How Vlad flea became part of our family

Guest Post: Kate and Sam Cunningham

Almost a year ago, Kate approached me to design a series of charming and fun books for her and her son Sam and what a brilliant adventure it has been. In this guest post, find out about what happens before the words and pictures land in my inbox!

Kate: I was a full-time primary teacher when I wrote the first Vlad adventure. In class, every topic started with a big pile of books and it struck me that there were lots of fantastic fact books on history, but no picture books telling the story. It seemed ironic when much of our history used to be shared orally by storytellers, but now we don’t do this with our youngest learners who love to listen to a good tale.

I needed a lively narrator and one who would be around for many historical scenarios. A flea fitted the bill perfectly. Every moment in history has had fleas, whether they were welcome or not!

I had my story but my pupils found my drawings hilarious (not in a good way) so someone else had to create the images. My mum suggested asking my eldest son, Sam, who was studying art. I really wasn’t sure he would want to do a project with his old mum so was over the moon when he agreed.

Sam: When mum asked me if I would illustrate Vlad and the Great Fire of London, I was excited about the idea of creating a book. I was still undecided whether to apply for fine art courses or illustration so it seemed like an opportunity to try it out. It helped that I had easy access to her to check things and we went on some visits together.

Kate: We talk about the books a lot! We’re lucky to be in London where there is probably a museum for everything so when we wanted to look at artefacts from 1666 we went to the Museum of London, and when we wanted to look at World War One aircraft we went to the RAF Museum. It is important that the books are historically accurate in both the words and pictures. Vlad is telling a story but the core is based on testimonies, maps or artefacts. When I write the stories I do a lot of research and rather than making Sam start again I pass that along with the text. I try to include pictures or descriptions that will give him a starting point when imagining the settings and clothes. I read a lot about the cultural mix of seventeenth-century London during my researches and talked to Sam about that so he could use that information.

Sam: The books and Vlad are still evolving. I had drawn a version of Vlad flea for mum before we agreed to do the books, as a prop that she took into school. I developed the design from there, looking at pictures of fleas and reducing the shapes to their most basic forms.

Kate: One of the great things about Sam’s design is that Vlad has a hat which now changes according to which era he is in. It’s very clever. He has an image which is recognisable but that changes subtly to reflect each book. So in Vlad and the First World War, he is wearing a metal helmet and a clue to his next adventure is that he is wearing a bearskin hat like the one worn by the guards outside Buckingham Palace. There are plenty more stories in various stages of development, so there are more Vlad adventures to come.

Sam: When I applied for courses I was able to put the first book in my portfolio and now I am studying at Gloucestershire University I find it really helpful to be working on the practicalities of producing a real book. It is useful from the point of view of thinking about composition and I’m able to submit them as part of my coursework.

Kate: I get quite emotional when I think of the books on a personal level. For me, it is incredibly special to have created them together. It has been a real team effort with many tea-time discussions with my other sons, Danny and Freddie and my husband (historian Sean Cunningham). We all talk about Vlad as if he is a member of our family now. 



Kate Cunningham is the author and Sam Cunningham the illustrator of the Vlad Adventures which includes Vlad and the Great Fire of London and Vlad and the First World War. Coming soon: Vlad and the Florence Nightingale Adventure.