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The story behind Refuge

Refuge | War Child | Nosy Crow | Anne Booth | Sam Usher

Two months ago today, a literary agent, Anne Clark, sent a picture book text to me via email. It was by Anne Booth, who has written The Fairiest Fairy for us and is writing The Christmas Fairy for us next year, and who is a Waterstones Children’s Book Prize shortlisted novelist for Girl with a White Dog.

The text was called, When the Last King Left, and Anne (Clark) said, “Anne Booth has written this beautiful, moving and terribly topical text which depicts the newborn Jesus as a refugee, heading for safety in Egypt. It’s written from the viewpoint of the donkey. Perhaps not typical Nosy Crow material, but I wondered if you might be interested nonetheless?”

I read it myself as soon as it came in, and found it very moving, and immediately thought that it was something we should do (a) immediately, because it felt so very relevant, and (b) to raise the maximum amount of money for charity. But such a thing isn’t undertaken lightly. We’ve done quick-turn-around books for Christmas before, including three books based on the John Lewis Christmas ads of 2012, 2013 and 2014, and we know how much effort and time they require: they are as exhausting and stressful as they are disruptive to the rest of our carefully-planned programme. We also worried a bit that we might be seen as appropriating a Middle Eastern story in some way, and imposing a Christian narrative on it: would publishing the book be interpreted in a completely counterproductive way?

In fact, we discussed it and decided that it WASN’T something that we felt able to take on, though we felt sad about it.

That was on a Thursday. I found, though, that the story wouldn’t quite leave me alone over the weekend, and by Monday, we all agreed that this was something we wanted to do.

We had a text.

We needed an illustrator.

Looking through the books we had in the office, we stumbled upon Snow by Sam Usher, and were struck by how brilliantly he’d used white on the page – he’d managed to evoke a scene though he’d left much of the page blank. His art – which he creates in watercolour – had a classic feel, but it was child-friendly. He was, we thought, our man.

So early on 30 September, we contacted Sam’s agent, Penny Holroyde.

This was my email, with the heading, “Probably a bonkers idea but in aid of refugees”:

“Forgive me for writing to you with what is, probably, a bonkers thought.

Unexpectedly, we have just received a manuscript for a picture book from an author we publish – not a household name, but someone who has won prizes. Told from the point of view of the donkey, the basic premise is that Jesus was a refugee – forced to flee to Egypt with Mary and Joseph because of the threat of Herod.

We were thinking that we could do a small-format hardback book illustrated with black and white sketches, or watercolours with a limited palette.

We thought that Sam Usher would be great for this.

We’re a small company, so we can’t quite give this away completely – we couldn’t cover the cost of printing – but we could commit to ALL profits going to a charity that supports refugees during this crisis.

Of course, the horrible thing is the schedule. We would need to send this to press in two weeks.

This schedule probably makes the whole thing ridiculous, but, if you would like, by any chance, to talk about it, let me know.”

Penny got back the same day, saying, “Good to talk to you earlier. I’ve chatted with Sam and he thinks it would be a good thing to do, and so is on! He’d like to have a meeting in the next couple of days, obvs! Coincidentally, he has suggested black, blue and yellow, which is exactly what you suggested so it feels there is a bit of kismet around the project.”

Meanwhile, I’d contacted Melissa Cox and Florentyna Martin at Waterstones. I was impressed by their Books For Syria campaign, which suggested that they might be open to discussing a project like this, and their backing for it might make the different between the book working and the book not working. They came back with characteristic speed, enthusiasm and insightful comments.

We had an author. We had an illustrator, we had a retail supporter.

On Wednesday 30 September, I wrote to Anne Clark:

“Louise and I read this as soon as it came in, and we were both hugely moved by it and saw instantly how timely it is.

We have talked about it every day since.

We have an idea that is quite radical.

We think that we would like to bring this out as a small format hardback as an “all profits to charity” book for this Christmas.

We have an artist, who has already engaged with the refugee crisis in a personal capacity, and that’s Sam Usher, whose Snow was much acclaimed. His work is lovely, and he is able to work very quickly, which is essential, as we’d need to get this book to press in the next ten days. He is thinking of working in a limited blue/black/yellow palette. We need someone who’s really accomplished and experienced.

We have support from Waterstones and we would also have support from other retailers, I am confident.”

And Anne Clark wrote back the same day saying, “YES! Anne is more than thrilled, and your plan sounds perfect.”

Sam started work that week, and I went with him to meet Irving Finkel at The British Museum (shamelessly using our new connection to the institution) to check that we weren’t imposing Christian imagery on what we wanted to be a very human story with a real, historical setting. Satisfied that there were, for example, tables two thousand years ago: as Irving said, “We have the Hebrew and Babylonian words for ‘table’”, Sam and I spent the rest of that afternoon photographing objects in the relevant rooms of the museum.

Sam delivered art on 13 November. We had an author, we had a text, we had an illustrator, we had illustrations, we had a retail supporter – in fact, by then we had several, and Bounce was on board offering their field sales services for free. We had negotiated a discount from our distributor GBS, and, via Imago, who waived their cut, we got a great price from an Italian printer, Lego.

We did not have a charity. Conversations with two big charities had run aground: it was impossible for such big organisations to respond fast enough. But Camilla has a friend who knew someone at War Child… and we’d worked with them already when we had helped Leigh Hodgkinson run an art auction in support of War Child last year. War Child’s CEO rang from a trip abroad to say they’d love to be involved.

Finally, we got a quote from Chris Riddell, Children’s Laureate: “A book to share with a lump in your throat and an ache in your heart until the beauty and hope of the very last page”.

6,000 copies of Refuge – a thousand books for every week between publication and Christmas – arrived in our warehouse from the printer on 6 November, and we published on 12 November at £7.99 and we guaranteed that we will pay £5.00 to War Child on every copy sold.

All the books in the warehouse are now in shops, so we’ll have made £30,000 for War Child, assuming that people buy them between now and Christmas. The cash cost to Nosy Crow of making, distributing and publicising the book (we allocated a few days of a PR agency’s time to publicising it), is a bit north of £2,000 and there are additional costs in terms of opportunity and, crucially, time.

The response to the book has been fantastic. We’ve been so happy to see people talking about it on Twitter, recommending it as a Christmas gift. In the week of publication, it was a Times Children’s Book of the Week: Alex O’Connell said, “An excellent way to help children make sense of what they are seeing on news bulletins every day … It’s a simple but important story about the kindness of strangers that refuses to preach and — amid all the policy-changing bluster — reminds us to remind our children that there is more to consider this Christmas than the looming Lego crisis.”

If you’ve bought a copy, thank you very much for your support. If you haven’t bought a copy, do please buy one of the many that are still in the shops, and we’ve a few available online still on our own website.

It’s been one of those books that makes me happy to be a publisher.

You can take a look inside Refuge below, and order the book online here.

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