Baobab Tree Books Blog October 2022

How do you make a children’s picture book?

Rachel: There really is no straightforward answer to this and indeed sometimes I’m not even sure myself where an idea comes from; it is just there. With Christmas Cabaret, I wanted to encourage children to eat their vegetables and be open minded to different shows/dances from different countries and I just loved the idea of the vegetables dressing up and putting on a show before being such an integral part of the Christmas feast. Dotty the Dogwalker was inspired by my local community when a local dog went missing and the community came together to find it. My later ideas have evolved from being a parent and Listening Ears and The Day I Lost My Manners were both written in the hope that they can be useful learning tools encouraging children to be the best they can be in a light-hearted way. So, I suppose most of my ideas morph from personal experiences. The seed is planted and then I just let it grow. I start with an idea, then put my teacher hat on to see how it can be used to inspire, motivate or educate children.

Helen:  I’m lucky in a way because I get handed a fully-fledged story book. As I read through the story, even for the first time, ideas about how I might want to illustrate it pop into my mind.  I start with rough mini sketches as a way to record some of my ideas.  The thought process before I even start to put pen to paper is fairly pivotal as the more something sits in my head the better and more rounded the ideas become.  I have been trying to draw something every day, even if it’s just a really rough ugly sketch of something that is in the house or an activity my family members are doing; I think it’s important to not fear the blank paper or drawing something hideous.  I am learning to use every drawing as a teaching aid to get better (in theory).

Rachel: I love the journey of learning. I consider reading to be the building block that underpins all learning and trying to create something that inspires children on this journey, inspires me. Just yesterday, at a school visit, I gave a little girl her copy of Dotty the Dogwalker that her parents had kindly bought and she was told by the teacher to put it in her book bag. But on the way to her book bag, and even though she had just been read the story, the temptation was too great and she just had to have a little read – my heart sang and it is moments like this that inspire me to write. Like Hels, I’m also a big fan of being outside and start each morning with a walk down the canal; seeing the subtle changes around me as we travel through the seasons helps me collect my thoughts and organise my day. I love a good notebook too and can feel the blank pages literally calling to me. 

Helen:  I am inspired by everything, today it was mushrooms on a dog walk, yesterday it was maps, my inspiration is varied and eclectic.  Art is a big inspiration to me, I recently had the opportunity to go and see an exhibition of impressionist painters; in one room there were paintings by Monet, Degas, Cezanne and Seurat – I was so overcome with emotion I actually cried, it was a beautiful and embarrassing moment.  Being outside, sunshine, flowers, leaves in the breeze, insects, animals, café’s, flea markets, the park, the beach.  You.  Absolutely everything.

Helen:  I am such a big fan of picture books, I have read many, many stories to my children and the children in my care at nursery.  I love the work of other illustrators; I love seeing how they tackle specific challenges and how their work has progressed.  

In terms of picture books obviously Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler are an amazing duo that I love, in particular their work for ‘the Gruffalo’. Never before has a book been so quoted by little people. At nursery most of the children knew the words by heart and would enjoy telling me the story – they never grew tired of hearing it either.  They were also truly brilliant in the creation of ‘Zog’, ‘Tiddler’, ‘The snail and the whale’, ‘Stickman’ – the list is long and distinguished.  These are the books that remind me of reading to my son, he is 15 now and the books still appeal to children worldwide.  The picture books that have stood out for me and I really recall reading to my daughter, who is 8, were ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ by Eric Carle and ‘The Tiger Who Came To Tea,’ by Judith Kerr, the stories and the illustrations are just utterly outstanding.

Mom tells tales of our literary journey beginning with ‘The enormous turnip’ and ‘The Gingerbread Man’. I remember her reading us ‘The owl who was afraid of the dark’ by Jill Tomlinson and ‘The Worst Witch’ by Jill Murphy, a series of books that I am enjoying reading to my daughter, we are also reading her ‘The Borrowers’ a firm family favourite which we are both completely in love with, we absolutely believe that there are little people living in our house, right under our noses, borrowing things.  I remember when my dad read ‘The Wind in the Willows’ by Kenneth Grahame to me; I loved those original black and white illustrations and the imagery the words conjured in my mind leading to nightmares about nasty weasels.  

As I began to grow up, it was tales by Roald Dahl brilliantly brought to life by Quentin Blake which really appealed to me, ‘The Twits’, ‘George’s Marvelous Medicine’, ‘the Enormous Crocodile’ and ‘Revolting Rhymes’, I remember being so in awe of the scribbly drawings and often attempting to emulate them. 

As I grew older ‘Lord of the Rings’ by JRR Tolkien blew my mind and opened up this world of fantasy from which I hope to never escape.

 Rachel: This could fill a post all of its own. I vividly remember my Dad reading us ‘The Borrowers’ by Mary Norton and as a teenager I loved the classics. ‘Little Women’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ as well as typical teeny reads by Judy Blume. I echo Helen’s description of our childhood reads; we were so lucky to grow up in such a language rich environment which has shaped our lives. There is nothing better than reading aloud while snuggled in – may my children never tire of it. As a family, we are obviously also huge admirers of Julia Donaldson; she is the powerhouse of rhyming picture books but my boys also loved ‘We’re going on a Bear Hunt’ by Michael Rosen and ‘Who’s in the Loo?’ by Jeanne Willis. 

Rachel: Well, I’m finding out these things as I go along but I try to stick to a classic story mountain structure as this is what we teach in schools – there is an opening, build up, problem, resolution and ending and the children recognise this format and can describe the content of each. In fact, I use a lot of my experience as a primary school teacher when writing as after that I will look at sentence openers – have I used a variety? I try to use a range of adverbial openers/phrases and time connectives. Reading is the foundation to writing and so if a child is exposed to good quality literature from an early age, it has a massive impact on their learning. All of my books generally contain some repetition, so I’ll check to see if this work; in Dotty I have used a variety of synonyms for walk (strolled, saunters) as I know from experience that this is something that crops up in school. I love alliteration so I’ll check that this is on point; in Dotty all the dogs’ names and breeds include alliteration ie Ben the Boxer, Darla the Dachshund. I also check to make sure the vocabulary I have used is rich and varied – ‘wow’ words if you will. This then gives me plenty of scope to consider a range of features in my school workshops. In terms of actual requirements, you need a title page and ISBN number; as we’ve said all along, we on a journey learning as we go and only yesterday I was advised by the owner of an independent book shop that the ISBN number is best placed on the title page; who knew? Definitely not me, but I’ll remember for the next time.

Helen:  You need a vibrant, attractive front and back cover, I do them last as by then I really know my characters.  We like our books to have a large picture per page and smaller drawings for the page which contains the writing.  I like to include both colour illustrations and black and white illustrations.  Originality is important but so is style and brand, you want a product which is unique to you, which appeals to people and which is easily recognizable as you. 

Rachel: Writing a book certainly takes less time than illustrating which is why I don’t mind taking on the bulk of the marketing and sales work. If I have a decent block of time, I can write the bones of a book in a few sittings but then it takes longer to flesh it out and look at the pattern and repetition. Editing takes the longest and I spend a lot of time doing this before sending it out to my most trusted editors who are of course good friends (you know who you are!) I also factor in time to pester the life out of my Illustrator until she gives me what I want!! 

Helen:  It takes me a loooooong time, I am getting quicker, when I am in the throng of production I can do an illustration a day, but I like to take my time too as I don’t want our finished product to look rushed.  Rachel is very good at keeping me motivated and telling me what she thinks we need.

Rachel: Essentially, once the book is written and edited and subtly changed in hundreds of different ways then the illustrations are next. Sometimes, I give Hels some of my ideas and sometimes I give her free rein. Once we have the majority of pictures, I start to look at the format of the book just on the page using a powerpoint. Once we are happy with this it gets sent to our Graphic Designer and it is crucial to get an expert involved at this stage especially if you are not an IT whizz as it’s all about high resolution images and thinking about the printing process with the ‘bleed’ (run over onto the next page). There’s generally a bit of to-ing and fro-ing at this stage and we normally need some more small illustrations to finish it off. Whilst this is happening, I am thinking about printing and getting quotes from local printers who then get the final copy from the Designer; this is the scary bit. It’s like when you’re going on holiday and you check your bag for your passport multiple times even though you know it’s there and that rationally you know it hasn’t grown legs and wandered off. The Travelling Passport – that’s an idea! In all seriousness though, it is so easy to miss something as you’ve looked at it so many times as you start to see what you want to see but we’re hoping that if we have missed anything, it does not detract from the overall charm of the book.

 Helen:  My part is quite a small one in the grand scheme of things, small but time consuming.  Once I get the book and have a good read through, I begin to develop my ideas on how I would like things to look and try out my ideas as rough sketches to see how they look on paper, at this stage I sometimes have to research how things should look.  If I am happy, I will then draw them neatly in ink and colour them in with pencil.  I then use a scanner to copy the pictures as a high resolution is required and email them back to Rachel.  Once she has formatted things we can see what is missing and what still needs to be drawn, this is a frantic and frenzied time of drawing.

Rachel: Obviously, I have flirted with the idea of getting an agent and/or publisher and it is very tempting to go down this more traditional route where you have a team of experts who know their craft and exactly what needs doing rather than finding it out as you go along. But for me, it was a no-brainer; the reason why we have self-published is because I would only want to do it with Hels. She is my Illustrator. She brings my vision to life and because she knows me so well, we don’t need to be constantly filtering what we want to say. Ultimately, we would like to build up an entity as a duo and hope that an open-minded Agent or Publisher would accept us in this capacity as going forward we have a lot to give.

Helen:  By self-publishing we get to stay together as a team, we have complete creative control, we have control of the timeline, we have control of the rights, we have control of the distribution, we have control of the money, we can donate what we want to charities of our choosing.  The only downside is that once a book has been published we have to sell it.  Neither of us are especially comfortable with the hard sell, while we know we have a unique and interesting product worth selling, self-doubt always creeps in.  

Anyway, we have rabbited on enough, we hope that we have given you some idea about where our inspiration comes from and how we go about the writing and publication process.  We hope it has been useful to you in some small way.

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