Philip Ardagh (1961-) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Work in Progress, Sidelights
Born 1961, in Kent, England; Education: Educated in Kent and Sussex.
Agent—c/o Author Mail, Faber and Faber Ltd., 3 Queen Square, London WC1N 3AU, England.
Children's book author. Writer in advertising agency, early 1980s; also worked as a hospital cleaner, librarian, and reader for the blind; BBC Radio 4, contributor; Guardian, Children's Fiction Prize judge, 2003.
Luchs prize (Germany), 2003.
NONFICTION; FOR YOUNG READERS
History's Great Inventors, illustrated by Chris Mould, Belitha (London, England), 1996.
History's Travellers and Explorers, illustrated by Chris Mould, Belitha (London, England), 1996.
Why Do Humans Have Two Legs?, illustrated by G. Callaby and H. James, Belitha (London, England), 1996.
Why Don't Fish Have Fingers?, Belitha (London, England), 1996.
History Detectives: Aztecs, illustrated by Colin King, Macmillan (London, England), 1998.
All at Sea, illustrated by Tig Sutton, Belitha (London, England), 1998.
On the Farm, Belitha (London, England), 1998.
South American Myths and Legends, illustrated by Syrah Arnold, Dillon Press (Parsippany, NJ), 1998.
The Secret Diary of Prince Tutankhamun, Franklin Watts (London, England), 1998.
The Hieroglyphs Handbook, Faber and Faber (London, England), 1999.
African Myths and Legends, illustrated by Georgia Peters, Dillon Press (Parsippany, NJ), 1999.
Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends, illustrated by Danuta Mayer, Dillon Press (Parsippany, NJ), 1999.
Ancient Greek Myths and Legends, illustrated by Virginia Gray, Dillon Press (Parsippany, NJ), 1999.
Celtic Myths and Legends, illustrated by G. Barton Chapple, Dillon Press (Parsippany, NJ), 1999.
Chinese Myths and Legends, illustrated by G. Michael Fisher, Dillon Press (Parsippany, NJ), 1999.
Norse Myths and Legends, illustrated by Stephen May, Dillon Press (Parsippany, NJ), 1999.
North American Myths and Legends, illustrated by Olivia Rayner, Dillon Press (Parsippany, NJ), 1999. Wow! Discoveries That Changed the World, Macmillan (London, England), 2000.
Wow! Inventions That Changed the World, Macmillan (London, England), 2000.
Wow! Events That Changed the World, Macmillan (London, England), 2000.
Wow! Ideas That Changed the World, Macmillan (London, England), 2000.
Traditional Tales from India, illustrated by Nilesh Mistry, Belitha (London, England), 2000.
History Detectives: Ancient Egypt, illustrated by Colin King, P. Bedrick Books (New York, NY), 2000.
History Detectives: Ancient Greece, illustrated by Colin King, P. Bedrick Books (New York, NY), 2000.
History Detectives: The Romans, illustrated by Colin King, P. Bedrick Books (New York, NY), 2000.
Did Dinosaurs Snore?, illustrated by John Levers, Faber and Faber (London, England), 2001.
Why Are Castles Castle-shaped?, illustrated by Peter Gregory, Faber and Faber (London, England), 2002.
The Archaeologist's Handbook, illustrated by Kevin Maddison, Faber and Faber (London, England), 2002.
The Truth about Christmas: Its Traditions Unravelled, Macmillan Children's Books (London, England), 2003.
A Hole in the Road, illustrated by Tig Sutton, Chrysalis Education (North Mankato, MN), 2003.
The Green Men of Gressingham, Barrington Stoke (Edinburgh, Scotland), 2004.
Also the author of "Get a Life" biographies of William the Conqueror, Elizabeth I, Julius Caesar, Florence Nightingale and Henry VIII, Queen Victoria, Oliver Cromwell, Marie Curie, Mary Queen of Scots, and Napoleon, for Macmillan Children's Books. Contributor to newspapers, including the Guardian.
"EDDIE DICKENS" SERIES
Awful End, illustrated by David Roberts, Faber Children's Books (London, England), 2000, published as A House Called Awful End, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2002.
Dreadful Acts, illustrated by David Roberts, Faber Children's Books (London, England), 2001, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2003.
Terrible Times, illustrated by David Roberts, Faber Children's Books (London, England), 2002, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2003.
Dubious Deeds, illustrated by David Roberts, Faber Children's Books (London, England), 2003.
"UNLIKELY EXPLOITS" SERIES
The Fall of Fergal; or, Not So Dingly in the Dell, illustrated by David Roberts, Faber Children's Books (London, England), 2002, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2003.
Heir of Mystery; or, Four Legs Good, illustrated by David Roberts, Faber Children's Books (London, England), 2003, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2004.
The Rise of the House of McNally, illustrated by David Roberts, Faber Children's Books (London, England), 2004.
The "Eddie Dickens" books were optioned for film by Warner Bros. in 2003. A House called Awful End, Dreadful Acts, and Terrible Times were recorded as audio books, read by Martin Rayner. The Fall of Fergal was recorded as an audio book, read by Joe Barrett, and was serialized on Radio 4 and BBC 7.
Work in Progress
Further novels in the "Eddie Dickens" series.
Philip Ardagh has penned more than sixty children's books that have been translated into twenty-five languages around the world. While his nonfiction titles focus on topics from history and archeology, he is most well known for his two popular series of books for young readers, the "Eddie Dickens" books, and "Un-likely Exploits." The first series is a Victorian tale about a young boy sent to live with a zany pair of relatives in a ramshackle home known as Awful End; the second takes young readers into the misadventures of the McNally clan, beginning on page one with the death of young Fergal and working backward in time from there. Alexandra Gill, writing in Toronto's Globe & Mail, expressed the critical consensus that Ardagh's books are similar to those of writer Daniel Handler, author of the "Lemony Snicket" series. According to Gill, "Ardagh's books work on the assumption that children enjoy being unsettled."
Ardagh's books are full of off-the-wall humor and authorial asides, described by some as a blend of Charles Dickens meets Monty Python. "I love that zany approach," Ardagh told Gill, "and I love language." Writing in London's Independent, Hilary Macaskill commented on Ardagh's presence in the "Eddie Dickens" series: In addition to the main character, "the other significant character is the author, forever going off at tangents, indulging in wordplay, peppering the narrative with nuggets of information and comments to reader[s], even to his editor."
Ardagh was born in 1961, in England's southern county of Kent, where he grew up with one brother. Sent off to private school as an adolescent, he had a miserable time. "I must have stuck out like a cucumber in a pile of sandwiches," he told Gill. Already tall and rangy, he looked, as he said, "like a beanpole." Bookish and un-enthusiastic about sports, Ardagh became an easy target for other children's ridicule and teasing. As a result, he developed a sense of humor and a joking demeanor as a way to parry jokes and teasing from others. He was also developing an intense curiosity about the way things work, from castles to archaeological sites. He exhibited an early talent for writing, and at age six he had his first work published in the school magazine, a short story about a monster who lived in a cave and frightened a woman named Mrs. Brown.
Ardagh worked at various jobs until hitting on copywriting for an advertising firm in the 1980s. He says this was a great way to practice for his current work, getting information across in a fun and informative way in a variety of media. Fnally he decided to leave copywriting behind as well, and dedicate his time to penning children's nonfiction. For Ardagh, the pleasure has been in learning about many different topics before actually doing the writing.
Ardagh's nonfiction books have been well received by critics and readers alike. Delvene Barnett, for example, writing in School Librarian, found Ardagh's History's Great Inventors a "fun book." History's Travellers and Explorers, in the same series, is written in a "distinctive style," according to a reviewer for Junior Bookshelf. Not only does Ardagh deal with the achievements of people such as Captain Cook, but also their "failures and difficulties," as the same reviewer noted, concluding that the book will "inform and amuse" middle-grade readers. Reviewing the same title for School Librarian, Raymond Ward also drew attention to the "humour that enlivens the text of this original and attractive book."
Questions an alien might ask if coming to planet Earth form the core of the books Why Do Humans Have Two Legs? and Why Don't Fish Have Fingers? Ardagh deals with myths in another series, including those of ancient Greece, the Celtic tradition, South America, and Scandinavia. Reviewing Traditional Tales from India in School Librarian, Lynda Jones praised the book as an "excellent collection of Indian myths and tales." With his "History Detectives" series, Ardagh combines nonfiction and fiction: after sampling a brief history of peoples from ancient Egyptians to Aztecs, readers are then challenged to solve a mystery using facts learned in the nonfiction text. Reviewing History Detectives: Aztecs, School Librarian's Geoff Dubber pronounced the book "lovely," further noting that "children will love this interactive approach." Another blending of fact and fiction is Ardagh's compellingly titled The Secret Diary of Prince Tutankhamun.
In a series of four books Ardagh tackles great discoveries, inventions, ideas, and events that altered world history. His Wow! Inventions That Changed the World supplies "fine mini-histories" of inventions from trains to photography, according to Howard P. Segal, writing in Nature, while David Self, reviewing the series in the Times Educational Supplement, highlighted the author's "unremittingly chatty style." Another popular nonfiction title from Ardagh is Did Dinosaurs Snore? which "uses wit to full effect" in "relating facts in a warm, quirky manner," according to Elaine Williams for the Times Educational Supplement. In this book and others in the series Ardagh includes a lot of information on his topic, presenting it not only in a clever question-and-answer format, but through an abundance of diagrams as well. Why Are Castles Castle-shaped? gives vent to Ardagh's life-long passion for castles, and explains their ins and outs in an "immensely readable book," as John Holden noted in School Librarian.
Ardagh's The Hieroglyphs Handbook is one of many nonfiction hits the author has had with young readers. His popularity is due to his ability to present his topic within a "fun" framework, as Wendy Axford noted in School Librarian, as well as his ability to write in a "stimulating and jokey way." Interestingly, it was while making a presentation for The Hieroglyphs Handbook at a publisher's sales conference that Ardagh decided to branch out into writing fiction. He kept the gathered audience laughing, and following the presentation his editor asked him if he had ever thought of writing humorous fiction. As Ardagh revealed, tucked away in one of his desk drawers was the germ of a novel in letter form, written in an attempt to make his young nephew feel better about being shipped off to private school in England. In this novel was the germ of Ardagh's "Eddie Dickens" books. He wanted to cheer up his nephew, so he made sure to create a story with lots of adventure and cliffhanger endings for each chapter. "And it was set in a sub-Dickensian [nineteenth-century] world, like my memories of school," the author told Macaskill.
Awful End—published as A House Called Awful End in the United States—is about a young protagonist named Eddie Dickens who is, according to Michael Rosen in the Guardian, "surrounded by upper-class crazies like Mad Uncle Jack and Even Madder Aunt Maud, while lower-class beings stereotype themselves into such roles as Swags the Thief and Jolly Roger the sailor." The books are, according to Guardian Online critic Dina Rabinovitch, a "madcap series told in flurries of word-play and jokey authorial comment."
In the first novel Eddie's parents are bedridden because of a mysterious illness that dries them up and turns them all yellow, so he is shipped off to Uncle Jack and Aunt Maud at their home, Awful End. To get there Eddie "takes one of the zaniest coach rides found in the pages of fiction," according to Rosemary Herbert in the Boston Herald. Things take a turn for the worse thereafter, and Eddie winds up in St. Horrid's Home for Grateful Orphans, a place as dreadful as its name. It is there that Eddie gets a chance to "show his stuff," as a contributor for Publishers Weekly noted. The same reviewer praised Ardagh's "clever crafting" in A House Called Awful End. However, writing in School Library Journal, Farida S. Dowler felt that Ardagh's playful style, his "meandering, nonsensical sentences and relentless asides to readers," are both "tedious and over-bearing." Booklist's Ilene Cooper also found the tone of the book often "arch," but predicted that "fans of the Snicket style will probably enjoy the way the story speeds from one fantastical crisis to the next." Christopher Finer, writing in Voice of Youth Advocates, commented that Ardagh's novel is not intended to be serious literature. "Eddie's adventures will charm experienced readers who can appreciate the absurd humor and British sensibility," Finer commented, reflecting other critics' comparisons between Ardagh and British author Roald Dahl. School Librarian reviewer Mary Crawford predicted that the book will "certainly entertain young readers" with its "light-hearted but perceptive picture of the hardship of life in 19th-century England," while Kristi Elle Jemtegaard noted in Horn Book that the "Eddie Dickens" trilogy is perfect for readers who like the "dour humor of Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events but prefer a bit of sunshine through their clouds."
Ardagh happily admits that in writing Awful End he broke "the golden rule of children's literature," as he confided to Rabinovitch. One such unwritten rule states that the child must be in control, but in Ardagh's books this is not the case. As the author further explained to Rabinovitch, "I think children suddenly realise that the world is run by adults, and the secret is, adults don't know what they're doing, and what you take to be normal is just what's normal in your house."
Another unwritten rule of children's books is reliance on a strong plot. However, Ardagh's plots are "all over the place," as he told Gill. "What plot? Life isn't like that. It's much more realistic." As to comparisons with the "Lemony Snicket" books, Ardagh remains puzzled, for his letters to his nephew were written long before publication of any of those books. For Ardagh, the Snicket books pay homage to Edgar Allan Poe, while his are definitely Dickensian.
Dreadful Acts, Terrible Times, and Dubious Deeds continue the "Eddie Dickens" series. Dreadful Acts finds Eddie avoiding an explosion and arrest, only to fall in love with a girl with less-than-spectacular features and into the grip of a gang of escaped convicts. Booklist contributor Shelle Rosenfeld found the second installment to be a "blend of archaic elegance, silly puns, and direct address." Similarly, Ashley Larsen, writing in School Library Journal, noted that "fans of Monty Python's style of humor will appreciate the constant verbal wit, slapstick, and random plot twists." Michael Thorn, writing in the Times Educational Supplement, felt that readers who liked the "barkingly mad world" of the first installment "will not be disappointed by the sequel." Similarly, Ann G. Hay, writing in School Librarian, found Dreadful Acts a "worthy successor" to the first in the series.
In the third installment, Terrible Times, poor Eddie is travelling to America on the ship the Pompous Pig when he is swept overboard. While a Kirkus Reviews critic dubbed the book a "very British farce," Boston Herald reviewer Rosemary Herbert described Terrible Times as "quirky," and noted that readers of all ages will "laugh, groan and ultimately pull for Eddie." Independent reviewer Nicholas Tucker praised the "Eddie Dickens" books overall as "elegantly written, completely unpredictable, and constantly amusing."
While the first three "Eddie Dickens" books comprised a trilogy, Ardagh continues his young hero's adventures in Dubious Deeds, which is set in Scotland. Subtitled the "Further Adventures of Eddie Dickens," the novel introduces Mad Aunt Maud before she went mad; here she is known as Maud MacMuckle. Maud inherits a castle called Tall Hall in the Scottish Highlands and, realizing she has no idea what is going on north of the border, sends her nephew, Eddie, to investigate. In Scotland Eddie meets the rude Angus McFeeeeeeee and Angus's son, and even bumps into England's Queen Victoria!
Continuing in a fictional vein, Ardagh has also had success with a contemporary series named "Unlikely Exploits." "Though still weird," Ardagh wrote on his Web site, "the 'Unlikely Exploits' aren't quite so silly as Eddie's adventures. They follow the changing fortunes of the McNally family and I really want you to feel the love the brothers and sisters have for each other and to really care about what happen[s] to them." The setting for the "Unlikely Exploits" stories is an unnamed country that is suffering from hard geological times: holes are breaking out all over. Meanwhile, the McNally children, motherless and with an alcoholic father, find themselves in a hotel where one of the sisters is competing in a typing contest. Bad things happen from the very first volume, The Fall of Fergal, when the eponymous hero, brother of the typist, falls to his death from the hotel room. Far from tragic, in Ardagh's hands this scenario is transformed into an "accomplished and entertaining comedy," according to Susan Elkin in the Independent, as Ardagh goes back in time before Fergal's accident to trace the family's adventures. Reviewing the novel in the Times Educational Supplement, Fiona Lafferty noted that Ardagh's "quirky tone is infectious" in this "black comedy." However, Kit Vaughan noted in a review for School Library Journal that The Fall of Fergal "is not entirely successful," and predicted that Ardagh's "dry, off-the-wall wit will appeal to a limited audience." The McNallys return in Heir of Mystery, in which the remaining four children are drawn to a mysterious mansion in Fishbone Forest, and the trilogy is completed in The Rise of the House of McNally.
Tremendously popular in his native England, Ardagh's zany fiction series have sold over 250,000 copies, and The Fall of Fergal has been adapted for British radio and aired on Radio 4 and BBC 7. Reflecting the books' popularity, in 2003 Warner Brothers optioned the "Eddie Dickens" series for film. The growing success of Ardagh's books have turned the author into a cult figure among young readers eager for fantasy stories in the wake of the popularity of the "Harry Potter" books. For his part, Ardagh has begun to devote himself full-time to fiction. "I'm interested in the fun of language and the fun of fun," he told Gill. "Fun is a serious business. I don't think people realize that."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, November 15, 2002, Ilene Cooper, review of A House Called Awful End, p. 600; December 1, 2002, Carolyn Phelan, review of All at Sea, pp. 668-669; April 15, 2003, Shelle Rosenfeld, review of Dreadful Acts, p. 1470.
Bookseller, May 17, 2002, Horace Bent, "The Pulses of Accountants Are Racing," p. 58; February 21, 2003, p. 34.
Books for Keeps, November, 2002, Sue Unstead, review of Why Are Castles Castle-shaped? and The Archaeologist's Handbook, p. 30.
Boston Herald, September 13, 2002, Rosemary Herbert, "An 'Awful' Recipe for Success," p. 41; August 10, 2003, Rosemary Herbert, review of Terrible Times, p. 51.
Buffalo News, August 4, 2002, Jean Westmore, review of A House Called Awful End, p. F7.
Canadian Materials, June 9, 2000, Ian Stewart, review of Ancient Egypt.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), March 30, 2002, Victoria Lane, review of The Fall of Fergal, p. 5.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 16, 2002, Alexandra Gill, "Wacky Uncle Philip."
Guardian (London, England), November 2, 2002, Michael Rosen, review of "Terrible Times."
Horn Book, May-June 2004, Kristi Elle Jemtegaard, audiobook review of Dreadful Acts, p. 348.
Horn Book Guide, fall, 2001, Peter D. Sieruta, review of The Aztecs, Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, and The Romans, p. 423.
Independent (London, England), April 6, 2002, Susan Elkin, review of The Fall of Fergal, p. 11; October 9, 2002, Hilary Macaskill, "'I Enjoy the Characters Too Much to Stop Writing,'" pp. 28-29.
Irish Times, July 6, 2002, review of The Fall of Fergal.
Junior Bookshelf, August, 1996, review of History's Travellers and Explorers, p. 145; December, 1996, review of Why Do Humans Have Two Legs?, pp. 245-246; February, 1997, John Feltwell, review of Why Don't Fish Have Fingers?, p. 36.
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2003, review of Terrible Times.
Nature, November 30, 2000, Howard P. Segal, review of Wow! Inventions That Changed the World, pp. 515-516.
Publishers Weekly, August 12, 2002, review of A House Called Awful End, p. 301; December 9, 2002, John F. Baker, review of The Fall of Fergal, p. 12; July 21, 2003, review of Terrible Times, pp. 197-198.
School Librarian, May, 1996, Delvene Barnett, review of History's Great Inventors, p. 66; August, 1996, Raymond mond Ward, review of History's Travellers and Explorers, p. 110; summer, 1998, Julia Marriage, review of Ancient Greek Myths and Legends and Norse Myths and Legends, p. 90; summer, 1999, Ann Jenkin, review of South American Myths and Legends and Celtic Myths and Legends, p. 78; spring, 1999, Geoff Dubber, review of History Detectives: Aztecs, p. 37; spring, 1999, Josie Hervey, review of All at Sea and On the Farm, p. 17; spring, 2000, Wendy Axford, review of The Hieroglyphs Handbook, p. 35; summer, 2001, Lynda Jones, review of Traditional Tales from India, p. 92; autumn, 2001, John Feltwell, review of Did Dinosaurs Snore?, p. 147; spring, 2001, Mary Crawford, review of Awful End, p. 24; winter, 2001, Ann G. Hay, review of Dreadful Acts, p. 190; autumn, 2002, Margaret Mallett, review of The Fall of Fergal, p. 135; winter, 2002, John Holden, review of Why Are Castles Castle-shaped?, p. 217.
School Library Journal, July 4, 2004, Kit Vaughan, review of The Fall of Fergal, p. 98; September, 2002, Farida S. Dowler, review of A House Called Awful End, p. 219; May, 2003, Ashley Larsen, review of Dreadful Acts, p. 144.
Sunday Times (London, England), January 19, 2003, Louise Johncox, "In Gran's Domain," p. 3; July, 2004, Kit Vaughan, review of The Fall of Fergal, p. 98.
Times Educational Supplement, December 1, 2000, David Self, review of Wow! Inventions That Changed the World, Wow! Events That Changed the World, and Wow! Ideas That Changed the World, p. 23; July 27, 2001, Elaine Williams, review of Did Dinosaurs Snore?, p. 23; November 23, 2001, Michael Thorn, review of Dreadful Acts, p. 21; April 12, 2002, Fiona Lafferty, review of The Fall of Fergal, p. 40.
Voice of Youth Advocates, October, 2002, Christopher Finer, review of A House Called Awful End, p. 291.
Guardian Online, http://books.guardian.co.uk/ (August 28, 2004), Dina Rabinovitch, "The Sleepless Giant."
Henry Holt Web site, http://www.henryholtchildrensbooks.com/ (August 28, 2004), "Philip Ardagh."
Independent Online, http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/ (December 2, 2002), Nicholas Tucker, "Children's Books for Christmas: Stories that paint a vivid picture."
Official Philip Ardagh Web site, http://www.philipardagh.com/ (March, 2004).*