Saturday, September 15, 2007

Sometimes things take a long time.

It has been a long while since anything has been done to Starlight. Sometimes books are like this. James has been busy with his new Katie book for Orchard, meeting his deadline and producing wonderful work.
"Ella Bella Ballerina" is almost due for publication and I can't wait to see it.

I have been busy finishing Singing to the Sun, missing the deadline for the book by two and a half years, but falling more in love with the story than ever. It was hard work, some of the paintings had to be done at least twice and then there was the painting of the three girls that almost broke me!

And in the meantime our book "Can You See a Little Bear?" has been made into a little jewel of a board book that is just right! It should be published by December, which seems so late for a book that is so very obviously a stocking filler, but the vagueries of marketing in publishing defeat my intelligence. It has also been picked for Bookstart, the second time as it was chosen before in the paperback version. This time they have taken 100 000 copies, which is wonderful.
Snow Leopard is out and prowling and already up for an award in France. I have learned a thing or two about how to get past the slush pile and have manuscripts read by publishers and am hoping to have a contract for my first novel soon. Hoping, hoping.
And Barefoot are still waiting for a sample from me to prove that I can paint the book, the first two having been rejected. I feel dejected and lacking in enthusiasm for illustration. It could be the time of the year. It could be that after 20 years in publishing it would be nice to just get a contract and do the work without having to constantly prove myself. Neither James nor myself have had a contract for the book yet.
It could just be that I feel that I am at a crossroads in my career. I am waiting. I have no ideas or images in my head, either for "Starlight" or for "Tell Me a Dragon", the other book I should be working on. Occasionally an image comes to mind, but mostly I feel empty.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Some time later.

Still working on other things, mostly Singing to the Sun which was getting behind as I worked on things for Bologna Book fair, none of which were taken there.
Meanwhile have remembered the other wonderful book I saw in Bologna, The Arrival, by Shaun Tan. Shaun Tan is one of the most wonderful and original illustrators working at the moment, mostly for Lothian books in Australia. His website is to be found at

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Bologna Bookfair

I have been home now for a few days, have updated my website, helped the cats with their blog, and tried to settle back to work, and all the while in the back of my mind the bookfair has lurked like a monster.
Difficult to shuffle my thoughts on the fair into order, but will try.
First, after twenty years in publishing I was glad I went. Thanks to Barefoot for inviting me, wining and dining both myself and Robin and introducing me to wonderful people, including Brigitte Leblanc, Iolander Batalle, Anne and Margaret. Jo and Tessa were wonderful company and Tessa has the key to the best restaurant in Bologna. I enjoyed sitting in the square watching life passing by, walking and trying to keep up with Tessa, eating and drinking and watching them pass on their enthusiasm for books.

The Bookfair was such an experience, and felt mostly like a huge giant waiting to consume people.
Walking around I realized that while I have worked for many many British publishers, Faber, Macmillan, Egmont, Oxford University Press, Frances Lincoln, Evans Brothers and many more, which made me feel like a bit of an illustrating tart, I was on the whole anonymous. This anonymity was not helped by the fact that the MD of Frances Lincoln failed, yet again to recognize me, despite having worked with them for 15 years. Thankfully every time I walked back onto the Barefoot stand they recognized me, so I did not completely loose myself there.

As well as many publishers from ll over the world all buying and selling there were would be illustrators and writers pitching projects and trying to get their work seen, some for advice, some hoping for book deals. Some were good, some better than others, but for all it was a bit of a thankless task. It was a wonderful place to see what the publishers had to offer, what books were being pushed and who did what. Not the best place to try and get interest in your own work. The picture above is one small part of the illustrators board with notices and pictures, people looking for work.
In such a tidal wave of hopefuls it could be so easy to get washed away, especially by a callous remark made by a tired and bored successful illustrator who felt they had seen one portfolio too many and who were looking forward to a large glass of something fizzing and alcoholic. What kept me going in the early years of touting my folder from one publisher to another was the knowledge that their was work out there, someone had to do it, so it might as well be me. There are always people better than you, and always people not so good, but if you really want to work you need to concentrate on your own game, your own work, technique, work hard and follow that dream.

But at the end of the day, I think the image above sums up the fair. Someone had obviously read him a good bedtime story.

Highlights of the fair for me were some stunning books from Iran, a totally different sense of design than the European books.
Also some books from a publisher called Lemniscaat, with dressed up animals. Sounds naff, but is beautiful.
More beautiful books, especially The Stone Lion, were at Heryin books.
But my favorite of all was Rebecca Dautremer. With wonderful colour and shape and design, huge books on thick paper, everything about these book said quality and made British publishing look penny pinching in many ways.
And what of Starlight? Well, despite the work I did it was considered to early to show it, though it was mentioned and Tessa did tease a few people with it.
So, time to pick myself up and dust of my traveling shoes and settle down to paint. But my head is full of stories, and a wolf with a cloak of stars. I do not want to paint. I want to write.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

After a long silence.

Over the last few weeks I have been working on other things, though muddle headed and feeling like I am not getting much done. To see what has been achieved you need to look at my website.
Meanwhile the artwork has all been sent back for me to rethink. The characters need to be better worked, and I need to finish all the roughs and establish a stronger feel for the book.
At first my heart sank into my boots at having it all returned, but I know the weaknesses in it and need to address them.
Meanwhile James had a digital camera for his birthday and sent through a photo of his studio for the blog. Like many writers and illustrators ( Roald Dahl, Philip Pullman, Dylan Thomas etc) he works in a shed in the bottom of his garden. Lovely in the summer, a bit cold in the winter.
In the absence of any work for Starlight I thought I would put some of James's work on today so here is a rough for a reworking of the contents page for Stories From the Opera, published by Barefoot,

and a spread from Ella Bella to be published by Orchard.

Back to the drawing board for me as this week I try to finish a card for the MBF, do a spread for Singing to the Sun and find some children running around in my head and write an article for The Western Mail on my walking cats who are growing in fame.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Other work and illness

Over the last week I have been trying to work on other things, but have been hampered by a crippling headache. In between pain I have been painting a Christmas card and trying to find ideas for other things. Still have no contract for this book. James had, I think, only one day in his studio, in which to work on the cover for Ella Bella, the rest of the time he was in schools and out and about. Haven't yet heard from him whether he has had an offer for the text, or how the cover is going.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Working, but on other things

Tessa arrived back from France and liked the artwork for Starlight, and it has now gone on its travels to America for approval from the US part of Barefoot Books.
Meanwhile I have been working on other things, including two days in schools in the Rhondda valley, where amongst other things I read 'Can You See a Little Bear?" and "Starlight" to the children and they loved both.
But now I want to start the book again and rework both paintings. I watched a film called "Spring, Summer. Autumn, Winter and Spring", and there is a rowing boat in the film painted inside and out with beautiful pictures.
For now other work calls and this project will have to wait.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Safe at last

After a weekend of waiting and worrying and trying to get on with other things I phoned the Post Office this morning and they told me that the parcel was "in transit" and "no, they couldn't tell me where it was or when it would be delivered". But it did arrive safe and sound in the office in Bath at Barefoot Books. Much to my relief. It is so difficult to work when things like this happen. I had visions of having to do all the work again, and part of me was thinking, " oh well, at least you can make a better job of it next time," and part of me was inwardly weeping.
Today, James is on a train heading for London with the remaining artwork for Ella Bella, prepared to do any "tweaking" that needs to be done to the artwork in the offices at Orchard Books. Delivery of artwork face to face is even more nerve wracking than entrusting it to the tender loving care of the royal Mail.
Here in St Davids the weather is heavy and gray and I am tying to get roughs together for other work, feeling unsettled as i head out tomorrow to do school workshops. And I have started reading a very good book, which is not good for my productivity, though it is a book I have to design a cover for so I can pretend it is work.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Being let down

Sometimes it doesn't matter how hard you work, things conspire to frustrate. Yesterday was World Book Day and I got up really early to get things together for a school visit and pack the artwork for Barefoot, so that they would get it in time to take to France on Monday. Guaranteed delivery with Royal Mail, or whatever name they choose to call themselves. Then I worked all day in the school, so that by the evening I had talked myself into tiredness.
Today am beset with a headache, and then the publisher contacted me to say that the parcel had not arrived. So, having paid £8 and more for the parcel with guaranteed delivery and tracking I was reliably informed that the parcel is in transit and will be now delivered on Monday. It was delayed, but they could not say why, or by what, or where, or where is was.
So now I am thinking, "is it delayed because they have fed it to a passing elephant?", " are they using it as a coaster to rest their coffee cups on?"
Not happy. It will not arrive on time, and will not go to France, and now I have the weekend to worry about whether they have in fact lost it, which is why they could not tell me where it is, other than "in transit". And I still have a headache and have spent too long listening to recorded messages about how important my phone call is to their company. How they lack the ability to be sincere.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A moment of panic

An email from Tessa at Barefoot Books reminded me that I had promised to get work done in time for her to take to France. The dragon painting was still sitting in my studio taunting me and I had done no more work on the dummy book as "Singing to the Sun" needed working on.
So, after finishing another spread for Egmont on 'Singing to the Sun" had another look at the dragon.
Tomorrow he will be all packed up and entrusted to the post office, on his way to Bath and then to France. My paintings are always better traveled than me. Tomorrow is World Book Day. I will be going to Haverfordwest.

Monday, February 26, 2007


I work in a small room in my house. It is cluttered with books and pictures and I am watched by a stuffed owl in a glass case.
A footpath passes outside the window, but few people walk by. There is a stone wall and a blackthorn hedge opposite and in this I hang bird feeders, where small birds visit and flit through my day, distracting me with their jewel colours.
James works in a small shed at the bottom of his garden.

Back to work

After a weekend of disruption it is time to settle back to work, but other work is getting in the way of Starlight. Talking to James this morning to see how things are going with him, he is waiting to hear from Orchard about work delivered on Friday.
It is always difficult to settle to work after time away from the studio. There is so much to do, so much to think about, so many things that get in the way of just sitting down and working. So many excuses. I am waiting to hear from a publisher about a text. He is waiting to hear how the images sit with the text and whether all that he has done "works".
Meanwhile we talked about that progress of Starlight and realized that
  • He hasn't yet had a formal offer from the publisher for the text
  • Though I have had an offer I haven't yet signed the contract. Or seen the contract.
There is only one other time that I have gone so far ahead with some work, and that was with The Snow Leopard.
This week I have to do a spread for Singing to the Sun, and on Thursday it is World Book Day, and am in a school all day. Also an exhibition preview on Wednesday evening.
So, will wait for the contract to arrive.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Small Details

Still looking, to see what can be done to make it better. One of the things that made "Can You See a Little Bear?" work with children was the small details, not relevant to the text, but put into every picture. When reading the book in schools to groups of children, I would find that they started off sitting in a circle and by the end of the book they were trying to climb into the pages, searching for characters, counting elephants. So with this book there will also be characters and odd details threading their way through the pages.

Dragon riders

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Dragons fly.

Dragons fly through my dreams at the moment, and hares run. Almost finished, but needs to stand around for a while, for me to catch it unawares, when it does not know it is being looked at.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Spent the morning yesterday chasing words for another picture book, then it took far longer than I had thought it would to draw out the spread for the dragon. Listening to Terry Pratchett for another job and colouring in, building up layers of paint to make a dragon fly across a page, while images from The Hogfather and Masquerade spin through another part of my brain.
Today the sun is shining and have walked the cats and dogs. My car has been in the garage for a few days. Maybe it was a mistake to tell the mechanic that I was in no hurry, that I didn’t really want it back as it would keep me working. Now I have no milk, or sugar, and things to post and it is a couple of miles to the shops. But it does keep me painting, and I can’t wander off down the beach.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Endpaper, for Ellabella

What James will be doing this week

I emailed James to ask what he was working on this week. When you work at home, on your own, things can sometimes be lonely. You don't have to worry about things like commuting, but it can still be a long and difficult journey to the studio, past the washing up. And there is no one in the office to share the biscuits with! I knew he was getting towards the end of a difficult project.
So this is the news from Letchworth:
"This week I am:

Frantically finishing some of the art for Ella Bella. I have done all the double page spreads, but I’m doing my usual ghastly task of revisiting the almost finished art and discovering lots of tiny details that just need a final tweak. This always takes ages. (I don't know why I do this. I suppose I'm always keen to start on the next picture before absolutely completing the first. Or perhaps I just can't let go of pictures and consider them finished. When is a picture finished??? This is the real challenge to an illustrator - creating a picture that will be reproduced, maybe thousands of
times, that can never be retouched or altered thereafter, that has to be consistent with the others in the book. (Actually being happy with it on it's own terms is unlikely to happen!)

I'm not sure how I feel about Ella Bella Ballerina. The designer, Tim Rose and my editor Liz Johnson at Orchard have been very kind and supportive, encouraging me to be myself, to experiment and takes risks. But I find doing so really hard. I'll deliver the bulk of the book on Friday. I wonder if they'll like it. It is certainly very different and part of me is scared and part of me is excited.

On Tuesday and Thursday I'll be teaching at Cambridge Art School (Anglia Ruskin University). The Tuesday group, which is the Children's Books MA are doing well. We had a writing workshop last week because I want them all to try to write their own material if possible. Wednesday I'm giving a workshop to teachers on Why Art Matters at Bedford Museum, to link to an exhibition of my work there (borrowed from Letchworth museum).
Weds. evening I'm off to Cambridge yet again for the opening of the current graduation show for the Children's Book MA. This will be the same exhibition as the one the graduating year presented in January, but larger. I feel I should be there for them. They are all getting loads of offers from publishers and I'm so proud of them.

I'll have to work evenings to catch up with the final stages of Ella Bella.
Saturday is my treat - Madame Butterfly at Covent Garden. Cheap seats but I'll take my sketchbook in case I need some last minute theatrical inspiration for the book!"


Slow progress

It would be lovely to have the luxury to work on just one book at a time. Unfortunately, trying to make a living in publishing means multi-tasking to extraordinary levels. The weekend was spent delivering paintings to a gallery in Milford Haven, and also wandering on a wide, wide beach, all he while turning ideas and compositions around in my head. This week I have to finish a spread for Singing to the Sun for Egmont books, and complete another one for them too. Hopefully also produce another spread and completed dummy book for Starlight, and come up with roughs for two Christmas cards and this years Terry Pratchett Disc World calendar. Meanwhile I have ravens dancing in my imagination and wanting to be painted.
Listening to Moondog whilst working on this book, so have been determined to sneak him into the artwork somewhere. Check back later in the week for progress on painting dragons.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Front endpaper

I used to think that the first painting in a book was the hardest. Later decided the last painting and most of the ones in the middle are the hardest as well.
Yesterday I finished the front endpaper. This may change. Time will tell.
Now I know that the hardest painting is the next one and if you don’t get the drawing right in the first place nothing can save it.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Catching up

Over the past few weeks I have been playing with sketches to work with James’s text, while James and Tessa, the editor from Barefoot books, have been knocking the text backwards and forwards via email with changes here and there.
Small changes happen and I try to get an idea of how the book looks. One of the things I love about working with James is that he does not describe things in a way that ties an illustrator down, but leaves space for my imagination to hopefully take flight. However, this leaves endless possibilities
While working on other things small children have been running through my mind and into my sketchbook. I try to catch them but they tease and torment, hiding and showing themselves for a brief flash. My sketchbook begins to look a bit chaotic.
The book is to be a 24 page picture book, but another page has been freed up by not having a title page and a half title (one is enough!) and I am hoping that this can be a text free page.
Meanwhile James is locked in his studio shed in England trying to finish a new book for Orchard.
I asked him to write about where the idea for “Starlight…” came from. He said

“When I was co-tutoring at the Arvon Foundation I wanted to encourage the
students to try something for younger children. Mark Haddon (the other
tutor ) had done lots of brilliant workshops for older fiction, so I wanted
to look at the picture book area of the market.

I had discovered I'd really enjoyed my few dabbled with rhyme, and so
suggested the students had a go. I thought it would help to have a starting
point so I suggested using a traditional nursery rhyme as a sort of
blue-print. I'd seen this done successfully else where (for example
"Mockingbird" by Allan Ahlberg which develops "Hush little baby, don't say a
word"). I had also used this idea with children during writing residencies
in several schools and thought it was particularly successful.

I gave them several options. One was "Dance to your daddy". Another was "I
had a little nut tree". And another was "Star light, star bright".

I'd always had a fondness for starlight - reading it to Gabriel when was
just a tiny little scrap, through to when he could read it with me.

But it just got filed away like so many ideas. Then we did "Little Bear" and
I looked at it again. And it all just fell into place. Didn't submit it for
ages though - because I felt very self conscious about it and, to be honest,
also felt using a traditional rhyme was "cheating" in some way, as though I
was being derivative in some way. Which is nonsense of course, but that's
how my paranoid mind works.”

Monday, February 12, 2007

Early days

12th February. For the past few weeks I have been working on illustrations for a book, at the moment called "Starlight, Starbright". Written by James Mayhew, the text is a lullaby, beautiful and rhythmical.
In publishing some things move really slowly while others take on a momentum that is hard to keep pace with. I have a novel that has been with a publisher for six months, an idea for a book that has been knocking around another publisher's office for a year now, and then there is this book. James sent the text to Tessa Strickland at Barefoot Books in Bath a few weeks ago. Tessa loved it and James said he wanted me to illustrate it. Tessa wisely said I was too busy, but I begged to differ. Last year "The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems" came out in print, sold out and is being reprinted. I am about to start "The Arabian Nights" for them, another huge undertaking and it seemed to me that to work on something so much shorter, and with a similar spirit to "Little Bear" would be a better follow up to "Classic Poems", which had been a huge undertaking. Also I am not one to pass up such a gem of a text.
We are now waiting for the contract to arrive and already I have roughs and am working on two spreads in colour. Foolishly I decided that it would be a great idea to give "Starlight..." a blog to follow its creation, from the initial spark of an idea in James's head to sitting on a bookshelf and from there into the hands of readers. Now I sit here wishing I hadn't as I try to get to grips with blogging software. Thousands of people do it. It can't be that difficult!
The book has already been to two meetings, one in the UK and one in the USA at Barefoot's offices there, where the editorial team looked at some sketches sent via email and "Can You See a Little Bear?", our previous collaboration, which received rave reviews.
The next step for me is to prepare a dummy book with black and white sketches for the artwork and two sample spreads for another publishing meeting in France, early in March, and later a trip to Bologna Book Fair.I won't be going to France, but I will be going to Bologna.