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HOW DID YOU GET PUBLISHED?
Ever since I can remember I’ve loved drawing. When the careers advisor at school asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I would always say “an artist”, but somewhere along the way I found myself going down the graphic design route. I managed to forge a successful and enjoyable career working in newspapers and magazines - I was the art director of Just Seventeen, Sky Magazine, NME and The Observer Magazine - but I was still happiest with a pencil in my hand.
When my daughter Kitty was about two we started buying lots of picture books to read to her at bedtime. New ones, old ones, favourites from our own childhoods, we bought the lot. And I had an epiphany. Maybe I should have a go at writing and illustrating one. Whether I could do it or not I wasn’t sure, but it suddenly seemed so obvious that I should at least try. Two in particular inspired me: The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers and How The Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss. Oliver’s book is a work of art. It’s absolutely beautiful and it really opened my eyes to how much potential the medium has. The Grinch is, quite simply, my favourite ever children’s text. The rhyme is just perfect and provided me with something to aspire to from a writing point of view.
So off I went and started to work on a couple of stories. The ideas for both came from Kitty. One was about a doll that she got for Christmas and had decided to name “Nothing”, and the other was about an imaginary friend that lived in the attic space above her bedroom. When I’d finished I sent them out to a literary agent who immediately (and enthusiastically) agreed to take me on. “This is it,” I thought, “my book will be on the shelves in a matter of months!”. I was wrong. Despite getting quite a lot of interest from most of the publishers we approached, we couldn't quite get a deal in place. It was a case of so near yet so far. I think I had totally underestimated how competitive the market was. After a couple of years (yes, years!) of to-ing, fro-ing, tweaking and titivating I decided that I needed to step back and take stock. I told my agent to stand down and that I wanted some time to think through my next move. I spent the next six months completely re-drawing the imaginary friend story and I approached a new agent, Jodie Hodges at United. She liked my work and agreed to take me on suggesting that I put together a portfolio of children's staples to take to publishers alongside the book. So I drew a pirate scene, a dinosaur scene, a space scene, a selection of animal characters, boy characters, girl characters and lots more (you can see them here. We then took the work out.
This time things were different. Two of the people I met said they really liked a drawing I’d done of a little penguin family and asked if I could come up with a narrative for them. I said I’d try.
I had been working on a story about some children who, while flying a kite, get blown away across the sea by a strong gust of wind. It struck me that in fact this story might actually work better with penguins as the protagonists instead of children. It would certainly be fun to get the famously flightless birds airborne. So I tweaked it and finished it very quickly, sketching out some of the key moments. Within a day or two of sending it to publishers we had several offers on the table. I couldn't believe it. We decided to sign with HarperCollins (home of Oliver Jeffers and Dr Seuss) and haven't looked back since. It’s been amazing.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE YOU TO WRITE AND ILLUSTRATE ONE OF YOUR BOOKS?
Quite a while. Usually about a year from start to finish. Three quarters of that time is spent on the planning and writing, a quarter on the illustrating. People think that because picture books don't contain many words they can't take long to write. This is not the case, unfortunately, as every single line has to work really hard. They have to move the story on quickly while still being funny. Plus, in my case, they have to rhyme too. Add this to the fact that I am a total perfectionist (I can easily spend an entire week on one couplet) and it’s a wonder I ever get anything to the shelves!
WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS FROM?
For me it often comes from things my daughters say or do, but inspiration can strike at any time. I have an app on my phone that I use to note down ideas as and when I have them, whether that’s in the supermarket or in the bath. I find that ideas leave my head almost as quickly as they enter so I have to make a note of them immediately, otherwise they are gone forever.
WHICH DO YOU PREFER, WRITING OR ILLUSTRATING?
Illustrating is the really fun bit for me, but I think I find writing more rewarding. I write in rhyme, which is a bit like puzzle-solving, and so when you manage to get it to work it's very satisfying.
HOW DO YOU CREATE YOUR PICTURES?
Everything begins life as a sketch in my sketchbook. I hone character and composition there before taking it over to the computer to produce the final artwork. I have a very cool giant tablet thing (called a Wacom Cintiq) which I draw on with a special stylus using lots of customised digital paint brushes. The application I use is Photoshop. It’s really fun - just like real drawing/painting but without the mess. And you can press ‘undo’ whenever you make a mistake.
DO YOU DO PUBLIC EVENTS OR VISIT SCHOOLS?
I certainly do. You will regularly find me at festivals, bookshops, schools, libraries and theatres reading my stories and drawing pictures. You can keep up to date with my touring schedule at my events page. If you are a festival, a bookshop, a school, a library or a theatre and would like to request a visit, please get in touch with my publicity team at HarperCollins. Click here to send them an email.
DO YOU HAVE ANY ACTIVITY SHEETS I CAN DOWNLOAD?
I do. There’s a selection here.
CAN I GET A SIGNED BOOK?
I’m afraid I can’t accept books in the post to be signed and returned. Your best bet is to check out my events calendar and come and see me when I'm visiting somewhere nearby. Also, keep an eye on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook as I sometimes offer signed books as competition prizes.
CAN I BUY ANY PRINTS OF YOUR ARTWORK?
Yes. Click on the Print Shop link to see what's available at the moment. I tend to limit my prints to very small editions (between eight and fifteen usually) so things disappear quite quickly. I do, however, introduce new collections fairly regularly. All of my prints are printed on beautiful 100% cotton Hahnemühle 310gsm William Turner fine art paper, and each one is sent out with a personalised letter of authenticity.
WHAT WAS YOUR FAVOURITE SUBJECT AT SCHOOL?
Art. No surprise there then. More of a surprise is the fact that I have an A-level in pure maths with statistics!
DID YOU GO TO UNIVERSITY?
I did. I have a BA(hons) degree in Visual Communication Design from Middlesex. Before that I did a Foundation Course in Art & Design in St Albans.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE CHILDREN'S BOOK OF ALL TIME?
When I was young I absolutely loved anything by Richard Scarry. I particularly remember reading Storybook Dictionary and What Do People Do All Day? again and again, hunting for Bugdozer on every page. I also loved Dogger by Shirley Hughes, The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr and, of course, the Mr Men books by Roger Hargreaves. We have all of these on our bookshelf at home plus about a ton more. Recent favourites include Peter Brown's Mr Tiger Goes Wild, I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen and The Day Louis Got Eaten by John Fardell. The titles that actually made me want to make picture books myself, however, were The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers (a work of art) and How The Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss (in my opinion the best children's text ever written).
WHAT THREE PIECES OF ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO ILLUSTRATORS WHO WANT TO GET INTO THE PUBLISHING WORLD?
1) Sketch, sketch and sketch some more. You only find a style of your own if you draw your way to it! An individual, immediately identifiable style is SO important. Try and keep a sketchbook with you at all times - you never know when inspiration will strike!
2) Tailor your portfolio to your target market. The first thing that my brilliant agent asked me to do was draw all of the children’s book staples - a pirate scene, a dinosaur scene, a space scene, animals, children etc etc. Not only do you end up with a portfolio that publishers can readily identify with, but it can also really help you to hone you style and test it’s adaptability too.
3) Don’t give up. There probably will be some rejections along the way but remember that most opinion regarding illustration is subjective. It’s not like maths where there’s a definite right or wrong answer. If you really believe in yourself and what you’re doing you’ll be fine. Also, in my experience publishing can be quite a slow-moving process, so having some patience will definitely stand you in good stead.