Monday, 15 February 2016

Rummaging and Ruminating - Jonathan Allen

Stamps! How cool is that?

I was recently contacted by a relative of the late, great Margaret Mahy, asking if I had any of the artwork for the books I had illustrated of hers that they might buy. 'The Great White man-Eating Shark' and 'The Three Legged Cat' for instance. As those books were from a good while ago, I knew I had some serious rummaging in the attic to do. So I did.

It was a nostalgic rummage at that. It always feels such a shame that most picture book artwork ends up in illustrator's attics. Some might make it onto a wall or two, but there are only so many walls in the average house and anyway, there are plenty of other things I would rather have on my wall ;-)
I came across a lot of artwork from books I had illustrated over the years. I had forgotten how much I have actually done, picture books, board books, pop-up books etc. There it all was, swaddled in bubble wrap, under a thin layer of dust. There was loads of it, not to mention the artwork for the 100 odd greetings cards I did in the eighties for Snap Graphics (defunct now I think) Hey, my stuff was popular once!

The path of my career has been one of being busy and successful, then being equally successful but doing rather less, in a more focussed way. In that mode I have been working for the same publisher almost exclusively for the last ten years. The character I invented (Baby Owl) and the concept I came up with ( I'm Not Cute! I'm Not Scared! etc you get the idea ) has had a good life but is now run it's course commercially, apart from board book reprints and such perhaps. So now I find myself no longer busy, and having time and inclination to stick my head out of my cave, having a look round at the Picture Book World in it's current incarnation, and sadly, not liking what I see very much.



For a start, getting a new idea in front of an editor is almost impossible. I'm not talking about for me per se, as I can jump the queue to some extent by citing my track record, (in theory anyway) but for any hopeful writer or illustrator.

A lot of publishers and agents don't even bother with standard rejection letters, they just don't reply to unsuccessful submissions, as if this is a perfectly normal and acceptable way to treat people.

Well it isn't. It's rude and disrespectful. Don't give me that "Due to number of submissions" stuff.
Don't, one the one hand, ask for submissions and then react as if everyone is wasting your precious time with their crappy submissions. OK, it takes time and is tedious to send a standard rejection email? (2 minutes??) But it is an acknowledgement of somebody's effort and as such the right thing to do. imho and all that. rant rant rant. . .



The other thing I realised as I surveyed the Picture Book world from my aforementioned cave was that after a great many years of thinking up, working out, roughing out and submitting ideas, is that there is an underlying process of attrition going on. A slow wearing away of your inner strength and confidence. Success is great, you get paid to do what you love, you get feedback and affirmation and all that stuff. But there is a constant pressure there, your next idea has to be good enough to get published, or if not that idea, the next one etc etc. Somewhere, deep down it wears you away slowly. Obviously, rejection doesn't help. After a few rejections you start to lose your confidence in your ability to tell what is or isn't a good picture book idea, and if it means that you are going to be financially challenged if you don't get something accepted soonish it all gets unhelpfully stressful. Low level anxiety is not the best head space in which to be effortlessly creative that's for sure.



The other other thing I realised was that my style is very much out of fashion. I have, over the years smugly told myself that because my style has never been in fashion as such, it can't go out of fashion. Wrong. . .
This is all my current perception, and I realise it may be a distorted view based on partial evidence, but nevertheless I believe there is some truth in it. There is, as I mentioned in a blog post a few months ago, an obsession in current picture books with 1950's style design orientated artwork. Retro style done by artists whose parents were probably not even born then. There is some lovely work out there, but I mourn the lack of emotional connection in the work. At worst it is a pale pastiche of an empty clichéd style I'm afraid. A sort of fake nostalgia. It is very much about composition and very stylised representations of people and animals etc. Nothing approaching an individual character. As my work is all about individual character, facial expressions and emotional connection with that character, I don't fit in at all with the zeitgeist.
That's ok, I wish all illustrators all the luck in the world, I just have to accept my time is not now, thats all.



I thought the unthinkable the other week. I thought "What would it feel like not to put myself through this any more?" This was a sacreligious concept, and one that stopped my in my tracks for a while. Writing and illustrating has been my life for the best part of 35 years, I can't just 'not do it any more'!
But the overriding feeling I got was one of huge relief. I had to listen to that.
But if I stopped writing and illustrating, how would I live? Well, I get royalties, I get the max PLR every year (hah!). I am mortgage free and the kids have left home. I even have a pension that I hadn't really thought about for years, I could spark that up, after all I am imminently 59 years old, (!) I can chug along at a low but acceptable level. I have other interests, I always have had, and I can earn a small amount from those. It's not a wildly unfeasible proposition.

And besides, if I take the pressure off myself, I am free to mess around with picture book ideas from a position of wanting to rather than feeling I need to. It may be a creatively liberating experience, who knows?
Anyway, whatever I decide to do, I send best wishes to you all and the best of luck,
Jonathan x

30 comments:

  1. I know these feelings, in particular that 'worn down' feeling. It's time to reinvent - if we have the strength. Spread to different age groups (even right up to 80 - why not?!). I've just finished a book for middle grade - I don't know if it will see the light of day but it's a new direction and it made me feel creative again. I've also decided to offer some festival workshops for the first time in a while. These are my attempts to shake myself up - get out of a rut. Maybe you have an idea away from picture books -away from kids books even!

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    1. Thanks Moira,
      I've been away for a day or two as a sort of combined birthday, valentines treat/break up to Norfolk/Suffolk as we are considering relocating up there. .
      Anyway, I empathise with your idea of re-inventing oneself. I am doing that in a small way with my bead and jewelry related stuff, and other decorative art projects. I shall push that. Not much money in it, but I like to demystify a new process or two so it pleases me that I can sell things I make.
      I like writing, and can do it, so writing for different age groups might be an option. I would need to muster the enthusiasm ;-)
      Thanks for the support.

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  2. Oh I know, I know! I came back to the UK after 21 years away in a country where illustration is heralded and respected (Japan) and had a tremendous shock - not only at how styles had changed in the UK (suddenly the word "traditional" had a new meaning - unmarketable, unwanted), but also the abruptness of publishers, the dominance of marketing departments pulling the strings, the general difficulty to get picture books published at all. Very different from when I left!

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    1. Thanks John,
      It's good to know that others feel my pain, even though I wouldn't actually wish it on others!
      I avoided mentioning the marketing thing, as I would have ended up ranting even more. Marketing staged a coup on creative editorial decisions about twenty years ago. Arguably it was something that was needed. The bottom line is what any business is about, but it stifled a lot of creative 'hunch' following by editors, and encouraged the dead hand of decision making by committee etc etc. imho etc. Now times are even harder for publishers it's even harder for creative risk takers. . .
      Maybe I should move to Japan!
      I think the UK is generally not very supportive of it's creative community, which may be why those who make it are bloody good and pretty tough, as they have had to fight to get through the apathy.
      Moan moan ;-) Old git illustrators or what? ;-)

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  3. Is teaching picture book illustration something you could imagine doing? I say that because although there are lots of e.g. residential Arvon courses for writing children's books, there seem to not be many for illustrating them - and I would love to go on some. I am a very new picture book and children's writer and I am in awe of you and John for having such long careers - I am very aware of how long term success is by no means guaranteed and take nothing for granted - so a) I hope that whatever decision you make is the best for you but b) you are amazing. P.S. I have been going into infant schools and nurseries with my picture books (only two books so far but more in pipeline) - and I am not the illustrator) and it has been wonderful. Would you consider that too? The children are so appreciative and excited, the teachers appreciative and I have been paid!

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    1. Thanks Anne,
      Teaching could be an option, though I wonder what I could teach as my style is all about just being 'me'. I guess I have experience of creating characters etc. My wife teaches watercolour to adults so she could advise. All the form filling and box ticking that is necessary these days if you do it through official adult education channels is a bit off putting though. (for instance having to watch out for signs of radicalisation! in retired home counties ladies. . . yeah, right. .)
      School visits are something I have done successfully in the past and should consider doing again, but my feeling right now is that because i have had nothing published for about 18 months that I would be somewhat of a fraud. . silly I know but I can't shake the feeling. It does pay pretty well though ;-)
      Thanks very much for your support.

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  4. Good luck and I am sure you will find a new way to go when you are ready. Definitely good not to have too much pressure on, and use the freedom to try new and unexpected things.

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    1. Thanks Deborah, I feel better for having confronted the issue at least. Freedom is good! ;-)

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  5. Oh Jonathan - SO much 'been there and done that'feeling when I read your post. I'm a writer (with an art school back-ground never used) and I had my glory days in the 90s-2001 - an impressive track record, mostly with Walker Books, but also Random House, and Simon&Schuster who gave me a glittery launch party in 2001. Since then,I've been regularly published by Franklin Watts - nice, but small stuff in comparison. Did manage two picture books with Top That, one of which sank into cheap mass-marketing outlets, never to emerge on Amazon. I routinely get responses from publishers along the lines of: 'good luck with your writing' etc etc - aaaaargh! I share your anger and frustration.

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    1. Thanks Enid, Sorry you are having a tough time of it out there. I sympathize.
      A launch party! I've never had a launch party in my life ;-) maybe I should have a 'sink' party as my career disappears beneath the waves. . .

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    2. Jonathan I just love your sense of humour, you just made me laugh out loud (much to the annoyance of the dog). Perhaps a book for adults (the type that's an impulse buy at Christmas) should be your next adventure. Something completely different but uses your skills as an artist and allows you to use that humour of yours.

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  6. It's true that a kind of hip and artsy parent-buyer seems to be very well catered for these days, and as a new writer it was partly this artiness that drew me to try to write picture books. But now that I am in that frame of mind (writing) I often find that I'm irritated by those stylish/ised books whose pictures and writing don't speak the language of children. My daughter picks dynamic, characterful pictures over edgy ones, any day! In Sweden, this edgy/artsy/nostalgia thing does not prevail: there seems to be a preference for simple, expressive characters and I think that in the end, these will come back in to fashion in the UK too. (Perhaps the European market is worth a look?) There is never a reason not to reply to an unsuccessful submission, I fully agree. The same goes for job interview decisions, where gate-keepers also fail to honour the effort put in. (In fact, if an agent wanted to pay me to write small and kind rejection emails I might be able to subsidise this expensive hobby whilst at least living in hope of getting my own rejection email...)

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    1. Thanks Helen,
      Yes, exactly - "Don't speak the language of children" is right. Unfortunately, one of the hidden 'truths' of children's publishing in my view anyway is that children are at the bottom of the pile as far as 'people who's voices matter' goes. You write for children, but you need to appeal to publishers first and foremost. (Oh yes, and nowadays, agents first, as without an agent your chances of getting an idea before an editor are slim slim slim. .) Publishers need books that appeal to 'the market', mainly parents, who actually fork out for the books. Parents can only choose from what actually gets published. . .
      Obviously, a book that does the aforementioned and also hits the nail on the head as far as children's approval goes does very well, a la Gruffalo, but a lot of moderately successful picture books that don't stay around all that long (I am happy to include my own work here if you like) are parent led successes imho and less to do with children's actual likes than perhaps they 'should' be in an ideal world, like wot we don't have. . ;-)
      My stuff always got Scandinavian co-productions, good old Carlson ;-)

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    2. The rhyming text is a case in point: children and parents both find them irresistible. But then comes the merchandise, the follow-ups, the brand, the franchise. (We have a rule in our house - no books that are already TV or films.) A book that my daughter adn I return to often is A House in the Woods by Inga Moore. It's such a simple, transporting story. It doesn't rhyme, has a subtle rather than zany voice, and has no punchline. As a wannabe writer who cannot illustrate, it's the kind of text I dare not attempt for fear it would be too gentle, not quirky or crazy enough, neither hilarious or scary. It's interesting isn't it? A debate I would like to be out there some more... and somewhat covered by Peter Hunt. And I'd be interested to know if publishers do focus group testing?

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    3. PS It looks to me as though the mighty Axel Scheffler is working in a style not unlike yours... I hope something good comes to you soon!

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    4. Thanks Helen, I think the Gruffalo has rendered him immune to fashion, luckily. I met him years ago, pre Gruffalo, at some Macmillan do. Nice bloke. Said he liked my work so he must be. . .

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  7. And there was me thinking it was just me. I've had a publisher 'forget' to send my royalty cheque, another forget that my contact stated they had to offer me the remainders if the book is going to go out of print plus take so long to get back to me about a book idea they loved that I'd actually forgotten about it.

    I also agree about the rudeness of the industry in general. However today a little of my faith has been restored. A magazine editor replied almost instantly to a feature idea I'd submitted. It wasn't for her but she supplied contact details for someone who may find it of interest.

    Sadly I've not managed to get a book deal for the last two years and over that time decided several times I'd give it all up but then find I have to write, it's in me, I just can't help it. However this has given me time to write three books that contain short stories. These I've published myself and are all selling. However with regards to my picture books I'm just hoping the tide turns and my style of writing comes back into fashion. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

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    1. Thanks Lynne,
      I'm glad that I seem to have struck a chord with some other writers. I hope your pic book stuff becomes the next new thing in the market ;-) And that mine becomes the next old thing. . .

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  8. How wonderful to have your illustrations on the Mahy stamp, Jonathan. Did you find the original illustrations?

    I have great sympathy with your frustration - personally I've found submitting into a black hole has sucked all my confidence and now I write but seldom submit, which I know is stupid, but logic isn't part of the equation

    By the way, I sometimes feel guilty about visiting schools, but I've been told repeatedly that having done successful books in the past with mainstream publishers then it really doesn't matter as we not there to sell books, but to inspire children, etc., which is true.

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    1. Thanks Paeony, I did find most of the illustrations but not the book I most wanted to find. I have it somewhere, just not where it 'ought' to be. . . grr.
      It was nice to have my artwork on those stamps ;-) She was a fun person and a great writer.
      Re schools, OK, thanks for the sensible advice. I never used school visits to sell anyway so as a way to amuse and inspire kids it would be fun. I'll get myself into gear for the next school year hopefully. After we have moved and suchlike. . .

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    2. I was going to say that I like your Black Hole analogy. . . It is dispiriting to be ignored, or at least, feel that you are being ignored which amounts to the same thing.

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  9. PS: having found a lot of original work in your home, I think it could be time for a bit of a trumpet-blowing retrospective exhibition! Perhaps do a 'travelling roadshow' using some of these images and go to a few children's book festivals. Hmm....I think I see it - the wondrous book-making story-generating picture-conjuring traveling roadshow of Mister Jonathan Allen!

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    1. Nice idea, but I could never do that ;-) Maybe I should contact the Chris Beetles gallery and see if he wants any artwork to sell. . . Trouble is, functional book artwork has gaps for the text, and bits of process white here and there etc. It wasn't meant for a frame so I always feel it looks wrong somehow.

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  10. When your home is your workplace, when your creativity is your job and your means of survival, there's no escape when it seems to be going wrong. Whatever you decide, Jonathan, you've brought joy and wonder to generations of children. May the future bring you joy and fulfilment, in return.

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    1. Thanks very much Malachy, I appreciate your kind words very much.

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  11. Jonathan, I have been a big fan of yours since childhood. Your humour, characters and stories have helped shape the way I create stories of my own. Times may change, but a great story teller will always be a great story teller, and you're one of the best. I hope that, wherever your creativity takes you, it makes you happy.

    I was talking to another picture book author recently who is, like me, currently seeing some success. This person's attitude ('I'm at the top, I'm winning') really bothered me. It's a very precarious perch and I'm not sure this person's really even fully on it.

    Myself, I feel very grateful that I'm doing okay right now, but I know there will always be bright young things coming up behind me - and I'm glad of that because it ought to mean more great books for kids to enjoy. That said, it's not a good thing that the market follows the money. If the books we create lack longevity, then so will our careers. I worry very much about maintaining any degree of 'success', because as you say, the pressure can be hard to bear.

    Your books deserve to remain on the shelves for a long while yet, and for purely selfish reasons I hope you find that you just can't help creating some more, albeit having taken away the pressure. Thanks for the brilliant books that my children now enjoy too. Big hugs.

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    1. Thanks so much Michelle, I hope your friend's success lasts, but nothing is certain. a humble attitude is a more attractive certainly ;-). It's great to see that you are doing well. Long may it last. Once I am in a non pressured place I will be able to assess whether to keep going or knock it on the head. I shall always want to make people laugh so that might force my hand ;-) big hugs back. x

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  12. What advice would you give to someone at the start of the journey? I've got two picture books nearly finished, and concepts for three more but no idea how to get them out there?

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    1. I guess best advice is to find an agent. or find the few publishers who still subject themselves to submissions from the great unwashed public (sarcasm alert. .)
      there is always online publishing but the sheer volume of dross (imho) makes the market pretty hard to get seen in let alone read and enjoyed.
      Good luck with it.

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  13. I'm trying to reply to your reply, Jonathan, but my computer won't let me. I always find myself picturing Fortune turning her wheel. Sometimes we're riding high, sometimes we're rock bottom, and neither one lasts long! My past few years have seen good luck in publishing and bad luck in health. Given the choice, I'd have picked the opposite. We put so much into our jobs that we end up thinking work is the be all and end all, but health and happiness is what it's all about. I wish you lots and lots of both 😊 x

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