The second in our series of guest blogposts for the Children’s Book Award is from Benji Davies. He has been shortlisted for Grandad’s Island in the Books for Younger Children category, and here explains how he finds inspiration.
When I’m writing, ideas bubble up. As they surface, and without delay, I must grab hold of them. Bubbles are hard to hold. I make notes, dash out a sketch, take a photo.
But the bubble is not a book. It’s an image, a sentence, a turn of phrase, an overarching idea or narrative hook. Perhaps it’s the shape of a rock or the texture on a leaf. The way that someone stands when they have something awkward to tell you. A theme – like friendship or longing or loss – or a combination of any of these things. These bubbles are the seeds of the story.
Over time these moments become fixed. The notes and sketches become markers in a timeline. They crystallize and reach out to one another. They connect and cross-reference in my head. They jostle and jigsaw. The map of a new story is unfolding.
The pieces of the map that lead me to write Grandad’s Island were far flung – parakeets flying past the window in a new house, a sketch of a ship sitting snugly in a row of terrace houses, old letters I had kept from my own Grandad, a half-baked idea for a book about Charles Darwin going on an adventure. I collected these elements and more over time, some without realising, gradually piecing them together over weeks and months – or even years.
On a bus in Thailand in 2014, I was travelling back to Bangkok airport: that was the moment these ideas fused. I had spent the past week staring at a little green island sitting in a turquoise sea, watching sunlight and hot colours shimmer. Quickly, I started typing into my phone, bringing together all the other notes and thoughts and sketches – a synopsis of a story. They had been slowly gravitating towards each other for a long time. But during that trip they swam into touching distance. Holidays are great for this I find, when my mind is freewheeling, unconstrained by the pressure of the everyday. Emails are off. The internet has been left at home. New ideas filter in. The story coagulates.
On my return, with synopsis in hand (which told the story in plain unembellished prose, more like stage directions) I began loosely storyboarding. Making text notes beside each image, sentences and phrases that came into my head; words to compliment the images and drive the story forward.
Working in brush pen, I drew with grey ink on cartridge paper. It is fluid, and encourages me to work quickly, giving a soft tone, unlike black ink which is solid and definite. It suggests that I can change it, and doesn’t fight with the text as I lay it down next to the image. I pay very little attention to the number of drawings at this stage, the most important thing is that I tell the story from beginning to end.
After a busy couple of days, I had a finished storyboard – which meant I had a story.
Therefore, I had a new book. Not quite. There was still the hard work to do.
Now I needed to squeeze this storyboard sequence into a picture book format. The material was all there but it needed condensing. It must be carefully tailored, encouraged, edited. The right moments must be selected, the unnecessary ones discarded. And once all of that had been finalised and approved, only then I could spend the next few months busy at my desk, artworking.
Slowly but surely the bubbles were becoming a book.Those bubbles – the seeds of inspiration – are anywhere and everywhere. The trick is to get better at taking notice; observing, recording, making connections. For me, that’s where stories begin.
The end result of picture book writing is the illusion of simplicity.
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