Picture Books: A Process of Collaboration by Joseph Coelho and Robyn Wilson-Owen

Writing.ie | Magazine | Children & Young Adult | Interviews
No Longer Alone 1

By Joseph Coelho and Robyn Wilson-Owen

Joseph Coelho (author)

No Longer Alone is my third picture book to be published but behind it lies a plethora of picture book manuscripts that have never and will never see the light of day. Manuscripts that I worked on for years, manuscripts that I nervously showed to editors at writing events and that I submitted to publishers. My point is this, writing picture books is hard… fun, rewarding, a joy… but hard and yet I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has said to me “I’ve got an idea for a picture book.” Without having taken the time to read, study and interrogate the huge body of existing picture books that are out in the world. I don’t say this to turn you off this endeavour but to hopefully encourage the desire to do what is necessary to make your book idea a reality and give it a chance of being published. If you are serious about writing a children’s picture book then you must make picture books your study. Buy picture books, borrow them from the library, sit down in book shops for hours and read picture books, collect them, discover your favourite authors, illustrators and publishers and make a point of reading their works. Become familiar with the “rules”…

1) The best stories empower children.

2) They tend not to be no more than 500 words.

3) There is often a mid-narrative surprise.

4) The narrative should comfortably fit over 12-18 double page spreads.

5) Write what you are passionate about (not what you think a picture book should be about.)

6) Break a rule!

I say rules but these are really just my observations gleaned through years of study. As you get deep into the study of the beautiful world of Picture books yourself, you will quickly find that there are many examples of great picture books that don’t adhere to all the directives listed here (hence rule number 6). But if you keep these basic tenets in mind you are at least going to be presenting something that an agent/editor/publisher can get behind and something that would not look out of place among other picture books on the shelf.

One of the realisations that surprised me the most when starting to write picture books was that the process is very similar to my first love of theatre in that it is hugely collaborative. One of my favourite spreads in No Longer Alone is of our protagonist up high in a tree over-looking a lake, a scene which is mirrored in miniature on the proceeding page as our little girl gazes into a puddle under a bench. This is a scene I never would have imagined, it was borne out of Robyn’s amazing mind and was only possible because our book is a collaboration between us and the brilliant team of editors and designers at Egmont. Many aspiring writers fail to fully appreciate this vital aspect of creating a book, I certainly did. My first picture book manuscripts were full of illustration notes spelling out what I expected to see on each page leaving no room for collaboration and the amazing discoveries waiting therein. So as well as keeping note of the “rules” above keep in mind your future collaborators, is there space in your manuscript for them? Are you brave enough to release control of your idea and to allow it to grow and change? If you are then a wonderfully creative, rewarding inspiring career awaits.

(c) Joseph Coelho

Robyn Wilson-Owen (Illustrator)

No Longer Alone is my first published picture book, and the first time I have illustrated a text written by someone else. I hadn’t met Joe or had any guidance on how I should approach the book when I began. I was told which words should appear on which page, and that was that! I really enjoyed that first phase of analysing the text and pulling out all the possible meanings. I come from a background in theatre design and so I am used to interpreting a script without input from the writer, it’s always a fascinating puzzle. I think the magic of picture books, like theatre, exists in the gap between the written word, the spoken word, the visual language and the moment of ‘performance’. The fact they exist in this gap that can’t quite be pinned down is what makes them so compelling to me.

The biggest challenge I found was that Joe’s writing was just too beautiful! I think it is important that the images in a picture book bring something to the story that isn’t present in the text. There is no point in merely replicating what is already there. Joe’s writing is already incredibly densely packed with imagery, so it took some time for me to lever open a space for the pictures.

As the story is told from the child’s point of view I felt it was important the illustrations should explore the emotions of everyone else in the story too. I wanted to show the fear people often sadly have of those experiencing grief, and the uncertainty of the adults who are meant to be in charge. Everyone in the story is muddling through massive turmoil together, and it is possible that those reading it are doing the same, so it felt important to me to mirror the adult reader’s possible emotions, as well as the child’s.

My work is always heavily rooted in observation of the world around me, and some spreads in the book come almost directly from my sketchbook. My main advice for anyone wanting to illustrate is to just get outside and draw. By drawing everything and anything you are feeding your imagination, building up a bank of images and an understanding of how buildings work, how people move, how light falls. Experiment with all sorts of materials and try not to worry about making something that looks ‘beautiful’. Often the least attractive drawings turn out to be the most useful. Sometimes illustrators are told to spend a lot of time trying to find a ‘style’. I wouldn’t spend a second thinking about that. If you draw from life and experiment wildly with materials a language will naturally emerge, just as your unique handwriting naturally does.

(c) Robyn Wilson-Owen

About No Longer Alone:

This touching picture book subtly deals with big emotions such as loss, with an uplifting and hopeful message about being yourself and the importance of family and talking about worries.

Told through the voice of a little girl who is labelled as quiet and shy, No Longer Alone follows her tumult of emotions as she navigates the world around her. But when she finally shares her feelings and tells her Dad all the things that are worrying her, she no longer feels so alone.

Joseph’s warm, authentic voice offers an insightful take on the way children feel and how they perceive the world and it’s perfectly complimented by gorgeous artwork from talented new illustrator, Robyn Wilson-Owen.

Order your copy online here.


About the author

Joseph Coelho is a performance poet, children’s author and playwright. His debut poetry collection Werewolf Club Rules won the CLPE CliPPA Poetry Award 2015 and he was included on The Guardian’s 2018 list ‘Fresh Voices: 50 authors you should read now.’

Robyn Wilson-Owen is an exciting new illustrator, currently doing her MA in Children’s Book Illustration at Anglia Ruskin University. She previously worked as a theatre set designer.

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