How to write a picture book over six years of lunches...

Posted on 9th February 2015 by Jonathan O'Brien & David Bedford
Some picture books can be written in a matter of days but other, as David Bedford and Mandy Stanley found out, can take a bit longer...

Roo the Roaring Dinosaur is out - at last. Roo-hoo!

Picture books can sometimes seem to write themselves. With word counts rarely topping 500, they can be a fast, fun-filled exploration of a single, crisp, universally acknowledged idea. The words can be done by lunchtime. Can be...

Roo the Roaring Dinosaur, by stark contrast, is the result of a six year collaboration between the illustrator, Mandy Stanley, and myself. It’s been a meandering, exploratory process that has, as we’d hoped, brought out something new from both of us.

Mandy and I had been meeting – lunching – for a few years. We live in the same part of the country, and have a lot in common. We’re both the makers of, primarily, picture books. I write them. Mandy writes and illustrates her own. We’d both been doing it for long enough to have a valuable shared experience of publishing, of talking to our audiences in schools, of the worlds that children inhabit, and the stories that appeal to them. We were both heavily published and busy. And yet we felt there was room for...something else.

What I mean is, we both felt that the other knew stuff we didn’t.

I think, in general terms, Mandy approached picture books from the point of view of characters. From Bloomer the dog to Lettice the Flying Rabbit, character – and the visual landscape – is where Mandy begins.

By contrast, I was all story and plot. I saw picture books as skinny 500 word page-turner novels. Character was, in most cases, something an illustrator magically fleshed out for me. And that worked – polar bears brought to life by Jane Chapman in Big Bear Little Bear; a zebra discovering his dancing shoes in It’s a George Thing, made astonishingly ‘real’ by the artist Russell Julian. 

Could I learn from Mandy’s approach, and Mandy from mine? We set out to give it a go, to begin what we later called ‘our Friday project’. Between our other, individual projects with publishers, in the gaps, we worked casually at our secret collaboration – one that wasn’t for publishers at all. It seemed important, and I’m sure it was, not to aim the project towards anyone specific (a publisher, an editor), but to keep it as ours. 

Early on, we settled on developing a dinosaur character. We did that because Mandy doesn’t much like typical picture book dinosaurs, and didn’t want to draw one. (Ergo, my thinking was, if this was going to work, it would have to be good!)

I wrote a story called ? the Roaring Dinosaur. (We hadn’t hit on ‘Roo’ yet.) Many phone calls followed – long ones. The story, the words, suggested the character, and now Mandy wanted to know more about the character. I wanted it the other way around, the character and visuals to suggest the plot.

We fiddled. Years passed. And then – one Friday, I remember – the project was reborn. This time it was kicked off by Mandy sending a new picture, hastily put together after an out-of-nowhere taunting email from me. ‘Have you drawn a really good dinosaur yet?’ or something to that effect. 

With this new character drawing in hand, the original story now seemed futile. We had a new name (not ‘Roo’, not yet!). And we talked visuals. What did Mandy see on the pages... what do I see myself? A home-made scooter. And a hot-air balloon! Crashing! And someone from somewhere else tumbling out, odd and new, but friendly.

And then what? The new thing stays to play? What kind of things would they play together, and what would they learn from each other? Could they fix the hole in the hot-air balloon? If they patched the hole with leaves – no, with something precious! – would that precious thing float up and away, and never come back to Roo?

The story seemed to come from the inside out, the visuals suggesting the plot, the plot asking for more situations, especially more ‘time’ in the story for the characters and their relationship to develop.

Finally, we had something finished – and felt unusually possessive of it! Would a publisher really produce it the way we’d been seeing it for so long?

As luck would have it, Lara, an editor I’d known for years, moved to Simon & Schuster, a publisher I didn’t know. Mandy and I ‘went in’ – for a chitchat and a nose around. Not to submit anything, certainly not our dinosaur, which wasn’t ready to show to one and all yet, if ever. And yet of course it WAS mentioned. Lara knew we had to have something up our sleeves, and she wanted to see it. And when we sent it to her – she wanted it.

She wanted it  but not with the dinosaur’s name... and that was good, because the name was never quite right. And in the end, a picture book is a collaboration between author, illustrator and publisher, and all have their ideas. Immediately, as if it always should have been, I changed our dinosaur’s name to Roo. And the rest is histoROOy.

The book’s out this month, and I feel lucky. It was well worth the time spent learning to think differently. And the talented team at Simon & Schuster turned out to be just the right people to make it, to understand and bring the best out of it. I like to think they realised that it was really a skinny novel – they certainly helped us give time in the book to create a strong and memorable character and storyline.

So, a six-year collaboration, an exciting new way of working (not to mention the lunches), plenty of new characters-with-stories up our sleeves... and best of all, a shiny new picture book character out for JanROOary!


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