic about increased class sizes?  And B) as everyone in Computer Science knows,  our class sizes have ballooned in recent years due to CS being such an awesome subject and us being so awesome at teaching it.  Does that mean we get to keep our pensions after having already suffered whatever the cataclysm of increased class size is? No, of course not.  

I'm going to be fine (but I'm not sure you are)

Though I'm striking, I am not seriously worried about my own pension.  I have a large percentage built up on the prior rules, live in a dual-income family, and I have a high salary (and indeed got a significant pay rise last week: long story, happy to talk to you separately about that one if you want).   But I worry a lot about younger colleagues who don't have these advantages or only some of them.  The online pension calculator is seriously scary for young staff, and they need my support.  (Thanks to Neil Davies for doing that).

The entire point of the pension change (and there is no argument about this from either side) is to de-risk pensions for the universities and put the risk onto the staff getting pensions.  But academic computer scientists are not notably risk-loving people.  In general many of us are here in part because we like a safe environment which we know and which - while not giving us the rewards of outside jobs in our field - is a very rewarding one with a decent pension.  Take away the second half of the deal and the equation for staying changes against academia. 

Everybody in the School of Computer Science is incredibly smart and talented.  Many of them (and yes that means you if you are reading this) have better reasons than me for leaving academia: they are better programmers so would find it easier to get a job; they are paid less than me so need to find a less high paying job to be attractive; they are younger than me, so have far more to lose in the pension changes; and are not all living in the same country they grew up in so have far less reason to stay in a place which Brexit has already made a less comfortable environment for them. 

So to all of them (and you) I say this: if these changes go through and you decide to leave, then I'll be sorry, I'll miss you, but I won't be able to say you made the wrong decision. 

Thursday, 22 February 2018

The £5 million pound grant I'm not writing today

I want to tell you about the 5 million pound grant I'm not writing today.

I'm not writing it because I am on strike against my employer (the University of St Andrews) and more generally many universities in the UK, because they seek to destroy part of the informal social contract between themselves and their staff. That contract is: undertake work for decades at the forefront of your field, and we'll look after you in retirement.  They've now said that they don't want to look after me - and most especially my younger colleagues - in retirement. The result is that today I am not undertaking work at the forefront of my field. Work that could bring in £5 million or more into the University.

So what is the grant I'm not writing today?

You may have heard that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the hot new thing. It's so hot that at very short notice the government has decided to fund 10 to 20 centres at about £5 million each to fund 50 PhD students in AI each - yes that's funding for about 1000 PhD students.  Short notice?  The call was announced two weeks ago and has a deadline in 5 weeks.  Seven weeks in the world of putting together this kind of bid is a nanosecond in academic time: I heard last week about a bid where it took about a year of negotiations at principal-level to decide which university was going to lead a multi-site bid.

I love AI.  I've been studying it well more than half my life, and in fact half the life of the subject. I started studying AI in 1986, and it was founded (by one count) in 1956. I've published 8 papers in the top journal in the field, and another 5 in the second best.  My "h-index" is 43, all papers about AI.  I only mention these numbers to show that I am quite good at working at the forefront of my field (and yes, full disclosure that's the British "quite" which actually means "very").   So exactly the kind of person you would want to lead an application for a £5 million pound funding bid.   With three working weeks taken out of seven weeks to prepare a bid,  it would be no surprise if we could not write the bid on time and lose any money we might have got.

So why am I telling you this? To correct any impression that the only people strikers are hurting are current students. 


I am potentially hurting myself. Because I might not be able to bring 50 PhD students into the field to share the passion I have lived for so many years.

I am potentially hurting my colleagues throughout the University of St Andrews.  Colleagues who I can help to get funding to have their own PhD students in AI.  Colleagues whose future might be transformed by working with those students.

I am potentially hurting those future students who won't get to study AI at this wonderful university with 600 years of history.

I am potentially hurting this wonderful university's finances by endangering a million pounds a year of income,  roughly half a percent of the university's budget.

And actually I'm not hurting current students very much at all.  I might be missing some lectures and tutorials, but when I asked my Head of School yesterday if he would prefer (after the strike, if a choice was necessary) to prioritise helping those students catch up or get this grant, he immediately said the current students.  I admire this and it's obviously right.

I don't want to give any impression that I am trying to hold anyone hostage with this. I think the chances are we will be able to put in a bid, and also I have gone out of my way to make sure that I don't stop anybody else working on the bid.  But on the other hand, I do think that my own and other universities are jeopardising the future wellbeing of their staff.  This has to be stood up against, and that means striking.  

Thursday, 10 August 2017

The Importance of Being Flawless: Lectureship Interview Talks Then and Now

Recently my department - the School of Computer Science at the University of St Andrews - has been interviewing candidates for lectureships. Each candidate had to give presentations to the School. It dawned on me during the talks how different things were when I gave my talk which helped me get my lectureship here.

I've been telling everybody two stories about that talk.

The first was that during the talk I said something like: "This is not just an academic question, people all over the world care about this."  And then I thought for a moment and paused before saying "Well now I think about it, they are all academics, so actually it is an academic question."  This wasn't a prepared joke, but apparently I got away with it.

The second relates to the point about things being different now. I didn't have to do a sample teaching talk. Years later, when the School started requiring candidates to do that, I said to my boss (Ron Morrison), "I never would have got my job if I'd had to give that talk."  Quick as a flash, Ron shot back: "Why do you think we brought them in, Ian?" A great line, especially assuming (as I hope) it was a joke.

I went and found my talk - which is still on my computer - and it turns out ... that yes,  things were very different.  

My talk was called "The Importance of Being Flawless". Here it is for your delectation.

Boy, were things different then.  This is basically just a research talk which might have been a research seminar. I'm pretty sure that was standard then: I mean it got me a job, right? And it was my second lectureship, not my first, and the previous one was similar.

So no teaching talk, just a seminar about one small piece of work instead of giving a vision for how I was going to revolutionise the field, not waffle about how perfectly I would fit into the department, no list of grants I was going to apply for, no suggestions for new modules I could introduce, and no suggestions for existing modules that I was desperate to teach (preferably ones that nobody else wants to teach).

In short, this isn't a talk that would get anybody a lectureship now.

That doesn't automatically mean that things are tougher now, just very different. I mean, Computer Science was a smaller discipline then so there were less jobs to go around, although there were also fewer people chasing the jobs.  Though in fact yes, I do think it's tougher now to get a lectureship in CS now than it was then.

The amazing thing that hasn't changed - actually is far more true now than then, was the title of the talk. By coincidence, my talk had maybe the most appropriate possible title for a modern lecturer candidate: "The Importance of Being Flawless".

Monday, 23 May 2016

Happy 10th Birthday to Deborah Underwood

I'm not very good at birthdays, but I want to say this.

Happy 10th Birthday, Deborah!  

I was browsing Deborah Underwood's bibliography the other day and noticed that Pirate Mom came out on May 23, 2006. Which is ten years ago. Ten years ago today!

Pirate Mom is the story of a pirate-loving kid, Marco, whose mom is hypnotised into believing she is a pirate, but the hypnotist is rushed to hospital before he can deprogram her. Obviously life becomes tough for Marco.

Why am I so interested in Deborah's books? Because I'm her brother-in-law. You read that right. I'm the brother-in-law of the extraordinary Deborah Underwood, writer of many children's fiction books, for example The Quiet Book, Here Comes The Easter Cat, Bad Bye, Good Bye, Interstellar Cinderella, and (just out the other day) Good Night, Baddies. I didn't know when I married Deborah's sister what an extraordinary writer my sister-in-law was. That's mainly because neither did she. And not because she is modest (though she is) but because she didn't know she was a children's writer.

To celebrate Deborah's 10 years of being an extraordinary children's fiction writer, I want to do two things. I want to say a few words about her life as a children's book writer. Then I want to pick out her best children's book and what makes it and her so awesome.

Part 1: A Twenty Year Journey

I know what you are thinking: umm, you said it was 10 years, pal, that 20 years in the subheading is a typo!

Ha. Ha. Ha. The sheer number of rungs on the ladder to becoming a successful children's author is simply astonishing. 

While it's 10 years since Pirate Mom, it's been a 20 year journey. The germ of becoming a children's fiction writer came to her when she read The Mousehole Cat (in the place of Mousehole itself in Cornwall: it's pronounced "mouzzal") and found herself crying over it. From that germ to being a published children's fiction book writer took about 10 years.

I keep adding the word "fiction" because she published children's nonfiction first. She's published 28 nonfiction books for children. (Yes you read that right again, it's twenty-eight.) The very first was Northern Lights, published in 2004. I saw the Northern Lights for real a few months ago for the first time in my life, and I couldn't resist telling the people standing next to me that my sister-in-law had written a book about it! If I have counted right, she's published 19 fiction books for children. That's an impressive total.  As a lover of counting, I can't help noticing that - with some more books in the pipeline, Deborah should pass fifty published children's books sometime in 2017. That's an awful lot of brilliant text for children to come out of reading The Mousehole Cat.
My dear Lucy, I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realised that girls grow quicker than books...         — C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe

That C.S. Lewis quote means a lot to our family, because exactly this happened with Deborah playing C.S. Lewis and my daughter playing Lucy. Remembering that the germ for children's writing happened in August 1996, and by 2002 a draft of Granny Gomez & Jigsaw was being read to my three year old and winning an honorable mention in a Writer's Digest Annual Writing Competition. I mean 6 years is a long time, but hey, you have to learn your craft. Well, yep, but the book was actually published eight years later in 2010.  C.S. Lewis had it right.

Another one which took almost as long was A Balloon For Isabel. Deborah started that one in 2004 and it also came out in 2010. Along the way the central character changed her name. She started out as Emily but then an unrelated book came out called Emily's Balloon. Emily had to go and she was replaced by Isabel. The name change was suggested by my other daughter, who was zero when the book was first written and about seven when it was published.

Both these books are charming and highly recommended, by the way. Granny is the story of a lonely granny, who adopts a pig and sorts out their living arrangements. Isabel is about a porcupine who is desperate to graduate with a balloon instead of a boring old bookmark, and comes up with a solution to the age old porcupine-balloon-popping dilemma.  They're both lovely but probably not Deborah's best book. So what is her best book? Let me move on to part 2, where I will tell you.

Part 2: Deborah's Best Children's Book

Ok. I was lying. I can't possibly pick out her best children's book. There are so many extraordinary ones. Can we call it a tie? I don't know. But each of the following demonstrates Deborah's extraordinariness in a different way. 

The Quiet Book

The Quiet Book is about quiet. But based on a deep insight, that there is not just one type of quiet but many. The quiet when you are waiting for a concert to begin is not the same as the quiet when you are the last one to picked up from school, or when you are with your best friend and you don't need to talk. 

What this book showed, as do many of her others, that Deborah knows the rules but knows how to break them. Being "too quiet" was and is a standard phrase used to reject children's books. Indeed, the rule-breaking of The Quiet Book meant that it was rejected by several editors before Deborah managed to sell it on her own, but the good news is that it found the right home in the end. The editor who did pick it up paired Deborah's quiet text with amazing pictures. 

Part of the success of The Quiet Book are the wonderful illustrations by Renata Liwska. If you're not in the children's book business, you might not realise that the writing and illustration of books are usually completely separate (unless the author and illustrator are the same person.)  The writer just submits text, with no illustrations and as few hints as possible about the illustrations. Typically the writer doesn't even choose the illustrator, that would be the editor at the publisher. In this case, for example, everyone fell in love with Renata's adorable animal illustrations, which Deborah had never imagined. The book ended up on the New York Times bestseller list.

Two sequels followed, The Loud Book and The Christmas Quiet Book. Both excellent and successful of course. Though don't get carried away with what success means in children's publishing. As one of her friends said, he thought that becoming a NYT bestselling author meant you had an ATM printing money in your apartment. Not so. Deborah's success - a very real and tangible reward for 20 years of hard work, tenacity, and brilliance - has been so high that she has not had to move out of her single bedroom apartment in San Francisco. (Though it's only supported her in this dazzling lifestyle because the apartment is rent controlled). If you've ever read about J K Rowling's wealth, I mean it's wonderful, but not common.  

So without doubt The Quiet Book must be Deborah's best book. Unless it's ... 

Here Comes The Easter Cat 

In Here Comes the Easter Cat, the author is speaking to a Cat around Easter time who is upset at the attention the Easter Bunny is getting, and decides to take over. Cat has an attitude which the author has to try to work around, but in the end it works out.

You know I said that writers don't submit illustrations? And that Deborah knows when to break the rules? Yep, Deborah drew draft illustrations for the Easter Cat. It just happened that she was talking to Cat and Cat started answering back by holding up signs. They were such an integral part of the story that she had to include them - instead of just including extra text like "cat holds up sign with picture of ..."  The illustrator Claudia Rueda used those as a starting point, though of course making the illustrations her own.

Also, by the way, the book was far longer than picture books are expected to be. Another rule she knew how to break. And it worked because it works and kids love the book. Like Quiet, Cat has led to a series, with Santa Cat, Tooth Fairy Cat, and Valentine's Cat, with more to come. The interaction in all of these between the Cat and the author/narrator is beautiful.

So without doubt Easter Cat must be Deborah's best book. Unless it's ...

Interstellar Cinderella

Not too surprisingly, Interstellar Cinderella is a sci-fi version of Cinderella. An empowering one for young girls since the hero is a space mechanic. (Totally unrelated of course to her sister and my wife who is a techy hero, though not in space.)

But as per usual, Deborah knows how to break the rules.

First of all, the ending is not what you might expect (but I hope that is not too much of a spoiler.)

And second, Interstellar Cinderella is in rhyme. What? You think that isn't breaking the rules? You might be thinking "Dr Seuss wrote in rhyme, So don't kids books all the time?" Well no. Actually children's books often don't rhyme and if they do it makes them harder to sell. And it's not just me saying this, it's widely known in the industry, as for example in this article: "Why do editors say not to write in rhyme?" By the way, one reason not to rhyme is the difficulty it causes translations. But Cinderella has already been translated into Korean. (I don't know if that version rhymes.)

But somehow, and I doubt even Deborah knows why, it works for Cinderella. 

So without doubt Interstellar Cinderella must be Deborah's best book. Unless it's ...

Bad Bye, Good Bye

Bad Bye, Good Bye is about the pain of leaving when your family pack you in the car to move across the country. And the fact that maybe things will be ok in the end.

The book has 80 words in it (I don't mean 80 different words, I mean 80 words.) Of those 79 are single syllable words and the eightieth is the barely polysyllabic "stuffed".  The 80 words come in 10 sets of 8 words, each set a rhyming couplet of two pairs of 4 words. And the 4 words themselves are in two pairs of two words each. There are no verbs. Just to put it in context, this paragraph itself is longer than 80 words.

Ok this is starting to sound confusing, but honestly it isn't. The 80 words in that complicated structure tell a beautifully simple story with a beginning, middle, and a happy ending.

The illustrations by Jonathan Bean are also masterful, gradually lightening as the story progresses. The story starts out in the dark and ends in the light. Even the cover mirrors the progression. How this didn't win the Caldecott medal for children's book illustration is beyond me (I'm sure the winner was really good that year, but it can't have been better.)

So without doubt Bad Bye, Good Bye must be Deborah's best book. Unless it's ... 

Good Night, Baddies

The first 10 years of Deborah's publishing as fiction author have neatly finished with the release last week of Good Night, Baddies

What do fairy tale villains do at night? I mean they have a hard day persecuting Princesses and people called Jack, and what are they going to do to rest? Why, they will meet up and share stories of the day while getting ready for bed in their shared pad. Then get a good night's rest, and then get on with it the next day.

By the way, Baddies also rhymes, but you're fed up of me talking about Deborah breaking the rules by now. In fact the text makes a lovely song, and you can hear Deborah's beautiful singing voice in the trailer she made (yes apparently "Book trailers" are a thing now.") And you can even have her sing the whole book to you as a lullaby if you want!

But I do want to add one reason I have a particular soft spot for Baddies. Deborah said that one of the inspirations for it was hearing me talk to my daughters about "baddies", since we live in Britain and that's a less common phrase in the US.

So without doubt Good Night, Baddies must be Deborah's best book.  Unless it's ...

Ok I have no idea which is Deborah's best book. 

And I haven't even mentioned some of Deborah's classics. Like Part-time Princess, about a little girl who has adventures at night such as putting out fires caused by a dragon who she then invites to tea.

Or an entire six book series, the Sugar Plum Ballerinas about a ballet class in Harlem, co-authored with Whoopi Goldberg (yes, that Whoopi Goldberg.) When they auditioned for a co-author and Deborah was picked, she was shocked that they had signed her for the entire six book series.  I told her it was natural because either the first book would flop in which case there would be no series, or it would be a success and why would they want anyone else for the later books? Of course it was a success.

The Secret Part 3: Secret Deborah Underwood Books.

There are Deborah Underwood books that I have read almost nobody else has. How lucky does this make me? Very. There must be others but the ones that spring to mind are Sarah Visits The Teletubbies, The Purple Hat, Ojo's Birthday Treasure Hunt, Penguin Aloha, Baby Again, and perhaps the most special of all, Pizza Rat.  

If I was to tell you more about these books, it would spoil the surprise when the scholarly edition of Deborah's previously unpublished works come out.  (I haven't heard this has been planned, yet, but it must surely be in the works.)

Our copies of these books are for sale by the way, if you make me a good enough offer. Sadly, you can't afford a good enough offer! 

A somewhat-insane career change

I can imagine you are thinking, how can I emulate Deborah Underwood's success (what with the rent controlled apartment and everything)? 

From outside I can comment with no confidence at all that here are three key tips. 
  1. It's a ridiculously long road. The number of steps is incredible, so you need stickability and dedication, and the desire to do it even though it's almost certainly an objectively bad idea.
  2. Don't try to copy Deborah's or anybody else's style, you need to have your own.
  3. You need all the support you can get. 
On the last point, here is something Deborah wrote to family and friends 10 years ago today, when Pirate Mom came out.
"I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for your support during this five-year (!) process. I feel incredibly fortunate that all the people in my life have championed this somewhat-insane career change. Without your encouragement, I certainly would have thrown in the towel long ago. So thank you!"
It's been a pleasure to be a spectator and borderline participant on the journey.  Thanks Deborah.