At the age of 56 or 57 or whatever the heck I am these days, I might not remember where I put that damn cheque book, or car keys, or letter from the tax man. But the first ten years of my life? I remember every square foot of the house I grew up in. I remember how it felt, how it smelt, how it sounded. I remember those days with an incredible vividness, and it’s those memories, those emotions, those days of joy and discovery, that every picture book I ever write draws upon.
is still there. (That's me on the bottom right by the way, aged about 6, by the garden gate.) It’s called Kiltermon, a big old house in the quiet little seaside town of Whitehead, at the mouth of Belfast Lough, where I still go regularly. The house isn’t in the family any more, but early in my writing career I put together a photographic collage of my childhood, on the wall above my desk, to help me connect with my 3/4/5/6 year old self.
After a visit in 1995, the year after I’d taken up this writing lark, I found myself writing a poem that drew on my earliest memory – sitting on my mother’s knee, after my father had left for work, and all six of my older brothers and sisters had headed off to school. Ah, the peace and quiet! Ah, the chance to have my lovely Mammy to myself at last!
It's quiet in the morning.
There's no one else around.
I lie in bed and listen...
Not a single sound.
It's cold out on the landing,
peeping round the doors.
My Mummy's smiling back at me.
My Daddy only snores.
I clamber up his tummy
and I wiggle down the bed.
We're a cosy snuggle sandwich.
I'm the jam and they're the bread...
I sent it to Walker Books, who said they liked it, ‘but it’s a second book’. I sent it to Transworld, who liked the language, the tone and the verse, but found ‘the storyline underdeveloped’. I rewrote it with a lost teddy, but they still weren’t convinced.
I sent it to the agent Celia Catchpole, who said she loved it and wanted to represent me! Result! It went off to a load more publishers then, but without success. (Celia did manage to sell twelve other stories of mine in the next ten months, though, so I was up and running, for sure.)
In late 1996, I went on a week-long Writing for Children course at Ty Newydd. The tutors were Valerie Bloom and Kevin Crossley-Holland. I showed Valerie Quiet in the Morning and she really liked it and suggested a number of amendments, which I gratefully incorporated.
By the following spring, though, Celia was telling me that the market for rhyming picture books wasn’t great, and that we seemed to have come to the end of the line with this particular idea.
In 1999, however, Simon and Schuster got hold of it. They came ever so close to giving me a contract, but again, it didn’t work out.
And so the story disappeared, resurfacing every few years for some spit and polish, but never being seriously considered for another push.
Then, in 2010, I pulled it out, gave it a complete overhaul, and wrote to my agent.
Dear Celia, another one that I think it's a real shame we never managed to sell is Quiet in the Morning… I know this one's had its run over the years, but we've had a fair bit of success, you and I, selling older ones...
The ending at this point was:
It’s cosy in the armchair,
now my teddy’s back again.
The morning rush is over.
My favourite time is when…
It’s quiet in the morning –
with no one else around.
Me and Mummy in the kitchen.
Not another sound.
Never one to ignore good advice, that’s what I did, changing it from first to third person and adding a new punch line in the American editor’s honour. So now the ending was:
It’s quiet in the morning,
now Teddy’s back again.
The morning rush is over.
Annie's favourite time is when...
There’s only her and Momma.
No more fuss and clutter.
Now THEY’RE the snuggle sandwich,
And TED's the peanut butter!
Much better, though I say it myself!
Dial didn’t take it, but Celia's like me - she doesn't give up easily. She made some text suggestions herself - she’s a brilliant editor – and agreed to give it one more go.
Me: It'd be absolutely delightful to sell this at last. I wrote it in 1995!
Celia: And everyone saw it in 1996-7! I still have my offer card with the list. However, I do think this version is much stronger and lots of new editors have arrived since then so I will take it with me to meetings here and do my best to sell it.
Penguin UK nearly took it. ‘A Snuggle Sandwich! That’s what I do with my son!’ said the editor, but couldn’t get it past her boss.
Then, two months later, a student I’d tutored on an Arvon course - I’d gone from poacher to gamekeeper by now - sold a story (one I'd helped her with) to Andersen Press, who'd published my first picture book, The Great Castle of Marshmangle, and later Hungry! Hungry! Hungry! I've a real soft spot for Andersen and for Klaus Flugge, their charismatic top dog - they only publish books they truly believe in; they're unusually speedy in terms of making decisions, drawing up contracts and, all importantly, paying; they're very good at selling foreign rights; they keep books in print for as long as they possibly can...
So, though I hadn't worked with them for some time, I wrote:
Dear Klaus, I hope you're keeping well. Anthea Simmons sent me a copy of her lovely debut Share!, with its fulsome dedication to me. It's a delightful book and I hope it does really well for both you and her. It made me think about you for a picture book idea of mine called Snuggle Sandwich, which I attach… It would be lovely to work with you again.
I sent it, along with a new story, not mentioning of course that they’d already turned down Snuggle Sandwich fourteen years before!
Klaus got back the next day: Dear Malachy, Thanks for sending us your two stories. I love the first and hope we can do something with it (perhaps making baby a bit older??) Kind regards, Klaus
He wanted The Snuggle Sandwich! RESULT! I said yes yes yes, and two days later got the delightful one-liner:
OK, Malachy, let's do another book together (if we can afford you!) K.
Some more very helpful text suggestions from their editor, Rona Selby, and then they asked if I’d any illustrators in mind. I suggested Gwen Millward, as I’d loved The Bog Baby, which she’d done with one of their authors, Jeanne Willis. Gwen said she’d be delighted to take it on, and hasn’t she done a wonderful job!
And so, in a couple of weeks time, The Snuggle Sandwich will be published. It’s been a long long road, with input from many many people, but hopefully it still feels as fresh as a first draft, only better. And as true as a three-year-old Malachy.
A three-year-old Malachy with a long long memory.