KATHERINE MACALISTER talks to an author who has discovered the art of translating sudden ideas into the stories and characters that children love

Success?” Polly Dunbar asks: “Well I’m still sat at home in my PJs most days, so I don’t really think about it.”

Welcome to the gentle world of Polly Dunbar, award-winning children’s author extraordinaire, whose books Tilly and Friends have just been launched on CBeebies and whose characters Penguin, Tilly and Tumpty have brightened a nation’s hearts.

She spends her days “gluing, sticking and painting” at her desk in Brighton, and chasing ideas for her next children’s book. And when I say chasing, Polly comes up with a sketch and a phrase and then sees if it springs to life.

“I wait and see what comes, if a story follows. It’s like digging for something – sometimes you find it and sometimes you don’t. So I keep a notebook on me at all times to take any nuggets down because I come up with ideas everywhere – in taxis, on the back of a menu – because when I’m out, things tend to trigger my mind, away from the comfort of my home environment.”

These nuggets have resulted in some of the most treasured children’s books on the market, culminating with the new BBC TV series, a dream come true for children’s authors presumably?

“I never let myself believe it would actually happen and still can’t quite believe it,” Polly says. “But it’s a funny thing because there’s a certain amount of letting go involved, like being a parent and being really proud and over-protec-tive at the same time.

“Tilly and Friends now has its own life so I have to be very careful because you can’t be too controlling or no one else can put their creative input into it. And it took a long time to come to fruition, five years of writing and five years to get on TV, so it’s nice to be back to drawing again and I like sitting at my desk drawing pictures.”

About to be snatched from her comfort zone, Polly is appearing at the Oxford Literary Festival, where she will continue to entertain a whole new generation of children. “A big room full of people is quite frightening, but part of the job,” Polly admits. “And it’s always fine until people ask me to do the wiggle-wiggle woo.”

The wiggle-wiggle woo? “Oh, it’s Hector’s dance, (Hector is one of her most famous characters) – but you have to know where to draw the line, so I stick to drawing.

“And the children usually don’t understand who I am or why I’m signing their books, they just ask ‘where’s Tumpty?’” she laughs. “But that’s good because it means they believe in the characters and that’s what it’s all about.”

Polly makes the whole writing concept sound easy, yet the world is overrun with wanna-be children’s authors. So what’s the difference between a good and bad story?

“Saying something complex in a simple way, because although you use very few words, they have to have weight while looking deceptively simple,” she says. “It’s really hard to do even when you have a good idea.”

Polly doesn’t have children of her own, yet she instinctively knows what they’re thinking. Her most recent book Arthur’s Dream Boat is all about a small boy in a big family who never gets heard, which will strike a cord with all mothers.

So was Polly an only child? “No, but I was in my own little world making up stories and now I’m trying to show that other world to other people, in the same way as Arthur – ‘Look at my idea!’.”

“Tilly and Friends was based on a house I shared and the people living together, but all the other books have been about an alone, imaginative child and their alone, imaginative world.”

She added: “I’ve been doing talks for a few years now and it’s part of the job, so I’ll arrive with bags and bags of paper, that’s where my skills lie, and a bit of music. And I love the things the children say and how they work, because it’s never the same twice.

“But it’s usually a big shock because to create you need to be in a quiet place musing on your ideas, and this is the opposite - so when it’s all over, I’ll go home and lie in a darkened room.”

In her pyjamas presumably.

Polly Dunbar is appearing at Oxford Literary Festival 2013 on Sunday, March 24, for her talk on Tilly and Friends at 10am at Christ Church. oxfordliteraryfestival.org