Monday, 20 November 2017

A FIREBIRD’S JOURNEY - a guest post by Saviour Pirotta




A picture book’s journey from idea to publication is somewhat different from that of a chapter book or a novel, especially if you’re a writer rather than a writer/illustrator.

With chapter books, you usually write a treatment or a synopsis and the first three or four chapters of the story. Some writers include notes about the main characters and the setting but it’s not essential. If you’re a first-time author, or you’re known for another kind of book, you might have to write a first draft before your agent can submit your book to editors. But there’s enough there for the publisher to decide in favour or against the project. Your book lives or dies on the strength of your ideas and your writing.


I find the process is much trickier with picture books if you’re a writer who doesn’t illustrate his own books. Your proposal is hauled up in front of a busy editor with the most important ingredients missing: the visuals. When submitting picture books early on in my career, I always assumed that my carefully chosen words would project the same images in an editor’s mind as in mine. I quickly learnt that this was way off the mark. Everyone ‘sees’ words differently and very often, what I thought would appeal, didn’t. I’ve given up counting the times I had a project turned down, only to see a very similar story published successfully by someone else. Nearly always that picture book was the work of an author/illustrator who could submit text and illustration roughs.

As I gained confidence in my writing, I turned to anthologies. They were still heavily illustrated but the stories did not depend on the illustrations to work. An editor could see the potential in my work without the pictures. Most of these books were commissions anyway, and the publishers had an illustrator in place before I was even asked to come on board.  I do very well with them so  I decided that I’d only attempt another picture book if asked by publishers to write something about a specific subject, and then I would not limit myself to perceived ideas of what a picture book should be. I would follow my own instincts and push the envelope.


The opportunity came when Templar asked me to adapt The Firebird as a celebration of the ballet’s centenary. They had an illustrator attached to the project already, the wonderful Catherine Hyde who’d just done an incredible job on Carol Ann Duffy’s The Princess’ Blankets. The sample pictures I was sent had a sophisticated, hypnotic quality to them. They looked earthy and mysterious. The characters in them looked almost posed, like people in a play. I thought they would appeal to adults as well as children, and I wanted to provide a text that would have the same expressionist quality.

The ballet is adapted from several Russian folktales. I chose one to work with, Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf. Amanda Wood, who at the time headed the Templar team, is a fearless editor. She let me break so many rules. My text stretched to 3000 words rather than the customary 800 or under. I used difficult words, hard-to-pronounce names, and I changed the ending of to include an anti-hunting ‘message’.

Critics loved it but very few shops stocked it.  They complained that the book was too big to fit on the shelves. It didn’t look like a normal picture book; they didn’t know which shelf it should go on. Was it aimed at adults or kids?


For a few years, it looked like the poor Firebird was going nowhere in a hurry. There was no talk of a paperback edition. The US edition went out of print. I consoled myself with the fact that the book won an Aesop Accolade in the States, that the few people who had seen it, totally got it.  I moved on, producing more anthologies and writing, my first middle grade novel.

But somewhere along the line, things started to change for the Firebird. I started to get emails from teachers who were using it in class with upper KS2 kids. I’d walk into a school and there would be a display of the children’s own firebirds, inspired by Catherine’s work. I started offering free Skype visits to classes who were using the book. Before I knew it, the Firebird had risen from the ashes. Sales picked up and recently the Literacy Trust produced teaching notes to go with the book. I now get more emails and letters about Firebird than any other picture book I’ve written. In February I am visiting a school that is dedicating two whole weeks to activities based on it.

It just goes to show that you should always follow your heart and your instincts, not the market and certainly not received wisdom about what a picture book should be.  After all, that’s why we’re writers. To push the envelope of creativity, and to broaden people’s horizons.





Saviour Pirotta’s latest middle grade novel, Secret of the Oracle, is published by Bloomsbury and available now. His next picture book, The Unicorn Prince, illustrated by Jane Ray and will be published by Orchard Books in September 2018. Follow him on Twitter at @spirotta.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Magic and Storytelling – Mini Grey


My latest book is all about a magic show, and while I was making it I got really interested in the history of magic and how illusions are made. So that’s what this post is about.




Yearning for Magic

When I was small I used to long for something magical to happen: for the biscuit bear I’d just baked to come to life, to find a mysterious lamp-post or cupboard full of fur coats that would transport me to another world (I was obsessed with Narnia), to make a potion & find it actually worked, for my cat to talk.

Here is my cat C1973. In a basket. I’m the one holding the bicycle

But I never seemed to find the magic that I was looking for. My cat never spoke a word to me, my potions made nothing happen and all I ever found round the other side of the lamp-post …was the other side of the lamp-post.
A likely-looking lamppost    

But why this yearning to witness magic?
When magic happens in books and films it seems so easy. We’re used to seeing magic whooshing out of Harry Potter’s wand and extraordinary transformations happening onscreen and on the page. And with the dark arts of cameras and drawing and special effects anything is possible. But what about Real Life Magic?

Harry summons his patronus

Real-life magic is harder. Real-life magic is really hard work. Real-life magic is putting in more practice than anyone would ever believe to make something seem effortless.


Here are some acrobats doing something that looks just about impossible. But I suspect that this feat has been achieved not with magic but with an astonishing amount of practice, skill and hard work. (Plus nerves of steel.)

So one ingredient of magic is a lot of hard work, invisibly hidden away. But magic tricks done by magicians use the way our brains and vision work so that our brains are helping the illusion to happen – our brain is being the magician’s assistant.

And since our brain is being the magician’s assistant, the magician won’t have to distract or misdirect us necessarily, but will want to be directing our attention towards the magical effect…which means we do the magic – in our heads, with our story-telling brains.

Our vision is constantly trying to make a story it can understand about the world – to work out what is going on so we can predict what might happen next, and we know what to do. Optical illusions are a great way to see this in action.


Here’s a grey bar on top of a grey gradient. Look at the grey colour on the bar, and what happens if I cover the gradient background, first the top:


And now the bottom:


The grey bar that seemed to have such a definite shading from light to dark at first – has gone flat. Which it was all along. Our eyes couldn’t help attempting to construct an image using our ideas of relative light and shade.  




Here’s an invisible triangle – what can you see? Can you see its edges? Is it really there? To our eyes, a triangle is a better idea of what might happen than a non-triangle.

With optical illusions you can see your eyes and brain at work constructing the world.


The Vanishing Card



 Let’s say a magician makes a card disappear and shows you that it had, then produces it out of someone’s ear. He’s shown show both sides of his hand after the disappearance – but you can’t see both sides at the same time, so have you seen there’s no card? Your brain invents a story, and the story you see is the card has vanished. The story is not that the magician has practiced flipping a card round his hand more times than you can imagine so he or she can do it with supernatural unbelievable skill. Remember those acrobats: what they do is incredible, magical – but we know how they did it – an incredible amount of working at it.

When your brain’s story & the evidence don’t match, you either change your view of what’s going on, or call it magic… The fascinating thing about magic is it reveals how our brains work: how we are storytelling all the time, constructing stories, taking shortcuts and filling in the gaps.

Arthur C Clarke famously said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The history of magic really runs parallel with technological innovations. For example, making a ghost appear on stage wasn’t possible until the invention of plate glass – in big sheets. The Pepper’s Ghost Illusion meant hiding a huge sheet of glass in front of the stage, angled to reflect a figure hidden below the stage – when they were illuminated with a strong light they’d magically appear. Nobody watching was expecting to see huge sheets of hidden plate glass – so they didn’t see it – and Pepper’s Ghost was a sensation.



But back to books.

Books are masters of disguise – they can be like so many things. A book can be like a door, a museum, a time-machine, a theatre show.


Chris Riddell showing how books are like doors

Every reading of a picture book is like putting on a new performance. When I made the Bad Bunnies’ Magic Show I wanted to make a book that was like a theatre performance, and I wanted the reader to be the audience.

At first I wanted the bunnies’ magic tricks to be proper pop-up paper-engineering, because playing around with pop-ups is such a lot of fun. I managed to make a cabinet that could make Lovely Brenda appear and disappear.




Here’s the Brenda Cabinet in action. It’s a fold-up thing called a tetraflexibook

But I realised the transformations I wanted to happen would be really complicated to engineer -  and the complicatedness of the mechanisms might limit their visual impact. So as often happens – I found that less is more, and just cutting into the page edge with a magical sort of shape could be all the magic I needed.

Here is Cadabra doing some knife throwing




and a bird-to-beast transformation.


The bunnies’ plan is foiled    
and here they are being blasted.  


I also had to make a stage to work out what was behind the curtain!

My model bunny theatre  
So, to return to my childhood hunt for real magic – what it would mean to see something truly inexplicable and magic happen? What if my cat did start talking to me?


It would mean I’d have to rethink my entire world model…which would be weird and exciting, but alas still hasn’t had to happen.


The Great Randi, Uri Geller and the Spoons

Uri Geller is an illusionist who did a lot of spoon bending, and explained that it was happening through the force of his mind.

James Randi (the Great Randi) was an incredible magician who also put a lot of time into exposing the deceptions of fraudsters and confidence tricksters. Randi studied Geller’s performances, and worked out exactly how he was producing the illusion of a spoon bending to his will. Randi could demonstrate spoon bending exactly like Uri Geller, but when he did it, people said – “Oh that’s just a trick.” “But what about Uri Geller?” they might be asked.  The reply would be “Oh no - when he’s doing it, it’s magic.”

To me, magic shows the power of our story-telling minds. Storytelling is how our brains are constructing our worlds. Storytelling is how our brains construct our pasts and predict our futures – and decide what to believe.





Mini Grey is the author and illustrator of "Biscuit Bear", "Hermelin", "Three By The Sea"  and the inimitable "Traction Man" amongst others. Mini lives in Oxford with her family and cat Bonzetta.
"The Bad Bunnies Magic Show" is out now from Simon & Schuster

See more of Mini's work on her website here