Big Little Tales post #2: Hello reality …


Interesting times. Since I came back to London a few weeks ago my internal Situationometer™ is showing some straaange readings: somewhere between fun, sticky and dread. It’s a rubbish situationometer. Gives no useful information at all. As soon as I can afford it I’m going to get a new one.

When that will be is debatable though. The last book work (For the Fallen and other poems, Oxford) is long out of the door, but – huge yay – another illustrated short story has just been commissioned by OUP. Again it’s for 8-11 year old readers; three books in and I’ll be 3 for 3 at that age group. I’m liking that age group because you can explore characters’ emotional complexity. This latest commission is beyond welcome – I adore illustrating stories. Yet it is not enough on its own – it won’t deliver until January 2017 and it’s not a big job either. January is a while off.

So far illustrating books of this type has actually paid modestly well and while a smaller project means a smaller fee I really have no complaints. I also always act on Anne-Marie‘s excellent advice before I began Warriors of Honour, that negotiating time is just as important as negotiating fees, and while I’m an unknown I don’t expect red carpets and accolades.


Sketch exploring Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man

To keep myself in instant noodles and pay my way I’ll need overlapping book commissions, and I am finding my way there. It’s just that my commissions aren’t always for children’s book illustration. Or books at all. Or for children. Or … even … illustration …

Here’s the roll call of current projects

  • A vector logo for a Singaporean/Chinese bakery
  • A pen and ink portrait of an awesome cat
  • A huge cityscape for a wall at an amazing digital company that celebrates their clients
  • Applying for actual part-time jobs

I’m also doing what the smart people say: following my personal passion projects, so I’ve been:

  • Putting together a nice list of children’s classics to make ad hoc images from as portfolio ammo for my agent
  • Putting together a naughty list of children’s classics that need to be put away for ever (Frank L Baum, I’m coming for you in a future blogpost)
  • Continuing to write the book I’m writing
  • More new characters and worlds for the portfolio
  • Life drawing every week

That latter list is the one that aims to get me the future work that I really really want. The former is work I’d be crazy to turn down right now. It’s a compromise, sure, so I have to find the opportunities within to learn and grow. I know I’m not supposed to, but with the wolves at the door …


Logo, Adobe Illustrator


For example, the cityscape is asking for crisp technical drawing skills that I’m keen to improve, whereas regular life drawing is helping me to make more organic and spontaneous marks that draw human anatomy.


Recent life drawing study

Doing the commercial logo has forced me closer to Adobe Illustrator than ever before, and pushed my understanding of vector line work up a necessary new level. That proved essential when recently redesigning my letterpressed business cards ((hand printed by the amazing Jen Wright at Inky and the Beast)) and in my (ultimately unsuccessful) bid for the recent National Deaf Children Society illustration tender that demanded that experience.


New business cards! They cost one coffee … :^|

I’m having to write more too, and finding it a wonderful way to express and define visual ideas. Plus the quiet pleasure of overcoming writing challenges is as satisfying as overcoming challenges in illustration. I’ve heard it said that “the overcoming of obstacles is the process” – I get that in both writing and illustration. Win win.

Each task is so far a work-out, even if my actual muscles are becoming more spongey the more I’m sat at screens and sketchbooks.

Reading the new manuscript, I got a bit giddy. I can’t wait to get going on it. I’ve already been mulling over different media options and looking forward to the endlessly fascinating research in to the subject matter, characters and discovering inspiring illustrators. I completely love letting the process in, and its inevitable accidents providing unexpected answers.

It’s such cracking work. Even if self-doubt, self-loathing and the incumbent fear rear their ugly heads throughout. But I have to wait. Because, oh my, it’s a lot more scary having no money.


This post is originally posted on the Big Little Tale group blog at We’re a collective of six children’s book writers and illustrators, all members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

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