A tale in two parts. The first is a bit about me having to learn to find the courage to dream. For some roughs and character development, scroll down to the second half to see some of the book making process.
PART ONE: The courage to dream
I’m not really one to like being taught a lesson, and I really hate motivating phrases. I would have also said until recently that I was also not someone who believes in having dreams and making them come true. Yet, the release of The Heart of a Giant this week - written by Hollie Hughes - and published by the wonderful team at Bloomsbury, has squished both of those life long adages out of shape. As a dream, for me, has come true. And, people seem to regularly say in the world of illustration - that it’s so important not to give up, just keep drawing and sharing and don’t stop - as you never really know when you’re about to get chosen by the art director, or found by a publisher. That is exactly what happened to me.
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Nobody in my family is artistic. Nor is anybody an entrepreneur, nor a business owner. I grew up only really knowing the very safe ways to make a life - had no idea what it looked like to work for oneself, and very much believed that nobody could make a living from drawing or any other creative pursuit. I also grew up never having had the experience of having an idea in anything creative and having it supported to make it work. My attempt to turn an already existing darkroom in the science lab at school into a functioning space that students into photography could regularly use was laughed at. It wasn’t until I went to university - something I was also told at by my school was out of my league - that I started meeting people from other beginnings. I dated a guy who fancied himself as a writer - and he was from a school where he had written a play - and then it was put on by his school in one of Melbourne’s best theatres - the extremity of privilege and only for very few people - but gosh, what a different world you grow up in if that is your experience of what can happen with your own ideas and skills. I grew up for a whole range of reasons with very low self-confidence and a feeling associated with that - that making dreams come true - was something that happened to others, people who were somehow ‘better’, far more worthy than me.
Even though I was not really one for creating goals - or believing my dreams could ever come true - I did still have them. My most enduring dream was to illustrate children’s books. But until a few years ago it was very much just a dream. It was the thing I would answer when musing with friends about what we would do if we could do absolutely anything with no limitations of money or ability or circumstance. Yet for so long I did nothing at all about that dream. I wishfully imagined it, but didn’t do the work at all to try to get it. I think two things were going on - one, I really didn’t believe it was possible to realise a dream, and two, I was way too scared to try.
It took, like many people, a big life crisis and a whole lot of grief and fear to kick me into action - and, with such a momentous ball of support of my incredible Dave, I started drawing. Badly. Every day. Then I got more and more obsessed, quit my career, started a new one, did some short drawing courses and rediscovered my love of making pictures. I made lots and lots of dreadful pictures and slowly some better ones. I got up ridiculously early so I could draw in cafes at opening hour before work. I started trying to create characters and slowly some decent ones emerged. I even got a book published with a very small US publisher that I learned a lot from. And then I kept drawing and sharing, drawing and sharing, and submitting things to agents and kept almost getting places but not quite. I had worked with so much internal energy for years and years and then started to feel a little despondent. I had started to feel my work was good enough (can always be better…) but I felt stuck. And then, just when I wasn’t sure what to do and how to progress forward and what else to try, I got contacted by my most fabulous agent.
Since then, I’ve had so many lovely opportunities. I really was at the point where I couldn’t work out what else to do when I got multiple agent offers and multiple new book opportunities. It really was, as people had told me, that you never know when you are already on the radar of publishers, or almost about to get a book, or about to be contacted by an agent. It really was true - just keep going and don’t give up.
PART TWO: Making the book
Step one of working on this wonderful dream of a project, The Heart of a Giant, was to work on the main two characters. Our wonderful giant - Abe - and the boy - Tom. Above you can see some of my early sketches for the Tom, and one idea for our giant. There are so very many unseen things that go on when creating the character. And these are different for each story. I think in these sketches of ideas for the boy, lots of the clothing was too contemporary - no hoodies or puffer jackets to try and get more of a timelessness to things. Something I hadn’t thought about before.
The giant was such an exciting character to work on and also quite a challenge. There is a scene in the story where he has a tantrum. And he is also always missing his mum. So, in my mind he started out feeling like he was also a small child - just a giant one. I tried sketching lots of ideas for him as a young child… but something wasn’t quite working. He looked kind of like an ugly big baby… just a little bit grotesque or something… not likeable enough as we wanted to like our main character in the story.
I then tried drawing an older giant… as we figured older people also have tantrums and miss their mothers… and I drew this super quick scribbly sketch which had something in it that I started to like.
So I started to draw him walking. He was bald at first. And my art directors suggested I try some hair… I went for orange which remained and then, I think we were onto something. I drew him sitting with the boy and there was the beginning of our main gigantic character.
The next step was to create the roughs… the moment when we begin to layout the text onto the pages and work out what imagery will accompany the text on each page. Anything is possible, but also, there are sooo many constraints. This part of making the book usually takes as long as I get to make the final artwork - something I sometimes find puzzling, but also is definitely key to getting the pictures to tell the right story.
In this story the giant dictated so many of the compositions and possibilities for the what could happen on each page. This was hard for me. So many of the things I loved to do with composition and also so many of the things I love to draw became impossible to include. On almost every page I needed to include the full giant for storytelling purposes. I also was not often allowed to pop him in the background or further away or put him in a perspective so that there was something big in the foreground - as this may make him look small. Thus we had a situation where I needed, on my spreads, to have the giant’s full body included and in the foreground - also so that he was big enough to also make sure we could see the boy nice and clearly.
I struggled with this. All the lovely details I usually like to include were suddenly sooo tiny and I was left mostly to landscape scale things to create interest like clouds and sky and vistas - something that until this book I rarely drew.
Above you can see a first round of roughs... One of my favourite spreads turned out to be the one on the top right in the picture above. I had the most wonderful and super experienced art director - Goldy Broad (I really don’t understand why art directors and editors don’t have their names on these books as they work so hard on them also and the resulting product is definitely also partly their creative vision) - who helped so much at this stage get it from this mess above to this next stage… and then to the final artwork.
Some spreads worked this easily… others literally took months of back and forwarding to get enough storytelling into page to set the scene.
Another spread I ended up really loving was the top right on this page. Here we had the problem where I had put a polar bear in the foreground so we were worried the giant in the storm in the background wouldn’t look big enough so things had to change. Goldy had a fabulous idea to make two long landscape images to enhance also the sense of journey…
Until I made a book I had no idea just how much work went into it, nor how many people’s ideas and requirements make a book up. There is so much love and also shame, fear and just sheer hard work built into every single page. So many things that could have gone differently and so many wondrous moments where things seem to come together in a lovely way. There is so much I could write also about the details in the pages, where the imagery came from, the bits I love and don’t love, the things I learned, but I think perhaps the greatest thing I always learn from making images is how much joy they can bring - to me the maker and also to the viewer - and also how humbling it always is to bring something into the world that wasn’t there before. It’s a creative joy and also honour that I never thought I’d be lucky enough to experience and so I feel all the things - humility, terror and absolute joy as we send this book out into the world!
It is for me, something I never really thought would happen - a dream come true.
Thank you to Hollie for trusting me with her beautiful story, to Jodie my incredible agent, and to the wonderful Goldy and Pari and others at Bloomsbury - such a delight to work with you all!
And do send me photos of our book out in the wild! I can’t even imagine seeing a book I was part of making in a bookstore! Woohoo.
A good place to buy the book online is at Bookshop.org and please if you like it write a review somewhere! It’s sooooo helpful to us :)
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Congratulations! Thank you for putting so much effort into explaining the whole process of working with the publisher. Often people don't realize all the back and forth that goes into a children's book. The illustrations look wonderful.
So fantastic to hear your story Anna and find out more about your beautiful book! Really inspiring x