Cicada Books

Guest Post by Ziggy Hanaor

I set up Cicada Books when my eldest daughter, Edith, was a baby. I had been working as an editor for an art and design publisher, and had achieved a few successes. Setting up a company seemed a good way to be my own boss and control my working hours, until I was ready to go back into the industry. Edith has just started secondary school this week and somehow, despite many mistakes and against all odds, the company is still standing, a decade on.

Cicada Books has always specialised in high-end illustrated and designed books. At first those books were aimed at adults – there were books about baking and bicycle maintenance and independent music and fashion – beautifully packaged, and with a slightly off-beat, alternative bent. 

Gradually and inevitably, the world of illustration has drawn me in. I have always loved illustration, and Instagram has cracked open access to a whole universe of talent that had hitherto been locked away in studios and spare rooms, only accessible through agents (disclaimer: I have no problem with agents, but especially in the early days of the company it was a bit terrifying to negotiate the world of contracts). As my background is in art and design books, I was reluctant to stray too far in to the realm of children’s books, so I moved into activity books, which felt a bit safer. Draw Me a House was the first one I worked on, with a marvelous French illustrator called Thibaud Herem. It was an activity book of architecture and it did really well. I then went on a bit of an activity book roll, working with some brilliant illustrators – Annu Kilpelainen (Evolution), Louise Lockhart (Playing With Food), Joe Gamble (Kick Off and Draw Like an Egyptian)… 

It was great fun. We would back and forth about ideas for each of the pages and it would organically grow. After a while, however, I began to feel frustrated. I missed working on books with some kind of narrative structure and flow. Also, activity books were limiting in terms of the type of illustration they required. Plus sales started dropping. 

Flying Colours was the first non-fiction children’s book that Cicada released in 2017. It was lovingly and painstakingly written and illustrated by Ruby Fresson (nee Robert). It sold very well in the USA, and spectacularly well in foreign territories from China to Korea, Russia, Spain, France, Taiwan, Poland…. This really opened up a new door for me. Foreign rights sales had always been a side activity for the company, but with Flying Colours I realised that a book with good rights potential could absorb the risk of commissioning new talent. It gave me a lot of confidence, as well as a much-needed cushion to take the leap into picture books.

Cicada produced its first picture book in 2018. Born Bad is a brilliant story written by C K Smouha about a wolf, who looks in the mirror and doesn’t like what he sees. When he looks bad he feels bad, and when he feels bad he acts bad. He wants to change, and with the help of other animals undergoes a magnificent transformation. It’s a story that can be read on different levels. It’s about transitioning and feeling wrong in your own skin, but also, more broadly, about how you choose to identify yourself. It was illustrated by Stephen Smith who uses a wild, bold, collage technique – not exactly traditional children’s book illustration. It was chosen as book of the month for Drag Queen Story Time in the New York Public Libraries. A great honour.

From there it’s been an absolute joy commissioning and developing children’s books. I really feel like I’ve found a new lease of life. The Cicada picture book list has a strong emphasis on edgy design and illustration, as all the books do, but another key factor of the list is humour. I’ve always loved reading (and writing) funny books. Michael Rosen talks a lot about the importance of play, and I couldn’t agree more. I’m a terrible tease to my kids, and I love children’s books that are silly and playful, but also full of heart. Sock Story is another one by C K Smouha about two socks that get separated in the washing machine, and one of them turns pink. When they reconnect, they have to decide what it means to be a pair if one of you has changed. Don’t Hug the Pug is an easy-reader story about a baby that only wants to hug the one thing he’s not allowed to. Iced Out tells of the trials and tribulations of a walrus and narwhal who are outsiders in a class of seals. I find that a lot of the stories have a focus on characters who look or feel different to everyone else. I think there’s a lot of pressure on kids, once they’re at school, to fit into a mould, and I like stories that embrace diversity and non-conformism.

I’m also continuing to commission illustrated non-fiction with an upcoming book about natural disasters (Earth-Shattering Events) and another about the microbiome (Gut Garden). I find them challenging but rewarding in a different way to the picture books, and they are good solid bets for foreign language sales.

I feel immensely privileged to be able to run Cicada. I’ve worked with some incredible people, including Eleonora Marton, Isabella Bunnell, Alice Bowsher, Aart Jan Venema, Katie Brosnan and Matthew the Horse (check them out on Instagram!). Every book is its own entity, and every day I learn something new. It can be hard running a tiny, independent company. Publishing is not the most lucrative industry to work in, and sometimes it can feel like a battle to keep the business on solid ground. With Brexit looming and paper costs soaring, it feels like a terrifying time. But I’m holding on for dear life and I am seriously enjoying the ride.

The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.

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