There are many routes to publication and Debut Journeys aims to celebrate them all. Mario Ambrosi talks to Tessa Gearing, whose There's an Alien in my Lunchbox, illustrated by Chris Jevons, is out now.

Hello Tessa. Where are you now and where did you write your book?

I'm in bed!

This is the quietest place to write, where I won't get disturbed. It’s a completely white room, with very little in it, so it’s very calm. I do like peace and quiet.

Ideas for stories come at different times and in different places (sometimes when I'm brushing my teeth, weirdly), so I jot them down on scraps of paper or in a little notebook.

Then I sit in bed writing them out long hand before typing them up on my laptop.

 What’s it all about? (Your book that is!)

There’s an Alien in my Lunchbox is about a little boy who has brought his favourite storybook to school for Show and Tell, but the characters have all jumped out and are running round causing mayhem. He has to find them and get them back inside the book before circle time.

He manages it just in time, and shows the children in his class how amazing his storybook is. At the end of the day, all the characters are tucked back inside for home time... or are they?

My starting point was initially about the anxiety a child can sometimes feel going to school - a fear of going to the toilet, doing shoelaces, eating lunch, the noise of the playground.

I put the different characters in each of these places and pretty soon their antics took over the whole story and the child just ended up chasing them! So it turned into quite a romp, with a celebration of the magic of books at the end.

The rhyme always sent me on a humorous path I must admit, but I do think a flavour of that original starting point still lurks in there somewhere.

Tell us about your route to publication.

My background is in acting, so I have always looked at the world from different points of view. One month I would be doing a play about evacuation during the Second World War. Three months later I would be the Queen of Hearts!

After I had my two children, I stopped touring and did more radio work. I also entered the magical world of bedtime stories and picture books. And I’ve never left.

When the children started school, I began running storytelling sessions for parents and toddlers, based around a different picture book each week, using songs and movement and reading the story. I did this for 15 years, so I read a lot of glorious books! And one day, I thought, “I wonder...”

I enrolled on the picture book course at the Golden Egg Academy, and immediately realised how much I had to learn! I wasn't too bad at titles, and possibly beginnings and even endings, but it was pointed out to me that nothing much happens in the middle of my stories! (That seems to be the case every time I write, so I have to really work on that). I wrote There's a Dragon in my Dinner about characters jumping out of a storybook before bedtime, with There's an Alien in my Lunchbox as a follow up, but the alien story seemed to have more scope for action and illustration, so that was the one that was sent with others to Andersen Press. And they liked it.

It took quite a while for them to make a definite decision and then we had to wait for Chris Jevons (he's very busy), but it was definitely worth the wait - the illustrations are perfect, full of colour and expression and action. When the pdf of Chris’s pencil drawings of the whole book arrived, I literally ran around the house with excitement (I was on my own and just bursting). Six months later, the colour pdf arrived (more celebrations), then later - the actual book (wow).  The road to publication does have some extraordinary highs.

And now, after four years, my book is out in the world.

What do you do when you're not writing?

I work part time as a teaching assistant in a primary school and I volunteer as a community gardener. I like to read picture books in the library, go for walks and do yoga. I regularly visit my children who now live in London (I live in the middle of Wales). And every afternoon I sit down with a piece of cake and a gallon of tea.

What was the biggest bump in the road when it came to getting your book out into the world and how did you overcome it?

The bump of silence! Months and months of not hearing anything... but people in the publishing world are very, very busy, and when they do get in touch they are really helpful and enthusiastic. I have a wonderful editor, Alice, who loves the story, as does my agent, Lucy Irvine at PFD.

I have learnt to be patient and get on with other things.

Any tips for budding writers hoping to follow in your footsteps?

I wouldn't have been published without help from other people. Courses and seminars are really useful, support from a critique group or other writer friends and editor feedback.

Don’t compare yourself to other people. I have sometimes done that, and I have to remind myself to concentrate on my own journey. I did the SCBWI Bootcamp for Publication (highly recommended) and I remember Sara Grant said, “Don't be discouraged by others. You do you.”

Keep writing, but if you're too tired or don’t have time or the ideas have dried up, give yourself a break. There's no end date with writing, you can pick it up later.

Finally, if you do get published - savour every moment.

I've made a scrapbook of photographs, newspaper cuttings, flyers, reviews, practical lists of what I need to take on school visits, etc. It's lovely to look through - to remember all those special moments.

What's next for you?

As we go into the autumn, I am going to start preparing visits to schools. I’m making a PowerPoint presentation and sorting out craft and movement sessions. I have just received a toy alien (made from Chris Jevons’ illustrations), which will be an essential part of these visits!

I have sent more stories off for submission, and am starting research on a new picture book. I'll be up in my bed, dreaming and scribbling.

 Header image: Ell Rose and Tita Berredo


Tessa Gearing grew up in South West London. She has worked as an actor in touring theatre and on the radio, run storytelling sessions for under fives and worked part time as a teaching assistant in a primary school. In between, she travelled around the world. Tessa settled in Mid Wales with her husband and they have two grown up children. After completing the Golden Egg Academy's Picture Book Course in 2019, her picture book, “There's an Alien in my Lunchbox” (illustrated by Chris Jevons) was accepted by Andersen Press. It was published in August 2023.


Mario Ambrosi is Words & Pictures's Debut Journeys Editor. He’d love to hear from SCBWI debut writers happy to feature in the Debut Journeys section of Words & Pictures. Follow him on Twitter.






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