Coming Across the Elephant – a publisher discovers a book

by Mikka Haugaard, director of Everything with Words

Publishing is fun, exciting and scary. You have to be willing to sift through a lot to find something special— and no one has perfect judgement. There’s an element of taste and chance. You don’t have to be long in publishing to know that there are beautiful books out there which no one has yet spotted. So each time you choose a debut writer and launch a book, you keep your fingers crossed.

I love the unexpected. If you love the unexpected, then the London Book Fair is for you. I hadn’t come looking for a picture book. I wasn’t quite sure what I was searching for, except that it must be something that would blow me away. Something very special. For three days the London Book Fair brings together people from all over the world who work in books. A huge number of very dissimilar people, all held together by the printed page—some aren’t readers at all, but the majority probably are, even if they would never agree on books.

I spent two days browsing. I spoke to people representing a tiny publishing house on the edge of the world and large publishers from places that take up quite a bit of the globe. I was introduced to wonderful illustrators from countries I barely knew. But when the final day arrived, I still hadn’t chosen anything.  I was dashing past the Chinese stand—enormous and seemingly dedicated to promoting the power of China rather than books—heading for Bulgaria (wonderful illustrators) and Lithuania (more of the same), when a title caught my eye: THE ELEPHANT THAT ATE THE NIGHT. On the cover was a funny and beautiful picture of an elephant with small, melancholy eyes towering over a hedgehog, a monkey and bear. It looked as if it didn’t quite know what to do with its trunk. There was a very human lick of shyness there, of the kind small children wouldn’t fail recognize.

‘Elephants,’ I said to myself, still heading for Bulgaria, ‘don’t swallow the night, except in books. The kind of books poets write.’ I stopped. I like books with a poetic touch. And so do children. So I picked it up. The Elephant Awu, I discovered, doesn’t eat leaves or bananas but only dark nights. He swallows them right up. All the tiny animals in the Dark Mushroom forest are afraid of the night, and their mothers don’t know what to do. Along comes Awu. Perfect—except when the night is ALL GONE, no one can sleep. So they ask Awu to spit out the night. And Awu obliges and wanders off to a cave where no one cares if he eats the night. All the darkness in the cave has got his name on it, and it is just there, waiting to be swallowed by an elephant!

The drawings were whimsical in the way that I felt both children and adults would find engaging. As someone who has shared the same book too many times with a tiny tot, I know how important that is. To be become a classic, a picture book has to appeal to both children and adults. It has to have the right kind of quirkiness, simplicity and a touch of something almost lyrical, combined with the familiar. Like elephants that swallow the night and pat their fat tummies with their trunks.  The best picture books explore the edges of fear, as happens in Where the Wild Things Are, when the wild things roar their terrible roars. But, of course, you must escape and return to safety! The baby bear, monkey and porcupine are all afraid that darkness ‘might swallow them up.’  But darkness hasn’t got eyes, hands or a mouth so it can’t swallow, or grab or see. It’s just there, waiting for Awu to suck it up into his trunk. And in the end everyone is tucked up, safe in bed.

Finally, a book should have characters, even if it is only forty-eight pages long! Here, the quirky and humorous illustrations lend support to the story, adding something of their own to the dialogue between the animals. Something for the reader and listener to talk about.

The Elephant that Ate the Night was chosen by the Telegraph as one of the best children’s books of the year in their Christmas review. Parents in Touch mentioned its ‘gorgeous illustrations’ and the ‘heavy feel of the book.’ When it came to printing choices, I opted for Japanese art paper because of the colours. It’s our first picture book, so everything was new. And exciting! Sophie Anderson, The House with Chicken Legs author, tweeted that it has ‘the feel of a classic and soul.’ Whether it’s a classic, is too early to tell, but I think that Awu the elephant has certainly got soul!

The Elephant that Ate the Night, by Bing Bai and illustrated by Yuanyuan Shen. Age 3-5, picture book. ISBN 9781911427100

This is a guest post and the views expressed do not necessarily represent the FCBG. 


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