Book of the Month: September 2020

It’s been a while since the last time I posted something here. How have you been? I’ve been busy and a bit stressed as somehow I managed to be a homeowner during this lockdown and I was going through the joy and pain of the first-time homeowner last two months. But now I’m more or less settled and a new picture book I illustrated just came out so I wanted to share 😉

There was a bit of issue so I didn’t have the internet for over a month after I moved to the new place (a month!). But there was a silver lining. It gave me a lot of time to read (and to do a lot of Sudoku). Books kept me company while Netflix couldn’t and actually it was really nice. I bet many people, including children, read more during lockdown. If you are one of those who have (re)discovered the love for books, then you would like Books Make Good Pets written by John Agard and illustrated by me (Orchard Books).

While I was working on my debut picture book, Avocado Asks (Orchard Books), my publisher, Hachette Children’s, told me that they were going to publish a series of poetry based picture books and asked me to illustrate the first book. I hesitated at first because 1) I wasn’t a big fan of poetry (shhh!) and 2) I was already scheduled to work on another book after Avocado Asks. But as soon as I read the John’s poem, I told them that I’d love to illustrate the book.

The poem opens with the line “Books make good pets and don’t need going to the vet” and tells you what books can do:

You don’t have to keep them on a lead or throw them a stick.

They’ll wag their words whenever you flick their dog-eared pages.

Even howl an ancient tale for the inward-listening ear.

I didn’t know who John Agard was when I was offered this project (sorry!), but I later found out the Guyana-born poet was the winner of Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry and his poems were in the AQA English GCSE anthology since 2002 (no pressure!). To be honest with you, I don’t know much about poetry so I don’t know what makes good poems. But when I read Books Make…, I understood why John was considered as a unique force in contemporary British poetry. He can make someone like me fall for poetry.

The poem is a celebration of good books and imagination. It tells you that you will never be lonely if you have books as your friends and that, if you let your imagination go, a book can take you anywhere in the world. To describe the peom with my limited poetry vocabulary, it’s poetic (of course) but still accessible (“They’ll burrow their way through the dusty reaches of your mind”); it’s witty (“you can pick me up and throw me aside … I have more than nine lives”); it’s funny (“and you don’t have to empty any droppings on a tray / no thank you”); and lyrical (“they’ll help you take flight among the branches of yourself”).

I found illustrating poems are challenging as you could interpret them in so many different ways, but illustrating this poem was fun, thanks to my editor Frances and art director Paula. At the beginning, I was struggling a bit as I was being too literal with my interpretation. But Frances and Paula told me to feel free to be less literal and have “flights of fantasy” with my illustration. So I decided to just pick up key words from the text and see what these words would spark. For example, for the second verse, the key word were “curious” and “nine lives” that made me think “dare”, “danger” and “adventure” that led me to imagine a pirate ship although there’s no mentioned of pirates nor a ship in the text (see below for the initial thumbnail and the final artwork). It was quite different approach from my usual but I felt my imagination fired up and it was liberating.

It was a nice change from illustrating narrative-based texts too. In this book, each spread is a standalone scene, but to give the book a unity, I created a set of ‘rules’. 1) I created these strange book creatures who appear in every spreads. 2) Each verse refers to particular type of pets. For example, the first verse refers to dogs (“lead”, “throw a stick”, “howl”). So on each spread, along with children and the book creatures, I featured only the specific animals referred in the respective verse. And I set each spread in a magical children’s book setting (e.g. pirate ship, spooky attic, under the sea).

As a result, together with John’s fantastic text, we created a book full of love for good books. This book makes the perfect gift for anyone who delights in the magic of a good book. It’s now available in all good bookshops and online. Hope you will enjoy. Happy reading 🙂

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