November 22, 2016

The Language You Didn’t Know You’d Learned

Pictures are the language you learned without realising it. From before you were born, they have been influencing, informing and enriching your life. They were the illustrations in the books about babies your parents read with nervous anticipation as they waited for you to emerge from the womb. They were the health promotion posters on the walls of the hospital on the day you arrived. They were the diagrams on the instructions your parents followed to put the car seat in, to put together the baby gear and the toys that would promote development.

They were the illustrations on those toys, on the play-mat and your high-chair tray, your plastic plate and your bib. They were the images on the cloth books and board books that you chewed as your mum and dad gazed down at you with love. They were the cartoons you watched as you grew. As your parents and teachers first taught you to read, a systematic process laid out in the school curriculum, they used pictures to help you understand the meaning of words. But there was no systematic process to teach you how to read the lines, shapes and colours that made two-dimensional symbols on paper. Easy Option-Book BlastIt was taken for granted that you would understand these without being taught.

Even as you mastered reading words, you continued to read illustrations, because they made the early struggles easier, and still they showed you things that would contort words into knots to achieve the same meaning. These two languages were two aspects of the same thing, human expression, each as valuable as the other, though you wouldn’t know that from the way the world treats them. As ‘reading books with pictures’ became an idiom for ignorance and stupidity, as illustrators were sidelined, given a lower status than writers in publishing lists and book awards, you still looked at pictures in newspapers, magazines, adverts, adult cartoons, instruction manuals and road signs. You graduated from comics and cartoon strips, ‘growing up’, but it was still okay to look at political cartoons that could convey more meaning with one image than many of the news articles you read. Imagine the worldwide web without pictures. Imagine if the only images we had were the ones that could be photographed.

And now, as a new generation of parents around the world sit down to read picture books to their children – without explaining to them how to read pictures – remember what it was like when you were that age. Remember that you were able to learn this language of illustration so effortlessly, so instinctively, because someone else put in the time, hard work, imagination, passion and expertise to understand how a change in the curve of this line can be the difference between showing contentment and regret; how this shadow can give the illusion of depth to a two-dimensional image, how adding this colour will change the entire feeling of this picture.

You can read this language because an illustrator uses it so skilfully and expresses themselves so clearly. It is the language we use to learn other languages and it is the only universal language the world has.

We could do more to show our appreciation for that.

September 30, 2013

Getting Into Character

Tomorrow marks the beginning of Children’s Book Festival in libraries and schools across Ireland. For people like me, it’s easily the busiest time of the year for events, and this year I’m booked up for just about every school day (and a few weekend days) between now and the mid-term break.

This month, I’ll be a in few different places in Dublin, as well as Ardee and Drogheda, Skerries, Cashel, Thurles, Nenagh and Roscrea, Ballywaltrim and Bray, Castletymon, Manorhamilton, Cavan, Galway, Ashford and a few different places in Meath.

It’s a weird time, when you’re often exhausted but buzzing, and a couple of years ago, I wrote a piece to try and capture that feeling in the morning when you’re setting out, having already spent about two weeks on the road to different places.

This was a piece I originally wrote as a guest blog for the Children’s Book Ireland blog in 2011. It’s a bit dated, as I haven’t changed anything, but basically it’s an accurate depiction of the feeling mid-festival:

An early start. It’s dark, but the kids are already up. Our youngest, just turned one, isn’t sleeping. So neither are my wife and I. October is mental for both of us – a different kind of day every day. Our two toddlers are confused by our lack of routine. I rise like a zombie. Shower myself into something more human.

Try to remember where I am today. Monaghan? Louth? Leitrim? For places that are further away, I’ll wake in a hotel. A travelling salesman. As our two-year-old says: ‘Dada’s going to tell the girls and boys about books!’. I’m a couple of weeks into the month (which starts for me in September). Early in the morning, the exhaustion feels like it will never lift. Coffee. The kids help me wake up, but often I’m gone before they can jump-start my addled senses.

I have my two cases. One for the novels; one for the easel, the drawing materials, the Mad Grandad story-sheets. Always packed and ready to go. Sometimes I don’t even bother taking them out of the car. Notebook in the pocket of my combats. I’m almost always wearing combats. I like having that pocket.

Get into the car. A chance to sit in the quiet before I go. Take a couple of minutes to look at the map. Recheck the route. Then drive. The radio is always on, or some of my music, or an audio-book, helping eat up the miles. Get there early. Know you’re there, then pull in somewhere nearby and chill for a while. Have a coffee at a garage or in a café. Maybe a sandwich if breakfast was a long time ago. I’ll buy grapes if I can find them in a shop, if they look good. A good compromise snack for travelling.

I have a lap-tray in the car. I can work there if I want, or read, or listen to the radio. I always give myself some time, but that’s time to think about what’s coming. How many different places have I visited? Hundreds, anyway. How many individual sessions? Oisin McGann at Ennistymon LibraryAnd still the little edge of dread, the tension. A bit of a knot in my stomach. It’s not a reading, or a talk. It’s a one-man show. Time to get into character.

Every visit is a first impression. Every session for me, is the one and only time this particular bunch of kids is likely to meet me. You get one chance to have an effect – the right effect. The same applies when meeting the staff. Be nice to everybody. Remember names! Even if it’s just till you leave. Hundreds of new names every year. Staff rooms and cups of coffee. Turning down offers of scones or biscuits (most of the time). They add up. I used to treat myself to a fry-up any time I travelled. I gave that up pretty quickly.

It’s almost time. Always try and walk in about ten or fifteen minutes early. Time to say hello and shake hands. Use the loo. A bit of time to have a look at the place if I can, before I meet the kids. Check that things are set up right. Sort them if they’re not. But sometimes I’m just walked into a packed classroom and I have to wing it. Looking around and picking out the best place to set up.

Still in the car. I’m dawdling now. Putting it off. Time to go in. That turning in the pit of my stomach. I open the door and get out. Take my cases from the back. The air’s got a chill to it.

I look at the outside of the place. Trying to get a sense of it. Maybe there’s already some faces at the windows, looking out. I’m not so tired now. Almost ready. Meeting the kids, seeing their expectant faces, will kick me into gear – it always does. It’s a privilege to be here, to do what I do. To be the reason they’re having a special day. And yet, you can’t take their respect for granted. If you don’t get their attention in the first five minutes, you may not get it at all. But I’m fine with that – it’s part of the deal. I might be knackered, but I know I’ll be charged up, wired by the end. They have that effect on you.

With a case in each hand, I walk through the front door. Time to tell the girls and boys about books.

November 10, 2011

Chairing and Blogging for CBI

Children’s Book Festival has come to a close, and I’m starting to catch up on all the things that have piled up on the desk while I’ve been running around like a blue-arsed fly, and shouting at defenceless children. One of the things I’ve got to swot up for is the Green Inking Comic Event this Saturday. I’ll be chairing the proceedings.

This half-day seminar will take as its inspiration the increased visibility of graphic novels and comic books by Irish creators and/or concerning Irish themes. The event will take place at the Seminar Room in the National Library of Ireland from 10am until 1pm.

Here’s the schedule for the day:

10.30 – Luis Bustos
CBI and Instituto Cervantes are delighted to welcome Spanish graphic artist Luis Bustos, creator of Endurance, which chronicles Ernest Shackleton’s voyage.

11.15 – The O’Brien Press
The O’Brien Press introduce their new collections of graphic novels for young readers.

12.00 – Panel Discussion
Irish graphic novel/comic book panel with Rob Curley of Sub-City and Atomic Diner, Tomm Moore of Cartoon Saloon and illustrator, animator and printmaker Cliodhna Lyons.

I’ve also just done a guest post for Children’s Books Ireland, telling the story of a typical morning for me during Children’s Book Festival. I’ll have to do a proper round-up for myself soon (now that I’ve mostly recovered), but in the meantime, you can check out my piece on the CBI blog.

September 23, 2011

Gearing Up for October

Children’s Book Festival – in terms of events, it’s the busiest time in the year for most children’s book authors (and to a lesser extent, illustrators) in Ireland. Officially, it runs from the beginning to the end of October, although it tends to bleed into September and November too. Libraries, schools and bookshops all over the country will be running all kinds of events to celebrate children’s books. There are also bigger gigs, staged in theatres, run by the libraries or by Children’s Books Ireland. CBI produce Bookfest, collating reviews on the latest books, as well as the posters and other marketing material. They also act as hub for the festival, helping connect up the country and make this a national thing.

For any writer or illustrator who does talks, workshops or shows, this is the time everybody wants you to come and visit. World Book Day in March is the next busiest part of the year, but it’s just not the same as facing into the marathon month that is CBF.

I’ve had a few events since the beginning of September, but in October, it’s going to be a bit mental. I can start getting inquiries for CBF as early as March or April – sometimes earlier.

I normally need a few sessions to get me warmed up after the summer break. So far I’ve done the Monster Book Lunch in Dun Laoghaire for the Mountains to Sea Festival, I’ve been to Bush Post Primary near Dundalk and Skerries Educate Together. Yesterday I gave a talk to student teachers in Froebel College in Blackrock. All four of these were different types of events, so I should have well and truly shaken the rust off by the time I kick off CBF with two days in libraries in County Clare next week.

Over the next month, I’ll also be travelling to Tipperary, Cavan, Kildare, Monaghan, Kerry and Leitrim.

I don’t get much writing or illustrating done in October.

I’m grateful that the invitations are still coming in, because libraries and schools are having a really tough time of it. But it’s a testament to the importance given to children’s books that in many counties, they’re making a real effort to keep their part of the festival running even though they’ve got much less money to do it with.

So now I’m making sure I’ve sharpened my pencils, I’ve got my drawing materials, my easel and my books packed in my sessions case. I’ve a few new t-shirts and  some new notebook-enabled combats in the wardrobe. The roadmaps sit ready in the car – which stands cleaned out and scrubbed up, as it’s going to be my mobile command centre for much of the next month. I keep promising myself I’ll learn some voice exercises to keep my throat in order through the month – which I have yet again failed to do.

I’m taking on a few different things this time round too, so I’ve some more prep work to do yet: some comics workshops for primary school kids in Meath; ‘The Ideas Shop’ theatre show with Sarah Webb and Judi Curtin in Bray and Navan; a workshop on plot and structure, in the beginning of November, at a seminar run in Swords by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I find that, most of the time, I have to think just few days ahead at any one time. I have to deal with October in manageable chunks.

I remember when I first got published, and I had visions of me sitting in quiet contemplation all day, writing and drawing and painting. Happily shutting the world out so I could produce my masterpieces. Since then, I’ve seen more of Ireland, and the UK, then I’d ever seen before. It’s cool, and exhausting, and stimulating, and bewildering, and it flattens you, but lifts you onto your toes again. And it’s all to get kids to read books. My books, obviously, but any books too. To get them to look into other people’s heads and find all the brilliant stuff that lies within. And really, that’s what it’s about.

And maybe out there, just every now and again, some kid will see what I and others do and will say to themselves in that quite, resolved, determined way: ‘I’m going to do that too, some day.’ And that would be pretty cool too.

July 21, 2011

A Long-Term Commitment

Caroline Horn has an article in ‘The Bookseller’ that tells a sobering story about the current state of the children’s publishing industry in the UK – one that can obviously be applied to Ireland as well. Many well established children’s authors and illustrators are really struggling to make a living, partly due to a reduction in sales, partly due to the decreasing value of the books that are sold (children’s books are priced lower than other books, often despite higher production costs) and partly because publishers have grown extremely cautious, and are publishing fewer books, further apart.

What’s interesting about the article is not just the piece itself, but also the barrage of comments that come after. It’s a good snapshot of a cross-section of the publishing world. If you’re an up-and-coming writer, you should check it out – it might be educational. If you’re an experienced writer, chances are, you know a lot of this stuff already.

If you’re an illustrator, you’ll already be well used to trying to strike the balance between the work that you love, and the stuff that pays.

As I’ve said before, this is a tough period in the market, and I’d hate to be starting now, but it’s not quite time for new authors to be taking the toaster into the bath. It’s never been a simple matter of just pitching your line out there and sitting waiting for someone to bite. This has always been a tough industry to get started in, and in which to maintain a career. It’s easy to look back over the early part of this decade, see the headline acts, and think that’s how it’s supposed to be. But browse your way back to the dawn of publishing and you’ll find many of the names we hold up as shining examples now just did not make a living from their books.

Things are tough compared to a few years ago, but it was never easy, and in some ways it’s a lot easier now than it used to be. I’m not just talking about the digital media that are supposed to be solving all new authors’ problems, or the greater disposable income people have (even in these raw times – though they might not be spending it on books). These days, it’s automatic for professionals in the industry to immediately go from a book deal, to considering other means of output; foreign rights, newspaper syndication, comic adaptations, audio-book, radio, television, film. These are all much more accessible than they used to be, and the movement between them is more fluid.

Writers have so much more information at their fingertips about how to hone their skills, how to get published, what it’s like to be published and making a living from it. In Ireland alone, we have access to resources such as the Children’s Books Ireland support site at cb info, the Irish Writer’s Centre, the Irish Writers’ Union, Irish PEN and any number of other writers’ centres, workshops, courses and seminars, as well as all the sites supporting writers on the web. We can get funding for projects from the Arts Council. We also have access to a lot of the resources in the UK too.

As far as making the most of the market is concerned, I still believe that there are a lot of opportunities that publishers are missing because their thinking is stuck in a rut. But it’s a hard fact that this weird, passionate and bizarrely hit-and-miss industry works in certain ways, and you have to work with it. I posted a while back about the importance for authors to take the long-term view, but we also have to take responsibility for our careers. If you want to make a living from this malarkey, it’s not enough to be a writer. I am a self-employed businessman, and it’s really down to me to make it work.

This is a long-term commitment. This is my career, and I don’t rely on one publisher, or one stream of income, or one market. I do all I can to promote my books, to put myself in the way of opportunity and I try to be as prepared as I can for when opportunities arise. I’ve published twenty-one books – with more coming out – I’ve had some pretty big sellers and some critical success . . .

And I still can’t count on any kind of security from this line of work . . . but that’s how it is.

In return for working my arse off and taking some pretty big risks – and this unstable career path is one long series of risks – I get up in the morning to a job I absolutely love, and one I feel privileged to have. Getting published was just the start. Now I’m having to earn my keep, and I can’t count on any publisher to do that for me.