Just before last week’s Bologna book fair (a Bologna blog post follows when I am feeling a bit perkier as I have come down with a post-fair lurgy), I went to Troisdorf near Cologne in Germany to a really great exhibition of Axel Scheffler’s artwork, both published art from books and magazines and unpublished art including gifts he’s given as presents, illustrated envelopes (of which Nosy Crow has several and I have many), sketches (and some of his sketchbooks) and pictures he’s done just for fun.
An envelope included in the exhibition that Axel drew for me many years ago
A picture that Axel just drew because he felt like it
A childhood experiment with symmetry and imagination that Axel drew for his father
This blog post is illustrated by a brush-pen sketch clearly done when Axel was feeling rather haunted by his most famous illustrative creation, the gruffalo.
As someone who has been published a lot of Axel’s work in the UK, I was asked to write a piece for the catalogue.
This is what I wrote:
Axel Scheffler: Hand-made Humour
I am rather proud to say that the quarter-century anniversary of my friendship and professional connection with Axel Scheffler is coming up next year.
I met Axel in at the Bologna Book Fair in 1988. I was selling rights for Faber and Faber and he’d recently completed his first book illustration work, illustrating The Piemakers by Helen Cresswell (now unavailable, but here’s the audio edition with Axel’s cover) and the Bottle Rabbit stories by Bernard McCabe. Looking back at the black and white illustrations for these books, it’s possible to see many of the things that make Axel’s work so immediately recognisable: Bottle Rabbit is very visibly the direct ancestor of Pip, the rabbit character that Axel created twenty-four years later for Nosy Crow’s Pip and Posy series.
That’s not to say that Axel’s work has stood still: there is something more … basic about everything from the line to the characterisation in these Faber books, though, at the same time, the artwork is somehow less accessible, and certainly, I would say, without quite being able to say why, less “British-looking”. And, technically speaking, too, Axel had a journey to take: other than the covers of these books, these are simple black-and-white line illustrations, and Axel is best known, at least in the UK, for his colour ink-wash-and-pencil work in picture book form.
Axel‘s first picture book, You’re a Hero, Daley B, was published in 1989 by Walker Books. Daley is yet another rabbit (and there is a distinct anthropomorphised-animal, if not always rabbitty, theme to Axel’s British book illustration). By the time that You’re a Hero, Daley B was published, I had gone to a company, Reed Children’s Books, that subsequently evolved into Egmont Children’s Books. I was still selling rights. I had a good friend there, Elke Lacey, whose background was in fiction publishing, but who, for some reason that I’ve now forgotten, was sent a text by an unpublished singer/song-writer and performer. The text was a reworking of a traditional story about an old lady who complains that her house is too small and is advised by the local wise man (a rabbi in the Jewish version of the story) to resolve the problem by taking her animals into her house. The situation gets worse and worse… until the wise man tells her to let all the animals out and she rejoices in how (relatively) commodious her house feels. It was a tightly put-together text with immaculate rhyme and scansion. The author was Julia Donaldson. I suggested that she and Axel, who was by then a friend, would make a good pair: I thought that the absurdity of the animals piled into the house (and, perhaps, behaving in increasingly human ways as a consequence) was something that Axel could capture.
Very sadly – she was very young – Elke died before the book, A Squash and a Squeeze came out, but the partnership that has been the key to the success of both parties was formed.
Some time later, I left the company to become publisher at Macmillan Children’s Books. Alison Green joined me there shortly afterwards. Quite soon after we’d started, Julia Donaldson sent a text to Axel. She knew that Axel and I were friends, and thought that it might be a suitable book for Axel to illustrate and for Macmillan to publish. The text was The Gruffalo. Axel remembers me reading it aloud to him over the kitchen table of the flat in which he lived, and my immediate enthusiasm for the text and sense of its potential. Alison and I knew it was something we wanted to publish and something that Axel would illustrate brilliantly. A multi-million copy seller in the UK and translated into more than 40 languages (I have lost count and so has Axel), The Gruffalo has been adapted into an Oscar-nominated film, and you can buy everything from a Gruffalo suitcase to Gruffalo paper napkins. In the run-up to the last election, several of the new-generation “new man” political leaders showed that they were real family men by including The Gruffalo among their favourite books.
An early sketch of the gruffalo and the mouse, before both were made less scary
That The Gruffalo has been such a success is interesting. There was something absolutely compelling about the text, and it had many of the hallmarks of great Julia Donaldson writing: perfect rhyme and scansion; a real story tightly told; and a narrative with a pattern – in this case the mouse’s three encounters with predators, a central meeting with the gruffalo and then a mirrored reprise of the three meetings with predators. However, I did slightly worry, I will admit, that it would be hard for a child to understand. After all, to really “get” the book you have to know that, at the end, the mouse knows that the gruffalo thinks that the fox (or the owl or the snake) thinks that the mouse is scary, when in fact the mouse knows that the fox (or the owl or the snake) thinks that the gruffalo is scary. That’s pretty complicated even for me to write down, and it requires a child to hold the viewpoints of different creatures in their head at once: the mouse’s, the gruffalo’s and the predator’s.
The famous Sally-Anne test suggests that children under the age of four or five find it difficult to understand that other people (or characters) may not know something that they themselves know. If the simple “Sally-Anne test” baffles such children, then even fewer, surely, would understand the layers of misleading going on in The Gruffalo?
But I have read the book to two year-olds, my own children included, and something about it works even for children who can’t unpick the complexities of the narrative. I think that one of the reasons is Axel’s extraordinarily direct illustrations. We can read the confidence on the face of the mouse as he (or she, but that’s a whole other discussion…!) leads the gruffalo away to meet the other animals. We can see the fear on the face of the snake as it looks at the gruffalo and the first doubt appearing in the gruffalo’s eyes. The book is never really scary for a little child, because the mouse, enacting his or her plan, never looks scared.
I suppose that if I had to say that there was one thing that is the reason for Axel’s success it’s that the characters he draws are extraordinarily expressive. Whether they’re snails or whales, or witches or wise men, or mice or monsters, we immediately know what they are thinking and feeling. Pip, in Pip and Posy: The Little Puddle is a male rabbit. Because he accidentally wees on the floor, he needs to change out of his clothes, but Posy, a female mouse, only offers him dresses. The illustration makes children giggle and adults smile, not just because Axel captures the situation, but because the expression Pip wears as he holds out two alternative dresses perfectly conveys his silent, tight-lipped doubt about both options.
In fact, these Pip and Posy books have very minimal texts and they’re all about feelings. The narrative and the emotion are entirely carried by Axel’s illustration skills. They are, I think, books that would not work in the hands of a lesser illustrator.
I said that the picture of Pip makes children giggle and adults smile, and this element of humour is another source of Axel’s huge success: his illustrations are funny, not just because of the expressions of the characters, but often because of peripheral details away from the main focus – the graffiti on a wall in The Smartest Giant In Town or The Gruffalo’s Child; the squirrel with his paws to his ears as Zog the dragon learns to roar; the scrunched-up face of the crow in the face of the wind that blows strongly enough to blow the hat off the witch in Room on the Broom. The humour is often in small details… and Axel’s work is extraordinarily detailed.
In ways that are hard to pin-point Axel’s art doesn’t quite look British, and this is one of the reasons it stands out in such a recognisable way in British bookshops and libraries. He is, however, working in a line-and-wash (with, in his case, pencil) style that is part of a great British tradition including great illustrators such as Edward Ardizzoni and Quentin Blake. Like Ardizzoni and Blake, Axel’s art has verve, humour, poignancy and, as I’ve said, expressiveness.
Axel’s art also, I think, looks, like Quentin Blake’s, easy, by which I mean it looks effortless. In fact, he can, and does, draw very fast. But he rejects many, many line drawings before they get to the colour stage. His colour work is painstaking and larger double page spreads takes time. The depth of colour is built up with thousands of carefully-judged brush strokes with a layer of pencil on top of that. But when you watch Axel draw and paint, and I have been privileged to see him do so more often than I can count, you are aware, I think, of being in the presence of someone completely in command of his remarkable talents, whether you’re watching the effortless fluidity of the initial lines, or the careful and slow build up of colour. Axel himself doesn’t, I think, always see it like that: I don’t think that Axel is often satisfied with his work – he has, perhaps, a vision of an ideal version of the illustration he’s working on that he can never quite realise.
But however hard he finds it, the creation of Axel’s initial line looks easy to the onlooker. And Axel’s art is “easy” in another way too: it’s easy to understand, easy to respond to. Axel is extraordinarily well-read, and aware of his own and of different illustrative and artistic traditions. Despite this, he does not, I think, illustrate to impress. I see many, many illustrators who are interested in creating artwork that they and other adults find “beautiful”, or “challenging”, or “interesting”. This doesn’t seem to motivate Axel. Instead, his illustration is wholly accessible. There is nothing difficult about it, and that’s where his appeal to children lies.
Axel’s illustrative journey has taken place at a time in which illustrative techniques have changed with extraordinary rapidity: most children’s book illustrators now use digital technology to create, manipulate, enhance or at least correct their images. This is not a tendency that Axel has, so far, embraced at all. He’s resolutely attached not just to inks and pencils but to particular inks and pencils: I’ve had to order some pencils for him from the US quite recently, as he couldn’t find them in the UK, France or Germany, and, though not a complete Luddite, he doesn’t shop online. While digitally-created artwork can have warmth, I think that it’s this very visibly made-by-hand quality – the lines uneven as the nib scratches its way along the page, the water marks visible in a stormy sky – that is another part of the appeal of Axel’s art: while it is utterly modern, it also feels very traditional, warm and personal.
The Gruffalo has been followed in the UK by other books that are also British modern classics: The Snail and the Whale, Room on the Broom, Stickman, The Gruffalo’s Child and many other books, both those created in conjunction with Julia Donaldson and those created with other authors. I’ve been involved in most of them, and, while I am proud of many of the books I have published, they are, I think, the best books I’ve worked on.
An alien and a mad scientist eye one another suspiciously.
We always want to know what people think about our books and apps, whoever they are.
This time, we have had some terrific feedback from a friendly bookseller. Matt Black (pictured doodling above) is Children’s Bookseller at Waterstone’s High Street Birmingham. We know him from Twitter (where he rejoices in the name @marquiscarabas). Here’s what he says:
“Mega Mash-Up: Aliens v Mad Scientists Under The Ocean is by Nikalas Catlow and Tim Wesson and well, you when you add to the pictures! If you haven’t seen any of the previous books in this fab series, then you are in for a treat. The whole point of these great stories is to bring the reader in on the action: you get to make up parts of the narrative as the story progresses, creating and illustrating elements of the story yourself. Using pencils, pens and felt tips (with hints on how you might want to do so from the authors) you can fill in the gaps in the story and pictures and make it your own little adventure.
This makes a great alternative to the usual doodle books available, which don’t have stories. Here, the narrative adds so much more to the book, making interacting with it much more fun. Also the illustration is very loose and simple – very child-friendly – which, I think, helps to encourage children to draw and to use their own imagination.
I love the idea of aliens and mad scientists being put together in one book set under the ocean: just such a good idea! Why just doodle, when you can create?”
We really like to hear from booksellers, whose role in getting our books into the hands of readers is so important… but it’s also great to hear from readers – or their parents – themselves. Yesterday, we got an email from a mum who had taken the trouble to contact Nosy Crow via our website after Nikalas and Tim did an event at her child’s school. This is what she says:
“Hi I just wanted to send you guys a quick email to say thank you for doing a talk at my son’s school, Bellenden Primary School, last Friday. He was shy about talking to you after school when we bought a couple of your books, but then was full of excitement and enthusiasm telling me all about your talk to the children and about your drawings, and all weekend he has been drawing aliens, asteroids, smelly socks and sound effects like “ZAP!”: he is totally inspired and loves your website and your books. The kitchen table is covered with his drawings and I will keep them all.
It does make a difference when you talk in a school. It gets kids excited about reading and drawing as well as making for a bit of fun!”
The first books in the Mega Mash-up series have reprinted, and rights have been sold to the US, France, Germany, Korea and Israel so far. We publish the fourth book, Pirates v Ancient Egyptians in a Haunted Museum, in September, and three more next year.
Young British illustrator Frann Preston-Gannon has said that new British illustration talent is being forced to go abroad in search of work as the UK picture book market becomes increasingly conservative.
Comments on The Bookseller article reporting Frann Preston-Gannon’s remarks point out that library cutbacks and the shrinking of the independent bookshop sector are a factor in this increased conservatism in the UK market, and I do think that both libraries and independent bookshops have, historically, been particularly strong and important supporters of more experimental illustration styles in the UK.
However, from the point of view of an independent children’s book pulbisher, I’d say a couple of things:
The first is that the UK has always looked outside the UK to launch new artists. Selling co-editions (i.e. co-ordinating a single printing of full-colour books in several different languages for different countries so that some of the costs of the printing are spread across many copies, and each country benefits from a sort of “bulk discount” with the printer) has been at the heart of the picture book’s financial viability for over two decades. If opportunities for artists exist outside the UK, even if the UK market itself might not be a big market for a particular artist, UK publishers are often keen to find them, and to support new talent with international sales. So a book originating in the UK may sell better abroad. At Nosy Crow, and at other UK publishers, the UK print-run can be just a tenth of the total print-run – the rest is made up of co-editions.
Second, there are many illustrators who, initially, frightened the UK retail horses at the early stages of their career, but who are now well and truly part of the illustration establishment. Axel Scheffler is a good example. When I first published Axel, I was told his work was looked “too continental European”; that the eyes were too goggly and the noses too big. The first UK print run of The Gruffalo was very small – perhaps 1,500 or 2,000 copies, I seem to remember, and, whatever it was, UK sales were smaller! We persisted (as did Axel, of course) and great, distinctive, witty illustration won through.
Third, at Nosy Crow, we’re always looking for new illustrators. We’ve a small picture book list, but over the next 18 months it will include, among other new illustrators:
Nadia Shireen who graduated in 2010, and whose art complements a dark and funny text (involving characters being eaten) called The Baby That Roared by Simon Puttock publishing in January 2012 (her first book, Good Little Wolf, published by Random House, is out now);
Of course there are some publishers who play very safe, and there are others who are a bit more edgy. Not being part of their decision-making process, I can’t speak for them. But I can speak for Nosy Crow. We’re somewhere in the middle, I’d say. We need to feel that an artists work will appeal to a child (rather than appeal just to an adult), and that’s really our starting point. we have to feel that there’s a market for an illustrator’s work somewhere in the world, especially if we think that the UK market won’t rush to embrace a particular style. We don’t always agree: as in so many areas of publishing, we’re making subjective judgements based on a complicated mix of taste, experience and knowledge.
The book market – UK and international – doesn’t owe us (or any particular artist for that matter), a living: we have to publish books that are commercially viable, but, at Nosy Crow, we’re always looking for new talent, and we’re willing to take risks on it.
And we congratulate Frann Preston-Gannon and wish her the best of luck, wherever she publishes.
As soon as Sarah’s agent showed me these loveable pre-school characters, I knew I wanted to publish them. Lucky for me then that the rest of the Nosy Crows shared my enthusiasm! And, since having met up again with Sarah to see how she is getting on with our first Zac and Zeb book, my enthusiasm has gone into overdrive, as has Steph’s. So much so, I thought I’d better become a true Nosy Crowite, and learn how to blog. Help, Tom, is this right?
Sarah Massini and I had crafted the first story together, and then it was down to her to think about how the story might work illustratively and graphically on the page. She rocked up with a sketch book simply overflowing with thumbnail sketches for the whole book – about three times over. Suddenly, these two characters were coming to life in front of our eyes – it was so exciting! The great thing about working with an artist like Sarah is that she is simply overflowing with creative ideas and vision, as well as having a fantastic sense of graphic design and how a story should work as a visual narrative for young children. It’s so wonderful to be picking out the best ideas from a whole wealth of ideas, and I do believe that the best picture books come out of these kind of meetings. It’s often tempting to cram every single good idea into one book but that might lead to a lack of visual clarity, and Sarah was fantastically open to us cherry picking through her thumbnails. Thank you, Sarah, and at least we know the second Zac and Zeb book will also be a visual delight.
Honestly, I’d have gone even if he hadn’t been a Nosy Crow author (we’re publishing the first in his new series, The Grunts, next year, with illustrations by Axel Scheffler). His events are masterclasses in high-energy, interactive, stand-up comedy and for a child-and-parent audience, that weave together the story of how Philip became an author with lots of great scatalogical and tongue-in-cheek self-aggrandising material that had the child one along from me actually falling off her chair she was laughing so much.
However professional and brilliantly prepared Philip is, he can’t predict everything, and a high-point of the event was him putting his foot (clad, as everyone in the audience knows, in size 16) through the set of one of Hay’s two swankiest event spaces:
Philip worked the incident into the event so brilliantly that even the technicians in charge of the venue were laughing in the aisles. Here he is with a triangle of broken stage after the event:
I, for one, can’t wait for the Philip–Axel The Grunts double-act.
Today’s a big day for all of us at Nosy Crow: our The Three Little Pigs app app is the Number 1 New and Noteworthy app in the UK App Store. It’s on the homepage! This is a real recognition of the app’s quality and innovation. The Three Little Pigs is Nosy Crow’s first app, and it has already been reviewed amazingly well, as you’ll see from the list of reviews in the Media Mentions section of our Media Kit page.
The Three Little Pigs has
appeared on the home pages of 12 continental European countries already it’s great to see it here in the UK App Store. Not only is the UK a really important market for our apps, but it is also “our” store: the one we buy our apps in ourselves.
The app also tops the “What’s Hot” list in book apps on the UK store:
I went up to Lincoln on Saturday to talk to a group of children’s authors and illustrators (and agent Elizabeth Roy, many of them aspiring to be published. The event was organised by writer and blogger Addy Farmer (pictured here with me) for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
It was hard to know what to cover (and Kate had a scary 90 minutes to fill), other than pointing people in the direction of our “submissions guidelines” and to telling them we prefer to receive submissions digitally, which is the work of a minute. But I talked about how Nosy Crow got started, and what’s important to us: identifying the core audience for each book or app that we do and trying to ensure that every aspect of that book or app is right for that audience; bringing our own creative energies and skill to projects as we work with authors and illustrators to shape and make books and apps; embracing digital technology both as a means of creating new reading experiences and communicating with people about them; and thinking internationally, and accessing international markets through our partners in key countries.
Of course, most of the people there really wanted to know what Nosy Crow was “looking for” and that’s a hugely difficult thing to define.
But here’s a shot at it:
Fiction for 0 – 12, bearing in mind that a lot of the texts for board and novelty books are are produced in-house.
“Mum-friendly” books – no drugs, sex or gritty or gratuitous violence.
Strong commercial concept-driven or character-led series novels and picture books.
Brilliantly-written stand-alone novels and picture books, but nothing too intensely high-brow.
Great illustration with child and parental appeal – nothing too dark and arty.
While some of our future apps may be based on our books, Nosy Crow is currently focused on commissioning apps that start as apps, not as books. We are interested in working with authors and illustrators who are excited by, and really understand how, touch-screen devices can enhance and extend the story experience. As we have engineers on staff, we don’t need people who can code apps, and we don’t need to see a ready-made app. Instead, we want to see really great ideas and really great art (and need art that is created digitally in layers for this medium).
I got to visit glorious Lincoln Cathedral:
And I even saw a little of the top part of the city (here are Addy and Elizabeth Roy in front of something lovely and half timbered) before leaving.
I got a couple of nice comments on Twitter, and Addy blogged about it.
Lots of interviewers wanted to talk to him about his best-known books, The Gruffalo, which he illustrated and Julia Donaldson wrote and which I published at Macmillan perhaps almost 12 years ago. The book is regularly described as a modern classic and is the basis of an Oscar-nominated short film, not to mention a merchandising phenomenon, so this isn’t terribly surprising.
The Pip and Posy books are about a boy rabbit called Pip and a girl mouse called Posy. They all explore a bad thing that happens, that makes either Pip and Posy very sad, or angry or scared, and then the books show how they resolve those problems. So in Pip and Posy: The Super Scooter, Posy takes Pip’s scooter without asking and then she falls off it. Even though Pip was furious with Posy, he gives her a hug, and, though Posy’s hurt her knee, she cheers up and they both go and play in the sand pit. Though the stories are short, Axel wanted to communicate in the illustrations how angry Pip is and how sad and sorry Posy is. In Pip and Posy: The Little Puddle, Pip has an accident and does a wee on the floor. He’s really embarrassed, but Posy makes it all OK. He borrows some clothes, and the next time he has to do a wee, he does one in the potty. So every story has an low point – and “oh, dear” moment – and then, at the end, a high point – a “hooray” moment.
Axel’s ability to capture, for example, the expression on the face of a male rabbit asked to choose between two alternative dresses to wear after a puddle-on-the-floor accident is one of the reasons we think he’s utterly brilliant!
Here’s Axel talking to BBC radio Humberside:
The interview, together with interviews on BBC Humberside, BBC Ulster, BBC Bristol, BBC Wiltshire and BBC Cumbria, will be broadcast today, with others following over the next few days.
Today, Deb and I went to the first Tools of Change conference at Bologna. Tools of Change is a sequence of conferences about publishing in the digital age, but today’s was the first to focus exclusively on children’s books.
Organised, at least in part, by Neal Hoskins of Winged Chariot, who couldn’t be more passionate in his conviction about the importance of apps as a new form of story-telling for children, it was a 200+ person conference with delegates from 27 countries… and a great success.
Deb spoke eloquently about the interactivity that’s at the heart of our apps development. She spoke about the interactivity that is at the heart of the content – we want to creat apps that children want to read, explore and play with. She spoke about the interactivity that is the basis of how we create an app, pulling together original text, audio, music, illustration, animation and coding into a whole in a way that involves lots of collaboration. She spoke about the interactivity that we have with readers and buyers of the app, as the digital world provides us ways of finding out – and acting upon – what our customers think of what we’re doing. She was mobbed by publishers at the end of the panel discussion in which she took part, all keen to find out more about what we do and how we do it.
And, at the very beginnning of the conference, I delivered the first keynote address. Frankly, this was playing against type: I could bore for Britain about Nosy Crow and what we believe is important, but I thought that the first keynote should sort of sketch out the landscape that the rest of the conference might cover. Armed only with data from Book Marketing Limited and The Futures Company, together with a few opinions, I talked about, on the one hand, digital selling and marketing of print books and of eBooks and other reading experiences; and, on the other hand. about digital products. First I talked about what was happening now in those two areas, and then I looked at what might happen in the future.
The opportunities for digital selling and marketing are already huge. One in four books – and one in five children’s books – in the UK is sold via an internet-only retailer (and Amazon is much the largest of these) so digital selling is a real and growing fact of life. Websites, electronic marketing and social media have opened up a way for publishers, who have traditionally “handed off” relationships with readers and book-buyers to retailers, to communicate directly with their consumers in a two-way conversation, and we have seen the development of the “consumer critic” – blog and rate-and-review website-enabled people whose opinion is trusted by other consumers, perhaps more than they trust the voice of the professional critic.
The opportunities for digital selling and marketing will, I think, only grow in future, and I quoted Aaron Miller of Bookglutton:
“Social publishing is the natural evolution of publishing as a business. It encompasses the web and all new distribution platforms including the way people read and discover on them… Social publishing involves a deep interest in, and study of, what happens to a text after it’s disseminated – how readers interact with it, how they share it, how they copy it, how they talk about it.”
The market for digital product is still evolving. Ebooks (and I’m not including apps here) accounted for only 1.26% of the UK book market by volume in 2010 and 0.4% of the UK children’s book market in the same year.
Nevertheless, the rate of adoption of digital reading is accelerating: in January 2010, just 3% of US book-buyers had bought a digital book, but by January 2011, that figure was 13%. And where the US leads, I think, the rest of the world will follow. Looking ahead, one concern is the consumer expectation that digital product should be cheap, or, indeed, free. As Lyle Undercoffler of Disney said, “Free is the four-letter word of digital publishing – the word that we don’t want to hear.” Another concern are the ongoing challenges to copyright. Almost a year ago, I wrote a blog post welcoming England’s Digital Economy Bill, and it now seems perfectly possible that the current government may not implement this protection of creators’ rights. Whether or not this Bill represents exactly the right way to protect the rights of creators is less important to this post today than the fact that this challenge to copyright may be in line with consumer expectations that they should be able to interact with, personalise and change the things that they read in ways that suit them. I quoted Adam Penenberg:
“Instead of stagnant words on a page we will layer video throughout the text, add photos, hyperlink material, engage social networks of readers who will add their own videos, photos, and wikified information so that these multimedia books become living, breathing, works of art.”
When I think about the impact of the digital world on publishing, I think of this quote from the twentieth-century economist Joseph Schumpeter:
“A railroad through new country upsets all conditions of location, all cost calculations, all production functions within its radius of influence and hardly any ways of doing things which have seemed optimal before remain so afterwards.”
The role of the publisher is changing. If there is this thing that we call “content” – ideas, words, images, audio, video, animation – and there is a reader, and there is a process for getting that content to the reader, we need to think strategically about what our role in that process is. We don’t, as publishers, have any kind of right to play a part in that process. We have to carve out our place in the process, by bringing to it something that we can do better than anyone else.
No-one owes us publishers lunch. We have to earn it.
What’s it like to make an app? We thought you’d never ask! Recently I talked to Ed Bryan about his experience creating our debut iPad title: The Three Little Pigs. Ed’s background is in video games and before joining Nosy Crow as Head of Apps Development – Creative, he was an Art Director at Rare Ltd (Microsoft Games Studio). For the past 15 years Ed has worked on a variety of successful games titles as a 3D artist, animator and illustrator, including Kinect Sports, Banjo-Kazooie, Viva Piñata and Grabbed by the Ghoulies.
1. What sort of products have you developed in the past and how does creating an app compare?
The games I’ve worked on in the past have all been made by more than two people! The first Banjo-Kazooie game for the Nintendo 64 was built with 14 of us, whereas my last game, Kinect Sports had a team of around 70!
As the teams get bigger and bigger, you find yourself doing less hands-on creative work and more leading and directing. With The Three Little Pigs (TTLP), I was back to doing everything, which is scary and exciting.
Something that TTLP has in common with most of my previous work, is a focus on characters, and a younger audience. I want to make things that are beautiful,, charming, funny, have high production values and attention to detail.
2. What was the biggest creative challenge of this process?
The scariest thing for me was having to draw and colour in so much art! The technical challenges of building the app are things I understand well. But proving to myself that I was up to the job of illustrating the whole story on my own was something else!
At the start I was determined to try and produce art that had the look and feel of a picture book. I wanted new poses for each character as they appeared throughout the story. Everything had to be unique. I didn’t want it to end up looking like a video game. Against this artistic desire was the constant thinking about how on earth I was going to take the art and turn it into the 3D scenes that appear in the app, and how I should draw the characters so I’d be able to animate them well.
3. How did you approach the illustration? Was there a character you drew first and then the rest flowed from there?
In March 2010, when we had our first conversations about making apps, we made a quick mock-up of the wolf knocking at the door of the brick house. Amazingly, he changed very little; I think for the final story I just gave him a new pair of trousers!
A very early version of the sister pig (Pig 2) appeared in the demo too. But she was initially a boy!
When work started properly, I worked through the story and sketched how I thought each scene would look. Once we had all settled on that, I was able to start illustrating.
The first complete scene was the pig family at home. This was a good place to start as it gave me a chance to get most of the characters out of the way and get the feel for how the app would look.
For all the other scenes, I took the original storyboard sketches, worked through what interactions would take place and started to build up the final art on the computer. I had to remember that in the app you can look behind objects, so I’d had to make sure that I coloured in everything, even if you couldn’t really see it in the original 2D illustration.
4. Do you have a favorite character or scene?
Truthfully, I love them all. I think we were able to create individual personalities for each character, not only with how they look, but also the way they move and the way they all talk.
I like how the older brother pig (Pig 1) heads the football (soccer ball) in the final scene; how the sister pig dances a lot; how the confident little brother pig (Pig 3) builds his brick house, and how poor Mr. Wolf gets stuck in the chimney – these always make me smile. It was a lot of fun putting it all together.
My favourite scene? The football (or soccer) scene worked really well, and gives a little nod to Banjo-Tooie, a game I worked on a long time ago. I think the way the houses blow over came out rather well too.
5. What was the hardest part to draw or animate?
Getting the wolf up the ladder was tricky. No matter how I animated him, it never quite looked like the image I had in my head.
I had a few scary weeks where I put off illustrating the third little pig’s kitchen. I’d already had one go, but it was dreadful. I spent some time doing other bits and pieces for the app, but eventually I had to face the fear, and get on with that last scene.
6. Have your children seen the app along the way? How have they reacted? Do you incorporate their input?
Yes, both of my children saw the app taking shape and always wanted to see the latest build. It’s always tricky showing unfinished work to anyone and having to explain that the bit they want to play with isn’t working yet, or is broken at the moment.
The watershed moment came when my eldest son, who is five and a half years old, was able to read through from start to finish for the first time. Seeing him with the app made me confident that other children would enjoy what we were trying to make.
What I found very reassuring was that both children would always be asking to read ‘Little Pigs’. My eldest would offer advice too, such as putting a big arrow pointing up the chimney, so the reader would know where the wolf was going to come down!
Towards the end of the project, both children helped to test the app too. It’s remarkable how quickly a 2 year old can break a piece of software! This final stage of development is vital, and having children using the app regularly helped us to tune and polish the final product.
Kate had a real day off on Thursday and went to a West Wales beach, but came back in time for the Puffin of Puffins debate chaired by Lucy Mangan, top children’s books afficionado and Guardian columnist. Children’s book authors, adult author Jasper Fforde and Marcus Brigstocke each championed a book from one of Puffin’s seven decades.
Jackie Wilson championed the The Family at One End Street – the first book with people who weren’t posh that she’d encountered. She said that every character was imbued with their own personality, even baby William. She identified with kind Lily-Rose and bookish Kate and said that they were surprisingly modern in their aspirations: Lily-Rose wants her own steam laundry (their mother takes in laundry) and Kate wants to be a sort of eco-farmer (though she doesn’t express it in those words).
Jenny Valentine defended Charlotte’s Web, saying it had a brilliantly dramatic and ominous opening line, “Where’s Papa going with that axe?”, and was a celebration of the transformative power of friendship and loyalty.
Jasper Fforde spoke up for Stig of the Dump, speaking of the appeal he felt as a child of Stig’s complete freedom from the dullness and strictures of adulthood.
Marcus Brigstocke recalled the way that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory expressly addressed him in the first pages, and said that this made the book more approachable for someone who was dyslexic. He said that Willie Wonka was a brilliant fictional forerunner of Alan Sugar, and the whole set-up was like The Apprentice.
Cathy Cassidy championed Goodnight Mr Tom, a book, she said, about “learning to be loved” that she’d read non-stop in the course of a single night when she was in her 20s.
Andy Stanton defended The Hundred-Mile-An-Hour Dog: “A small comic masterpiece” that is “a kids’ book… It’s exactly what kids want.”
Jason Bradbury spoke up for Artemis Fowl celebrating the fairy gadgetry and its moral ambivalence: Artemis is really “a baddie, which is all to the good”.
Of these, Kate would have voted for Charlotte’s Web (had she had a voting slip, which, annoyingly, she didn’t), but the audience vote was for Goodnight Mr Tom, a very worthy winner.
On Friday morning, Kate momentarily owned a Viviane Schwarz original (pictured) after Viv and Grahame Baker Smith’s Kate Greenaway Medal event with Anthony Browne… but a little girl asked if she could have it, and it seemed churlish not to hand it over. Viv’s There Are Cats in This Book is a whimsical joy.
Later, in her event, Francesca Simon read from Horrid Henry Rocks, demonstrating once again that no-one writes about sibling rivalry more amusingly. She said she draws on the emotions of her own childhood and on her observations of her nephew and niece (who provided the line, “He’s looking out of my window!” in the course of a car journey), though she emphasised that Horrid Henry and Perfect Peter represent the “Two halves of everyone”.
Andy Stanton demonstrated the quirky energy and humour at the heart of his Mr Gum books in his event, bounding around the audience to take questions, drinking water “in French” and speaking about his writing process: “Sometimes ideas are like wasps. Probably. They get in your head and buzz around. Actually, they’re not like wasps.”
In his event, Morris Gleitzman spoke movingly of the challenge and process of writing his Holocaust trilogy, Once, Then and Now… prompting a bit of a debate (continued on Twitter) as to whether you have to be Jewish to write fiction about the Jewish experience of the Holocaust or whether any writing about the Holocaust is likely to act as a commemoration and a reminder. What do you think?
Oh, and there was more, but you’ve probably had enough. Once again, the Hay Festival of Literature and Art was fun and stimulating. It was a chance to meet old friends and meet new people. It was great to be there.
The House of Illustration will be the UK’s first public gallery dedicated to celebrating and championing the art of illustration in all its forms. It will provide a home for illustration past and present, international and British. Quentin Blake, whose idea it is, has committed to donating his archive, and spoke (charmingly, eloquently) about the importance of illustration in creating composite works of art in the form of books.
Invited by fellow independent publisher, Klaus Flugge (who talked in his speech about British children’s book illustration being the best in the world), Kate felt a bit of an impostor, though there were lots of people she knew there: the cost of becoming a member is £100 per month for three years, which is rather beyond the Crow’s wallet right now. Kate’s going to email Tatiana Kennedy, who’s head of development for the House of Illustration, suggesting a cut-price associate members/friends scheme.
At Nosy Crow we agree that we’re privileged to be able to work with British children’s book illustrators (and illustrators who live in Britain). They have such a wonderful tradition to draw on, from George Cruikshank, Arthur Rackham, John Tenniel and Kate Greenaway to Shirley Hughes, Quentin Blake, Raymond Briggs, Anthony Browne, Helen Oxenbury, Axel Scheffler, Lauren Child and countless others.
Please write in to tell us who your favourite children’s book illustrators are … oooh, and we can do a survey (Kate likes a nice survey).
Yesterday evening Kate went to the Quayle Munro party, a champagney affair at the Reform Club. This necessitated a stop-off at home to change into a serious dress and real heels – very unlike what she wears to work these days. She talked briefly to her hosts including the spectacularly chic and charming Kit van Tulleken and to various familiar and cheerful people who wave the flag of independence like Andrea Carr of Rising Stars and Klaus Flugge of Andersen Press.
They all welcomed Nosy Crow to the independent fold. Though she didn’t have a clue who most of the suited men in the room were, she found out that Nigel Newton, head honcho at Bloomsbury, is very impressively learning Arabic – not at the party, obviously, but in what passes for spare time in Publishing Land. Brilliant ex-colleague and chum Denise Cripps from Scholastic was there and so was Peter Mayer (on whom Kate has always had a bit of a crush since he helped her carry her own weight in children’s book dummies at a Bologna book fair about 25 years ago), but he was so surrounded by devotees that she didn’t have a chance to get at him.
Then on, on a bit late and through the rain and wind in silly shoes to the lovely Osokool Gallery in Blackheath, above the Handmade Food Cafe and Deli which is run by Ferg and Vicki (that’s Vicki with Axel in the picture), for the opening of an exhibition of Axel’s Hand Made Food Drawings which runs from February 25 to March 27. Lots of art featuring food by Axel, most of it for sale and all proceeds to one of several charities (you get to chose which one). What are you waiting for?
Kate met Catherine Barr, one of the Evolution authors, in Hay-on-Wye to talk about web copy and about possible illustrators: we need something that combines accuracy and naturalism on the one hand, with bold use of colour and an element of picture book friendliness on the other. We have a couple of illustators we both think might work, and we will pursue them.