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Picture Book Club #7 Q and A with Yuval Zommer

Welcome, Yuval, thanks so much for coming to Picture Book Club. We’d love to know how you got into picture books!

I graduated from the Royal College of Art and worked in advertising but I always wanted to do picture books. I always wanted to do something that wasn’t for a product and wasn’t for a brief and is just ‘me’. That became increasingly important to me and I was enjoying advertising less and less. Advertising does teach you to be disciplined. You have to be quite economical with words if you’re writing headlines or copy. You have to storyboard things if you’re doing commercials and you have to have an idea that targets a certain demographic. It’s very good discipline for deadlines, clarity and focus in your message. But, after years of working in advertising, I thought I had to give picture books a go so I did a 10 week children’s illustration course at the City Lit in London. I had done illustration at the Royal College but I wanted to do a specific children’s course. I had tonnes of ideas but what they get you to do is choose one thing and work on it for 10 weeks. I kept in touch with 4 or 5 people after the course and we used to meet monthly and share what we were doing. I did that for 2 years. I wasn’t yet working in the style I do now but I sent lots of stuff to publishers and agents and never heard anything. It happened many times! People not even replying or getting a standard generic reply probably written by the intern. But they were not ready, those books, I can see that now. But anyway, I didn’t give up, I just kept sending stuff.

Then I did a story with animals and sent it unsolicited by email and got replies within 2 days. I sent it to 4 or 5 publishers but I think there were at least 3 or 4 that answered within a couple of days and then I knew. There’s something here. Templar were the first to offer me a contract. Amanda Wood was the creative director at Templar at the time and she asked me to bring in some story ideas.

So, is that how your first book ‘The Big Blue Thing On The Hill’ happened?

Yes, that was my first book ever, published 3 years ago now. It was one of those 2 or 3 stories that I took in to Amanda. It was my favourite actually and it’s almost 70% of how it was. We added a few bits but the title was there and the action was there. Templar picked up on that one and I said fine but anything they would have picked, I would have said yes! So, the one I sent out is the one that got me attention but this is the one that became an actual book.  It also come out in the States. Even though it’s the same language, not many books travel and this came out in America too so I was very lucky. I think it also came out in Norwegian. It was also nominated for several awards including a Scottish award in Hawick. I was up against a Scottish book and David Walliams’ first picture book so I thought ‘OK, I’m up against a Scottish one and a celebrity… and then they’ve got me that nobody has heard of’. But I won! Then I found out that it’s the children who voted. I was surprised but I thought ‘OK, if the children like it then definitely something is working’. I could see there was something I was connecting with.

I’ve worked again with Templar on One Hundred Bones and the follow up, One Hundred Sausages, and I’ve done another one which will come out later this year.

How about your non-fiction books?

I was doing Templar picture books and I was having fun but I was also looking at non-fiction; the marriage of picture books and information books. For me, the copy has to take you through and lead you and be part of the page somehow. It’s not an easy thing to do but I really like the idea of the image and the text working together. I twist and move the text so it flows with the picture. I think that’s more involving for a younger reader.

I was asked to do an exhibition in a library in Haringay based on my first book. I thought I’d rather do something different for this space rather than just reproduce the book on the wall. So I focused on the insects and the bugs because they are part of the story. I thought I would fill the space with bugs as that might be fun for a children’s library. Then I thought ‘OK, now I’ve got all these ladybirds and dragon flies. I know kids like these and I am fascinated too. This could be a book but it’s got to be a non-fiction book’. And I had the idea of The Big Book of Bugs. I did a cover and worked on a synopsis and three spreads. I had an agent by then and she sent it out. Thank goodness Thames and Hudson liked it but I still have a very nice letter from another publisher saying, ‘We’d love to work with you, we love your style but we talked to our marketing people and they said bugs won’t sell’. They’re probably kicking themselves because it’s now sold in 18 languages!

We love the Big Book of Bugs and the Big Book of Beasts because they’re so luxuriously, well, BIG!

Yes, Thames and Hudson offered me this format and I love the space. You have to find the right publisher for you, who knows what to do with you. It’s about timing and finding someone on your wavelength.

You’ve also brought something new to show us. Tell us about that.

This is a different concept. A concertina book; The Street Beneath My Feet. The physicality of being able to lay it out on the floor and move around it is great. It’s the only one where the publisher (Quarto) got in touch and said they had a concept that I might be interested in. I said yes because I thought the concept was worth doing and the format allowed me to do a lot with it and they gave me a lot of creative freedom. I do get publishers asking me to do stuff for them but it tends to be the same stuff. I’ve turned down 3 books about dinosaurs and I’ll probably have to turn down more because, you know, dinosaurs sell! It has to be something original or unusual for me to say yes. I’m not so in love with dinosaurs that I want to spend half a year or more on them! I would happily do another book with Quarto because they give you everything you want. They want the books to be great books. Then the reader is happy, you’re happy and everyone is happy.

Is that how long it takes to produce one of your books?

Picture books need 3-4 months maybe up to 6. The first one might take you longer, maybe up to a year but after that you don’t have the luxury of time. The deadlines don’t change even though you’re working for different publishers. You have to be disciplined and very organised about the number of words per day. It doesn’t matter if you like them or not, you just have to do it and then you can re-edit or re-write them. It’s quite intense.

You’ve worked with other people on The Big Books and The Street Beneath My Feet. Why was that?

The books need to be factually robust. I worked with Charlotte Guillain on The Street Beneath My Feet. I knew certain things but I’m not really a scientist. For Bugs, I worked with Barbara Taylor. She’s a scientist and she would come back to me and say ‘this one hasn’t got the right number of legs’. Everything is anatomically correct. She’s also credited in Beasts. People ask if it’s a collaboration and it’s not really. Charlotte and I, we only met last week. It was all done by email. I didn’t even know what she looked like!

What are you working on next?

I’m working on the third in the series of Big Books. You can try and guess the title, I can only tell you it begins with B!

Yuval gave us a sneak preview of the cover at the end of the Q&A. We can’t tell you what it is because then we’d have to shoot you because it is secret squirrel but we can tell you it is Big and Beautiful! It’s due out in March 2018. We can’t wait!

Thank you again Yuval for a fantastic evening. Hope you enjoyed the footprint flapjacks!