My blog is about writing and illustrating children's books which I have been doing since 1974. www.gillianmcclure.com has all my books. I also have another blog: www.paulcoltman.blogspot.com where I publish my father's poems.
I’m not generally very keen on AGMs which can have boring financial
reports and lengthy digressions and interruptions from the floor, but I was
pleasantly surprised by the recent AGM of the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting
Society. I might have guessed it was worth attending from the number of authors
So what did ALCS do differently to attract so
many people? Well there was the interesting venue: the art deco Radio Lecture
Theatre at BBC Broadcasting House, with its Eric Gill friezes, plus a welcome
from creative director, Alan Yentob and the opportunity, at the end, to go on a
There was the concise and comprehensible
meeting, chaired by Adam Singer, with no off –the– point interruptions. If a
question did threaten to hold up proceedings, there was the promise to talk further with Adam Singer at the reception afterwards.
entertainment: a special guest speaker, radio and television writer, Stephen
Wyatt who gave a great talk about radio drama.
And finally, there
was a generous spread of food and drink.
So what did I
learn? That ALCS, together with the Publishers Licensing Society (PLS), is a
joint owner of the Copyright Licensing Association (CLA) and they are now all
under the same roof, in premises in Holborn. That for 12 years the ALCS fund has
been increasing and now stands at 33 .8 million; that authors have a powerful
organisation lobbying for them to find new ways of remuneration in the digital
age when the old way - photocopying – is declining. And finally, that
illustrators needn’t worry either, as their collecting society, DACs, also uses the CLA
and works closely with ALCS in keeping an eye on new European directives.
So it was all
very reassuring and up- beat. I shall certainly be attending the next one!
Heffers bookshop, in association with the MA of Children’s
Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art held a Festival of Illustration last
week and I was able to hear Axel Scheffler and James Mayhew talking about their
If you go into any
bookshop you won’t fail to notice the Axel Scheffler/Julia Donaldson brand; created
out of the success of The Gruffalo, it
dominates the children’s section. So it
was interesting to hear Axel speak about his work. I’d heard him twice before
and wondered whether he had anything to add now he was a global success. But
the message was the same: his publisher would not allow him to deviate from the
brand and try anything new. Layout designs for his books were all done in-house
and it was impossible to argue with his publisher over any artistic decisions. As
a result Axel was bored. I’d heard him say that before but this time he was
able to be a bit more pragmatic and add that illustration was an applied art form,
he was part of a team and, after all, there was always an element of boredom in
‘Have you ever thought of getting a copy artist to do some
of the work for you?’ a student in the audience asked. Some illustrators would have
been insulted by the question but Axel just laughed and said it sounded a good
The following day,
James Mayhew talked about his Katie series which is having a 25 year
This series, published by Orchard arose out of James' childhood love of
paintings - paintings like John Constable’s Hay Wain - and a desire to make art galleries imaginative
and inspiring places. James based his character Katie on his sister as he
remembered her as a little girl. Katie has adventures when she steps into pictures
she sees hanging in an art gallery. It was the publisher’s idea to have photos
of the pictures with a frame drawn by James.
Despite being aimed at a niche
market, the series took off and Orchard took control, saying where Katie went
next and asking for more and more Impressionist paintings because they were the most popular.
“I couldn’t always do what I wanted with my own character,”
James said sadly.
For the 25th
anniversary, Orchard created new covers for all the books with a title frame
that James thinks looks just like a Cath Kidston soap label. I’m sure that was
exactly what it was meant to look like because of the popularity of the Cath Kidston
brand. Like Axel, James admitted he found it hard to argue with his publishers
but after 25 years of Katie, he said he was planning to take a break and do
something different. He said the reward of working on the Katie books was
seeing how children responded to them. It’s no mean feat, painting in the style
of all those great masters, but now James wants to be himself, not Van Gogh,
Gauguin or Monet.
Clearly there will
always be a point of conflict in the applied art of illustration between the
illustrator’s desire for creative freedom and business constraints imposed by
Recently, a bookseller remarked on how different my picture books looked from each other. I suppose Plaister Press has given me the freedom to do one-off books rather than be brand or series led. By having all my in-print books now standing together on the Plaister Press bookshelf and not scattered among different publishers’ lists as they were in the past, there’s less of a need to make them all look alike just in order to be recognizable.
So I have been enjoying a different technique for each new book – glazing in Selkie - a lot of waiting around with this process as each glaze has to dry naturally:
and ink splattering in Flood– messy - I have to be outside to do this.
Now, with my latest picture book, I’m scratching. This needs
a tough paper as I’m scratching with a dry pen nib while the paint is still wet. Arches 90lbs rough can take this.
Just as an author strives
to find a new voice to fit the narrative of each new story, I like to do a
similar thing with images. I search for a ‘look’ that matches the underlying
feeling of a picture book story and that invariably means finding a new
technique to best express it.
It’s not easy
making each book look so very different from the last and as I embark on a new
book there’s always a temptation to repeat the tricks of technique mastered in
the previous one. I sometimes wonder whether, were a particular title to take
off, the business side of me would put pressure on the creative side to follow
it with a brand of very similar looking books. But that has not happened yet.
Following on from Joyce Dunbar’s email in my last post, this
week I stood back and took stock of where children’s publishing stood today and
where Plaister Press stood in relation to it. Three events that I attended last
week had given a lot to think about: a talk I gave on Tuesday to a group of illustrators
the retirement party of Dr Jim Parker Head of PLR at the British Library on
Wednesday and the Bookseller Children’s Conference at Southbank on Thursday.
The talk on
Tuesday was a business talk – ‘Ways into Publishing’. Many of the illustrators
were graduates of the MA course in Children’s Book Illustration at Anglia
Ruskin; a course that attracts students from all over the world. Yet here they
were without work. “Why is it so competitive?”
asked one graduate. “We were given no business training,” said another. Then
someone showed me a picture book she had written and illustrated and finally
self published after years of dialogue with UK publishers who were happy to
keep asking for revisions yet never agreed to publish. She used Blurb which she
thought was a better self publishing platform than Lulu. Was there a possible
way forward here; bypassing the UK
market, large print costs and thousands of copies to store and sell? You only
need one sample copy to take to the Bologna Trade Fair to sell the rights to
overseas publishers and there are UK Trade & Investment grants available through
the Publishers Association; it just needs a group of determined people to learn
how to go about it and share the cost of a stand.
The party on
Wednesday for Dr Jim Parker was not as bleak as I’d feared thanks to his tireless
work all last year to bring about a smooth transfer to the British Library; at
least we still have a Public Lending Right. But it did all feel absurd; why get rid of someone
so popular with authors and illustrators and with so much PLR expertise and
hand over to people who have to learn it all from scratch? Jim’s is a hard act to follow especially as
the new Head of PLR Policy and Advocacy has to do the job in only two days a
week. But if anyone is going to succeed,
it will be Julia Eccleshare who stepped into the role on 29 September.
Children’s Conference on Thursday was depressing despite statistics showing a
healthy growth across the children’s book market. The image above makes the
conference look fun, child focussed and innocent but it was all about ruthless big
business. I’d hoped to see more
independent bookseller there but was told that the large fee had kept them away.
Ann-Janine Murtagh of HarperCollins, the first speaker, set the tone of the
day. Her talk was dominated by the sales figures of celebrity David Walliams’
new book Awful Auntie published on 25
As she talked the HarperCollins sales team, sitting below her in the
front row, held up the figures as they came through. All big publishers have a
special ‘luvvy’tone of voice they use when talking about ‘their authors’. But
by the end of this conference, dominated by publishing giants and the Mass
Global Market, I had the strong suspicion that this tone of voice was reserved for just the favoured few best selling celebrities. As for the mid-list authors,
they hardly featured and as for those who had defected to self publishing, they
were not mentioned at all. Indeed, that was the strange thing about the
conference’s overview of the industry, self publishing was completely ignored;
it was as if it did not exist.
So, what conclusions
can be drawn? There’s very little room for everyone in this industry. Publishing
for children has become an absurdly competitive industry and will become even
more so as giants like Random House decide to publish fewer books and as art
schools and universities pour out more and more writers and illustrators.
Thanks so much for the copy of FLOOD. It's a lovely book and to me it's a marvel that you have written, illustrated and published this book on your own. A brave undertaking! You need a very special combination of skills. At first you must have been a lone ranger - but as recent articles show, more and more authors are taking charge in this way - including many who are previously published.
The rest of us are threatened on two sides - on the one hand the new breed of self published authors - often very media savvy - why else would they do it? - and good at self promotion. On the other side, publishers forming larger and larger conglomerates with a tight agenda - and with precious few exceptions, smaller publishers afraid to take risks. Which leaves traditionally published authors somewhat stranded.
It's a beautiful book, with your characteristic variety of texture and delicacy of tone - telling a story with a strong theme of survival against the odds - in such a quirky way that I couldn't help wondering where it came from. The happiness
of the ending is muted and left me with a vague feeling of melancholy.
Then, it struck me. It reads very well as an allegory of your (our) struggles as a writer. You are Fussy Hen, Slodger the children's book industry - now getting old and lumberingly large; fox at first is the wolf at the door, morphing into the guy who helped you set up Plaister Press; the flood is what threatens us all. 'Fussy hen
found to her surprise that she could steer' - is your discovery that you can take control of your career with a bit of financial backing; the island is where you are now - a lone publisher with the big old one beside you - not altogether secure but
not drowned either. The ending is safety on a tiny lonely island, so both happy and sad.
I didn't try to figure this out - it just dawned. Maybe it is as much my projection as your unconscious. But anyway - it is a very intriguing example of the way images indirectly and metaphorically can tell a story about change. I think we are both
so lucky to have started our careers in the 70s and 80's. A golden time.
I can only say this because I've known you so long as a friend - and I hope you won't think I've taken liberties. I hope it sails forth into the world with as much courage as you have shown in producing it and in taking charge. Bravo! To you and Fussy Hen!
Thank you, Joyce, for your insights. My last three picture books have had a water theme but not the one I’m working on now. This new book is about a mouse with not a drop of water in sight. I wonder what that can mean.
Last Saturday was Helen Craig’s 8oth birthday and a surprise
party was thrown for her. Friends and family had been asked to arrive early and
park their cars, out of sight, in the field, before waiting very quietly for Helen
to arrive. Did she suspect? Here’s her
expression as she walked through the door.
Despite repeatedly saying she didn’t want a surprise party, when it happened Helen was smiling.
The remarkable thing about Helen Craig at 80 is that she is still having picture books published. She’s currently working on the illustrations of Snowy Sunday, eighteen years after doing the first book in the series, One Windy Wednesday, published by Walker Books in 1996.
One Windy Wednesday is a story about the animals on Bonnie Bumble's farm having their voices blown away by the wind and all ending up with the wrong sounds. Here’s a link to it and the other books in the series:One Windy Wednesday,Meow Monday, Turnover Tuesday, Thirsty Thursday, Foggy Friday and Soggy Saturday.
Helen told me that she
wanted the images for these books to be quite different from her Angelina Ballerina books. She said she found it hard to draw in a bold manner and so she did the
original line drawings very small - about 3 inches square for the single page
and then enlarged on the photocopier to 8 inches square so the enlargement was
quite great and the line ended up nice and chunky. She then dampened the
picture and stretched it onto a board, before colouring it.
“In Snowy Sunday,” she said, “it’s snowing snowflakes as big
as balls of wool and all the animals are shivering, so Bonnie Bumble has to
knit them coats and scarves, beak warmers and tail warmers. These stories are
always whacky and fantastic but that's what makes them such fun to do.”
This must be the secret to Helen’s long illustrating career
– the fun of it all and the sheer delight of drawing and painting.
When I’m asked which comes first in my picture books, the images or the words, I say the words come first. I like to do a first written draft and then, when I’m thinking about page layouts and the integration of image with text, I do the second draft, removing unnecessary words where images can do the work instead. However, I do hold an image in my head right from the start – it forms the essence of the book.
In my latest book, Flood– published in July 2014 - that first image was a bit paradoxical - a hen in a flood, safe in what looks like a red furry nest but really it's a fox’s tail. It was from this image that the story started to emerge; a hen trying to dodge the eyes of a hungry fox who wants to hold her in his stare and then eat her. So what's preventing the fox from doing just that?
Another tail. In order to survive the flood the fox has to grab the tail of an ox and cling on tight.
And then I realized that the anxious little hen, at the back of this string of animals relying on two tails to survive, might also be able to help. From my very scant knowledge of rudders, I knew that if you turn a rudder one way the boat goes the opposite way.(I tried it out with a toothpick and match box) So the hen in my story discovers, in the course of looking this way and that, trying to avoid the eyes of the Hungry Fox, that she can steer.
She squawks out directions, the fox turns his head, pulls on the tail of the ox who then changes direction.
In this way they proceed through the flood until they reach land.
And so, from the first image of a hen in a foxy nest, I arrive at my story; a sort of flood fable with friendship at the end.
Forget Noah’s Ark! When the floods arrive, there are three
creatures who have their own ideas about keeping their heads above water.
Flood, a captivating picture
story underlining the importance of co-operation in times of trouble, is the
work of author and illustrator Gillian McClure who has set up Plaister Press to
bring back into print some of her most popular books and to publish exciting
illustrative style, which involves the use of watercolour, waxing and sprayed
ink to obtain a ‘splattery’ look, is ideal for this warm-hearted cautionary
tale about pulling together when a soaking wet disaster strikes.
It just won’t stop raining and
out in the fields, Old Slodger the Ox keeps his head down and his eyes to the
ground. Close by is Fussy Hen who is too busy squawking and looking this way
and that for the cunning Hungry Fox. And sure enough the Hungry Fox has his
beady eyes on Fussy Hen. What none of them has spotted is that the waters are
rising rapidly and when the three animals finally realise that they must work
together as a team if they are to reach land safely, there is a danger they
might have left it too late…
A funny, characterful and
beautifully illustrated way to show that getting on swimmingly solves a lot of
On 8 July in the Churchill Room at the House of Commons there was
a debate: 'Are we all on the same page? Can a fair deal for authors be balanced
with a fair deal for all?'
The debate was organised
by The Authors' Licensing & Collecting Society who invited writers and
other professionals from the creative industries, politicians and broadcasters
to debate the issue of what type of marketplace gives authors the best
opportunity to make a living at a time when the perception of copyright by the
public is seen as a barrier to free and easy access to the works of creators
and when 'sharing' on-line content is not considered theft.
revolution has brought greater opportunities for the commercial exploitation of
works. This debate was asking whether the rights and interests of creators were
now the weakest link in the value chain. And if so, what could be done to
Benjamin chaired the panel which included Wendy Cope, poet, Joanne Harris,
novelist, Richard Mollet, Chief Executive of the Publishers Association and
Richard Hooper, chairman of The Copyright Hub.
We were told that now is a really important time for authors regarding their copyright and their
ability to make a living from their creativity. Recent research carried out by
ALCS, ‘What are Words Worth Now?’ looking into authors' earnings, showed that
digital use earnings are going up but overall incomes are coming down and the
proportion of professional authors who earn a living solely from writing has
fallen from 40% to 11%. Professional authors are earning less than the Minimum
Income Standard (the acceptable standard of living) in the UK while the UK creative industries are a
world-leading success story. If writers are going to continue to make their
vital contribution to the economy, they need to receive fair remuneration for
their work; indeed, all creators have a right to be paid for their work.
I was interested in what
Richard Hooper, chairman of The Copyright Hub had to say. Having recently
completed a review for the Government into copyright licensing, Richard Hooper argued
that instead of legislation, there should be copyright education and that licensing
should become fit for purpose. He said there needed to be an effective database
with a micro payment system in place to make it easier for the public (especially
schools and colleges) to contact creators to ask for permissions and to pay to
use their works; failure to do so would result in an email saying a theft had
It was all very
interesting but, sadly, with the big internet service providers like Google invariably
absent, would anything concrete ever come out of this debate?
I worked with the whole school at once – here they are – all
five of them – all different year groups!
At the end of the session, one of the boys asked if I’d like
to see the school hens in the field at the back of the school. They had a
lovely hen house built by the father of one of the girls. I asked whether they
were troubled by foxes and was told there were no foxes on the island –
“except,” said the son of the driver of the refuse lorry, “when one came over
from the mainland on the ferry in my Dad’s lorry.”
Well there’s an idea for a story!
I was over for The
Islands Book Trust conference, celebrating the heritage of Colonsay and Donald
Mackinnon. There was a photo of the old school and an account by Donald
Mackinnon of his school days there in the 1840s and 50s. The school house was low
and whitewashed on the outside; walls blackened by peat inside and two
doorways but no doors. In the winter, to keep out the cold, the doorways were
packed with furze until it all got burnt on the central fire. Then the furze
was replaced with straw until that was eaten by cattle. The pupils wrote on
slate with goose quills. Tables and benches were slabs of stone. Outside they
The day before the
conference started I hired a bike and set off for Balnahard and the beach. I passed
the children in the school bus. They waved and I felt sorry for them; it was
the most glorious day. Here are some sketches:
One of my favourite festivals is the Steyning Festival
because Steyning was where I was brought up. On the May Bank Holiday weekend, I
did a children’s workshop based on my picture book We’re Going to Build a Damin the lovely garden at the back of Steyning
bookshop. Here we all are in the marquee; I had a great audience – very responsive
In this part of the workshop, after looking at original
artwork, the children have puppet characters and are building a dam out of card
cut-outs of boulder, driftwood, pebbles, sand and seaweed. The pieces have velcro
on the back and stick easily onto a board covered in black fabric.
Then, after the crab has pinched the dog’s tail and the dog has
grabbed its favourite piece of wood out of the dam, there’s the fun of the dam all coming
At the end the children drew their own dams.This is Camilla Fielder’s beautifully drawn dam with the crab
and this lovely picture was done by her younger brother,