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Picture Book Club #23 Simon Philip

We weren’t able to hold our usual IRL Picture Book Club meeting in May due to unforeseen circumstances but we were incredibly lucky to get the chance to interview Simon Philip, author of a clutch of picture books including I Really Want The Cake and You Must Bring A Hat. The follow up to Cake is out in June. It’s called I Really Want To Win and we definitely felt like winners after talking to Simon!

1. We loved I Really Want The Cake at Picture Book Club Cottage. What was your inspiration for that one? Is the main character based on anyone in particular? (Yes, I know that’s two questions!)

Thank you very much!
I wrote I Really Want The Cake around October 2013, I think – so I’m struggling to remember exactly where the idea for it came from. Perhaps I was hungry, or craving cake. But I’m fairly sure it was one of those rare occasions when a title or sentence randomly entered my brain, and it was strong enough to make something out of.

As soon as that title came to me, I could see what I wanted to do with the story. It helped that that sentence contains a potential problem (assuming the narrator can’t have the cake), which of course is a basic requirement for a good story. I asked lots of questions about that situation – What sort of cake is it? Where is it? Why can’t the narrator have it? What do they do about it? etc and the story progressed from there.

The main character isn’t based on a particular person, but she certainly shares a few of my personality traits. And I think most people are able to relate to her character and predicament. I’ve had numerous people comment that the book could have been written about them, or that it’s their life story – things along those lines!

2. Did you have in mind a series of I Really Want… books when you started?

I didn’t. It was very much a one-off text, and was actually one of the texts that helped secure my agent. Before then I’d submitted texts that were ok, but probably in the mould of other writers – trying to mimic their ‘voice’, I suppose. I remember thinking ‘Ooh, I might have something here’ when I finished the first draft of Cake. It definitely felt like my own, distinctive voice.

A few publishers rejected the text because they felt it was too ‘internal’ and they couldn’t envisage how it would be illustrated, but I had faith that it would end up as a book eventually. Templar took a long time to make an offer for it, but during that time they really thought carefully about how the illustrations might work. And I think they did a brilliant job, so it was worth the wait. Having said that, at one stage the main character was going to be a monkey – which would have been a bit sad! I’m glad we ended up with Lucia’s brilliantly expressive girl character instead.

The possibility of a series of I Really Want… books came about at a meeting with Templar a few months before Cake was published. Everyone in the team seemed keen with the idea of I Really Want To Win, so I had a go at writing that. There’s at least one more book to follow at some point in the future…

3. How did you find working with your illustrator Lucia Gaggiotti?

I feel honoured to have my texts illustrated by Lucia. Obviously I’m a bit biased, but I think she’s brilliant, and her artwork is beautiful – I’d love it whether or not it accompanies my text. There’s so much energy, movement and personality in her characters and illustrations, which really adds to the humour. I think we are well matched creatively, as she really ‘gets’ my writing and we share the same vision for our books.

There’s actually very little ‘working together’ as such – it’s not as if we sit down together and plan out the book, or anything. I’m always invited to offer my feedback during the various stages of the project – I’m shown the roughs, for instance – but I’ve never wanted to change anything!

When I’m writing a picture book, I try to visualise what the illustrations might look like for a particular spread, and also write illustration notes to outline anything I think needs to be shown in the pictures for the scene to make sense. But these are rarely prescriptive and normally only suggestions. I’m happy to leave the experts to it. I have confidence that an illustrator’s vision for a spread will be far better than mine, and it’s fun to leave it open-ended and see what they come up with. One of the most exciting things about being a picture book writer is seeing my text being brought to life by an illustrator. That never gets old.

4. Tell us a bit about your journey to become a picture book writer.

I’ve always enjoyed writing and, growing up, wrote a lot of nonsense in my free time – so you could say not much has changed. But I never had a clue what I wanted to do as a career, and becoming an author just never occurred to me.

After studying History at university, I did a Primary PGCE but unfortunately wasn’t a great match for teaching and, in not very happy circumstances at the time, had to give that up before I’d completed the course. The silver lining was that it rekindled my love of children’s literature, and picture books in particular. At the beginning of each English session on the university side of the PGCE course, our tutor would read us a picture book – which invariably I found entertaining or thought provoking. Mo Willems’ Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus and Oliver Jeffers’ The Heart and the Bottle are two that I remember well from those sessions.

So, after failing at teaching, I was in a slightly strange situation where I had the pressure of trying to work out what on earth I was going to do next with my life, but also lots of free time – to write, it turned out. I started writing silly stories just for the pleasure, but, after some encouraging feedback, realised I wanted to have a go at getting published. After six months of submissions, rejections, revisions and far too much refreshing of emails, I signed with Sallyanne Sweeney in October 2013.

5. Do you have any secret tips for success for aspiring PB writers?

I’m not sure I have any secret tips; I’m sure all my advice could be found from another source elsewhere, and there’s loads of helpful information online about submitting to agents and the industry in general.

But I think the following are important/helpful to remember:

Read, read, read – to get to know what makes a successful picture book, the market, where you/your books might fit in it, and how you can stand out.

Keep in mind the need to be commercial. This has become increasingly apparent to me with each rejection! Books don’t necessarily need to have a ‘message’, but they do need to have a strong ‘hook’.

Be patient, resilient and persevere. There’s a lot of waiting to be done if you’re an author – for replies to emails, for books to be published, to receive payments due. There’s a lot of rejection and it can be tempting to give up. I wasn’t naïve when I started, but I did think that after I’d had a few books published and a (tiny) bit of success, getting publishing contracts would be easier, but it hasn’t felt that way. So keep going!

6. Or any cautionary tales? Please feel free to be fabulously indiscreet if necessary

When working with a publisher, especially for the first time, it can be hard to know how much to compromise editorially. Inevitably publishers/editors will make suggestions that you do not like or agree with, so it’s important to know how far you are prepared to go to get published – which changes you can live with, and which you cannot.

It’s important to listen to what publishers say, as they have the experience, but it’s not always right to accept everything they suggest. It’s important that you’ll be happy with the end result – it will, after all, be your book, with your name on the cover. So have faith in your idea and ability, and trust your gut instinct.

7. Any sneak peeks or clues about what you’re working on at the moment or what’s coming up next?

I’m currently working on the third book in my young fiction series with S&S, about Fred, a wizard who is terrible at magic (the first, Wizard vs Lizard, was published in January).

I have another picture book out in September, Be More Bernard, which is brilliantly illustrated by Kate Hindley, and features disco-bunnies! They may look familiar-ish, as they are loosely based (I think!) on Kate’s beautiful bunnies from our first book, You Must Bring A Hat. So that’s exciting.

There’s a few books lined up for next year, one of which is a rhyming picture book about starting school, but I’m not sure what else I can tell you…

Thanks Simon! If you would like to pre-order your very own copy of I Really Want To Win (and we definitely think you should!) then you can do just that right here!