Interview by Victoria Bennion
We are very lucky to have the talented Tessa Strickland, Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of award-winning independent children’s publisher, Barefoot Books, taking our Picture Book workshops this year.
Tessa co-founded Barefoot Books in 1992, opened a US office in 1998 and has published internationally since that time. Writing as Stella Blackstone, she has written over thirty picture books, which have sold many millions of copies and been translated into over 25 languages.
When did you know you wanted to write? What attracted you to picture books?
I started writing as a child – I loved to ride, so pony adventures filled my journals. Rather improbably though, my first published children’s book was about ice skating and was a collaboration with Elizabeth Buchan, now a bestselling novelist. This came out a long time ago, when I was a young editor at Penguin Books.
I didn’t start working with picture books until I had children of my own. Until then, I’d worked on adult books only. The children’s picture book world was an exciting discovery. Of course, I had read and loved reading picture books as a child, but I hadn’t really given any attention to how picture books are put together until I started Barefoot Books. I began to write picture book texts by accident really – in the beginning, the business was tiny and I kept having ideas, many inspired by illustrators I came across. It seemed easier and quicker and more economical to have a go at writing for them than to seek out authors, explain my ideas, edit their versions of them etc.
What did you write first? Did you show it to anyone?
I wrote a series of four rhyming books about a little girl who spends the weekend with her grandparents in the country. There was one for each season. They are (rightly!) long out of print. I showed them to my colleagues (only two at that stage) and they were illustrated by an artist in Devon. A more successful venture was a text for Clare Beaton, ‘One Moose, Twenty Mice’, which is still in print after 20 years. Then I wrote ‘The Gigantic Turnip’ for Niamh Sharkey. This too remains in print and has been translated into 24 languages.
What is your writing method? How do you go about making up the stories and crucially, finishing what you start?
Sometimes the starting point is an anecdote; sometimes it’s a memory of something I enjoyed as a child, sometimes it’s a conversation with an illustrator. Often, it’s a conversation with a group of children. Picture books provide a structure in a way that fiction for older children doesn’t – you are constrained by the page count (most picture books are 24pp or 32pp) and you know the story will unfold through the illustrations as well as through your words. So, once I have the seed of a story, I often turn to the structure: I draw myself a storyboard and decide what I want to have happen in each scene (there can, of course, be several options at play at this stage). Then I think up what character/s I am going to have, what they will be like and how they will relate to each other. I also spend time thinking about form: would this story work better in prose or verse? Do I want a repeating device? (Small children often love a repeating device). It’s essential to me that, although the story will be told in pictures as well as in words, the words do their work well, so that someone listening to the story but not seeing the illustrations will enjoy it.
I particularly enjoy (and am sometimes daunted by) endings. There are often lots of lively debates internally at Barefoot Books about how a story should end. Again, with little children, an ending needs to be satisfactory and to bring the story to a proper close.
What are your writing habits?
I tend to write in bursts – I have an idea, jot it down somewhere, then set aside some quiet time for the writing. Sometimes, I get a skeleton down and then adorn it in patches. Sometimes, everything takes shape in one ‘whoosh’ (or in two or three ‘whooshes’). I need to clear a good couple of hours and these are often in the morning, when my ideas flow more easily, unemcumbered by the distractions of the outside world
How do you capture your ideas?
I have several notebooks – one by my bed, one in the kitchen, one big and one small one in my bag. I also have a diary in the sitting room. Into one or the other of these notebooks come phrases that pop into my mind, or ideas for titles (I love thinking up titles), or characters. I am afraid this method is a bit haphazard – it means that every now and again I have to do a ‘gathering up’ exercise. I’ve tried reducing the number of notebooks I have but it never seems to work. What DOES work is writing on the recto only of notebooks and then using the verso to expand on the ideas with wee mind maps and sketches and thoughts about illustrators and so on.
What are you working on right now?
I am almost at the end of a collaboration with one of Barefoot’s US editors on a big book called ‘Children of the World’, which falls into a genre that feels somehow in-between fiction and non-fiction. I’m also translating a lovely contemporary French picture book about a small girl whose mother dies, and the effect of this. And I am working on a story in rhyme about a girl who loves making maps and keeps getting into trouble for drawing them in the wrong places.
What are you most proud of?
Well, I always hope that whatever I do next I will be more proud of than what has gone before. However, some years ago I wrote a book called Bear on a Bike, illustrated by Debbie Harter. I have to say I am quite proud about the number of children who adore this book and whose parents write to thank me for it. I went on holiday two years ago to visit cousins in New Zealand. Imagine my surprise and delight when one of my cousins told me that his marketing manager’s three-year-old twin daughters adored ‘Bear on a Bike’ – could I please meet them and read it to them? They, of course, knew it by heart already and it was so rewarding to share it with them and see how much they were enchanted by it. (I think too their mum and grandmother were glad, for once, to be able to take a break from reading it for the zillionth time themselves!)
What are you working on next?
I am trying to clear the decks to write a novel about the Battle of the Roses for 10-12 year-olds. It is slowly taking shape.
What books, ideas, inspirations have helped you in your writing process?
All sorts of books have helped me and still help me. One of the most inspiring ones is William Steig’s ‘Sylvester and the Magic Pebble’, which won the Caldecott Award in the USA when it first came out. Another is Goldie MacDonald’s ‘The Little Island’, which I adored as a child and which all of my siblings loved too. I still own an extremely dog-eared copy. For verse, I still turn again and again to Louis Untermeyer’s ‘Golden Treasury of Poetry’. I think the best way to develop as a writer is to read the best practitioners and learn from them.
Who do you read? And why?
At my bedside today: ‘All the Light You Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr, given to me by a colleague; ‘Granny Pearl Remembers’, which is my maternal grandmother’s memoir of her childhood on a sheep station in New Zealand at the start of the 20th century; Lian Hearn’s ‘The Brilliance of the Moon’ (I have read The Otori Trilogy about four times and recommend it to everyone I know); punk guitarist Viv Albertine’s brilliant autobiography ‘Clothes, Music, Boys’ because my second son told me it was amazing; and ‘The Mountains of Tibet’, by Mordecai Gerstein, which was one of the first picture books I published at Barefoot and which, like the best picture books, merits regular re-reading.
What goes in to making a high quality picture book?
Well, here are some of the ingredients: a strong storyline, which enables ‘a willing suspension of disbelief’ and which does not patronise the child; a well thought-out storyboard, so that the page turns synchronise with the unfolding of the drama; and consistent, visually accessible and stylish illustrations. Also, excellent graphic design and high production values. The content matters; so does the form.
At what stage does an illustrator become involved?
Sometimes the illustrator’s portfolio is the starting point because it inspires an idea. At other times, the hunt for the illustrator begins when a manuscript is approved. Sometimes, the illustrator is also a good writer (but this is quite surprisingly rare).
Do you have any tips on getting the balance right between words and pictures?
The balance really has to be addressed on a case-by-case basis but I think a good rule is ‘don’t write what the pictures can say’.
Are there advantages to writing a picture book in rhyme?
I think so: I am fascinated by the crossover between words as music (which is what every infant hears before they have a cognitive grasp of meaning); and words as language. So, for me, many successful picture books for small children ride this crossover space: like a piece of music, a rhyming picture book has a shape, often with repeating sentence structures, refrains or other poetic devices. These enable small children to join in easily; to anticipate what is coming next and later, to remember it. I think rhyme can do a lot to plant a love of stories and storytelling in small children’s hearts and minds.
What are the opportunities like for creating picture books in the current market?
Well, the market has been quite disrupted by the arrival of apps. Also, picture books require a large print run because printing in colour cannot be done economically with a small print run (you really need a print run of around 8,000 copies to be able to price a picture book competitively). This means that publishers in the UK need to find co-edition partners, who join the UK print run. The market in southern Europe has almost disappeared, but the Asian market is strong at the moment. So, it is quite a swings-and-roundabouts dynamic right now.
What are the main challenges of writing for such a young audience?
I think one challenge is remembering what small children’s hopes and fears are; another is giving parents the confidence to read aloud (this is an increasingly common challenge, and one which I find quite upsetting. It just seems so sad to me that a parent thinks that their child won’t enjoy hearing them read aloud if they’re not ‘good enough’. I can only think that a lot of modern parents must have had a hard time of it learning to read when they were little and that this still haunts them).
What are the different age groups that writers should consider with picture books? And what are the different expectations for each group regarding language or content?
My view is that a good picture book will work for any age. Of course, it needs to be accessible to its intended 3 – 5 year-old market, but a 3 year-old will happily quarter-follow a more complex book being read to an older sibling, and older children often love reading picture books to their younger brothers and sisters. It’s important to remember that picture books are, largely, intended to be read aloud and that with this comes the physical and emotional intimacy of the child-parent, child-teacher of child-older-sibling relationship, and that this is itself a very potent part of the experience for the child, who is receiving precious, undivided attention via the story.
What are the most common misconceptions about writing picture books?
There is a tendency to believe that writing picture books is easy because they’re short.
What advice would you give you someone looking to develop as a writer/ illustrator of picture books?
Read what speaks to you; notice why it affects you the way it does; think about and re-read picture books you loved as a child; look at what is around now and notice what you are drawn to. Write about what you enjoy or feel inspired by. Practise, practise, practise.
You will shortly be taking two picture book workshops for the Golden Egg Academy. What can our Eggs expect from the sessions?
We’ll be taking a close look at some super-successful picture books; working on how to create and develop character, structure, storyline; looking at the picture book as a form and what this means for the writer. We’ll have guest writer’s whose work will be edited ‘live’ in the sessions and of course, there’ll be plenty of time for everyone to sharpen their pencils and turn their ideas into living, breathing stories! See you there – it will be fun!
On 19 June Tessa will be running The Art of the Picture Book – Pen, Paint, Paper! For further details and to book a place visit https://www.goldeneggacademy.co.uk/event/the-art-of-the-picture-book-pen-paint-paper-19-06-2016/