Beautiful Books

Recently I got to meet someone who takes up rather a lot of shelf space in our house – the wonderful Chris Riddell. Our whole family love his work and we all have our personal favourites – mine being Ottoline.

He gave a wonderfully entertaining lecture titled ‘The Age of the Beautiful Book’, in which we heard about his early influences and his discovery of social media and how he draws on the pages of his own and other people’s books to bring something new to the text.

He sketched throughout the lecture, the illustrations enriching and expanding his story telling.  One phrase that really stuck in my mind was when he said ‘ pictures turbo boost words’. And he is absolutely right.

As a writer I assumed I was all about the words and always had been. But recently, when I was going through some of my childhood books at my parents, I realised just how big a part pictures played in my childhood reading. Here are just some of those books whose pictures I loved and can remember as vividly today.

As I ‘oohed and ahhed’ over the books I was rediscovering it wasn’t always the stories that I remembered most and felt such fondness for but the illustrations. (In fact in some cases I couldn’t even remember much about what happened in the story, but I saw the picture and was instantly transported to a memory.)

Given how much time I spent with my head in the Beano or Dandy or Asterix, it shouldn’t really surprise me that pictures played such a big part when it came to reading books. But I don’t think I ever really stopped to recognise that.

I didn’t see them as separate from the book and therefore didn’t really think about looking into the illustrator behind the artwork.

In fact, I feel quite ashamed that it has taken me this long to find out the names of the illustrators I most loved and who had such a profound effect on my reading.

Their names were Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone. And their work was as important in fostering my love of books as the stories I was reading. Here is one of their illustrations from Dean’s Gift Book of Fairy Tales.

But they weren’t alone. I have loved revisiting my childhood books and finding out more about who was behind the wonderful images that have stuck so firmly in my mind.

One of my other favourite books was ‘The Family From One End Street’ written and indeed illustrated by Eve Garnett:

And I loved the illustrations by Edward Ardizzone for ‘Stig of the Dump’.

When Piccadilly Press told me they envisaged my own books being highly illustrated I was thrilled. I was even more thrilled to find out that Sara Ogilvie had agreed to work on them.

The first time I saw the cover for ‘The Boy Who Grew Dragons’ I actually squealed. But who can blame me? Sara has created something really special.  Having just received the final artwork for the book I am even more excited. Her illustrations have such detail and energy and ooze charm. Not only this, the design team have done an amazing job with the layout and adding another level of detail with scorch marks on the pages and ink splodges and claw marks throughout.

The campaign #PicturesMeanBusiness led by Sarah McIntyre couldn’t be more aptly titled. They do mean business. The right cover can make the difference between someone picking your book up or passing it by. And the illustrations inside can do so much to draw in and engage the reader,  as well as enhancing their experience of the text.

As Chris Riddell said, pictures also mean beauty. He spoke about wanting to put beautiful books into the hands of readers.

And I am delighted – and very grateful – that Sara has made ‘The Boy Who Grew Dragons’ so beautiful.

No comments yet


SCBWI Agents Party









So it’s that time of year again – the final countdown to the SCBWI Agents’ Party. Four years ago I was psyching myself up to go to my first SCBWI event, where for the first time I would meet real life agents! I wrote this Q&A in the lead up to the party last year for the SCBWI team organising the party, but can’t find where it was posted so thought I would copy it here. I hope it reassures anyone who is thinking of going – it really is a FAB event.


How did you meet your agent?

I met Jo [Williamson from the Antony Harwood Agency] at the Agents’ Party in 2013. I’d only just joined SCBWI and I saw a mention of the party. It sounded like such a great idea that I booked a ticket straight away – basically before I had time to think and get cold feet! In fact I’m not quite sure what possessed me to do it. I hadn’t been to any events before and I very quickly felt terrified at the thought of being in a room with not just other writers but agents too. But something stopped me running for the hills – thankfully!

Did you speak to Jo at the Agents’ Party that year or just hear her speak?

There were several panelists that evening, it was a lovely relaxed atmosphere and I was reassured to realise that my perception of agents was actually unfounded (I was picturing Alien here!). They were in fact very friendly and it was a really informative and useful Q & A.

The scary bit came next when we were let loose on the poor agents! I’d honed my pitch to within an inch of its life but actually saying it to someone was unbelievably hard. Words suddenly lose all meaning in this kind of situation and I was aware of wanting to get everything across without sounding like an autobot. But a smile goes a long way and the agents were very smiley which made approaching them a lot easier.

In the end I pitched to every single one – which given I’d psyched myself up for a grand old total of one, I was pretty chuffed with. Jo was actually the last person I spoke to. And I so nearly let myself off the hook, thinking I’d done way more than I expected that I could let this one go. But again something wouldn’t let me.

It was particularly hard because as I stood waiting to pounce on her I heard Jo say: ‘Wow that was the best pitch of the night’ – to someone else! But instead of running for the hills , again I thought, right – time to step up.

(I mention this because again I’m not sure where the resolve came from, but sometimes we just surprise ourselves – and to reassure anyone else out there who is reluctant/terrified/already running for the hills that it can be done!)

As a result of the Party I suddenly had multiple requests for the full manuscript and within a week I’d received two offers of representation. I knew from our meeting that night and after talking to her on the phone that Jo was definitely the right person to sign with. I went with my gut and I’ve not regretted it for one minute.

Did you have to do a lot of rewriting on your book after signing with Jo?

Jo had some notes, which were really helpful, but it wasn’t major rewriting at this stage. She was happy to send it out about a month later to the first round of publishers.

What happened after that?

We had a lot of love for that particular book and several very close calls but have yet to find the right home for the story. Sadly the market is tough for ‘quiet’ books. We still both believe in this one though and I’m currently embarking on a more major rewrite having collated all the editorial feedback we’ve received along the way. It might sting at first when you get a rejection but I’m always glad when an editor takes the time to offer it. It’s worth its weight in gold.

While it was on submission I carried on working on the picture book texts and a new book for 6-9 year olds called The Boy Who Grew Dragons. This is the one I got my three-book deal for.

What has surprised you about having an agent?

Agents seem to work in different ways and the working relationship with a writer can vary a great deal. I know some agents offer quite a lot of editorial feedback and others don’t. So the biggest surprise I guess is finding out how people’s experiences differ. That and how much more time I have to write now I don’t have to spend hours getting submissions out!

For me Jo has been invaluable. Not just getting my work in front of publishers/editors who I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise but the fact I have someone cheering me on and buoying me up in the face of rejections. And most importantly giving feedback and editorial input on the work and helping to navigate and negotiate contracts.

What’s your advice to people attending this year’s Agents’ Party?


Hone your pitch till it sparkles, believe in your book, let them see your enthusiasm for it till they can’t help but want a peek at it.

And even if you don’t feel ready to speak to the agents, you’ll pick up loads of useful info from the evening and meet lots of other writers at the same stage. I met some brilliant people that night, I’ve stayed in touch with them and they’ve introduced me to an even bigger tribe on Twitter.

What would be your top question to ask a prospective agent?

Tricky. For me it was ‘How did you feel when Howard left?’ Which will mean nothing to anyone not watching “Bake Off” in 2013. We bonded over Bake Off!

The fact I was talking to Jo about Bake Off within the first few email exchanges spoke volumes about how comfortable and relaxed I felt around her. This was really important for me. There are enough ups and downs on this writer journey that having someone on your side, who you also get on with, is a huge plus.

Seriously though, there are some useful blog posts out there with lists of questions to ask and I’d definitely do some research before you approach an agent, or if you are in the lucky position of having more than one to choose between!

At the end of the day it’s important to feel confident about the person who will be representing you and your work and to feel they have a real passion about your book – and are interested in you as a writer for the long haul. But also that they really know the industry and are tenacious enough to get your work published.

I hope everyone who goes to the Agents’ Party has a great night!

Good luck!



No comments yet