Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Writer/illustrator - it's a team thing

Response to an excellent article by illustrator/writer Sarah McIntyre called: Why I hate the word 'author'

Over the last 7 years, illustrator Alex Barrow and I have been lucky enough to have worked together extensively on children's art and science magazine Okido and it's here that our working practice has evolved. Alex illustrates the majority of poems I've contributed to each issue but as far as the magazine goes, we don't discuss what I've written. Yet he always knows intuitively how to visualise, and in so doing, enhance my words. He always has done, even before we met face to face. He brings my words to life and gives them a new dimension, often creating a visual story from the words that I hadn't even noticed in there...
Okido issue 10

Neither greater than the sum of parts
The first two books Alex and I have created with wonderful Tate publishing were a more complex undertaking and our working method has developed accordingly. Alex and I see our skills not as mutually exclusive but engaging together like notes in a piece of music and most importantly, we each respect the other's talents and judgement. That's not to say we won't be working with other artists and writers at some point on other books, but for now we've got a few more ideas our up sleeves that we'd like to collaborate on. 

Both pictures and words obviously have the capacity to inspire, but in books for children, it's often the illustrations that fire up the imagination because vision is so immediateWhen we go into schools, Alex enchants the kids with his 'live drawing' while I read through the story - and no prizes for guessing who the kids watch!

Writer/illustrator alchemy
Since A Possum's Tail has just been nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal, I find myself in exactly the opposite position of Sarah McIntyre (whose book has been nominated for the Carnegie; this award, unlike the Kate Greenaway Medal, does not 'include' her as the illustrator, despite the fact that the illustrations are integral to the book and in this particular case, she effectively co-wrote it. However she is not included in the nomination since it has to be a 'single author'). Alex and I have worked as an equal team on both our books, each bringing our individual skills & ideas to the table to create the very best, entertaining whole we can. This sort of relationship between writer and illustrator is rare and certainly very special so I totally get Sarah's dislike of the word 'author'; it's simply too simplistic when books are created in this more organic and collaborative way. Certainly in terms of making a value judgement, it's impossible to decide where one person's input ends and the other's begins, thus it also becomes unreasonable to decide which skill is 'better' or has the greater 'value'. 

Take The Gruffalo; the words and pictures are synonymous with the whole creation. Julia Donaldson's witty, poetic creation is given life and visual form by Axel Shaffer's hilariously robust illustrations. Who 'created' the character of the Gruffalo? Really and truly, both writer and illustrator.  The illustrator's interpretation adds layers of meaning and imagination to the words and likewise, the words inspire and inform the illustrator's work. In the same way, people tend to 'see' the world of Roald Dahl in Quentin Blake's illustrations. In the case of writer/illustrators this dynamic is automatic but it's still a kind of magic.

A great picturebook is a whole thing and must be judged as such; words and images are more than interdependent - they are equal partners.


Pictures for grown-ups
The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair
In longer books with more words and fewer illustrations, the relationship shifts a bit although images can stay with you just as long as the words do, sometimes longer. I'll never forget the pencil drawings of The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair in Susanna Clarke's  astonishing novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. That this book for grown-ups has pictures adds not only to its charm but embues it with a further layer of conceit. Here, I'm not suggesting that the words and images are less powerful alone in the way they are in a children's picturebook but that they still have the capacity to enhance one another. As a child, I was unable to keep the copy of Alice through the Looking Glass illustrated by Ralph Steadman in my room, so frightened of the images was I. The black, inky drawings quite literally 'drew' the darkness out of the book and gave it form. More proof, other than the graphic novel, that illustrated books  are not just for children. If only there were a few more - but that's another story...

Wordless Picturebooks
It's also worth considering the beautiful children's books that have no words; they are wonderful, imaginative and stimulating of course, but they also 'illustrate' (no pun intended) perfectly the sense that something is missing, even if just a few words. These books do work as they are but the added layer of words gives the reader purpose, direction and rhythm. Ok, ok, it's also quite  tiresome to make the story up every time you 'read' the book.

Invisible inputs
Last year, I helped to re-write a visually stunning book by an extremely talented illustrator; the story needed shaving and the words needed shaping. In short, they needed to form a good 'relationship' with the pictures. In the end, unfortunately, the words were somewhat apologetically placed in the corner of each page in a very small font and the images dominate. Some critics liked this, but I'd argue again that it does a diservice to both parties to credit one with more importance over the other, even in highly-illustrated books such as this. Less might still be more but  it's all to do with mutual respect. 

Making a book
In her blog piece, Sarah explains superbly the different roles involved in making a book; the editor's input being invaluable, as often is the art director's, too. And those who market and promote books also have an awful lot to do with how the book as a whole is presented. Our first book, for example, would simply not have been the same had it not come out in hardback, on matt paper, with a dust jacket, in that particular size. Small details maybe but God or the Devil lies therein, depending on your perspective. This sort of successful teamwork is crucial and as mentioned, only gets bigger and more critical when books get turned into films or television shows, if the original charm and ethos of the book or characters is to survive.  

Even more...
The second book that Alex and I have made, London Calls! has just been adapted into a puppet show to be performed on board an old London Routemaster. Although the words from the book are being used, the story itself has been developed and adapted for the show, and the puppets are quite different-looking to Alex's illustrations. But they are still interpretations of the visual characters he created just as my poem has taken flight into something new. It's exciting and wonderful, whatever the outcome!

I'm just going to enjoy the nomination for OUR book and feel extremely proud that Alex's beautiful, witty and enchanting illustrations have been acknoledged in A Possum's Tail being nominated for this prestigious award.


Alex and I wrote more about our experience of making books in an interview on the superb Look/Book Report website.

BACKGROUND information...

My first picture book - called A Possum's Tail - is a collaboration with brilliant illustrator Alex Barrow and came out 6th February 2014. A second book called London Calls! is a whistle-stop tour of London, led by a Pearly grandma and her granddaughter. London Calls! came out on 4th September 2014 and is my second book with Alex Barrow. A Possum's Tail was nominated for the 2015 CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal.
Both books are by Tate Publishing.

Please see my CURRICULUM VITAE for more details & updates.

As well as writing children's books, for children's television and two award-winning children's magazines, I do both private and commercial art commissions, a selection of which you can see here.

The children's shoes are part of an ongoing series of "first shoes", including several cards commissioned by the Almanac Gallery.

Hand-drawn, bespoke invitations, announcements, portraits and menus, such as the examples here are also available upon request..

Any enquiries please email:


I've been a regular contributor to children's art and science magazine OKIDO since 2007. HAPPY 10th BIRTHDAY (WOW) beautiful Okido!

An Okido animated kids tv show, based on characters from the magazine is currently in production with Doodle/Squintopera The original adaptation of the show (co-created/adapted by myself, producer Ceri Barnes and Doodle Productions) was acquired by CBeebies. 52 x 11 minute episodes will be coming to a screen near you soon in 2015.......... . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .............................
N E W S F L A S H! MESSY GOES TO OKIDO Series TWO is now in production, following a super-successful 52 episode first series!



Cartoon Forum 2011 Okido booklet

Cartoon Forum 2011 Okido booklet
Okido Cartoon Forum 2011

Happy Birthday OKIDO!

Happy Birthday OKIDO!
Okido was 5 years old this issue...the wonderful art and science magazine for kids I've been lucky enough to have worked on for the past - 8 - years now