We're delighted to feature author (and sometimes illustrator!) Mike Brownlow as this month's guest blogger. His many picture books include the popular Little Robots series that became a TV series, and in this blog Mike divulges why somebody else has illustrated Ten Little Pirates, and it wasn't all plain sailing...
It came unbidden, as sometimes these things do. Walking with my wife in Trelissick Gardens not far from Falmouth, thinking about nothing in particular, the words “Ten little pirates, sailing out to sea, looking for adventure, happy as can be” popped into my head.
Maybe it was because I was in Cornwall, with all its piratical connections, or maybe because it was a beautiful day and I was gazing out over the sea that the nautical theme occurred to me. Whatever the reason, it might have stayed no more than an opening line, soon forgotten, had I not immediately coupled it to the idea of ten green bottles, and their gradual reduction in number.
So, here we have ten little pirates ready to be bumped off one by one in a series of nautical mishaps, the more dramatic the better. But would this be too gruesome for a picture book text aimed at 3-6 year olds? Well not if a happy ending could be arranged, and I had an idea about that. By the time we’d finished our walk I reckon I had about a third of the book written. I dragged my wife into the National Trust coffee shop, and she patiently waited until I'd put down on paper what was in my head. It felt like a strong idea, but I've grown to be wary of first ideas. I’ve started on texts before now, thinking yay! this is the one! – a terrific idea that will make for a sure-fire best seller, only to realize a little later that maybe that first flush of enthusiasm was misplaced.
But another feeling I've learnt to trust is to make time to develop that germ of an idea, whether the outcome is a good manuscript or a duff one. And do it as quickly as you can manage. I made time the next day and pretty soon I had the first draft of Ten Little Pirates done and dusted. It happened that I was quite busy with other work at the time. I was illustrating a book for America, and was running a bit behind schedule. I had a pretty good idea how I wanted my pirates to look - a bunch of disreputable but lovable rogues, with the odd scar and peg leg thrown in to conform to piratical convention. I doodled about, but the annoying thing was that I couldn't actually get down to roughing out the pictures for the book because of pressure of work.
Yet there was still that nagging feeling - was the idea any good? If you're anything like me, confidence is brittle at best, no matter how many books you've had published. I needed confirmation that my text was on the right track. I needed that reassuring pat on the shoulder. So I sent the manuscript off to my agent without any accompanying sample illustration, nor even a pencil character rough, and went back to my other work. All I wanted was a little note saying, yes, this is good, carry on, or no, I don't think this is going to fly.
In the evenings over the next few days I worked on the look of my pirates, and even did a painting of them hanging from the rigging. I was keen to continue, but the Americans were sending me nagging emails, so it was back to the day job.
Less than two weeks later I received an email from Caroline Walsh, my agent at David Highams. 'Congratulations!' it said, “Orchard Books have made an offer on Ten Little Pirates!” Orchard are better than good. They're a great publisher responsible for producing many lovely books. I was thrilled... until I read the next sentence. “And they have the perfect illustrator for the book.” The 'perfect illustrator' it turned out, wasn't me. Orchard had worked before with a young, relatively new artist called Simon Rickerty. He had produced a book for them, 'Suddenly', and it was doing very well. They'd been looking for another text for him to work on and, in their opinion, this was it.
I'll confess it. I was miffed. I huffed about for a while until I'd collected my thoughts. I made the fateful decision. I emailed Caroline to say thanks but no thanks. I really want to illustrate this one myself. Terribly sorry and everything. Caroline emailed me back to say “Er, are you really sure about that? This is a great deal they're offering.” I had another think. I had, I realized, done most of the hard writing work by this time. Illustrating it would take me at least another three, probably four months of hard graft. I checked up on the upstart Rickerty. Damn. He was very good. Bright, bold, strong shapes. A charming naïvety juxtaposed with graphic sophistication. Was this worth having a hissy fit about? I was being offered the opportunity of a book deal with the prospect of having very little extra work to do. All the rest of the hard slog would be down to Simon.
I recanted. I said yes to the deal. It turned out that my manuscript had landed on the desk of Frances Elks, who had been newly promoted to editor that very week. She has subsequently told me that she was worried at the time because people had warned her it might take weeks before she saw a promising manuscript, and here she was, on the first morning of her first day, with something sitting in front of her that she thought was really good. It had apparently taken the reassurance of one or two of her colleagues before she’d followed her convictions and made the offer, but I'll always be grateful that she did.
Fran very kindly suggested she show me Simon's work as it progressed to see if I had any comments. My old illustrator instincts getting the better of me, I looked over his roughs and actually, yes, I did have one or two thoughts. Shouldn't that giant squid be a bit more terrifying? Shouldn't the pirates be in a bit more of a panic on that other spread? Shouldn't that pirate's hair be a teensiest bit browner? Whether Simon actually saw any of my comments I don't know. If he did, he politely ignored most of them and went his own way. And why not? I always hate it when art directors come back to me with nit-picking amendments. I decided to keep any future comments to a minimum. I needn't have worried. Simon did a beautiful job with my little pirates, taking the ‘Little’ part of the title literally and coming up with ten child-like pirates, whose look seems to chime well with children.
Ten Little Pirates breaks two big rules – it’s written in rhyme and its cover is black. Despite this I'm happy to say that at the time of writing the book is selling really well, with five reprints of the paperback in less than two months. It’s also been short-listed for two literary awards. Orchard are so pleased that they’re making it into a series. The next one out is Ten Little Princesses, in August. There are two more ordered, and I’ve just completed the first of those scripts, which personally, I think is the best one yet. (Dinosaurs since you ask!)
More by accident than design, Ten Little Pirates has turned out to be a great book to read out at school visits. Some books make for a quiet read. Not TLPs. I always get the children to stand up and join in with the actions and the noises that accompany the story, and it seems to work a treat. Having a hall full of children leaping into the air and all crying out “ARRRRR!!! at the top of their voices is very satisfying. It even works with a room full of jolly, middle-aged women as I found out the other week when I gave a talk to a regional branch of a book charity in a library.
Hachette, who own Orchard, have a brilliant publicity department, and Rebecca Hearne who deals with me, has found me lots of spots at various festivals, something I’ve done very little of before. It feels very good indeed to have a publisher’s support like this.
And illustrating? Well it’s fair to say I’ve had a bit of a crisis in confidence with my illustration. I know many illustrators and lots of us periodically reach a stage when the work we’re producing feels tired and dull. (A browse through the picture book section of any bookshop usually brings on this feeling in me!) But after a relatively fallow period last year, I’ve re-evaluated things and have updated my way of working in a way that makes me feel enthusiastic about the future. I’ve been doing some pared down illustrations and it feels more contemporary. ‘Less is more’ is a motto I’ve always admired, but never had the courage to put into practice. Now I feel I’ve tweaked my paintings so that the results look less fussy.
But the real discovery from my decision to hand over the illustrating reins to someone else, is that I haven’t missed illustrating nearly as much as I thought I would. In fact I’ve spent quite a lot more time recently writing other manuscripts – early reader and middle grade books as well as picture book texts – and I’ve found that to be a thrilling and addictive process.
So, am I pleased I decided to let another artist illustrate my text? Very definitely ARRRRRRR!!
Mike has worked as an illustrator in the areas of advertising, packaging, animation, design, and editorial. And possibly a few other areas he can’t recall just now. He began writing and illustrating children’s books in the late 90s, and his second book, ‘Little Robots’ was made into a 65 episode, animated TV series for the BBC. Mike’s website (which needs a jolly good spring clean!) is mikebrownlow.com