Creating Shoo!: Susie Bower, Francesca Gambatesa and Sarah Odedina on making picture books
Posted 30th September 2021
This week from the collective genius of writer Susie Bower and illustrator Francesca Gambatesa comes Shoo!, a delightful picture book about a grumpy woman and her beastly new neighbours. We were fascinated by the collaborative process, so chatted to Susie and Francesca alongside editor Sarah Odedina about Mrs Golightly, her furry friends, and what it’s like to make a picture book!
1) What inspired you to create the wonderful character of Mrs Golightly?
Susie: Mrs Golightly is—I’m afraid—a bit of me! Although I do like animals, I’ve a very pernickety side which likes things to be ‘just so’. My home is very much my castle, like Mrs Golightly’s, and I hate to have mess and chaos in it because my brain likes order. Mrs Golightly leads a rather lonely life, I think, and has learned to keep the world out by putting up barriers and ‘keeping herself to herself’. Her daily life is routine-dominated, but she’s basically rattling around in her big house, and everything’s gone stale and grey—as Francesca so beautifully shows in her illustrations. Mrs Golightly discovers, during the course of the story, that if you’re brave enough to allow a bit of chaos into your life, you might just find you’ve let a bit of love and tenderness in, too.
Francesca: For the illustrations of Mrs Golightly I was immediately inspired by the character that Susie wrote. I found the strong conflict Mrs Golightly finds herself in and her feisty attempts to keep her routines very amusing. All the clues to imagine her personality were there already. By knowing what she hated I could imagine what she’d love!
Thinking about her personality and possible background was the starting point for all the designs; how she’d look and how her house would be. I imagined she’d love order and control so I drew a topiary garden and gave her a serious but grey home interior, with sharp, neat shapes. I imagined she’d be stuck in the past and have a retro 70s look. I researched quite a lot of period photos to inspire the designs and enjoyed drawing Mrs Golightly’s character very much as I had scope for making her “act out” extreme and diverse emotions, till we discover her true heart!
Sarah: When I first read the picture book text from Susie I fell in love with Mrs Golightly. She is a fabulously real character whose routine has begun to feel a bit too precious. I so liked her ‘warts and all’ and I think the combination of Susie’s portrayal and Francesca’s manifestation of Mrs Golightly makes her the kind of adult that children love to read about – real, a bit cranky but ultimately lovable.
2) How important is it to have rascally adult characters in picture books?
Susie: Young children tend to see the adults in their lives as sensible and, hopefully, good—so they get to feel a bit of superiority when an adult character behaves in a less-than-perfect way. If a child can say: ‘That’s silly!’ or see where the adult character is making mistakes, they can be reassured that adults are human too, and that they too can do daft things.
Francesca: I can totally relate to Susie’s words here. I hope children will be utterly amused by poor Mrs Golightly and by following her story be satisfied by her change of heart, for the better, and by the warm ending.
Sarah: I think adults in children’s books who misbehave, make mistakes and generally need a bit of tolerance and acceptance from those around them are so important for children to read about. After all – that is kind of real life isn’t it!
3) How did you bring the themes of friendship, tolerance and kindness to life in the book?
Susie: Mrs Golightly begins the story friendless and intolerant. She believes that if she keeps the animals out of her house, she’ll be able to maintain her routines. But she soon learns that being intolerant has a huge down-side – it can be very lonely and sad. Friendship is all about learning to be kind and accepting one another’s differences, and it’s also about sometimes letting yourself be scared and vulnerable. So Mrs Golightly learns to tear down the fearful barriers she’s put up and learns to live up close with the animals in their fun and mayhem. In the last picture—my favourite—we see her curled up asleep with a smile on her face, surrounded by the animals she’s grown to love: her new friends.
Francesca: I agree! We wanted to show straight away that Mrs Golightly’s world was orderly but somehow lifeless and lonely. Our editor Sarah suggested I use greys to show this, so Mrs Golightly’s home is monochromatic until colour breaks in with the animals.
Colour and life come back at the end of the book when Mrs Golightly finally pulls down her barriers and understands that friendship, joy and some chaos too all belong together.
Sarah: I love the way that this picture book celebrates friendship, kindness and tolerance through the behaviour of someone who sort of has to learn those traits again. These are core human characteristics to celebrate and what better way to see them in action than through the behaviour of someone who has to be reminded how to do it!
4) A picture book is collaborative but also the work of two distinct artistic voices – how do you create your part while also giving the other party the room to create theirs?
Susie: Although the writer and illustrator don’t work directly together, the process is like a dance, with each partner telling half of the story. Luckily, we had Sarah to co-ordinate the project with her expert editorial eye. On a purely practical level, for the writer it’s about leaving plenty of space—really paring the words down. I’ve tried to create text that is simple and join-in-able with lots of rhyme and repetition and to bring in some humour and onomatopoeic words. Francesca brings it all to life with her pictures. What I love about Francesca’s illustrations is how she adds so many extra details which will hopefully give readers plenty of opportunities to pause and talk about what’s happening: like, for instance, the polar bear licking a lolly to keep cool! Then there are the pictures on Mrs Golightly’s wall, which tell their own story—we see a rather forbidding gentleman, who I imagine is Mrs Golightly’s strict father—but there are also pictures of butterflies, birds and flowers: which will win out at the end? One of the most touching additions is the picture of Mrs Golightly as a child, dancing. I think this shows the one little seed of hope and fun left in Mrs Golightly’s heart—and explains, without the need for a single word, exactly why Mrs Golightly wants to join in and dance at the end of the story.
Francesca: I found Susie’s writing brilliant, not just because Shoo! is such a good story, but because the text was so expressive – just perfect for me to figure out and bring to life half of the story, the visual one.
In my opinion I love it when text and illustrations don’t really say and show the same things but complement each other to tell a whole story. With Shoo!, Susie’s talent and Sarah’s support left me quite a bit of room to explore and create “my” part of the story.
Sarah: As an editor, it is so wonderful to read a picture book text and start to think about whose artwork would be the best to bring it to life. A picture book has two equal creators – author and artist. This wonderful alchemy of pictures and words is something that is really special to help bring to life. I think that the sensibilities of both Susie and Francesca have made this picture book something that will appeal to readers young and old, and everyone from the adult reading it aloud to the child scouring the pictures will get real pleasure from the way that the words and pictures balance and complement one another.
5) What is the best thing about creating a picture book?
Susie: There are so many wonderful things: getting to play and having lots of fun by letting my imagination go wild; working with a wonderful illustrator who brings the words to life and uncovers whole new facets of the story; holding the finished book in my hands. But the very best bit came with the first review:
‘I shared this book with my class yesterday and they absolutely loved it. They joined in, they laughed at the rhymes and they wanted to read it again! There were big groans when I said I would take it down to KS1 next week.’
And that, undoubtedly, is the best thing about creating a picture book…
Francesca: Creating artwork that is a big part of the storytelling in a book is so meaningful for me. It makes me love what I do. I see picture books like portals to a whole different dimension which allow readers, and children in particular, to access a story both linguistically and visually. So at a time when a child’s imagination is developing and everything they experience really matters I’m thrilled that I can make something valuable for them, and contribute on that level. Knowing that children love and enjoy the book we created is wonderful and rewarding!
Sarah: For me, the best thing about being involved in creating a picture book is thinking about the book being enjoyed by readers – children and adults alike. The best and most loved picture books are read dozens and dozens of times and it is just wonderful to think I am part of the process of creating reading pleasure for young people.
Shoo! by Susie Bower and Francesca Gambatesa is out now!