Monday, 18 November 2019

How 'I am a Tiger' became a series- guest post by Karl Newson

This week, I am delighted to welcome to the Picture Book Den the wonderful and incredibly talented Karl Newson- picture book author and illustrator extraordinaire!

How 'I Am a Tiger' became a Series

I didn’t set out to write a series. And Macmillan (my publisher) didn’t ask for one. Luckily for me, it happened accidentally…

I Am a Tiger was written in the summer of 2016 (which seems like an age ago now!) during a head-scratching session in which I thought ‘Why isn’t there a character who declares confidently that it IS what it clearly is NOT?’ A simple idea that grew legs and whiskers and then took over.
I knew the ‘IS what it ISN’T’ comparison had to be something ridiculous - something small being something big or vice versa - and a mouse was the obvious choice for the small side of the story. I thought the text would be best delivered in dialogue, to show off mouse’s confidence (she is in charge here, there’s no narrator required to tell her story), and once mouse’s voice showed itself, the story pretty much wrote itself: I knew we’d need some opposition to mouse’s claims and that she should shake off their protests with seemingly easy but unexpected explanations; I knew at some point she would have to face the very thing she says she IS and that the two characters side by side would be a powerful image and text combination that would create a tense moment, perfect for being smashed with humour – with mouse’s witty retorts and clever thinking; and I knew that it would be wrong to just leave it as that, with all being exactly as mouse had said it was… it would be a rather flat ending wouldn’t it? There had to be a twist! It was right in front of my nose... the twist was a complete spin on the very words mouse had repeated the whole way through the story. Really, it was just one thought leading into another that took no more than 4 pages of my notebook and an afternoon’s scribbling. Really-Really, though, mouse wrote it all for me and it probably took years of thunks to think it up.

The ‘big’ side of the story was initially going to be a bear, but because I already had two bear picture book stories in the making, my agent (Jodie Hodges) suggested we use a tiger instead. It gave the book that extra bit of GRRR! it needed.

When Macmillan offered to publish it, I was absolutely delighted! When they said Ross Collins would be illustrating it I let out a big excited ‘EEK’! And when I first visited my publisher and editor,

Penny, and the books designer, Kerrie, I knew this book was going to be something special. Together with Ross, they, and the whole team at Macmillan, took that little mouse and made it shine. And it was around this time that I discovered Mouse wasn’t done with me yet… 

A simple idea fell into my notebook about rhyming ‘roar’ with ‘dinosaur’. It’s a well-worn and obvious rhyme, I know, but I went with it to see where it took me. It had all the right whatnots for a picture book and it had a fun title, but I slowly began to realise I knew this character’s voice already… it was way too close to the feel of I Am a Tiger. I was annoyed at myself, at first, for wasting a good idea on something that I couldn’t use (I couldn’t pitch a story similar to one I already had under contract, of course), but it felt too good to scrap, so I went with it... I let the main character BE the mouse it wanted to be and then I scribbled it all out again, in her voice. And it worked. But I was stuck. I had a story that I hadn’t intended to write and that could only ever be sent to one publisher. And to make it worse I was brand new to them and my only contracted book was still in the early stages itself… they hadn’t asked for a sequel at all. I Am a Tiger wasn’t due out for months yet so I couldn’t even use hopeful sales figures as a cheeky ‘Would you like to do a sequel?’ incentive. It was either I send it as an uninvited pitch or I leave it in my head for a while and maybe bring it out again once Tiger was out and getting feedback. I was worried it wasn’t author etiquette to send emails about sequels so soon into a contract. But I couldn’t help thinking that if I sat on it and then discovered at some point that a sequel might well be an option, then I’d have lost all that time (and possibly the buzz for it too). So I had a biscuit and sent it to Penny at Macmillan with a note saying ‘I know you haven’t asked for this and I feel really cheeky in putting it in front of you but it just sort of happened and I don’t know what else to do with it’.

To my utter relief Penny liked the idea for the story, and to my surprise I was offered a new two book contract with the intension to write a third mouse story. I snapped it up, of course! (I was the crocodile, that day).

Mouse was now free. She had officially taken over. And her next idea was to make that accidental sequel I had just written into the third book in the series, and write another one to join the two together to make a linear threesome. So we did.

Having never before written a series I had no idea of the rules I had already put into place inside the text of the first story… rules that would now have to be applied to all three stories! This, in a good way, gave each one a structure that I could follow. But I definitely felt the pressure to make each one be better than the last. It had to have the same feel, but be a little bit different – a little bit more extreme, maybe, in mouse’s mousey-ness, and be funnier, too. I’m not allowed to give too much away because only I Am a Tiger is published as of the time I’m writing this, but I’ll try to go into a bit more detail on how the next books came to be…

First, book three, the original sequel (a line that makes it clear this is being written by Mouse!). In book one (I Am a Tiger), Mouse simply shrugs off the other animals with silly but simple points and carries on regardless, before dealing with the tiger in a similar fashion and then declaring them all to be something they didn’t know they are – a distraction for a get-away. In book two, this had to happen too, but in a bigger and better way. It needed an edge. (Just to confuse things, remember book two eventually became book three, so I’m talking about a story that’s not been announced yet anywhere). The main hook this story had was in its title. And so it became an action filled book. A guide, of sorts. An interactive read-along. But now this was to be book three and I didn’t have long to write a new sequel to fill the gap as the slot for Ross to begin the artwork was fast approaching. I had book ends, of a sort. Each true to mouse, but still being different to each other. The third story I would write –the second to be published – had to sit comfortably in between the two, without treading on eithers toes, and without out-shining them, but had to be a gradual step up from I Am a Tiger and a lead into the third story. This one did prove quite difficult, even for mouse.

The first story was a show of confidence. The third was an all-singing all-dancing interactive read, the second then - it seemed to me - had to be half way there. A bit of singing, maybe.  And the idea for it came from a t-shirt I’d made for an event I was doing at Latitude. My shirt combined two of my stories – A Bear is a Bear (except when he’s not) (illustrated by Anuska Allepuz) and Here Comes the Sun (illustrated by Migy Blanco) both published by Nosy Crow. It combined the two main characters in those stories, an owl and a bear, in a simple play on words: ‘GROWL LIKE AN OWL’ (the site team at Latitude found it to be quite a weird thing to have on a t-shirt (I’d written it on in a sharpie) and they heckled me about it on my way in and out!). It was worth it though, as those words became the basis for story I needed.

I followed the same train of thought I had when writing I Am a Tiger, letting the mouse take it for a walk, it soon became apparent that this wasn’t the start point, but more of a middle, so I ended up writing to the end first, then going back to the start to finish it off. It was a tricky one to get right! I sent it off to Macmillan and kept all my whiskers crossed, and Phew! it was accepted. Together we worked on making it as strong as we could (that’s Penny, Ross and Becky, the designer for this book and me), and I hope it will be a pleasing follow up to I Am a Tiger.

Its title is I Am NOT an Elephant (a spin on the theme of book one) and it publishes on 6th February 2020. I can’t wait!

Book three in the series publishes in October 2020 (Ross is working on the final artwork for it now, and, having had a peek, I can say it’s even better looking than the first two stories. What he does with characters is amazing! The guy is a genius.

I got incredibly lucky with these three stories, in finding the mouse character, having an agent who knew how to make it stronger, having a superb team behind me at Macmillan and of course being teamed up with Ross Collins. I am a little mouse in their shadows. A little mouse who is currently waiting to hear about Mouse’s next big idea… whiskers crossed!

Big thanks to Picture Book Den for allowing me to squeak on for all this time. And to everyone who has bought I Am a Tiger or any of my stories – thank you for your support!

Best whiskers!

Karl Newson


Lucy Rowland said...

Thanks Karl. Really interesting post about how this series accidentally developed. I can't wait to read the next two books! I love I am a tiger!

Jane Clarke said...

Hi Karl. I enjoyed the squeaking on, thanks - and the tiger suit made me smile, too!