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Louise Bolongaro, Head of Picture Books, reflects on how we grew I Am the Seed that Grew the Tree

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I’m tickled pink, in a toes-curling-with-delight kind of way. A short while ago, I Am the Seed that Grew the Tree won the inaugural Waterstones Children’s Gift Prize, 2018. Selected by Fiona Waters, illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon and published in partnership with the National Trust, it’s the biggest book I’ve ever worked on and I am so incredibly proud. Thank you AGAIN to Fiona and Frann for creating such a beautiful thing. It’s been pretty momentous for us all and we wondered if people might be interested in hearing a little about how the book was made.

I say, a little . . . but with 336 pages of full glorious colour, this is going to be a big blogpost. If I were you, I’d get a cup of tea. Maybe a biscuit.

So . . . Kate first had the idea for the collection when we were in early talks with the National Trust about a possible partnership. It was an epic proposition from the very first moment but, at the same time, it seemed a perfect match – nature poetry combined with the Trust’s desire to get children back to nature, well, what could be better? Kate talks more about it in her recent blogpost so please do take look.

We secured the partnership with the Trust and I was the lucky one entrusted with the poetry collection, a real “pinch me” moment. I’ve always loved poetry, and have done collections before, but a full-colour one coming in at 336 pages!!? Jeez, Louise! It was the equivalent of 12 picture books! Daunted, me? Never!

We knew that we wanted to work with Fiona and Frann from the very first moment. We signed them up in a heartbeat and so it all began. If you know Fiona, you might have had the great delight to visit her at Frog Cottage. Every wall and every corner is crammed with books and Fiona started to sift through her books, carefully marking each poem and recording it until she had amassed 600 or so. The day she delivered them to the Crow’s Nest, we began to glimpse just how magnificent the book might be. There was just the small matter of selecting the poems first . . .

We only needed 366 poems, of course, so my first task was to sort them into three piles: yes, no and maybe. There was so much to consider. We needed to think about tone, register and suitability but, also, crucially, how the poem might work visually. Did the poem spark an image in my mind? As a picture book editor, I want every image to tell a story and, in this case, each spread needed to feature a few poems, and those poems needed to connect to each other in some way. What story did each little collection of poems evoke?

We also decided to have what we called “hero” moments. These are the spreads that feature just one poem. Each of these poems really deserved a place of their own but it was also a question of pacing. With a book of this size, it could be overwhelming and we wanted to create pauses for the reader, moments to linger and let the world go by.

Once I had a good pile of “yes” poems, I scooped them up and took them all home. I then sorted the poems into seasons, depending on the particular content of each poem and from then into months. Then, within each month, I needed to decide which poem would fall on each day. In no time at all, it was as if a snowstorm of paper had hit my kitchen. Every surface was covered in piles of poems. Each pile represented a tentative spread, a story, and it was about then that I started talking to myself.

Clutching a poem, I’d roam about the room, knowing that it was a perfect match for another one, the-lovely-one-about-pigeons-but-God-knows-where-it-is. And as I sifted through the piles, I’d get distracted by another poem, fall down a rabbit hole, come up with a story for another spread, and then try to remember what I was looking for originally. This process repeated itself endlessly – my family moved out – until, a few days later, a tentative first draft came into being. I then scooped it all up again, bristling with paper clips and notes, and took it back into the Crow’s Nest to share with Kate.

There, we took over the boardroom and went through the same process again – roaming the room, clutching poems and talking to ourselves.

Now, sometimes Kate and I bicker. It turns out we don’t ALWAYS love the same poems and poets, although mostly we do. But we got there in the end, helped by lots of tea. Minstrels too. Occasionally biscuits. Victoria (now our Senior Editor for Non-Fiction) was an invaluable help and brought fresh eyes and new ideas to the oxygen-depleted room. We chatted to Fiona about our suggested choices and then switched, amended and shaped things again. We discarded a few poems, discovered a few more until, finally, we had 366 perfect poems, each one lovingly selected for its individual joy. Not only that but every poem was in order. There was also a LOT of counting.

And then we made the GRID. I can’t talk too much about the grid because I break out in hives. Suffice to say it’s an Excel document that charts every poem with its source, copyright material, subject matter, etc. etc. Fiona and Miranda, our Senior Editor at the time, made it a thing of efficient beauty for which I am ridiculously grateful.

That was just the first stage. Now it was time for Frann to start to weave her magic. But, BEFORE that, we had think about the look and feel of the project – the design of the thing. Holly, our Senior Designer, created a beautiful layout for each spread. We had to consider font choice (we needed many!), font size, leading, headings, folios, the design grid and many, many other things. We agonised over choices whilst the poems were typed up, then we flowed all the poems into the InDesign document until, at last, all 366 poems were in place. NOW we could think about the pictures!

Usually with a picture book, an artist will start off with thumbnails or roughs, to plan out the composition and get a sense of how the story of a spread might work. We might then revise those roughs, and maybe even think again before going to final art. But there was no time here. The book was too big and it would take forever. So we chatted to Frann and we all agreed that she would go straight to colour on each piece, and then do any amends that might be necessary. The good thing was that, unlike a picture book, each spread worked entirely independently, so there was no need to worry about narrative continuity or development. Frann just had to create beautiful individual pieces . . . 144 times!

Frann works digitally and would deliver her work to us in batches – a week or two here, a month there. We LOVED receiving the emails from Frann. Kate and I would gather round and wait for the link to download until, finally, a new set of treasure would appear. A glorious pheasant glowing in gold and red, a windswept prairie beaten by the rain or a tiny, tiny dormouse curled asleep in a nest. It was bigger and better and more beautiful than any of us could have hoped.

And then our baby, our book, had to take a back seat when Frann’s REAL baby, the gorgeous Effra, came along. We delayed publication by a year and had a little breather.

But we didn’t stop. In the background, like invisible stage hands setting the scene for a play, the Herculean permissions effort was underway. In a poetry collection, the publisher must contact the poet to seek permission to use the poem and then agree a fee. If you’ve got a copy of the book, take a look at the acknowledgment page at the back – best find a magnifying glass if you can. Every single reference to each poem represents numerous emails and exchanges with poets, agents or an estate. Fiona and Miranda made every effort to chase each poem down so that we could feel confident that each poem had been attributed and recognised correctly.

Months passed, Effra grew bigger and Frann came back to work. She continued to send us gorgeous batches of work. Interestingly, with a project like this, the style evolves as you go along and, one day, Frann delivered the beautiful shell spread. It was graphic, less pictorial and stopped us in our tracks. Could we have more like this, please? It set us off on a new path and the contrast of the graphic scenes with the more narrative pages made for a beguiling mix that we hadn’t previously imagined.

By this point, perhaps two years had passed, and we took a brief pause to reflect. We suddenly had doubts about the font that we’d chosen for the title of each poem – a significant choice as it was likely to appear on the cover too. It had seemed beautiful and fresh but, as Holly pointed out, it was everywhere and suddenly felt overused. So we thought again. We also realised that we needed more hands in Design, so Holly focussed on the cover and Nia, our Head of Design, and Chloe, our Junior Designer, worked on the insides.

We made another change too. We had huge ambitions; it was going to be the biggest and greatest poetry collection ever but was it, erm, a bit too big? Our Head of Operations, Imogen, sourced a more economical format and we made it smaller, doing our best to cause minimal disruption (thank you again, Frann, for making the tiny adjustments!). It also meant numerous painstaking, sometimes invisible, revisions to the InDesign document but Nia, Chloe and Holly tirelessly tweaked until it was perfect.

All this time, Frann was still working on the insides – more birds, cats, dogs, many clouds, more birds, sometimes leaves, sometimes shells.

At the same time, we started to focus on the cover in earnest. As Kate mentions in her blogpost, we were lucky enough to have valuable input from Waterstones, plus other wonderful booksellers, teachers and librarians, at a very early stage. Kate and Catherine, our Head of Sales and Marketing, had numerous exchanges with key influencers and Holly created a number of versions, perfecting and tweaking at every stage. The idea to add a cloth quarter binding was a turning point, Holly worked her magic one last time and, at last, we had exactly the right thing.

And there were endless other conversations too. We wanted head and tail bands. But which ones? And we loved our new quarter binding. But what kind of cloth? What colour? And what about the ribbon? What colour? We sat with Imogen and pored over printer sample books like kids in a toy shop, whilst Imogen continued to talk to suppliers in the Far East, negotiating prices, trying to match our ambitions with what was realistic and affordable.

And what about the paper stock? We all had our hearts set on woodfree but now that the book had taken shape, we realised that many of Frann’s beautiful images were quite dark and rich, and we worried that the detail would be lost on woodfree paper (the texture absorbs ink more than a glossy, matt art paper and can flatten an image). We did endless test proofs to compare and contrast and finally settled on matt art, knowing that this would do the greatest justice to Frann’s images.

In the meantime, more flowers, dogs, cats, birds, foxes. More permissions, more copyright intricacies. I began to dream about the grid. In a bad way.

And it was around this time that the talk started. Kate and Catherine, and the UK and Export Sales Team started to sow the seed  – “we’ve got something extraordinary.” Ola and her Rights team took it to Frankfurt – as a small but beautifully formed blad – and started their campaign. Of course, it’s poetry, how would people translate it? But people are attracted to beautiful things and who knew who might be interested?

Kate was also having numerous conversations with Candlewick, our publishing partner in the States. They loved it, they wanted it – hallelujah! – BUT we had to print together (the economics of a book of this scale are painful so a co-printing is very welcome) and that meant we had to follow their schedule. Which was earlier than ours. Of course it was.

I wondered if I might need therapy. There wasn’t time so I just ate more biscuits.

And then, one lovely autumn day in 2017, finally all the art was in. Each revision and amendment had been done. Each piece was perfect. Every poem had a story and we had 144 spreads of beautiful, beautiful art. Frann was a superstar.

But that wasn’t the end. Oh no. Next came the checking stage. And I had to sit on Kate to remind her to do the introduction. And we had to do all the end matter – the index and the acknowledgments and the contents. Oh my.

The index. Cripes. This is why I usually do books that are only 32 pages. We called in the experts and sent it to a brilliant freelancer, Rachel, in Devon. But because the timings were so horribly tight, we had to turn it around on a sixpence. Rachel’s husband drove up from Devon and back in a day to deliver the poems to my house and then we faced a bit of a challenge.

In order to compile the index, Rachel had had to put our original source material into alphabetical order by poet but, to successfully proofread the collection, we needed the poems back in the original page order. Argh. So my husband and I stayed up late and began to put all the poems back into order. We went to bed when we could no longer remember what came after G and Tegen, our Junior Editor, bravely and brilliantly finished the job the next day.

And then we started the Checking Process. Checking and checking and proof reading and checking again. Three separate editors – myself, Miranda and Tegen – proofread every part of the book so that we weren’t reliant on a single pair of eyes. If one of us missed a mistake, another person would catch it. Tegen and Miranda checked and re-checked copyright material online. We sent it to Candlewick for them to proofread. They (brilliantly!!) discovered some inconsistencies so we checked and checked again.

The designers – I still don’t know how they managed it – managed to squeeze each last detail in. Nia and Chloe tweaked and amended and fine-tuned the position of each poem and piece of art until they sat together as a seamless whole. Then they wrestled with the end matter whilst Holly perfected the cover, making minute adjustments that most people wouldn’t even be aware of but which made it completely perfect. We did the Repro in-house, using our digital proofer, until, finally, one glorious day in January 2018, our baby went off to the printer. Imogen travelled to China to press pass it – checking the colour as it came off the printer to ensure it resembled the original art as closely as possible – until she was happy that a good job had been done, which took SEVEN days. We then checked the plotters, the running sheets were flown over in time for Catherine to show at the London Book Fair and, finally, we pressed the Big Print Button.

Then it sat on a boat for six weeks.

Finally, an advance arrived. Kate rushed over to my desk, beaming with delight. It was more than we could have hoped for – it was magnificent. Frann’s art was luminescent and even though we had read each poem a thousand times over, Kate and I felt like we were discovering it for the very first time. Curiously, I felt a tiny bit sad. As the editor, my direct hands-on involvement had nearly come to an end. We had crafted the most beautiful thing but now it was over to Kate and Catherine and the Sales and Marketing team to sell it to the world.

And, boy, did they do a great job! Kate discussed it at every available moment. Catherine, ably assisted by Maddie, made it the highlight of every sales presentation, conference, exhibition and book fair and her team started to build an expert PR campaign alongside the National Trust, covering the United Kingdom and Ireland. Point-of-sale material was lovingly crafted by Hester, our Senior Marketing Executive, until there wasn’t a bookshop in the country that didn’t have beautiful display material, alongside a very impressive outdoor and print advertising campaign. And all this was mirrored by an innovative digital campaign. Tom, our Digital Manager (and editor too), and Julia, our Digital Marketing Assistant, put together eye-catching video content which sat alongside an impressive online selling strategy by Frances and Hannah (Senior Sales Manager and Sales Assistant respectively).

Then, on September 6th 2018, it published. At last! We had a wonderful party at Sutton House, a National Trust property, to launch it in style. We held our breath but, thank heavens, people loved it just as much as us.

We couldn’t be happier with the wonderful reception it’s received. It’s been such a labour of love, but now our baby is out there in the big wide world and doing just fine. Indulge me if I’m a proud mum and include a few lovely quotes here. Before I do, my biggest heartfelt thank you to Frann, Fiona, Kate and all the crows that made it happen.

 

The Sunday Times
“A spectacular volume, every page colourful. Filling the mind’s eye, too, it is accessible and surprising and will connect listeners with the seasons, weather and the outdoors.” – Nicolette Jones

New Statesman
“Poetically inclined readers of 6+ will love Waters’ outstanding collection of nature poems for every day of the year, gorgeously illustrated by Preston-Gannon.” – Amanda Craig

The Guardian
“Gloriously illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon. Children’s non-fiction has seldom looked better and sales are soaring.” – Fiona Noble

The Telegraph
“A sumptuous anthology of nature poems for every day of the year, drawn from writers as various as Wordsworth and Updike.” – Emily Bearn

Julia Donaldson picked I Am The Seed as her Book of the Year on Book Trust.
“An absolutely beautiful (if rather heavy!) book. What I particularly love about it is that each illustration covers a double-page spread, picturing the theme of the poems concerned but without being too prescriptive, so that the reader’s imagination can still roam . . . I’m sure it will help to create very many young poetry and nature enthusiasts.”

Metro
“A huge, luxurious beautifully illustrated book of nature poetry old and new, featuring a poem for every day of the year.” – Imogen Russell Williams

Huffpost
“The bee’s knees. Fiona Waters hasn’t skimped on the greats . . . but Frann Preston-Gannon’s gorgeous pictures really do make it accessible.” – Nancy Groves

RTE Radio
Sarah Webb featured I Am The Seed on RTE Radio 1 and in her round up in the Irish Independent on Saturday, calling it “one of the best children’s poetry collections I’ve come across.” It was also featured on The Late Late Toy Show in Ireland last Friday.

The Irish Times
The Irish Times also featured an article written by Kate Wilson, which you can read here.

The Sunday Business Post
The Sunday Business Post had a roundup of books for presents which featured I Am The Seed: “So you don’t like poetry? Prepare to change your mind.”

Here’s our trailer for the book:

And here’s a look inside I Am The Seed That Grew The Tree:

Buy the book from Waterstones.

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