Sunday, 5 April 2015


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 or follow him on twitter @spirotta.


Jane Clarke said...

Thanks for sharing your picture book journey, Saviour

Pippa Goodhart said...

Throwing ideas back and forth with editors or writers friends, or even just with yourself, seems to work particularly well for developing picture book stories. Good luck with the story out with the agent, Saviour!

Candy Gourlay said...

So many great learning points here. And a different take on the recent "who is the author" debate ... sparked by illustrators iften not being named as co authors!

Saviour Pirotta said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone, and I do apologise for the typos.

Moira Butterfield said...

Thank you, Saviour! Looking forward to the new book, coming from your toilet break inspiration!

Rita said...

Good job Saviour. So proud of you! Thanks for sharing

Taurean Watkins said...

That said, Candy, it can go the other way, too.

Sometimes authors feel in the shadow of illustrators (regarding picture books that have a separate author and illustrator ) and yes, I understand illustrators can an do feel marginalized, but we should remember that not all authors and illustrators (esp. via the tradtional model) get the luxury to bounce things off each other, and the editor and art director at the publisher work with the illustrator separate from the author.

The authors and illustrators that do team up usually have worked together in the past and slowly (and I do mean SLOWLY...) built up a direct collab spirit (or they get a RARE opprotunty to build that reprore outside the publisher(s) they work with)

I know and truly respect/empathize with the illustrators who've felt marginalized and given this second class treatment.

Still, non-illustrator authors of pictures books have had it tough just to get READ, never mind sell their book.

I haven't been agent searching for awhile, but there was a period shortly from 2008-2013, where publishers AND agents preferred pictue books from author-illustrators ONLY, and I know people keep telling me non-illustraor authors still get picure books published.

Even so, I do think it's harder for us, and not just at the query/pitch stage, but we also have to "make room for the illustrator" and if this if your first book where you have an illustrator (assuming for the sake of arguement sells) I know picture books are a fusion of words and pictures working together.

But it's HARD to do that when you're not also illustrating the book, and I know even author-illustrators don't always illustrate their own books, but I'm speaking from the POV of authors who aren't illustrators.

That said, just becasue I can't illustrate, doesn't mean I'm not visual and have an eye for visualss, and while many authors are actually glad to be hands off in the art stage, I'd liek to have SOME input, which I don't equate to "Micro-managing the illustrator" which I know many illustrators hate.

But I do believe authors should get some input in the illustration process, especially with books that have had issues with mischaracterizing diverse characters, and this isn't nessecarily the illustrator's fault, but what the publisher (again, tradtional model) wanted to go with, and it hurts the book first impression at best, and turns away readers at worst.

What I think some publishers forget sometimes is that we as the author, and the illustrator, don't want the book to tank anymore than you, but understand that w'er taking a chance on you just as much as you're betting on us.

Whether it's a small press or a "Big 5", I just hope more publishers and agents realize that we writers are no less mortal than you are! we can only be our own "One-Man [or Woman] marketing genius" so much!

Despite the indie author revolution: middle grade novels and picture books are still among the HARDEST books to publish well, particularly for the indie author, because one thing people tend to overlook is that aside from the marketing challenges, indie authors also have to handle their own printing costs, getting ISBNS (especially if you want to get in offline bookstores, picture books and novels BELOW YA, print still MATTERS), and that's ON TOP OF-

-The costs of hiring a dream team of editors (For different stages of editing, for those who don't know)

-Hiring the illustrator, cover diesnger, and SO MUCH MORE, along with remembering to, you know, write the "next book" in midst of all that...(Sigh)

I don't mean to whine, but those are fair and valid facts to state as I see them.

Anyway, Take Care All,
Taurean W.

Taurean Watkins said...

Glad you shared this post with us, Saviour, but HOLD UP!

I have to challenge you on this point you made above-

"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."

I'm sorry you and other authors and/or illustrators in your ciricle had this disheartning experience, but not all reviewers (whether they're teachers, authors, or lay readers who aren't in publishing) take the words in picture books for granted.

I comment on the WORDS, too, not just the pictures in ALL my picture books/graphic novel reviews, they both equally MATTER.

Maybe because I'm non-illustrator author I'm more sensitive to not over looking the words (if it's not a wordless picture book) and I ALWAYS give equal billing when the author and illustrator aren't one in the same,

But you don't have to take my word for it, check out one of my more recent picture book reviews!

Hope I don't sound rude or whiny, but I just wanted you to know that at my site, "Talking Animal Addicts", authors and illustrators are given equal repsect to what they each bring to a book.

Saviour Pirotta said...

I was talking out of personal experience, Taurean. Glad you review the words too. We need more lik you.

Taurean Watkins said...

It's okay, Saviour, my comments have typos sometimes.

Thankfully most readers are more forgiving with blogs versus content they pay for (i.e. books).

I wish blogger sties allowed you to edit your comments to fix that.

A big reason why I moved T.A.A. to Wordpress, so I can edit typos or fix hyperlinks in replies to commenters, or fixing the typos or links in their comments via the admin tools.

I've been known to delete tweets when I catch a really bad typo or grammar tick and redo the tweet with the error fixed, with such a limited character count, it's even easier for folks to get confused by what your saying on Twitter.

Taurean Watkins said...

I understand, my personal experience was kind of opposite yours, in that I often met non-illustrator authors feel less important than the illustrator in picture books, but even comics/graphic novels where there's potentially even less text than picture books from a couple decades back (before the current minimalist movement)...

I mostly write novel-length stories, but I have my picture book ideas, but executing them is far more challenging because the story needs to be , but if you've never worked with an illustrator, it's tricky to know what you can show as the author, but at the same time keep in mind the illustrator "completes the equation" later in the proccess.

Sometimes that's hard for writers like me who It's dificult to be both specific yet inclusive, in that you want to "make room for the ilustrator" but you also want your words to matter, and sometimes authors can be a little jealous of illustrators in respect to picture books.

At least with comics/graphic novels, there can be a little more direct back and forth between the artist and author, and it's not seen as the author trying to "mirco manage" the illustrator.

This is another reason I hope more non-illustrator authors epsecially can find ways to collaborate with visual artists like illustrators or professional camera operators where they can experiment and play with collaboration with more visual artists without the pressure, high stakes finanical risk, and/or the weight of a book project.

Author-illustrators and non-illustrator authors who have worked with illustrators (and vice versa) do have an edge in this.

But since the road to working with an illustrator via the tradtional model (however hands on or off) is LONG and infrequent, we need ways to give authors and illustrator the chance work together and learn from each other, and in the process, learn respect for what they can do for each other in general in that big picture way we're forever trying to define for ourselvs.

Not all illustrators are authors, and not all authors are illustrators, but having chances to collaborate with them in non "high stakes" ways can be a great learning experience for both sides.

If anyone knows of such avenues, feel free to share them, I know that's something many non-illustrator authors, including me, would love to take part in.

LynnHC said...

My children loved 'Solomon's secret' long before I had the pleasure of meeting you :) It's a favourite in the Huggins family :)