Monday, 20 November 2017

A FIREBIRD’S JOURNEY - a guest post by Saviour Pirotta

A picture book’s journey from idea to publication is somewhat different from that of a chapter book or a novel, especially if you’re a writer rather than a writer/illustrator.

With chapter books, you usually write a treatment or a synopsis and the first three or four chapters of the story. Some writers include notes about the main characters and the setting but it’s not essential. If you’re a first-time author, or you’re known for another kind of book, you might have to write a first draft before your agent can submit your book to editors. But there’s enough there for the publisher to decide in favour or against the project. Your book lives or dies on the strength of your ideas and your writing.

I find the process is much trickier with picture books if you’re a writer who doesn’t illustrate his own books. Your proposal is hauled up in front of a busy editor with the most important ingredients missing: the visuals. When submitting picture books early on in my career, I always assumed that my carefully chosen words would project the same images in an editor’s mind as in mine. I quickly learnt that this was way off the mark. Everyone ‘sees’ words differently and very often, what I thought would appeal, didn’t. I’ve given up counting the times I had a project turned down, only to see a very similar story published successfully by someone else. Nearly always that picture book was the work of an author/illustrator who could submit text and illustration roughs.

As I gained confidence in my writing, I turned to anthologies. They were still heavily illustrated but the stories did not depend on the illustrations to work. An editor could see the potential in my work without the pictures. Most of these books were commissions anyway, and the publishers had an illustrator in place before I was even asked to come on board.  I do very well with them so  I decided that I’d only attempt another picture book if asked by publishers to write something about a specific subject, and then I would not limit myself to perceived ideas of what a picture book should be. I would follow my own instincts and push the envelope.

The opportunity came when Templar asked me to adapt The Firebird as a celebration of the ballet’s centenary. They had an illustrator attached to the project already, the wonderful Catherine Hyde who’d just done an incredible job on Carol Ann Duffy’s The Princess’ Blankets. The sample pictures I was sent had a sophisticated, hypnotic quality to them. They looked earthy and mysterious. The characters in them looked almost posed, like people in a play. I thought they would appeal to adults as well as children, and I wanted to provide a text that would have the same expressionist quality.

The ballet is adapted from several Russian folktales. I chose one to work with, Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf. Amanda Wood, who at the time headed the Templar team, is a fearless editor. She let me break so many rules. My text stretched to 3000 words rather than the customary 800 or under. I used difficult words, hard-to-pronounce names, and I changed the ending of to include an anti-hunting ‘message’.

Critics loved it but very few shops stocked it.  They complained that the book was too big to fit on the shelves. It didn’t look like a normal picture book; they didn’t know which shelf it should go on. Was it aimed at adults or kids?

For a few years, it looked like the poor Firebird was going nowhere in a hurry. There was no talk of a paperback edition. The US edition went out of print. I consoled myself with the fact that the book won an Aesop Accolade in the States, that the few people who had seen it, totally got it.  I moved on, producing more anthologies and writing, my first middle grade novel.

But somewhere along the line, things started to change for the Firebird. I started to get emails from teachers who were using it in class with upper KS2 kids. I’d walk into a school and there would be a display of the children’s own firebirds, inspired by Catherine’s work. I started offering free Skype visits to classes who were using the book. Before I knew it, the Firebird had risen from the ashes. Sales picked up and recently the Literacy Trust produced teaching notes to go with the book. I now get more emails and letters about Firebird than any other picture book I’ve written. In February I am visiting a school that is dedicating two whole weeks to activities based on it.

It just goes to show that you should always follow your heart and your instincts, not the market and certainly not received wisdom about what a picture book should be.  After all, that’s why we’re writers. To push the envelope of creativity, and to broaden people’s horizons.

Saviour Pirotta’s latest middle grade novel, Secret of the Oracle, is published by Bloomsbury and available now. His next picture book, The Unicorn Prince, illustrated by Jane Ray and will be published by Orchard Books in September 2018. Follow him on Twitter at @spirotta.


Jonathan Emmett said...

Thanks for a great guest post, Saviour. So good to see a picture book pushing the boundaries of the format and showing there is an audience for longer, more complex storytelling.

Saviour Pirotta said...

Thanks, Jonathan. It was a labour of love, and I am so glad I stuck to my guns.

Paeony Lewis said...

3,000 lovely words?! So glad your book was a success, Saviour, and that the publisher didn't give up when sales weren't instant. The illustrations look gorgeous and I like this growth in quality illustrated fiction for older children.