Monday 28 February 2022

The Beauty of Slowing Down, by Pippa Goodhart

Do you remember the wonder and beauty of that first lockdown in spring of 2020? 

There were those who were doing the caring, facing the worst horrors of covid in overstretched hospitals, risking their lives to keep transports and food supplies moving, working all hours to teach our children in person and online, and many more doing ‘key’ jobs. Two of my daughters were caring for covid patients, one barely protected by paper mask, plastic apron, and goggles donated by a local school, the other better equipped but pregnant and not knowing what the potential harm to her child might be from the patients with covid she was treating. All of it pre-vaccinations of course. 

            But for my husband and me, and millions more lucky ones, there was another side to this time when so many ‘normal’ activities became impossible. The sky, seemingly clear of aeroplanes, was bright blue day after day. The colours of spring flowers opening seemed more vivid than ever before, the bird song richer. I remember standing on a footbridge over the M11 motorway, and seeing empty road on either side as far the eye could see. One bright May morning we took our inflatable canoe on Cambridge’s Backs, normally a time and place where the river would be crammed with tourists being punted up and down. We took our allotted hour’s exercise in paddling down river and back, and saw not a single other human river user. But the blue sky was being scribbled on by a small ‘plane enjoying itself as it practiced to offer sky hearts to the NHS. What privilege of calm and beauty and humour and kindness for some of us, even whilst others worked harder than ever before. 


            So, when publisher Tiny Owl asked me to write a picture book that captured something of what we had learned from our lockdown experiences, it was the slowing down and noticing things that felt to me to be the appropriate focus. Children reading the resulting book would either not remember those lockdown times, or simply not know how unusual they were. We adults have the context of ‘life before’ all that, but young children have only the context of ‘life after’ … so far as it has settled to a new kind of normal. Certainly there’s now again a feeling of rush, with a perceived need to catch up with everything, including what children might have been missing out on. The calm has gone.  

            The story I wrote, ‘Stop The Clock!’, richly and cleverly illustrated by Maria Christania, makes no reference to the Covid 19 pandemic. Indeed, the illustrations developed from ones in which some people in the street were wearing face masks to none doing that. But it isn’t a story that shies away from more ongoing social issues. 

            Joe is rushed to school by Mum, and then rushed in his work in school by teacher Mr Khan, both of those adults nagged by clocks ticking onwards. But Joe wants time to think and to finish the picture he’s painting. So – and here’s the beauty of what stories can do which real life can’t – he stops time. He goes back over the route taken to school, now noticing the colour and interest and detail, adding those things to his picture. He finds the reason why little sister Poppy was crying, but there’s so much more to see. The bird plopping poo onto somebody’s head! The beggar in the doorway. The exhaust from the bus making the cyclist cough. The Venus fly trap plant about to snap shut on a fly. The cake squelching as a bite is taken. And much more. 

            My favourite pictures in the book are Joe’s painting. The difference between the opening and closing endpapers summarise the story beautifully –

            Tiny Owl commissioned pieces for another, very different, book about what we experienced and learned from lockdown times. They asked their illustrators to produce images and writing about how the experience had been for them. The result is 'Unlocked', a moving, funny, and inspiring. It genuinely brings a tear or two to my eyes, and also makes me laugh. These wonderfully creative people from around the world (Switzerland, the UK, the Netherlands, Iran, South Africa, Portugal, Italy) all found imaginative ways of making the most of the necessary restrictions. Music, gardening, zoom parties, cooking, and just closing eyes and properly listening are just some of the things they did.  This book is one for everyone, and I’ve bought it as a gift for more than one adult now. Highly recommended. 


            There have been children’s books explaining covid and vaccinations, and books praising our rescue services in pandemic times. But do please make comments below suggesting other books which aimed to capture that ‘time out’ experience of months of restrictions.  



Monday 21 February 2022

No use crying over smashed eggs…Egg Drop 20 years on - Mini Grey


Time flies, and eggs don’t. It’s 20 years since my very first picture book, Egg Drop, crashed into the world.

So in this post I’m going to have a look at what I did and didn’t know then, and what I do (and still don’t) know now. Through a twenty-year telescope.

20 years ago….

I’d been working as a primary school teacher, but had harboured an ambition for a long time to make a picture book, only made stronger by all the picture books I loved reading with the children in my class. So I’d done an MA in Sequential Illustration at Brighton (supply-teaching part time to make ends meet). And then, amazingly luckily, I met an editor, Ian Craig, at Jonathan Cape, who sportingly decided to publish a story I’d made called Egg Drop.

20 years ago….

I didn’t even know how many pages a picture book has, or how they ‘work’.

Ian explained it: you have usually 32 pages to work with. In a hardback EITHER pages 01 and 32 will be stuck down into the cover OR you can also have extra endpapers, which give you pages 01 and 32 to use for your story too (well, probably title page and copyright.) Endpapers tend to be in a colour you choose from the pantone book, and you can make this into a design in that colour if you wish. If you want full-colour endpapers, they’ll need to be part of your 32 printed pages, so that means going with pages 01 and 32 stuck down (inside the cover), and endpapers on pages 02&03, and 30&31, which is what we did with Egg Drop. Of course, that means you’ve used up 4 pages on endpapers you could have used for your story. Plus you've stuck down pages 01 and 32, so 6 pages gone already. But if your story is pretty minimal, maybe that’s a good thing….

With Egg Drop, I happened to have a story that was SO MINIMAL we actually had to expand it to get it to fill up the book. (This has never ever happened again since.)

The first version of Egg Drop, made to sell at the London Artists' Book Fair

Ian my editor taught me: to be kind to my reader, to start in a place of familiarity, especially if you’re planning to guide them somewhere really weird.

This version of Egg Drop started off, a bit confusingly, in an attic.

So rather than starting my story in a strange attic space full of the Egg’s mementoes, Ian said – start on the farm, start with your chicken who is telling the story, so your reader feels on familiar territory, and then they’ll trust you to lead them into a world where eggs jump off towers.

20 years ago….

The bravery of ignorance is a wonderful thing.

Like the Egg, I didn’t know much, and I wasn’t comparing my book to all the other picture books out there, so I blissfully threw things together without worrying too much about it.

I made the artwork on paper and it all got sent off to be scanned. I had no idea what the scanner was like, I imagined something like combination of a fusion reactor and an MRI machine.

Nowadays I tend to make layers for my pictures and put these together in photoshop like a sort of a collage, which gets sent as digital artwork to my publishers. I very rarely make an image as one complete piece. This is good but also sad. The good is: you can keep moving things around and swapping them about and I often have several goes at characters for pictures and choose the one I like best. The sad is: you tend not to end up with an image that can be exhibited (or sold!!).

Making multiple mice for The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice

One page from Egg Drop caused all the trouble.  

 The ‘Putting the egg back together again’ picture featured string, sewing, tomato soup, bubblegum. It was a bit too chunky going through the Drum Scanner Machine and there were too many shadows on the scan. Someone cleaned them off digitally I think – but a little too thoroughly in places.

20 years ago….

I didn’t think designing the cover was my job. Or designing the cover typography. I didn’t realise how important a cover is, that it’s the first chance your book has to introduce itself. 

Egg Drop covers: hardback on the left, paperback on the right.

Ian suggested having a flying chicken on the cover, so I made a chicken and some landscape, but I left it to the designer to put it all together and choose a font for the title. For the paperback, we changed the cover to something that felt a bit more in tune with the artwork inside, and was also more collagy.

I was discovering the fun you can have with snippets of newspaper reports.

For the paperback we used more of this for blurb and quotes on the back.

20 years ago….

I was happy with very slapdash pictorial practices. Like coffee cup stains on my artwork (that a designer kindly suggested cleaning up digitally.). And really badly painted endpapers – I’d NEVER do them like that now, and I’d at least use masking fluid.

Egg Drop endpapers front and back. I painted round all the eggs. Nowadays I'd make it so I could paint the sky in one big wash, so the eggs are floating in space. Or make it in a flatter, more graphic way, that nods to printed endpapers from the past (Endpaper Fans: have you seen Garry's post about endpapers?)

I also had a habit of putting a layer of acrylic varnish on my paintings. I liked them looking all saturated and shiny, also once varnished you couldn’t do anything more to them. I’d never do that now – it muddies up the watercolour textures, and shiny things are tricky to scan.

I made this book on the dining table in a 2 bedroom flat in north Oxford, living with my partner Tony and also Chris who rented the other bedroom and never complained about my mess. (And also our cats Bonzo and Bonzetta).

I also managed to fit in watching lots of daytime TV shows and long walks across Port Meadow. And I was doing part-time primary school teaching.

20 years ago…

A paperback Egg Drop cost I think £5.99.

Nowadays, the equivalent paperback costs about£6.99

In 20 years children’s book prices haven’t changed very much at all (but what about paper & production costs?)

If we look at a shopping basket of supermarket food - the cost of that food is actually cheaper nowadays in real terms than it was 20 years ago.

The average UK salary in 2002 was about £20K. In 2020 it was a little over £30K.

But if we have a look at house prices, UK house prices have doubled and sometimes trebled in the last 20 years. 

20 years ago…

I didn’t really realise how lucky I was to meet probably the only editor who would decide to publish this bonkers book, with its disastrous ending.

I think sometimes some of what our books are about is hidden from us. My partner Tony’s very best friend Dave killed himself in summer 2000. I wonder now if the tragedy of the egg throwing itself to its doom, and Dave’s tragedy, are linked.

So I offer a final salute to courageous publishing. To editors who take a tremendous risk and decide to publish something strange, dark or unusual. One of the reviews of Egg Drop that most stayed with me was a quote from Lyn Gardner in The Guardian: 

“By the end of the book you have a warm feeling towards a publishing industry that allows a book such as this to appear.”


Do you like books about eggs? Here are a half dozen more egg books. 

Duck struggles with a mysterious egg and Humpty struggles with eggsistence in The Odd Egg by Emily Gravett and After the Fall by Dan Santat

Two good eggs eggsperiencing difficulties: The Good Egg by Jory John and Pete Oswald, and Little Lumpty by Miko Imai
More factual-style eggs from Britta Teckentrupp and Tim Birkhead. (The last is not strictly a children's book but, well...what a miracle an egg is.)

Have you got a favourite egg book I’ve missed? – please let me know about it here or on Twitter.

Coming at the end of April 2022: The Greatest Show on Earth!

 Mini's latest published book-involvement is The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice, with AF Harrold.  Her BlogSite is at Sketching Weakly.