The fist, eponymous, Winnie The Witch picture book came out twenty-five years ago this year, and on Friday the 13th of April and on Friday 13th of July Winnie will be celebrating her quarter century with birthday parties. (What? Didn’t you know that witches have birthdays every time there’s a Friday 13th?).
Over that quarter century, twelve picture books and eleven storybooks about Winnie and her cat Wilbur have been published, and more are in production. Winnie’s stories have be published in twenty-seven different languages, and sold over five million books.
For a picture book to grow into such a phenomenal, and on-going, success is the stuff of dreams. How did it happen?
Ron Heapy is the brilliant OUP editor who created the Winnie we know and love by bringing Valerie aThomas’s story and Korky Paul’s illustrative skills together.
Ron had already signed contracts to publish the Winnie The Witch story text, aiming it towards a series of early reader titles, but the illustration samples that followed had shown an uninspiring black shed in a garden. So Ron had sat on the story for a couple of years, unsure what to do with it next.
At that point, in walked Korky Paul, bringing some stories of his own to discuss with Ron. Ron described as ‘a bit like falling in love’, the moment when, at their end of their discussion, as Korky was heading for the door, Ron suddenly felt an impulse to do something to make sure that Korky would come back, and for there to be the chance for a working relationship to develop. So he handed Korky the story of Winnie The Witch, telling him that it was to be a book of desk diary size, and asking him to see what he could do with it.
Back came Korky with a wonderful picture of Winnie’s witchy mansion of a house, “full of stuff”. It was Winnie's house, even more than Winnie herself, which sold Korky to Ron as the right illustrator for her story. All of which process just goes to prove the point made in Malachy’s last post about how a story sometimes needs to wait very patiently until just the right illustrator is there to work with it. I asked Korky where his image of Winnie came from, and he says that he has no idea. ‘I sat and doodled a few witch type characters and she came almost immediately.’ He calls the process, ‘Purely instinctive. The bent hat was because I reached the edge of the paper while doodling, and just squashed the hat to fit it in’!
Was Winnie an instant success? Ron tells me that he had contracted to do a print run of 3,000 copies. Then he went to the Bologna Book Fair where Winnie artwork went up on a modest little stall. And straight away, Winnie’s magic began to work, halting delegates as they passed, so that publishers from Germany and America and more placed orders to bump that initial print run up to 16,000 by the end of the Fair.
Winnie The Witch was published in 1987. It won the Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ Award, chosen by children, the following year. Everybody wanted more stories about her. But that first book was a hard act to follow. Hence the long pause before a second story – Winnie In Winter - was finally published in 1996. Many more have followed since then. But I still think that very first story is the best of them. Why is it so good? I think that’s partly down to:
- The story being brilliantly simple, following a strong logic that twists at the end to surprise and satisfy with a really strong pay-off that we don't see coming (one of the hardest things to achieve in any story).
- The characters, and their relationship together, being appealing and sympathetic.
- The slapstick and ‘yuck’ humour being such fun, and so clearly at a fictional remove that there’s no worry to any of it.
- There being so much more to find of subsequent viewings of those wonderful pictures.
- The story being about the look of things, and therefore perfectly suited to picture book treatment.
- The appeal of the idea of being able to do magic. I love those great swishes of magic that appear as splashes of colour. I wish I could splatter magic about like that! The inspiration for the magic to look that way apparently came from watching the Red Arrows!
I think that Winnie The Witch is one of the best picture books ever. Can you suggest other ‘perfect’ picture books? Or give other reasons for Winnie's success?
NB To read more about how Korky does his illustrations, do read the fascinating article that you can find on his website