Interviews in Sherwood

Adrian Sissons
Author of Robin Hood's
Little Outlaws

Interview conducted and transcribed
by Allen W. Wright

Introduction

Adrian Sissons is the author of the Robin Hood's Little Outlaws series of children's books where talking animals with legendary names travel back in time - having educational adventures. The series began with 2018's Robin Hood, Who's He?, written by Adrian Sissons, illustrated by Martin Berry, and designed by Robin George.

In addition to writing children's stories / activity books, Adrian Sissons is a brand consultant and graphic designer in Nottingham, England.

For more details on Robin Hood's Little Outlaws, check out their website.

This interview was conducted by e-mail in June 2019.

Discovering Robin Hood and the Major Oak

AWW: When did you first encounter the Robin Hood legend?

AS: I was born in Nottinghamshire and really can't remember a time when I wasn't aware of Robin Hood, so I must have been told stories about the legend at a very early age. Robin Hood folklore was also something my friends and I would often employ as part of playing outdoors in local woodland. As a Nottingham lad, I think Robin Hood was something of a constant - Nottingham Forest Football Club had him as a mascot; there was a local brewery which used his image as a logo; and all manner of local clubs, businesses and organisations used the Robin Hood name to help give a sense of place and ownership.

AWW: When I first visited Sherwood Forest, over 25 years ago, the Major Oak was already fenced off and protected from visitors. But I know some people who saw the Major Oak before that time were able to play inside the tree, just as the Little Outlaws do. Did you ever get a chance to get inside the Major Oak itself?

AS:  Yes, I do; I have memories of standing inside the trunk of the Major Oak as a child of about 9 or 10 (that would be the mid-1970's), and know that Sherwood Forest was a typical 'family day out' destination. I remember it being something of a squeeze to get into; being small, damp and dark once inside; and there being a number of other children wanting to have a go if it was a sunny, weekend day.

Animals, Trees and Time Travel

AWW: How did you come up with the idea for Robin Hood's Little Outlaws? Why did you decide to blend time travel with a Robin Hood theme?

AS: As a designer and brand consultant, I've had a life spent telling stories for other people - namely businesses. One day, while sketching some animals with my business partner Robin George, we discussed how the finished drawings were too good not to do something with, so we challenged ourselves to think of how we could use them.

   The animals we'd chosen to draw were all ones that could either still be found in Sherwood Forest, or had lived there in the not too distant past (like the Red Squirrel). It seemed a natural development to want them to have a purpose centred around children and the idea of creating stories seemed the best approach.

   We were still lacking the 'glue' which held everything together until I hit upon the idea of making the Major Oak into a character. I was conscious this wasn't really a feature in any of the other Robin Hood stories I'd read, so it seemed a good point of difference.

   The time travel concept was a natural progression after creating Major. The idea of a tree's rings being a representation of time is one that all children understand, and it allowed us to create a mechanism (in our hollowed out tree), with which to link the characters with an almost infinite number of historic themes. If we employed the magic often referenced in tales of the Greenwood and the spirit of the Green Man, we could create an enchanting vehicle for time travel, all wrapped up in an already well-established idea like Robin Hood. It seemed a really strong idea.

   From a writing perspective, I remembered the Rupert Bear annuals of my childhood and how there was a conventionally written story for when time wasn't an issue and an abridged, rhyming version for when time was short - like bedtime. I remember the rhymes having a melodic, rhythmic quality that was perfect for a bedtime story and given the mix of medieval and historic themes, I thought a traditional approach might work well - and it does.

   Fundamentally, when developing the character of Major the oak tree, I wanted a mechanism at the heart of the stories which could be used time and time again. I remembered how Mr Benn (a UK TV cartoon from the 1970's - check it out on YouTube), featured a man who could be transported to other worlds simply by trying on different clothes in a fancy Dress shop. With our sprinkling of magic, we've created something similar when Major invites the Little Outlaws to go on time travelling adventures by standing on one of his 1,000 age rings.

Meet the Little Outlaws

AWW: How did you pick the animals and personalities of the Little Outlaws gang?

AS: We picked animals that were, or had been, native to Sherwood Forest. There was a slight challenge in that the typical Robin Hood legend only really features one female character in Marian, so we used some creative licence and Will Scarlet became Scarlett, our female hedgehog to help provide a little more balance.

   All of the Little Outlaws are know by just a single name, and it was nice to mix and match first and second names to create characters that sounded like they belonged to the Robin Hood story.

   In terms of personalities, we wanted both the animal and the name to help create something of a sense of who they were and how they behaved.

• John is a kingfisher because he has the word 'king' in his animal name (King John), and we liked how such birds can often be seen greedily fishing.

• Sheriff is a lizard as the animal can be thought of as a slippery customer, often lurking in the dark, damp undergrowth.

• Scarlett is a hedgehog mainly because we wanted another female character (explained above), and hedgehogs are often represented as female in children's stories.

• Tuck became an owl as we believed we could draw him to seem as wide as he was tall, and have a stereotypically 'wise-owl' disposition.

• Little seemed naturally suited to being a burly, strong badger - an animal with presence and strength.

• Marian is a rabbit as we were conscious of making sure we had some 'everyday' animals - and the fact rabbits are thought of as so cute was an added bonus!

• Robin had to be animal that was resourceful, athletic, but maybe one that could easily get out of his depth if his bravery got the better of him - a red squirrel seemed perfect.

• Major could only be an oak tree; we wanted a benevolent, paternal figure (almost grandfather-like), as mentor, guide, and teacher (with a very small 't'), and a character that possessed something that would hold everything else together.

Writing for Young Readers

AWW: What did you need to consider when writing for young audiences?

AS: The mechanism at the heart of stories (Major's tree rings and time travel), has proven to be immediately understood by our audience, from five year old to 10 year olds. It was extremely important for the concept to not need any further explanation and we purposely created stories that are 'bookended' with the Little Outlaws going about their everyday lives, but in a way that is connected to the central history story. In book one, their arguing about sharing the forest and who is best at things, is echoed in Robin Hood's struggle with King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Books two and three follow the same format; John is forced out of his riverbank home and has to live with one of the other animals, before they all learn of how children were evacuated during the Second World War. I think that's a fundamental undertaking - linking everyday experiences to the time travelling history story at the heart of each book.

   In terms of the actual narrative, I wanted to stretch the rhyming structure often seen in books for young children to accommodate more involved and complicated themes. After sharing the first story draft with some associates, they posed some questions about whether serious issues could be handled in the same way. That just made me want to prove that they could so we picked the Second World War as the theme for book two.

   It wasn't easy to create rhymes for the major events of World War II but I'm particularly proud of book two - it works extremely well and includes lots of sensitive, dramatic, and thought-provoking content charting the whole period of war. I can't wait to share it with readers!

   Crucially, we were conscious that for some youngsters, just the thought of picking up a book in the first place is a challenge. To go some way towards combatting that and providing an engaging point of difference, we incorporated an augmented reality front cover whereby the illustration on the front of the book can be brought to life using a smartphone or tablet with our Robin Hood's Little Outlaws app (free to download from the AppStore for iOS, and PlayStore for Android). 

   Employing technology in this way can break down so many barriers and help turn 'reluctant readers' into serial bookworms! 

   Along with the games, puzzles, and crazy bits within our books, we're confident that there's something for everyone and we've received cards and photographs from satisfied readers as thank yous.

An International Success and School Talks

AWW: What's the response to the book been like?

AS: Extremely positive! Everyone who sees and reads the book genuinely loves it.

   We were very fortunate to have a public launch at Waterstones in Nottingham after showing the book to their events manager and they too, were very complimentary. They particularly liked the concept, mechanism, and the augmented reality.

   We now have the book in the major Robin Hood related venues within the county (City Tourism Centre and Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre), and are just waiting for Nottingham Castle to undergo it's refurbishment/development before trying to get it in there, too.

   Orders have come in via the website from as far away as the USA and Canada, and we've sent a handful of copies out to a children's library in China as part of an initiative with the Nottingham City of Literature organisation. 

   Fundamentally, it's our readers who have given us the most meaningful feedback. We've now started working with schools in our county, providing author visits and talks about aspiring to be an author. Along with our book, our presentations have been extremely well received and the children have found them very rewarding. They've loved the Robin Hood story, our own story charting how we've got to where we are now, and hearing about how the books are put together. Their parting shot is typically, 'when will the other books be ready?'...

What's Next for the Little Outlaws?

AWW: What can you say about the upcoming sequel Evacuees and later books in the series?

AS: Ooh, plenty!

   'Evacuees' follows brother and sister, Billy and Joan, as they are evacuated from London to the Welsh countryside to live on a farm, as part of Operation Pied Piper in 1939/40. The reader sees just what kind of sacrifices children like themselves had to make during the Second World War, and how events of the time left an indelible mark on the rest of the 20th century.

   'Race to the Moon' charts the Cold War space race and how Russia and America worked towards building the world's most powerful rockets to send men to the moon. The reader sees the events leading up to Neil Armstrong's moon walk and the key people behind the scenes who made it all happen and enable the astronauts to return home, safely. 2019 Is the 50th anniversary of the 1969 moon landing and we'd love to have the book ready for the upcoming celebrations.

   In future books and through our website and social media channels, we'll also soon be asking our readers to send in their ideas for the people, events, discoveries and inventions they'd like to see in our books.

   I passionately believe that our books deliver an engaging and meaningful read for children of a primary school age. At a time when the trend in children's history seems to be for the gruesome, I feel it's important to present a credible alternative - one which doesn't rely upon focussing on silliness or grisly details.

   Robin Hood's Little Outlaws delivers a traditional narrative but incorporation of augmented reality and a strong story telling mechanism means the books are compelling and relevant. The world seems to be in such a volatile state at present, that understanding history and how it has shaped the world today couldn't be more relevant - especially for those who will help decide the future.

   Our biggest challenge is telling people about our books and interviews and features like this are fantastic. In an ideal world it would be great for this to be read by an agent or publisher who shares our vision and them get in touch. Robin hood's Little Outlaws can travel anywhere, meet anyone, and see anything...

AWW: Thanks for the great responses.

If you wish to purchase copies of the books, please visit the official Robin Hood's Little Outlaws website.

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© Text and Location pictures, Copyright 2019 Allen W. Wright - All Rights Reserved
Author photos supplied by Adrian Sissons and used with permission
Robin Hood's Little Outlaws is written by Adrian Sissons, designed by Martin Berry and illustrated by Robin George
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