The great thing about being an editor and a writer is that you get to meet all sorts of creatives in various fields of publishing. You quickly learn that there's a lot of cross pollination! When I discovered that an editor I knew had also just had her first picture book published, I was really keen to find out what goes into this most mysterious (to me) area of writing and publishing. How does a person write a picture book? What's the publication process like? I was really pleased when Rebecca, author of Enormouse! agreed to be interviewed. I hope our chat sheds light on the process for you, too.
You've been an editor of children's books and now have written AND illustrated your first children's book. Where does all this creative talent come from and what has your training been? Did you go to art college?
My mum and dad were both book designers, so I was brought up in a house stacked to the rafters with visual stimulus. It would have been hard not to have been affected by that. If you ask my mum, she'll tell you I was wielding a pencil professionally at 18 months. That aside, I do remember I won a Blue Peter badge in a drawing competition aeons ago, so I suppose you could say my artistic 'trajectory' did start at a tender age. In terms of formal training, I took art at GCSE then A level, did a foundation course at Chelsea School of Art, a Fine Art/English degree at Oxford Brookes and then an MA in Sequential Design/Illustration at Brighton University.
I am a picture book ignoramus, having never written or edited one. Could you talk me and our readers through a few of the basic 'rules' of putting together a picture book and what criteria you were trying to meet with your own lovely story.
Here are five of what I think are golden rules (not all of which I manage to stick to myself):
1. Every word counts, and your text must have cadence and rhythm.
2. Read your writing aloud over and OVER again while you're drafting and redrafting it; that's how your book will be transmitted, so that's how it must work.
3. Characters need to look consistent throughout in terms of proportions, features, colour palette, etc.
4. Don't be too arch or adult in humour. It's not good to patronise your audience, but there's a limit to what your target age group can grasp. Of course, you can still throw in little gags to keep your weary grown-up reader entertained; we all know the best books are the ones that appeal to adults and children.
5. Test-run everything past your target audience to see if it has the desired effect. If not, head back to the drawing board...
There are loads of details for a parent and child to spot in the images. Did you have any help from others with suggestions? How long would it take you to paint each spread. (Ooh, and what medium do you use?)
Erm, I'm trying to remember if I had any input from other people about the details. I know my mum came up with the idea of the enormous mouse made of mice - not sure I should really thank her for that - but otherwise I think outside input mainly consisted of reckless encouragement to ramp up the existing detail. It took me about 5 days in total to paint a really complex spread - for example, the one with the squirrels inside the caravan - otherwise a bit less. I used Dr. Ph. Martin's Radiant Inks, coloured pencils, some gouache and a fair amount of wine. And packets of Minstrels.
Even though picture books have to follow several 'rules' I'm extremely impressed with the central spread and the enormouse idea you have at the heart of the book. It's something that would be very difficult to describe in words (I won't spoil the surprise for readers). But it totally works and, I imagine, is a source for fascinating chat between a child and adult. Were Egmont on board from the start or did they take some persuading?
This is going to sound a bit stupid, but I didn't think about how abstract the central idea is until the book was published and I started pondering how to talk about it at events. I think I'm going to need to link the theme to children's own experiences, to anchor it in their reality. At the same time I don't want to make it sound worthy and cheesy and adult and dull by saying something like, 'Hey, kids, do you know that every teeny tiny light you turn off around your house make a big thing like saving our world happen', so if anyone out there has any bright ideas, I'm open to suggestion! In terms of Egmont being on board from the start, as a company their focus is very much on innovation and ideas, so I think it fitted well within their ethos and was something they were happy to get behind.
Talking of Egmont, how did you find the publishing process? Was it strange being an author/illustrator with them rather than an editor?
Yes, it was very strange being an author/illustrator with them as well as an editor, not that any of that was their fault. It was tough being in-house and working in the industry and having all that insider knowledge of the current publishing climate, especially regarding picture books. I also struggled with feeling like a bit of a fraud, despite being a Blue-Peter-badge-winning drawer. In fact I'm still struggling with that. But then I'm also still struggling with feeling like a fraudulent editor after 12 years in the industry, so maybe I just need to get over myself.
Do you have any tips for aspiring picture book authors reading this?
Without wanting to sound too X-Factor, trust your writing, and don't try and being anything other than yourself. Kids can spot artifice a mile off, a bit like dogs can smell fear. In fact, I think they can do that too. Never underestimate your audience.
Thanks so much, Rebecca! There's lots I relate to here: feeling like a fraud and a reliance on wine and chocolate being a few points we have in common.
How about you, readers? Do you have experience of the picture book industry? Do you have your own chocolate recommendations?
Rebecca's picture book, Enormouse!, was published in July by Egmont.