Friday, 18 May 2012

Do Picture Book Writers need Good Memories? by Malachy Doyle


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.

I’m lucky. The house I grew up in

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.

Celia showed it to an editor from Dial US, who ‘loved the idea of a snuggle sandwich’ and thought it would make a great title. They felt the narrative voice ‘didn’t quite ring true,’ wanted more tension, and wanted the whole thing to come full circle at the end, ‘perhaps with Ted in a snuggle sandwich between baby and mum.’

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.

41 comments:

  1. What a lovely post - gives us all hope with those stories hidden away we keep on dusting down in the hopes of finding a publisher. Also gives me hope for the first rhyming book I've just sent off. Finally congrats on getting it published and I'm sure it'll do well.

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    1. Thanks Lynne. Sometimes there's gold under that there dust! Good luck with yours.

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  2. Thanks Malachy for capturing so well the myriad re-touchings that make something fly (no matter what the artform) and the importance of team-work... but also how vital it is to keep to your own editorial line even when the road to publication is so lengthy.

    This account could be the beginnings of your autobiography - a nice contract to be offered in a couple of days. Who knows.

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    1. Yes, it's that balance, Alison... If picture books come from a true place in the heart, then it's important to give them every chance to find their place out there in the real world, taking every offer of assistance, but crucial to hold to the truth of their source.

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  3. Wow what a saga! This is a really useful post, Malchy. Not only does it give me hope for all those old texts I have sitting around, but it really makes it clear to new authors what a long journey it can be to publication sometimes. Well done for sticking with it and congratulations!

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    1. Thanks, Abie. It's hard to work out which texts to let go of and which to hold on to, but sometimes we know deep in our hearts which are the ones that really matter.

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  4. Ah, but that 'snuggle sandwich' idea is just so perfectly right in describing those child parental moments that it HAD to work in the end. It looks a lovely bedtime book to share, so well done, Malachy.

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  5. Thanks Pippa. Persistence pays, yet again.

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  6. Adored reading the biography of The Snuggle Sandwich. Really interesting and thank you for allowing us so much insight into the publication history. You've encouraged me to not feel guilty about resurrecting those stories that don't want to fade.
    By the way, I was particularly intrigued by the photographic montage from your childhood. What an excellent idea for those who had mainly happy childhoods.

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    1. Sometimes, though they fade, you can add new and even richer tints.

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  7. Hi Malachy,
    What a wonderful insight into the world of publishing. As an unpublished author I am guilty of impatience; thank you for posting this as it is a remider that with perserverance and patience, goals can be achieved.

    P.S, snuggle sandwiches with my two little lads are the most wonderful thing in this world; what a lovely thing to capture in a picture book.

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    1. We never actually called them snuggle sandwiches when ours were little, so it's lovely to discover how many people understand and even use the term - I thought I'd invented it!
      Good luck with the stories, Schez.

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  8. I LOVE this post. The journey this manuscript took, it's growth, and your persistence are inspirational. As a fellow-rhymer, I also found it encouraging. Can't wait to read it!

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  9. Aw, thanks. For all the reasons Juliet Clare said on a previous post here, I'm wary of rhyme. But there's times when it's the only true way to tell a particular story, and this was always one of them.

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  10. So good to hear it's 3 year-old Malachy's time at last! It never would have got there if you hadn't realised your story was ready for that overhaul. Good luck - I also have a soft spot for Andersen and hope that one day I'll have another one for them!

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    1. Yes, Klaus remains a tour de force of children's publishing. Long may it last.

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  11. What a wonderful publication story. Congratulations! It is indeed so hard to know what to keep working on and what to lay to rest. Best wishes!

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    1. Thanks Catherine. The essential is to keep creating new stuff, but sometimes the older ones just refuse to lie down and go silent. If they shout loud enough in my head, I listen.

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  12. What an great post. Thanks for sharing. This gives me hope that one day I will be published. As well as other stories I have written, I have a particular story I deffinately want to get published. My critique group thinks its great and havent really faulted it (and it rhymes), its just finding a publisher! One day! Hopefully :-)

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    1. Thanks Jean. I wish you all the best in finding a home for your story.

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  13. Thanks for being so generous when sharing your publishing experiences, I have enjoyed your previous posts and love this one. I am so glad Snuggle Sandwich found a publisher at last!

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    1. Thanks Amanda. As well as having a long memory, I seem to keep emails for a long time. Comes in handy, when you want to tell a long-drawn-out story like this one!

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  14. Thanks for the post, Malachy. Really interesting. And I LOVE Gwen Millward! She did The Beasties, which I think is fab. How exciting. And I love reading about the editing process when choosing to work with -or ignore- feedback from others. So glad its time has finally come and it's only as it is because of all that waiting (and writing loads of other books in the meantime). And I agree that some books just need to rhyme -and that that's the time to use it!

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    1. Yes, I loved the Beasties, too, Clare, which is why I asked for Gwen. I'd assumed it was an Andersen book, as it was written by the wonderful Jeanne Willis, but it turns out it wasn't. Andersen, though, really wanted to work with Gwen. They sent the text first to her mother, Jenny Nimmo, who really liked it and put in a good word for me!

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    2. Sorry - got in a muddle there. The Bog Baby was the Jeanne Willis one. The Beasties, of course, was the one she did with her mum. Gwen had done fantastic little-creature stories, but I'm not sure if she'd done any with actual humans, so it was a leap of faith on my and my publisher's part - but it paid off, big time.

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    3. I never knew Jenny Nimmo was her mum! I'm going to tell my children in the morning (they love it too) and they'll say 'that's awesome!' -their current favourite phrase. I've used it in schools to introduce a game I play with the children on author visits as it's great for using objects to tell stories... Love the story of sending it to her mum first!

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    4. It's because Rona (my editor at Andersen)is a good friend of Jenny's, as is Celia, our agent, - who tells me that the family in The Snuggle Sandwich bear a surprisingly close resemblance to Jenny and David (who's a highly esteemed artist), and their children when they were young. So someone else has a good memory of childhood, too!

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    5. Great story! Really looking forward to reading your book soon.

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  15. Wonderful information. It was great seeing the evolution of The Snuggle Sandwich...Wow! Thanks for sharing lines from the text...it was fun reading them. I love rhyming picture books and when they're done right I am just delighted as the words sing the story. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks Penny. I really like your line 'the words sing the story'. That's what I try and do in all my picture books, rhyming or not. Rhythm is as important as rhyme, if not more so.

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  16. Hope we'll get it in the States too!

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    1. So do I, Julie. I haven't heard of a US release yet.

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  17. Great to hear it is coming out at last. The time has come!You should have a sandwich and hug-based launch!

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    1. Yeah! A Peanut Butter Party. Except I'm a marmalade man myself. So much so that one of my cats is called Wilkins, after my favourite marmalade - Wilkins Tawny Orange.

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  18. I am so unutterably chuffed that in a very small way I was a part of the acceptance process...and that you mentioned me at all!!

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    1. We all have our part to play, Anthea... I actually think it might not have been published without the nudge you inadvertently gave me.
      Good luck with the sequel to Share, by the way. I'm chuffed, too, to have played a small part in helping you down the road to publication. And looking forward to seeing you on the Arvon picture book course in a couple of weeks - one place left at the last count, if anyone feels like squeezing in!)

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    2. Looking forward to it, too....
      Hoping, selfishly, that I get a room to myself! I would not want to inflict all my nocturnal tossing and turning..and probable snoring....on a stranger! I am not good with sleep deprivation!

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    3. You sure know how to sell a course, Anthea!

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    4. Oooops!
      There are always earplugs....!

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  19. I really enjoyed this, Malachy ... and the peanut butter thing is magic :)

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  20. Wow, it pays to stick with it! Congratulations, Malachy.

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