Helen Stephens on being a picture book maker

Posted by Helen Stephens

As I am an author and illustrator of picture books, my tips are for folks like me who like to draw and write…

Hang in there

When I started out looking for a picture book publisher I was young and naive, and I think this stood me in good stead. I thought publishers would be glad to see my lovely sketchbooks full of messy drawings of farm buildings, tractors and scrap yards, and want to snap me up immediately. That didn’t happen, but I wasn’t easily put off.

I would sit on my bedsit floor, beside my phone (only landlines then) with a copy of the Writers and Artists Yearbook and ring art directors and editors. I ignored the bits in the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook where it said ‘no unsolicited material’, and sent samples of my artwork anyway. I’m not sure if I’m advising you to do that; I don’t want lots of irate editors banging on my door.

Sometimes I’d hear nothing for a few months, then I’d get four calls from different publishers in one day. I just lived for those moments, it was so exciting when someone wanted to see my folio. My tutor at Glasgow School of Art, Mick Manning, had once given us a piece of advice,

“The most important thing to do at publishing meetings is to smile.”

So I did lots of that. The quality of your work is important, but so is being friendly and meeting deadlines.

I found that art directors liked my work, and would be keen to find me a text to illustrate. But months passed by and no text came along. Then one publisher suggested I write my own text, so I did, and that is where my writing career started.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing in those early days, there were lots of knock-backs. I had a brief time being represented by an agent, but I had some problems with her and we parted company acrimoniously (she told me she had lots of contacts in publishing and I would never work again.) Then there was a project that I did and never got paid for… and a publisher who went bankrupt and had my original artwork, the late nights trying to meet deadlines, trying to fit in work between part time jobs, and the time I was dropped from a project because they accused me of faking some samples, which of course I hadn’t. Lots of trials and tribulations, but I just kept on going, doggedly hanging in there.

Take advice, to a point

In those early days I was ready to take any creative advice on board. It turns out that my sketchbooks full of scratchy line drawings of farm yards and horse fairs were not exactly what children’s book publishers were looking for and they asked me to try drawing lovable characters, with simply drawn eyes, ‘try some flat colour.’

I listened to all these snippets of advice and gradually became more publishable. It was an exciting time, suddenly I was inundated with work. I got my first royalty cheque, enough to buy my first computer and leave my job in the Science Museum.

But after my first few years in publishing I realised I had painted myself into a corner. I missed drawing for the fun of it, I missed drawing from life in the cold and the wind. I had left behind my old sketchbook work which I loved so much. I was using flat bright acrylic paint, and was asked to do quite similar projects again and again. This bright simple way of working was very successful in terms of book sales, but it started to feel like a trap to me. I longed to do darker books with more emotional depth, but the flat bright acrylic didn’t allow for that.

So I made a decision. I decided to turn down any more work of that ilk, and try to find a way of working that was similar to my sketchbook work, always so precious to me when I was a student. It was a very stressful time because I didn’t know if publishers would still want to work with me, but ultimately it was the best decision I ever made. I feel that my published work is not something separate to my sketchbook work any more; they feed each other. I feel creatively very happy.

"We saw your lion book – will you illustrate this book about a lion?"

I have found that I tend to be offered similar projects again and again: ‘We saw your lion book – will you illustrate this book about a lion?’. Well, perhaps not quite that bad, but you know what I mean.

So I have become quite picky, I like to take on projects that will push my work in new directions. I get excited if I think there’s something difficult about a project because I know I’ll learn something new. I had a mental block on drawing fantasy creatures- absolutely hated them. I think it’s because I like to draw from life a lot, and I can’t draw these things from life, I have to make them up. I could not envisage me ever drawing a mermaid or a dragon for example. So when I was asked to illustrate Mimi and the Mountain Dragon for Michael Morpurgo I knew I had to say yes. It was a hurdle that needed crossing. I love drawing dragons now; I just had to learn my way. I find this very exciting.

To have an agent, or not to have an agent

For the first 10 years of my career I didn’t have an agent (except for the brief and disastrous fling that I mentioned earlier). I negotiated contracts, deadlines, creative disputes, all the other stuff that comes along by myself. I’d call the Association of Illustrators if I needed any advice, they were incredibly helpful. They had a handbook called The Survival Handbook, and list of editors and their addresses. They also had a dummy contract you could use, and legal advice if you needed it. They still offer this kind of support now, I would recommend joining if you don’t have an agent.

After the first 10 years, I felt that negotiating money, schedules and contracts was eating into my creative time. I now have an agent, Hilary Delamere, and she is wonderful.

I often hear young illustrators say that their agent doesn’t get them any work. I think it’s all about expectations. If you need an agent to get you work, rather than handle paperwork and schedules, you need to make sure they know that, and ask them to be honest about whether that will be possible. An agent is expensive and if the relationship isn’t working, you need to move on.

Do you want to be a children's entertainer? Oh no you don't!

When I started my life in picture books, it never occurred to me that part of the job might be performing to huge crowds of people at book festivals. The very thought would have made me run away and hide.

But in recent years book festivals and school visits have become a large part of what I do. It took a few years of dipping my toe in and deciding it’s not for me, then trying again… and again… and again. Until eventually after a lot of trial and error, I found my feet. I have learned the following: I don’t need to be bigger than I am in real life, maybe just me with volume turned up a little. I see other authors dressing up in crazy costumes, leaping about. That’s not for me and it doesn’t need to be.

(By the way I am often asked to do appearances/ workshops etc for free. I have learned to value my time and be upfront about my fees. Author Nicola Morgan wrote a great piece about the issue on her blog)

I now get such a thrill from being on stage with 500 over-excited, screaming children in the audience (it’s a school trip, even the bus journey is fun!) On school visits all I need to do is wheel a flip chart into the room and the children are brimming with excitement! I’m not their teacher; I am a new face, and that is super exciting in itself.

Helen Stephens is an author, illustrator, picture book maker of the How to Hide a Lion series and many more books for children.

Helen’s books can be read in over 25 languages and have been selected as ‘Book of the Year’ in The Guardian and The Times. Her work has featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times & Uppercase Magazine. How to Hide a Lion was adapted for stage by the Polka Theatre, and toured the UK.