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Unpacking The Suitcase – a guest post by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros

Suitcase

This month we’re incredibly proud to have published The Suitcase by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros – a powerful new picture book full of heart and humanity. And today we’re very pleased to share a piece by Chris on the development of the story, which you can read below.

The Suitcase was intended as a follow-up to my two previous books – I’m Going To Eat This Ant and I Love You Stick-Insect. I started out trying to emulate the tone of the first two, ie. light-hearted, humorous, slightly surreal, and based on another fundamental human need. Having covered food and love, I thought the next obvious subject was shelter or home. And I thought I’d be able to come up with something but in fact I really struggled. I had a few things in mind but none that provoked that lovely feeling where an idea feels lively and sparks excitement and you know if you dig around enough you’ll find a story to hang on it.

In the end, I was absent-mindedly sketching and doodling and I scribbled this fraught-looking animal carrying something big over his head. Who is it? What’s it carrying? A box? A case? Why does it look so worried? Who’s it running from?

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Early character sketches

At last this idea felt like something to grab hold of and work out. I don’t remember mentally putting the story together but did set out to follow my previous books’ theme of a character who confuses reality and fantasy and things become increasingly silly or incredulous until there’s some sort of unexpected punchline at the end. But instead of mirroring those books’ comic reveals, this story’s twist was more emotional and heartfelt. It seemed that thinking about and imagining one’s home whilst not being in it or even having one was inevitably disturbing, unsettling and melancholy and didn’t suit a humorous resolution at all. So it had to go in another direction because I think the notion of home is so fundamentally a part of our sense of self. I didn’t set out to write a story explicitly about a refugee but it is obviously open to that interpretation. I also like to think it could apply to any unexpected arrival that needs help and acceptance but might disturb established relationships and situations: the child that suddenly arrives out of nowhere at your school in the middle of term, the new family in your street who are apprehensive and shy. And, of course, the person who is fleeing poverty or war and has taken a huge risk to find stability and shelter. I hoped my stranger could be seen as any of these things.

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So after a month or two of struggling to find a story, I finally felt I had one. I recounted it to my children one morning and at the end one of them said “It makes me want to cry but I’m not sad.” This was great news – children on the verge of tears at breakfast – yesss! It’s very easy to lose a sense of objectivity on your own ideas. Stuff you think has potential is sometimes met with ‘hmmm… not bad, yeah…no’ or things you think aren’t anything too special get a big thumbs up. So my family are the first sounding board and this story seemed to pass that first hurdle, where many others fall flat on their underdeveloped, badly-thought-out faces.

Next step – Jo Williamson, my agent was also very positive about it so I worked up the text and some sketches. The submitted version had the first two pages worked up in ink/watercolour to give an idea of style and the rest were rough sketches, just to get the story across. Nosy Crow got back to us quickly to say they really liked it and snapped it up. That makes it sound like getting a contract was a piece of cake but in reality getting a book deal is never actually this simple – there were, as always, previous periods of waiting and then disappointments and frustrations but it’s true to say that as soon as Nosy Crow saw it, they were very enthusiastic and decisive and it all went pretty quickly and smoothly from then on.

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The basic story hardly changed from submission to publication. But there were many modifications, some quite large, lots small. I had too many characters, for example. The group that the stranger confronts numbered five and Louise, my editor at Nosy Crow, rightly knew this was too many. So goodbye hedgehog-type-thing, goodbye badger/bear-sort-of-thing. Louise also saw potential for extending the animals’ discussion about opening the case or not and gave me an extra double page to develop that dialogue.

 

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Rough artwork (top) and the final version (bottom)

Then a small but important change at the end of the story: my stranger originally asked for “more chairs” but Louise (spot on, again) noted that, unbeknownst to me, The Day War Came by Nicola Davies and Rebecca Cobb brilliantly uses chairs to symbolise welcome and acceptance.

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So, well… we changed it to teacups – some solutions are just sitting there waiting to be used. Then there was the usual fine-tuning, tooth-comb streamlining of text, to make sure the story and emotions got across in most effective way in harmony with the images.

For the images, the toughest part initially was developing the character design from my original versions. Along with Louise, I worked with Nia Roberts, the book designer at Nosy Crow to get this right and she was invaluable in guiding me along the way until we were all happy with it. As ever, lots of sketching and inking, trying things out until everyone gets the lovely feeling that it’s actually, slowly getting there.

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Three iterations of the same spread, from left to right

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Rough teacup artwork (top) and the final coloured version (bottom)

There are countless little considerations that make a book better and one example of this was the stranger’s tail. Because it was quite long I liked to draw it wriggling or curling around a bit, or being used to cover the stranger’s eyes when he’s on the ground but Nia and Louise felt that it was looking a bit like a character in its own right, distracting from the real character and therefore the story. They had a point and I shortened and reined-in the playful tail. Readers’ eyes have to be directed where you want them and if a funny, wriggly but narratively irrelevant tail is scene-stealing then you’re failing the story. We also had a lot of discussion about the tail when the stranger is asleep – where does it go? How long should it be? Does it dip below the ‘ground-line’ or stay above it? Attention to minute detail but worth the effort.

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Developing the tail

Another change was to the imaginary/memory scenes. I’d intended to have the stranger within them – appearing to sit at the table he’s describing, having a cuppa at the imagined shed, even with the group animals looking on from the bottom of the hill, to blur the reality/fantasy boundary but Louise and Nia felt (right again) that the boundary was too blurred and it could lead to confusion in younger readers – has he gone back home? Has he taken the group with him? You can’t risk those kind of misunderstandings so the imaginary scenes were left uninhabited and also coloured sepia, to divide them even more clearly from the ‘real world’.

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Rough artwork (top) and the final version (bottom)

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Rough artwork (top) and the final version (bottom)

We also discussed hand-inking all the text but again, it was a distraction, drawing attention away from the illustrations and the story so we went with a very nice, clean, serif typeface that Nia suggested and I loved. We also all agreed that there should be no playfulness in the typography – no size-variations, bolds or italics, words on a curve or at an angle. The story ought to tell itself without those tricks, even if they can be effective in other kinds of story. One exception was using colour to link speech to characters. Obviously, the animals were placed on the page so that the dialogue would read in the right order but Nia and Louise wanted to make that clearer and colour code each phrase to each animal and distinguish dialogue from narration. I think it was a great idea and looks lovely.

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Developing a sketched story to a finished picture book is a very collaborative process and everyone brings there own expertise and style to it. I was very lucky to have worked with Louise and Nia on The Suitcase because we were all very much on the same wavelength as to what the story should be and how it should be presented and the process was thoroughly enjoyable from start to end. That said, I do think the stranger’s tail is just a tiny tiny tad too short, ha ha..!

Thank you, Chris! The Suitcase is available in shops now – you can take a look inside the book below:

Buy the book.

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