I think I must be not-very-visual, at least in some respects. I can devise colourful and (to my eyes, at least) pleasing embroidery designs, and am a passionate devotee of a range of visual arts, from woodcuts to sculpture to theatre design... The ability to create art leaves me speechless and humbled. It’s just that, when I’m writing, the looks of the characters I’m creating are ephemeral, dreamlike. Perhaps that’s because I wouldn’t be able to draw or paint them? I don’t know. The upside of this deficiency is the delight I almost always feel when illustrations arrive. I can still remember with a happy shiver seeing Ken Brown’s depiction of Tattybogle for the first time and thinking, ’Oh, yes! THAT’S what he looks like!’ The mice, the crows, all the woodland creatures, are not in my story but I use them in telling the story and how the book came to be. They add an immeasurable dimension, which has been further enhanced by Ruth Kenward’s musical script and songs. When we saw the first pictures of Essie Clucket (for The Tattybogle Tree) , there she was with her ‘big red jumble sale hat and old flowery frock’ and Karen Popham’s touches of genius: brown dungarees tied with string under her dress, mad high-heeled pink sandals and lipstick applied with a slapdash hand, Perfect. ‘I know her!’ said Henrietta (Branford), ‘she’s one of those farm ladies who’s had lots of gentlemen callers and enjoyed every one of them.’ We joined forces with Karen to resist the publisher’s idea of long lacy drawers instead.
Later, Karen made Heligan’s Mud Maid and Giant come to life before my eyes.
It’s not been an unmitigated pleasure, though. This train of thought was triggered by a design for the cover of a new book, Naz and the Djinn, where the illustrator has shown the boy rubbing a teapot instead of pulling the stopper out of a bottle, and the Djinn is in a red-and-gold harem suit (long purple robe – crucially important in the text). The rabbit in the original The Dandelion Wish was depicted as a pervy-looking bloke in a too-tight rabbit suit; Wee Jeannie in The Silkie looked like the captain of the hockey team in a M&S school frock; the Silkie wore a t-shirt and lycra cycling shorts; there was a heap of coal in the windmill in Nobody, Him and Me...(although the Greek-style windmill itself and the oil pitcher on the wall were lovely nods to his heritage by Pantelis Georgiou.)
Resolving the differences of opinion has sometimes been great fun, though. Bee Willey’s polar bear stalking the South Pole in Rory McRory (moved, after discussion, to page one as a christening guest!); taking out ‘picked up the baby, cradle and all’ when Bee couldn’t devise a way for the horses to heft the gorgeous cradle-shell she’d painted; Jo Theobald’s stunning crows (The Crows’ Nest) in the iridescent shades of blue-green and blue-purple you find in crows’ wings, after I’d jumped up and down about the original Looney Tunes versions, black with big yellow beaks; a hasty re-write of the Giant’s journey when Karen drew the ‘wrong’ lake in the sequence; asking Muza Ulasowski to change the killer whale (!) to a blue whale in I Can’t Hear You! I Can’t See You’ – enjoyable discussions and everybody happy. It works when we’re both totally committed to the project but neither of us is too precious to adjust our work for the greater good. I love it.
Afterthought: can the pictures be TOO good? After zero interest in The Silkie audiobook, I made a Facebook advertisement. Result? 50+ likes in two days and wild enthusiasm – for Anne-Marie Perks’ cover image! Still no sales...