There are writers that we read that will forever live in our hearts and heads. Writers whose vision, and eloquence, and understanding of their world and the wider world expands our own and makes us more understanding. For me Langston Hughes is one of those writers. A hugely important writer whose work heralded the Harlem Renaissance , one of America’s most important creative geniuses.
And then today I heard about this fund raiser from I, Too Arts Collective, a nonprofit organization committed to nurturing voices from underrepresented communities in the creative arts. Their first major project is to provide a space for emerging and established artists in Harlem to create, connect, and showcase work and the goal is to lease and renovate the brownstone where Langston Hughes lived in Harlem as a way to not only preserve his legacy but to build on it and impact young poets and artists.
As Langston Hughes said ‘Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly’ Help make this dream become a reality and help affect the creative and working lives of people for years to come,
William Sutcliffe is the author of several books for adults with his last two books published by Bloomsbury aimed at young adults. A distinction he, and no doubt many of readers of YA literature, feels is rather an arbitrary line. Certainly the complexity of ideas, the sophistication of writing and the dilemmas that his characters and therefore his readers have to face is no less challenging in one set of books than the other. However he does focus in both The Wall and Concentr8 on a cast of characters whose age puts them at that point in life between dependence and independence, powerlessness and empowerment and in both books it is this pivotal moment that forms that moral framework of the narratives.
In The Wall Joshua is a young man growing up in a town, in the never explicitly named, Israeli settlements who finds a tunnel to ‘the otherside’ where he is confronted with the reality of the impact of the settlements on the lives of the dispossessed. The wall is a physical presence in the book dividing the two communities but it is also a metaphorical wall between childhood and adulthood, between a boy’s morality and that of his parents. The book is about choices, about Joshua learning the meaning of his parents choices and about starting to make choices of his own. Two words that appear in the book with some frequency are ‘debt’ and ‘atonement’ and when we speak Will points out that there are many biblical references in the book with it in some ways being a contemporary and politicized retelling of the biblical story The Good Samaritan. The dilemma’s and actions of the hero of the novel focus on the way in which Joshua repays a kindness and recognizes his part in the greater actions of society which is not one that he feels sympathy for or a part of.
Concentr8 also focuses on choices and actions and their outcomes and this time with a very different group of young people. Set in the expanse of London’s housing estates these young people are victims of a society that is casting them to the margins by failing them in schools, by drugging them with Ritalin and by giving them no hope of any future. The book begins with echoes of dystopian literature, as William Sutcliffe says ‘feeling quite far-fetched like wild sci-fi’ but quickly uses its tense story telling, excerpts from medical and scientific research and very real portrayal of an ambitious London Mayor to feel incredibly real.
The characters portrayed too are viscerally real from the way that they speak to the camaraderie and bonds that exist between them. William Sutcliffe tells me that he worked for a while in a ‘rough South London school’ that was ‘not really a school, more a holding pen’ and that he feels that the failure to educate means that our society is creating ‘twentieth century canon fodder, a class of people who don’t really get an education, who leave school without any hope of a job and they are just in despair from quite a young age. And under current austerity measures the little hope they have gets worse and worse. These are the characters I wanted to put in to this book. I don’t think that they have much of a voice in our society.’
While The Wall is told in the first person, Concentr8 is told from multiple viewpoints each chapter clearly labeled by the character whose point of view we are sharing. If The Wall is about making the bigger political story personal Concentr8 is about making the personal story political. Will’s writing is clearly focused on trying to ensure a voice for people. His concerns are that in society we find it easy to marginalize and push out of sight people that fall outside our own set of prejudices about normal. The young men in Concentr8 are the urban marginalized: the people that the media pillories, that are considered difficult in school, who are not invested in the system because they can not see where they fit or what the system does to support them. Using satire to expose the self-interest of politicians in London in the days after a period of rioting the book is also deadly serious as a group of young people kidnap and hold hostage a man who works for the London Mayor. We know it can’t end well and while reading about the hold-up in a deserted warehouse in Hackney our sympathy for the hostage takers tends to move back and forth understanding their plight but also afraid of them and their audacious actions.
The novels both have a strong and impassioned authorial point of view. William says ‘you have to take a moral stand’ and while I questioned that his characters moral stand in Concentr8 is worryingly ambivalent he says that ‘one of the things I worked at in this book and which I think is very important and sometimes missing in YA fiction is a sense of ambivalence. Some YA fiction makes it very clear who the good guys and who the bad guys are. Ambivalence was very important to me with these characters. What they do is clearly bad and unpleasant. They are not nice. But I wanted readers to feel some sort of identification towards them, and sympathy for who they are, which puts you in an interestingly complex position about what they do. What they do is pretty appalling. There is nothing good about what they do but I hope that what the book does is give you some feeling that if you are in a condition of total despair and you have no hope for the future, then just standing up and being counted and being noticed feels like something.’
The end result is certainly that William has written a book that many young people will see in it something of their lives represented. Something of the people around them and the feeling of hopelessness that sadly is the daily life of many young urban people. He says that ‘I hope that a 15 year old kid reading this book might feel a bit understood. Its not just about you understanding the book. It’s the feeling that the book understands you.’
What next for William Sutcliffe? I don’t doubt that whatever it is that the portrayal of people in complex and difficult situations will be interestingly and skillfully traversed.
Both The Wall and Concentr8 are available now in paperback published by Bloomsbury. William Sutcliffe’s books have been shortlisted and won an impressive range of prizes as follows:
The Wall Grampian Children’s Book Award 2014, Shortlisted.Calderdale Children’s Book of the Year Award, Winner. Guardian Children’s Book Prize, 2013, Longlisted. CILIP Carnegie Medal 2014, Shortlisted. Hampshire Independent Schools Book Award, Shortlisted. UKLA Book Award 2014 (12-16 Category), Shortlisted. Scottish Children’s Book Award (older readers), Shortlisted. Cheshire School Book Award 2015, Shortlisted. Amazing Book Award 2015, Longlisted
Concentr8 Peters Book of the Year Award 2016, Shortlisted. YA Book Prize 2016, Shortlisted. CILIP Carnegie Medal, Nominated
Brian Conaghan is relatively new to the world of children’s books but not to the world of young people. He was a teacher for 17 years before giving it up to become a full-time writer when he secured a publishing contract with Bloomsbury for his first book with them, When Mr Dog Bites. He explained that as a child he didn’t read until he was about 17 and he considers himself to have been what is now termed a ‘reluctant reader’ He said “I hated the idea of people telling me what to do” and he feels that readers have to learn to enjoy reading rather than be forced to read. With this in mind he says that he read all sort of books with his pupils and felt that his motivation was to ‘grab’ readers with books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Refugee Boy, and early Roddy Doyle novels. Books, he tells me proudly “with swearing in them and about people like them” It is a literary canon that his own powerful novels very happily sits amongst. “Swearing doesn’t have a profound effect on kids but what does have a profound effect is when characters open up their emotions and express love through the pages to these kids” he asserts. When Mr Dog Bites garnered much praise for its original and brave story telling and also suffered some criticism for the amount of swearing in the book. But it isn’t possible to imagine an honest portrayal of such a complex character without the swearing. As a writer Brian aims to represent real life in his books and in the case of the books hero, Dylan Mint, real life includes having Tourettes Syndrome and an incredible ability to swear. Like all writers Brian makes a choice about who is going to represent and it is the good fortune of many many readers that he is choosing to go to the less frequently fictionalized characters for his heroes.
Brian goes on to explain that he is “interested in the individual who is lost and not heard and oppressed within the school environment and the social environment. Who isn’t valued by their society and their community. You see them constantly as a teacher. Kids at the back of the classroom, do the work, don’t give you any bother or hassle and it just seems that no one has asked them their opinion or their thoughts or feelings. These are the voices and kids I am interested in. The disenfranchised.” And to create these characters Brian has an incredibly original and unique voice himself. Amongst the very crowded shelves of teen and YA fiction there are few authors prepared to go so out on a limb and Brian comments that “ignorance is bliss. I can’t say I’ve read all these other books. I think we live in a derivative world. It is very difficult to be unique but what I do think you can be is honest, and I think you can be true, and I think you can represent people accurately.”
“The reason I like writing about teenagers is that I feel sometimes that irrespective of where you live in the world, which direction your life is taking and the social and economic political situation I think sometimes that what unifies teenagers is that we have all got the same fears about ourselves, about our bodies and about how other people see us and about how we see ourselves.” And it is this understanding about the universality and shared emotional world that we inhabit that gives Brian’s characters such universal appeal – regardless of the particular circumstances of their stories. He tells me “I just feel we are not that different. Other than the aesthetics and the language of it all we are not that different. I feel it is what’s in your head and in your heart that counts.” And in that Brian reveals the profoundly humanitarian and kind pulse of his books. Brian’s second book with Bloomsbury has just published and I am delighted to review The Bombs That Brought Us Together which has the hallmarks of the unique Conaghan voice, the unlikely hero, and a brave approach to telling the truth for his readers, but this time he sets his characters in a much bigger political arena.
After the huge critical success and a Carnegie Medal shortlisting for When Mr Dog Bites, Brian Conaghan’s second book with Bloomsbury, The Bombs That Brought Us Together, has just published. How do you follow a debut that caused such a sensational amount of interest? By writing something else brave, original and complex it seems.
In this moving novel Brian takes us on a more overtly political journey than its predecessor, yet at its core remains a touching portrayal of boys and their friendships. Brian explained: “I try to write tenderly about boys and I look at my own friendships as a kid and while we were into football and underage drinking we loved each other intensely and were always very open and honest with each other.”
When Charlie Law meets Pavel Duda it is at a time of great social unrest in Little Town. A suffocating regime is firmly in place with the laws laid out for all to obey and the enemy, in the form of Old Country, lurking menacingly across the border. Pavel’s story of migration from Old Country to Little Town, arriving with nothing but a flimsy understanding of the native language, is particularly resonant today. Brian started writing the book in 2014 as wars were being fought at the edges of Europe and the humanitarian crisis in Syria was sending shock-waves across the world. Struck by the nightly news pictures of families walking out of war zones, often with their entire lives packed in a small rucksack, he felt moved to write on their plight. . The people in the news stories, Brian understood, are just like the rest of us; not in any way less human or empathetic because of the cards that life dealt them. He was also aware of the Scottish Referendum and considered the imbalance of power between Scotland and England and he says “it got me thinking, what if this big place, a mighty powerful neighbour, would become a bully.”
The Bombs That Brought Us Together is inspired by and reflects real life events. The book creates a relatable story that humanises and personalises those events for the reader. At the core of Brian’s writing is the desire to understand his characters and their motivation. He wants to paint portraits that are honest and through the portrayal of those lives allow the reader to get closer to understanding a bigger political context.
Brian believes that today we “live in a culture of fear. We have to look for answers as a country and as a community and look at why we are demonising young people”. He argues that this demonisation comes from a wider attack on working class values and working class communities being vilified by the media and politicians. Brian wants to show his readers that people are fundamentally not that different and when any differences are emphasised it is done in the name of greater political ambitions. In Little Town these differences are amplified to create a culture of fear in order to help the regime maintain the skewed power balance. Pavel’s arrival shows Charlie that he has been taken in by the propaganda, blindly accepting its sweeping generalisations, and the friendship that Pavel and Charlie go on to form is a safety net for both of them. While on the surface it might appear to the reader that it is Pavel who has most to gain from the friendship, we soon see that both boys benefit from the relationship in a profoundly important way. When Old Country invades Little Town and Charlie and Pavel find themselves on the wrong side of the regime, it is the courage and confidence that their friendship has given them that gives Charlie the strength to resist and take a course of action that will change their lives.
Dealing with big political issues in The Bombs That Brought Us Together is something that Brian feels is very important. He was brought up to be politically motivated and he is concerned that the disenchantment felt today about the democratic process is down to a failure of the system. He feels that books like his, that directly address political themes, are empowering young people and offer the opportunity for readers to realise that they have a part to play in the narrative and that they can question the disparity of power. He writes to give voice to the silent, both in the personal and domestic arenas and the larger political arena.
In the end The Bombs That Brought Us Together is full of optimism and hope for the future as, at its core, is the belief that people can overcome their hardships; that they can change; that they can find strength and security through friendship and love, and that caring for their friends and families has its own reward
The Bombs That Brought Us Together is a powerful book about important issues. It is a book with a strong voice and a book that doesn’t shy away from looking directly at a problem,. Like the best YA writing, its power is in its characters and their interplay as they contend with moral and social dilemmas that the reader can empathise with. Brain Conaghan’s book joins others such as Maggot Moon, in giving the world a different view of boys, their friendships and their hopes and dreams. Brian is a thrilling writer whose respect for his audience is such that he doesn’t shy away from the truth. Happily for us, he tells me that he is a fast writer and that there are other books in the pipeline, which I for one am very much looking forward to.
I am delighted to post this blog by Leila Rasheed looking at the journey of Megaphone so far as well as making a call for action in the future. Leila believes that children’s literature is not the niche interest it’s often assumed to be but rather it is a foundation of society. Her work on Megaphone goes someway to ensuring that all children, and writers, get to benefit from the power that literature holds.
In late 2015 Megaphone (www.megaphonewrite.com) , a writer development programme aimed at BAME writers of children’s fiction, opened to applications for the first time. I’m delighted to say that our five participants – Danielle Jawando, Tina Freeth, Joyce Efia Harmer, Nafisa Muhtadi and Avantika Taneja – have just been selected from more than sixty excellent applications. A panel of editors and publishers helped make the final choice from a shortlist of ten. I’m truly excited to begin working with these talented writers, who are writing on a wide range of subjects and in a range of styles and voices, and I feel this is a good time to take stock and look forward.
So what have I learned so far?
The applications came from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, broadly in line with national demographics, and overwhelmingly from women. The decisions were made on the basis of anonymous writing samples – we asked for letters of application also, but these were just to ascertain the writers understood the commitment that would be necessary for a year-long course. The successful participants had all taken creative writing courses or written in other modes previously (though as stated above we did not make the selection on this basis). All applicants had made big sacrifices for their writing – investing money and time, taking sabbaticals from work and so forth. Several were writing in the face of substantially difficult circumstances.
This illustrates that it takes a lot of investment in one’s writing to reach even the stage of being selected for a writer development programme such as Megaphone. Of course, not everyone has the opportunity to invest in their writing – not everyone can afford it, or easily access opportunities. I believe we ought to develop more targeted opportunities to create a ladder of development for children’s writers. This is the only way we will get a range of voices in children’s literature that represents the whole spectrum of British life – and we need such a range, because I feel strongly that children’s literature is not the niche interest it’s often assumed to be; it is a foundation of society, the art which has the most impact. It is where the next generation learns not only its values but also its understanding of what a story is and how meaning is made – the very structure of thought. I also believe that everyone should have the opportunity to connect with the next generation. This needn’t always mean writing for mainstream publication; it could (for example) mean creating projects where older people can write stories from their life in a way that will engage and entertain their grand-children. Megaphone has a very specific aim, which means that it has to work on the principle of selection, but there is room for many other schemes to develop. I would love to see more of these ‘rungs’ created – and see them made available across the UK.
I was struck by how many people in their letters of application expressed a feeling that Megaphone was not merely opportune, but really needed. Many felt excluded from mainstream publishing and were delighted to find a project that specifically targeted and welcomed them. We know from the Writing The Future report (https://www.spreadtheword.org.uk/resources/view/writing-the-future) and from the recent, excellent Bare Lit festival (http://barelitfestival.com/ ), that BAME writers are often bypassing mainstream publishing altogether because they do not see themselves supported and valued there – and that is no different in children’s literature. Nosy Crow’s call for BAME writers (http://nosycrow.com/blog/an-update-on-our-open-call-for-childrens-fiction-submissions-from-debut-bame-writers/ )is great news and has already drawn many submissions, but I wonder how many more writers have not even heard it because they’ve already decided that mainstream publishing wasn’t open to them and are not tuned to those channels.
I know from the amount of support I’ve been generously offered with Megaphone that mainstream children’s publishers really do want to publish a more diverse group of people. My experience so far leads me to believe that they should begin by asking themselves: how does my organisation, how does my website, how does my list look to non-white people? Does my publishing company look welcoming to them? Or does it look like somewhere they will always be the odd one out, asked embarrassing questions, be expected to change the most important things about themselves and their writing? Does it look like somewhere they’ll find themselves fighting a cover whitewash? Does it look like somewhere that expects BAME readers to buy their books, or somewhere that would be surprised to hear that non-white people read? To attract BAME writers, I believe mainstream publishers need to think about BAME readers – they are the same people after all.
It is a struggle for any writer to find their voice and the confidence to use it, but especially so when the contents of the library and the bookshop provide so little evidence that the world wants to hear what someone like you has to say. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf wrote, describing the hostility that faced female writers as opposed to the indifference that faced male ones:
“The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?”
Too often, the world’s message to British BAME people is simply, ‘You don’t write’. I hope that Megaphone can contribute to changing that message.
One thing I learned when I studied children’s literature at Roehampton is that children’s literature has always been radical and engaged with society; from Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies to Jan Needle’s Wild Wood. This is a history we can celebrate and build on. All of us who are involved in children’s literature need to be more willing to identify and critique the effect that growing up with literature that has until recently either excluded non-white people or presented them only as stereotypes has had on us. Just as I internalised the idea that I couldn’t write about myself, it has had an effect on our assumptions, on our cultural values, on what we include and exclude, on what presences we have come to expect and what absences we have learned to tolerate. So these are some things that I personally would like to see in the future:
Sound research into how BAME people engage with children’s fiction. This will be the bedrock for targeted and effective action. I want to know exactly how many picture books with Black or Asian or other minority ethnic main characters are published per year in Britain. I want to know how BAME parents feel about buying books for their child, and where they buy books and why, and what change if any they would like to see. I would like to know how many books by BAME authors are shortlisted for major children’s literature prizes. I want to know what the gaps and absences we’ve not thought to question yet are.
We need BAME writers and publishers to keep on writing and talking about their experiences and sharing them. We need to define the problem before we can fix it. We need white writers to keep being conscious and positive about equality, to counterbalance those who are not.
We need projects that work for everyone. I do think that Megaphone legitimately offers publishers something of real value: they would love to cast their net for writers wider, but they aren’t a school for writers and they quite reasonably want to publish books they can sell. Megaphone creates a conduit from writer to publisher. Editors need a close-to-perfect manuscript, but a writer development programme can work with what comes before that – and potentially can keep people writing and submitting rather than giving up.
I’d love to see the history of non-white publishing and writing for children and teenagers collected and recorded so we can see how much has been achieved by people like Verna Wilkins (http://www.tamarindbooks.co.uk/downloads/tamarind_righttobeseen.pdf ). I don’t think we celebrate this enough. A book, a website? A Heritage Lottery Fund project?
I’d like to see BAME readers, parents, book buyers, to make themselves even more visible as a consumer force. I would like to see people getting vocal about this. I’d like to see active questioning: why isn’t my child anywhere in your bookshop? And why should I spend money in a place that excludes my child?
I’d love to hear what everyone else thinks. What should we be doing next?
Watch this wonderful video with clips of authors and illustrators talking about their work, their commitment to creating wonderful literature for young readers and their amazing artistic legacy. And put the date in your diary if you are attending the Bologna Children’s Book Fair when we will find out who the winner of this award, dubbed the nobel prize for children’s literature, will be. 2pm 4th April 2016 in the Illustrators Cafe.
“A book can never be too young for you, a book can be too old for you but it can never be too young for you … “ David Roberts.
To celebrate the publication of A Beginner’s Guide to Bear Spottingby Michelle Robinson and David Roberts I met David for coffee and to talk about his career in publishing, his books and the joys of illustration. Here is some of what we spoke about …
David went to art school in Manchester where he studied Fashion Design. And whilst he was on the course two visiting lecturers introduced him to his future – a milliner to a passion for hat making and a fashion illustrator opened his eyes to the possibility of earning a living as an illustrator. He found that his tendency to draw characters that look like him made his choice of fashion illustration as a specialism a little tricky “They weren’t the most attractive lets say … so I didn’t really get much work” he tells me.
David went to Hong Kong where he worked as a milliner and while he was there he started to work for local newspapers and magazines doing art for their horoscopes, fashion pieces and articles which started him on his career as an illustrator. One of the pieces he did, about the people in the fashion industry which he based on a hybrid Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous and Ivana Trump, he had made into a postcard through which he met his agent Christine Isteed of Artists Partners with whom he has been every since.
It was Christine who guided him to being a children’s book illustrator. She pointed out to him that he draws characters with a story and she took him on telling him that she would find him work in children’s publishing.
It was exactly what David wanted to do and was the start of his amazing career. “For me at that time Christine was the one that gave me that boost. I wanted to do children’s book illustration but I never believed I was able to do that. So when she said ‘Go away, come back to me when you have reworked your portfolio, take a few nursery rhymes and illustrate them…’ that was the start for me.” David’s first book was with Wayland called ‘Frankie Steins Robot’ by Roy Apps and he has since gone from strength to strength and work by him must be present on almost every child’s bookshelf with a range of titles covering everything from pre-school to YA.
David does not see himself as a writer, rather as someone who is an illustrator of other peoples books. This is despite his wonderful Bertie series of books which cover the escapades of a little boy called Bertie who has some pretty revolting personal habits that appeal hugely to a young readers. David created the character and wrote the first two books and the writing is now done by Alan Macdonald while David continues to illustrator both the picture books and fiction titles that are published around the character.
“I soon realized after doing those books that writing is not for me” David tells me “what gives me the real thrill is someone else’s imagination, and what they come up with can then take me down a road that I never would have been able to think of myself. I need someone to open that door for me.”
David acknowledges that the challenge of illustrating dinosaurs for Julia Donaldson’s Tyrannosaurus Drip meant that he was pushed out of his comfort zone – and had to come up with characters for animals that don’t wear clothes as clothes mean to so much to him when creating character.
He says he enjoys illustrating other peoples books so much more that trying to come up with his own texts and this is also perhaps why David’s work, while being so distinctive, meshes so well with different writers from Chris Priestley to Sally Gardner, Julia Donaldson to Michelle Robinson. There is great mutual respect between the two creative halves and never a feeling that one is trying to impose its will on the other..
David is surprised that his work is often talked of as being gothic as he is not a fan of anything even remotely scary. He says he couldn’t even watch Sleep Hollow with Johnny Depp which is hardly hardcore horror! But he acknowledges that he likes to illustrate darkness “creepy and sinister and the oddities of things, the shadows. What I loved so much about Chris Priestley’s stories is that they allowed me to remove the characters because he didn’t want things revealed. I could literally draw a room with a shadow and that was enough.” And this was a new way of thinking for David who found himself freed of having to create a character and could focus on creating an atmosphere. Which he does brilliantly.
It isn’t too much of a surprise to find out that one of the reasons that David wanted to be an illustrator is because of his love of Edward Gorey’s books. He became captivated by Gorey’s work while a student because “there is something about the way that it is so static. Its just these captured moments that really really appealed to me in the way that I also really loved Victorian photographs where a scene has been set and you are posed. I learnt a lot from looking at Edward Gorey and Gustave Dore and Charles Keeping. I learnt about tone and light and depth and how to leave the white space and how to cross hatch from looking at their work.”
David is the master of leaving the space. He does not over explain or over illustrate and leaves the reader lots of room to use their imagination and fill in the gaps. David is also a wonderfully humourous illustrator and much of this is conveyed through the charm of peoples faces, and ‘wide eyed’ innocence. David admits that he loves to draw people, to think of who each character is, what they would wear and how they would move through the world. He thinks this is at odds with his solitary life as an illustrator who doesn’t get to spend a lot of time with people and it is the humanity he invests in his characters that I think make them so compelling to the reader.
David’s reputation is building around the world and while he is published in many countries and is working directly with American publishers he doesn’t feel he has to adapt his style to suit his projects abroad. Working directly now with Abrams on the books Rosie Revere Engineer and Iggy Peck Architect by Andrea Beaty with a third one on the way.
He notes that his books published in the American market are often noted for their ‘Britishness’ and he knows that in the end it would be a mistake to try and contrive something for a market “always just be yourself, do it how you see it and then let other people take from that.”
David is amused by conversations in which people assume that his ability to create children’s books is because he “has the mind of a child”. He says “I don’t really think about the child when illustrating a book, I only ever respond to the text. I never ever think what would the child want to see.” Like other original and successful creators of children’s books his ambition is to create the best and not to double guess what the audience might want.
Yet at the same time David is conscious of the orthodoxy of a classical training. “I always felt that there was this secret method which I didn’t know about because I hadn’t trained that way. That you had to be so pure about things and if I was doing watercolour I would feel I couldn’t possibly pick up a coloured pencil and add that to it because this is supposed to be watercolour. And then I found a copy of John Burningham’s Mr Gumpy’s Outing and something flicked in my mind. I just looked at it and saw that it was a case of whatever is on the desk he picked up and drew with it so it could be a crayon, or pen and ink or watercolour. It was so free and it instantly made me think whatever I want to make the mark with I should make the mark with. It made me a little less frightened.”
David feels that there is no right and wrong way of doing something and this confidence has meant that he has developed a wonderful distinct style that is always recognizably him. Despite the difference in the audiences from his picture books to his black and white work in YA novels the art is always clearly his. He loves the fact that he can move between black and white and colour work and that the illustrations for each take a different energy from him. The variety he feels keeps him fresh, and interested. He suggest that his most unusual work and the one that will surprise his fans the most is Tinderby Sally Gardner which came about because Sally asked him to work in a different style. He found the opportunity such a freedom and it was he says, rather like having time to draw for himself and experiment.
David does all his work manually and does not use a computer. An artist with immense drawing skills David is also someone who creates a colour scheme for each of his books which is special and personal to each text. For A Beginner’s Guide to Bear Spotting
the colour scheme was his first approach and also his first way into the text and didn’t involve any changes of heart or direction from him as the book developed. He says “I had this idea of orange, and yellows and orches and pale blues – these were the colours that I though the bears would look good against. With this book it was straight away right. “
Publishing in February David loved illustrating Michelle’s text. He says it was an opportunity for him to combine his black and white cross hatched line with watercolour and a perfect opportunity to bring those two creative worlds together.
“I had so much fun with it. The text is so new and so open, it felt like I could take it in so many different ways and it was so refreshing to think ‘how shall I do this’
David also enjoyed the process of working with Bloomsbury on the book as he felt no one was trying to ‘guide his hand’ on the book and that in being left to ‘have a go’ and then to adapt anything he might have got wrong allowed him to get it right.
For a child that is a little bit unsure about reading David realizes that Illustration is a way of making the reading experience easier. He remembers not being a confident reader and how much art helped him build his confidence. That pictures can offer clues to the words as well as a small break in the reading is important to how David structures his illustrations and in the Bolds by Julian Clary David aimed to have an illustration on every page to help young readers with both pace and clues.
The family in the Bolds is a family that David feels the reader wants to be part of and that they are always laughing and finding laughter in their experiences. “Its nice to illustrator laughter” David tells me and “when I am drawing I pull the expression on my face of the expression I am drawing. I found that when I was drawing the characters in the Bolds I have this crazy grin on my face the whole time.”
David doesn’t often get a day off but if he did on his wish list would be a visit to see a Hockney exhibition, an artist that he adores. He says that Hockney’s work from the 1970’s heavily influence Iggy Peck Architect and that he shamlessly stole a garden sprinkler from a Hockney painting for the book. It is clear that David’s influences are wide and his appreciation of the detail in other peoples art is something that is reflected in the painstaking care he puts in to his own work.
He also really likes exhibitions like the Viking exhibition and the Pompeii exhibition as he loves real stories about real people and he would love to do some non-fiction, biography even. He would be interested in people whose lives are interesting, whether or not he agrees with their politics. Margaret Thatcher for example would give him plenty to get his teeth in to … miners strikes and all.
For the coming months however he is unlikely to have time to start the Iron Lady’s life. He has several books in the pipeline, including his first book for Walker Books which he is delighted about as it was the first children’s publisher he was every really aware of. This after a career that spans, if you include all the educational titles, book covers and other projects, over 150 books. We have a lot more to look forward to from David in the future.
Thanks to Vivienne Dacosta @Serendipity_Viv for allowing us to repost this lovely interview with Olivia about the writing and publishing process of her debut novel The Island. You can follow Olivia on twitter @livilev
Day 5 already of the Debuts of 2016! Where is the time flying to? I am really enjoying hearing about the hopes and fears of our forthcoming debuts. Today I am pleased to welcome Olivia Levez as one of our featured authors of 2016.
Olivia’s book The Island is published in March by One World Publications.
What did you do when you found out you were going to be published?
I was at school, teaching 11YMI or 9XJU or 8YLE, all the while secretly listening for my phone buzzing from the drawer where I keep controlled assessments. My agent Clare was due to text me about book offers after an exciting day visiting publishers in London. Impossible to concentrate on Of Mice and Men or Macbeth or poetry analysis or learning objectives or success criteria or differentiation or where the heck I’d put the carrier bag containing that class’s exercise books. ‘Miss’ did her best, and kept darting back to her drawer if the class was one of those that could be trusted to get on without someone kicking off or falling off their chair accidentally-on-purpose.
My TA kept whispering, ‘have you heard yet?’ and other teachers I rarely spoke to kept coming up to me: ‘Have you heard yet?’
‘No,’ I kept saying. ‘Not yet.’ All the time in the back of my mind wondering if the offer/advance would be significant enough to a) pay my mortgage off and b) get George Clarke from Amazing Spaces to come and build me a writing shed at the bottom of my garden.
My phone buzzed.
A text from Clare.
Okay, so I wasn’t going to be getting George in to build me a treehouse/gypsy caravan/hobbit hole any time soon, but here it was: a Real. Live. Offer.
And then another. And another. Three from which to choose!
This is where an agent comes in. Clare held out and negotiated to get me a little more money, and set a deadline for the final offers to come in. Definitely not skills I possess.
My own children listened very nicely when I told them, and showed polite interest. After all, I’d had near misses with being published before, so it was more of a, ‘so, is it actually real this time, Mum?’ response. My friends at a theatre visit that evening bought me surprise prosecco when I told them, and I did feel fairly starry until a friend who arrived late thought I must be celebrating being pregnant!
And then a wonderful weekend in London, having lunch with Clare whilst we decided which publisher to go with, and I stayed with my husband in a hotel opposite Fortnum and Mason, looking all over London and rereading the letters and offers.
A text from Sarah Odedina, looking forward to working with me.
And so it began.
How has your life changed since getting a book deal?
Mostly, life stays the same: it’s still you, alone at your laptop, tapping away.
Life continues as before. Work. Home. Writing. Work. Home. Writing.
But there are occasional lovely perks: meeting bloggers at my publishers, Oneworld, in their gorgeous Georgian townhouse offices on Bloomsbury Street. (Even the word Bloomsbury always seems wonderfully literary and evocative.) Being given the opportunity to talk about my book to fellow book addicts, and listening to Sarah Odedina pitch my book so thoughtfully and skilfully, and thinking, there’s someone I am really glad is on my side. Lunch with Sarah O, discussing book Two, full of ideas and passion and enthusiasm. ‘This is my favourite part of working in publishing,’ she told me, stabbing at her egg with her fork.
Increased Twitter action, when proofs are sent out, when the cover is revealed. An exciting photo from Frankfurt, seeing an enormous poster of my book placed next to other Oneworld books: Behavioural Economics Saved my Dog and the Booker Prize winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.
And in between, lots of hard work: the many layers that build a book – restructuring, more restructuring, line edits, copy edits, proof reading, more proof reading. And publicity stuff: writing press releases, blog posts for bloggers (thank you, Vivienne), Words and Pictures magazine, message in a bottle to go with early proofs, author videos, more visits to Oneworld offices to meet journos…
I have realised that copy edits give me nausea if I stare at them too long (I think I am actually allergic to them.) So every two hours, my little dog, Basil, is taken on yet another walk, much to his delight (he really likes copy edits).
The other thing that has changed is what to answer to that favourite question of hairdressers: what job do you do? Which to choose: teacher or writer? It still feels incredibly pretentious to say, ‘Oh, I’m an author.’ The reaction is always the same. Students (politely impressed): ‘So will you be really rich then, Miss?’ Others: ‘Are they going to make a film of it?’ and ‘Will you give me a (free) signed copy?’
But mostly, life goes on as before. The buzz of reaching your ‘ultimate goal’ of being published soon settles into another goal of actually selling books.
And so it continues.
What is your biggest fear about publication?
I always thought standing in front of thirty students and having an Ofsted inspector walk in with a clipboard and settle herself down in your classroom was pretty fearful, but there are more subtle horrors associated with being an author. Here’s my current list:
Bad reviews. Being tempted to obsessively trawl the internet, comparing myself with other authors. Not selling any books. Getting brain freeze with second book. School visits. (Even though I’ve been a teacher for twenty years, talking to pupils about your own book instead of other people’s is like ripping your heart and guts out and leaving them out in the sun for birds to peck.) Assembled rows of sardonic eyes, coolly appraising, then stifling a yawn and nudging friends. Nobody coming to my launch party. Pressing ‘send’ and then finding a glaring error. Being too pushy. Not being pushy enough. Being invisible. Not being liked.
But the worst fear of all is doing nothing about your dreams. Statis. Stagnation. Creative vortex. Stultification. Death without creation. The worst fear, in the words of T S Eliot, is ‘to measure out your life with coffee spoons.’
How to combat fear
‘Always do what you’re afraid to do.’ I copied this motto from the wonderful book, We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart. I have a signed poster of it on my classroom wall, and it’s a great maxim for life.
Richard Branson: ‘If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, say yes and learn how to do it later.’ Another great maxim.
Read Quiet, by Susan Cain. Feel the power of thoughtfulness, observation, listening skills, empathy, persistence, planning, patience. Lose the label ‘shy’ and reinvent yourself as a Quiet. Nearly all writers are secret Quiets. Even the ones who entertain children effortlessly, whilst dressed up as pirates, space crusaders, sea dwellers. Find your niche. Take Candy Gourlay’s advice and ‘be shiny’.
Advice: Survival tips for pre-published writers
Always act like an author. At SCBWI, you are not unpublished, you are prepublished. There is a difference. It’s all in the mindset. How do you act like an author? Have authorly habits. Write 1000 words a day, like Stephen King, or keep a dream diary like Will Self, or start a crit group (you only need one other person to make it successful, but 5 is ideal). If you are a teacher, start a writing club and give assemblies to ‘sell’ it to students, cunningly weaving in your own journey so far. Teachers, you are lucky; you are surrounded by your demographic.
Keep all those rejection letters. Print them out and put on a nail (and later, a spike – see Stephen King again) because you will need those to refer to when you are rich and famous. To fail is part of every learning journey. Share your failures with kids at schools and with crit friends. Learn from feedback. If you get a personal response in an agent rejection, give yourself an air-punch.
Remember that the slushpile is not a lottery. Despite its slithering layers that are 14000 high (or something), 70 % (I’m just making up figures here) will be from writers who are not SCBWI members/are not part of a crit group/are trying their luck/can’t write/wrong genre/age group/haven’t read the submission guidelines properly/are mad.
Most people claim they want to write a novel. But only 5% actually do this. So, by being in that 5%, you have already proved yourself to have authorly skills of persistence, tenacity, resilience, stamina, patience, ambition, drive, willpower, and being completely anti-social for sustained periods.
Keep going. Get beaten down. Pick yourself up. Keep going. And repeat. There is no time limit. You have all of your life. Be patient. Keep going. It will happen.
Have you seen the book cover, and how did it make you feel?
Nathan Burton, who designed The Island’s book jacket, used to work with Sarah O at Bloomsbury, and he did the iconic cover of Holes by Louis Sacher – the one with the lizard and the blue sky and the desert. He’s also designed covers for Patricia Highsmith’s novels, which is very exciting, as I adore her Ripley books.
Sarah O showed me the jacket, and it was a really strange feeling, looking at another person’s vision and concept of your book. A sort of out of body experience. It has a fresh, naïve style and I think will really stand out on the shelves. It reminds me of contemporary YA books like Jandy Nelson’s I Give You the Sun or Non Pratt’s Trouble or Annabel Pitcher’s Ketchup Clouds.
Everyone was adamant about it not having a girl’s photograph on the cover, to keep a more abstract feel. I like the simplicity of it, the artist’s mark-making and pared back style. The loneliness experienced by my castaway character, Fran, is represented by the scribbled-in mountains, and the framing of the island itself.
The only thing we changed was the figure of the girl, to make her more edgy, and Sarah managed to add a little dog on the spine, which is adorable. My own Jack Russell, Basil, agreed to model for this drawing, so I sent some photos of him (he’s seriously photogenic.) Oh, and I have a name with lots of Ls and Vs, which weren’t very clear in cursive script, so I asked if they could be separated a little, and changed to a darker colour, to make my name stand out. What a diva!
My real little dog, and constant writing companion, Basil.
Thank you Olivia for a most encouraging post. Good luck with your debut year.