I am so thrilled to have Sarah McIntyre on Wee Red Writer! Sarah has written, co-written and illustrated lots of popular titles for children including the hugely successful Oliver and the Seawigs, which has recently been longlisted for the prestigious CILIP Carnegie Medal with her co-writer, Philip Reeve.
You may already know that Sarah has been in the media spotlight of late; and you're about to find out exactly why! This interview is split into two parts in order to allow for a good meaty (and essential!) discussion about the hot topic of #picturesmeanbusiness.
Hi Sarah! Firstly, congratulations on your CILIP Carnegie Medal nomination! I applaud you (loudly!) for standing up for illustrator rights and banging the drum about the importance of illustration in children's books. Can you tell us what happened with the Carnegie Award organisers for anyone who doesn't know?
*Note to readers: The CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals) Carnegie Medal is an annual award recognizing an outstanding book for children and young people. The same body also awards the annual Kate Greenaway Medal for outstanding illustration in children’s books.
Thanks, Julie! My experience with the Carnegie Organisers has been so encouraging. The award has built up for me as this big thing you can’t criticise, but they really do listen when we spot things we think are problematic. In this instance, Oliver and the Seawigs was included on the long list, but only credited Philip Reeve. That didn’t make sense to me; Philip and I are co-authors, we brainstormed a lot of the story together and I don’t think its text can be read separately from the illustrations. And it wasn’t necessarily a contender for the Kate Greenaway Medal either; it’s not as fully illustrated as a picture book; it’s somewhere in the middle. Supposedly the Carnegie is an award for writing and the Greenaway is an award for illustration. But I noticed that the Greenaway list still included the writers of the books, while the Carnegie list didn’t include the illustrators.
That didn’t seem fair. When I pointed this out in a blog post, the chair of the committee, Joy Court, got right back to me and said that they’d been using data provided from Nielsen BookScan (which only listed Philip as the author), and they were following an old listings template that they really just hadn’t thought about. Within 24 hours, she had the listing changed to include all the illustrators, and she and the committee are going to review some other issues that this raises. (I really hope they create a third award for these so-called ‘middle grade’ books that are often halfway between picture books and text-only novels. They’re not always the most popular books with adults, but they’re absolutely essential in the transition between reading picture books and YA novels.)
That’s brilliant! Your efforts have sparked a reform in how we perceive illustrated books (and the role of the illustrator!) So, is co-authorship becoming more prevalent? In my last blog interview with Vivian French (another patron of illustration) we were discussing how much sense it makes for writers and illustrators to collaborate on a book, something she tries to do with all her books. Is it something that publishers need to review, rather than writers and illustrators?
I think books have been co-authored for a long time, in the sense that the words and pictures tell different parts of the story and come together to make something different than words and pictures alone could do. Illustrators have always been ‘authors’ in the sense that their pictures work to tell the story, not just echo the text. But in the old days, illustrators often were given a finished text and they created almost stand-alone paintings, sometimes even on a special plate that was pasted into the book. Now printing has developed so that it’s much easier to intertwine words and text. They can work much more closely, and one can set up the joke and the other can provide the punch line. (Those are words from Alex T. Smith; we were just chatting about this subject on Twitter.)
Ah yes! Alex spoke about this when I interviewed him. So how does that work for co-authors? What’s your experience?
I think perhaps it’s getting more common for writers and illustrators to work together and create something before they present it to a publisher together. With my early picture books, I never even met the writer until after the book was published. But it’s much more fun working with a friend. David O’Connell and I started our book Jampires as a Comics Jam, taking turns drawing and writing each page without telling the other person what would happen, like a game of Consequences. It was the best kind of play, and I loved the story that came out of it. Our picture book was only loosely based on that original Comics Jam story, but that was where we built up our ideas. With Philip Reeve, we had such fun joking around with characters for Oliver and the Seawigs. Cakes in Space was his idea, but his first draft of the story was much more serious, and when we got it back from the editor, I proposed the idea of the food machine and killer cakes, and Philip flew with it.
You recently posted on your blog about how illustrators are severely overlooked when it comes to Nielsen BookScan Data (used by several organisations as the main data reserve for book details) which list books by author alone. Is this going to be changed?
I hope so! My agent Jodie Hodges, and Charlotte Eyre at The Bookseller, are still looking into it. We want to make sure we have all the facts straight before we discuss it with Nielsen. That’s been the problem, hardly any illustrators have any idea how Nielsen works, and most have never even heard of the company. I don’t know very much, but I started to get an inkling something was wrong when Joy Court mentioned the data used for the Carnegie listing, which only included the writer’s name, not the illustrator’s. And then The Bookseller ran an article about the enduring success of the picture book, Going on a Bear Hunt, but only featured Michael Rosen (the writer) and didn’t even mention Helen Oxenbury (the illustrator) which seemed nuts (and I knew Michael wouldn’t approve); it’s a highly illustrated book based on a classic campfire tale, and Helen is an illustration legend. That’s when the penny dropped for me, and I realized just WHY illustrators keep getting left out, even when award panels and journalists should know better; it’s because of faulty data.
Nielsen BookScan is where everyone gets the data about books, and can look up how well the books are selling. You can do a search for a writer, and all their books will come up, so you can get an overall sense of their career and economic value. But you can’t search by illustrator. If you type in my name, only two books come up: Vern and Lettuce and There’s a Shark in the Bath, both of which I wrote as well as illustrated. Jampires doesn’t even come up, because you’d have to search for me and David O’Connell together. It means there’s no easy way to gauge an illustrator’s economic value. If business people and the media can’t easily look up our sales figures, they assume we have no sales value - which is wrong, everyone knows pictures are a big part of what sells picture books. And when lists are made, such as the PLR (Public Lending Rights) lists of top-borrowed authors from libraries, again, illustrators get left out.
From what I gather, on Nielsen BookData there seem to be two tiers of information, and Nielsen only requires publishers to include the ‘author’ of a book in the first tier, and adding the names of illustrators and translators in the second tier is optional. Some publishers (or more likely their interns) don’t bother including those names. And when Amazon picks up on that faulty data, illustrators have to fill out the ‘form of shame’ to get their names included with their books, and this can take months to process. So we need a two-part solution: publishers really need to be more vigilant when they plug in book information, and Nielsen needs to overhaul a clunky, outdated system.
Perhaps a few systems need an overhaul. I recently questioned the Red House Children’s Book Awards, who only listed writer names and left out illustrators such as Oliver Jeffers, Sarah Horne and David Tazzyman. They got their data from The Book People, and when I asked on Twitter, the rep for The Book People said that they collected their own data (not using Nielsen’s), but they were leaving out the illustrators because the computer only lets them type in a limited number of characters. Something as simple and clunky as that! So even co-writers were getting left out because their names didn’t fit. Since then they have added Oliver Jeffers to the list, but others are still missing. You can read more about this on my blog.
I started a hashtag on Twitter - #PicturesMeanBusiness – to try to increase awareness about giving credit to illustrators when people post book covers and illustrations. If people can mention the illustrator, the publicity all adds up and helps us to make a living from our jobs more easily. Sometimes people will share book covers they like and not necessarily know the illustrator or the designer, but at least the writer and publicist should know this information and share it, particularly when they first reveal the cover.
By ‘recognition’, we’re not asking for pats on the back. But bookselling is so connected these days to celebrity culture that TV celebs such as David Walliams have a big head-start on sales. If parents, teachers, reviewers etc can also big up illustrators and writers who aren’t on telly, it says something healthy to our kids:
‘Work hard at learning to draw and write, get good at it; you don’t have to have a good face for telly to make a living at this.‘ But right now, this isn’t necessarily the case, and kids aren’t stupid; they can see that.
I agree totally! Coming from a children's bookseller: children read pictures before they read words. The illustrations inspire so much imagination and are vital to the child’s understanding of the words – why are we so keen to throw them out of children's books so early on? Does your experience of this differ in different countries?
Yes, Brits are traditionally averse to pictures and remarkably visually illiterate. Many people have a really hard time explaining what is going on in a picture, and how a picture works. I think these people feel that having pictures in a book lets the imagination be lazy, and they think that an adult should always conjure up mental images from text alone. My issue with this belief is that it limits adults’ mental vocabulary of images. Even if a book is descriptive, the images we conjure in our heads are usually based on things we’ve seen before, whether they come from life, films or adverts. Why pull all our images from outside books? Quality book illustrations can expand the way we imagine something and put images into our heads that never would have been there, completely new ways of seeing things. Pictures help us imagine better, but they don’t work like films, in showing us almost everything that is taking place; we still have to imagine what happens between each picture.
Exactly! Vivian French said the same thing – ‘you don’t get anything out of your imagination, until you put something in to your imagination!’ You’re not alone. What about outside the UK?
Americans are a little bit more open to pictures in books, and I think they’ve been publishing picture books for slightly older children (say, ages 8-12) for much longer than we have here. They’re also more proud of their picture book illustrators and celebrate them more. The French and Japanese never graduate from books with pictures; they see it as just another media, like distinguishing between film, photography, theatre and radio. French and Japanese readers will happily switch between text-only novels and comic books. Things are changing in Britain, but people still hold on to a certain snobbishness about picture books and comics, which is why the more literary-sounding term ‘graphic novel’ was invented. People who make graphic novels usually just call them ‘comics’. But the highbrow term keeps reviewers happy.
It’s our dirty little secret, liking pictures in our books! I never grew out of reading picture books (despite my teachers telling me I was too old for them) but in school I greatly missed them when we moved on to older reader books – do you think it's limiting to have illustrations removed from books so early on?
Yes, I think it’s unfair to demand children go from beautiful illustrated pages straight to scary pages of solid text. When Philip and I made Oliver and the Seawigs, we tested it out on his son, who was ten years old at the time. It was fascinating to watch how he kept reading until he came to the first page without pictures, and then he put down the book. We resolved to have at least one small picture on each page of the first chapter, so a reader could at least get through the first chapter and feel a sense of accomplishment. The Horrible Histories books do this well; they have a picture on every page. And comics do this even better. There’s so much talk about getting boys to read and ‘reluctant readers’, but no one can doubt the success of illustrated books such as the Claude books, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or Tom Gates books. I’m surprised anyone’s still trying to wean kids off books without pictures. We want kids to read, so let them read things they enjoy, and build a lifelong love of curling up with a book. The other thing I’ve noticed is that kids who might hate the idea of writing a story absolutely love making comics; they grab their pencil and get straight to work. Comics are brilliant for helping kids develop writing and drawing skills; it one skill is a little weak, the other can compensate and pull the other skill forward. I noticed that in making comics with kids who could speak almost no English, they could still tell stories in pictures. And then they’d want to add a few words, just to make the picture story work better, so they might learn how to write some sound effects. Drawing pictures is the best way to get ideas for writing. You can design a character and it’s natural to make that character meet another character and start doing something and talking. Kids are much happier seeking out words when they’re in the middle of a story that needs them.
Yes it’s surprising really, when you look at Publishers who provide for dyslexic readers – the books are illustrated to a later age – because it helps the reader! On that note, we'll conclude Part 1 of our interview. Thank you for giving us so much food for thought about the importance of illustration and fair representation for illustrators!
If you want to show your support you can use #picturesmeanbusiness on Twitter and you can find out more about the campaign on Sarah's blog. You can follow her on Twitter and don't forget to check out her brilliant website!
Part 2 will be up very shortly for an insight into Sarah's life as an illustrator!