I have to confess that I had never seen a picture book till I moved to England in the early 1980s. I was given, and treasured, quite a few heavily illustrated classics when I was a boy but they weren’t really picture books. They were what David Lloyd at Walker Books would call illustrated stories. Take away the pictures and the story would still work.
Then one day I walked into Swiss Cottage Library and there, stacked up in enormous wooden crates on legs, were hundreds of them. I felt like Tom the chimney sweep’s boy when he beheld his first water baby. It was love at first sight. Here was a world I was desperate to be part of.
I bought a notebook and a Bic and started writing my own picture books there and then. It was the start of a learning curve that is still curving twenty five years later.
I was really lucky with my first text, called Let The Shadows Fly. I sent it to Hamish Hamilton and they bought it. It didn’t sell very well but it got me some fantastic reviews and a real horrible one in The Guardian where the critic said it would give her three year old nightmares. The book was aimed at 4 – 7 year olds so she hadn’t done her homework [and nearly thirty years later I’m still hoping she’ll write a children’s book so I can get mow own back on amazon]. That first book taught me two valuable lessons I have never forgotten. No matter how many good reviews you get, it’s always the bad ones you’ll remember. We’re sensitive creatures.
But, seriously, the second lesson was a tougher one. Don’t write picture books if you want to be lauded as a real author. People will tell you, ‘we love the pictures,’ but they’ll never comment on your text. Not even if they’re a head teacher introducing you at assembly as their book-week author. You might have the initial idea for the book, you might write a text that flows with the force of the Nile in inundation, but your book will stand or fall on the pictures. Indifferent illustration will ruin a good story but great illustrations never seem to save a limp text.
My first ‘breakthrough’ picture book was Solomon’s Secret in 1988.
It was illustrated by Helen Cooper before her Kate Greenaway awards and published by the wonderful Janetta Otter-Barry at Methuen before she left to set up the children’s list at Frances Lincoln. This book taught my third and perhaps most valuable lesson. Only work with an editor you trust. She will make or break your book. If she has vision, if she can see the end result, go with her vision not yours. She’ll come through for you.
Solomon’s Secret sold very well, got numerous foreign co-editions and was one of the very first books with a black child on the cover to be published in South Africa after the end of apartheid. And right there, was lesson number four: a lot of publishers will only go ahead with a project if they can get foreign co-editions. Full colour books are prohibitively expensive to produce and many publishers can only afford to take them on if they can share the costs with their foreign counterparts. That rules out stories that would only work in one country, and illustrators who style does not ‘travel’.
In the end, I got lured away from picture books into the gift book market where I continue to do really well. I still couldn’t get head teachers to comment on my writing at the start of assemblies but at least there were so many words in the books they couldn’t be ignored.
I never gave up on picture books entirely though and when four years ago Templar invited me to write a text for the incredible Catherine Hyde, I jumped at the chance. Last year I attended the Scattered Authors society writer’s retreat at Folly Farm in Bristol and found out that some of my writing pals [Abie Longstaff, Jane Clarke and Rebecca Lisle] were holding a picture book session. I was struggling with a text I somehow couldn’t nail down and asked if I could join them.
The session proved incredibly fruitful. There’s something magical and empowering about sharing half-formed ideas and stories with your peers. I soon found out my story had a major flaw that I couldn’t mend. But during the session [actually during a trip to the loo half way through the workshop] I had another idea, which sent my picture book writing in a totally different and unexpected direction. The story is now with my agent who loves it. Watch this space! I might have some good news soon.
Saviour Pirotta is the best-selling author of many books for children, including The Orchard Book of First Greek Myths, The Orchard Book of Grimm's Fairy Tales and Firebird, winner of the Aesop Accolade 2010.
Find out more about Saviour at www.spirotta.com or follow him on twitter @spirotta.