Welcome to the blog of the Tasmanian branch of the Children's Book Council of Australia!

Saturday 23 April 2016

The Challenges of Counting Sheep!

Christina Booth shares the long and convoluted processes of bringing the germ of an idea into fruition as she reflects on her latest project: Too Many Sheep.

The creation of the story for a picture book can start in many ways. The ideas often flash in front of you – sparked by a simple word or action, watching the play of children, hearing a news item, a dream, the list is endless. When the story comes, it comes in the form of an un-germinated seed, full of potential. You imagine how the story 'plant' will look. Is it the right seed to match the image in your head or will it be something different? Will it grow and bloom into something greater than you?

Often I have what I consider a great idea and I try to put it onto paper and it lets me down. Quite often, it is never revisited – I can't find the right voice or breathe life into the idea. It is put away, left alone, maybe to be revisited at a later stage. Often I find that if the idea starts with what I consider a strong title for a book, it is usually doomed to die or be filed away in the revisit drawer. I think it has something to do with creating a barrier, restricting yourself to a very specific vision of the story you are trying to grow and not allowing it to grow in the direction or the way it naturally wants to go. When a story doesn't have a title first, I find it much easier to let it go and develop into its own entity.

This is how my picture book, Too Many Sheep began, with a great title that popped into my head while I illustrated another book. With it came an image:  lots and lots of sheep filling up a house, sheep bums and heads, legs and arms bulging out of windows, doors and chimneys until everything explodes and sheep are floating through the air. As with all of my stories, the idea is accompanied with a question or problem to solve: what happens if you can't sleep and you count sheep but they don't disappear and fill up the house? The title of the story, yet unwritten was 'How to Count Sheep'.  This title was written down and pinned to my notice board for nearly two years. When it came time to write it, it didn't gain momentum and so the idea remained a good title without a story hanging in my studio.

In 2014, Tania McCartney, co-creator of This is Captain Cook (and author of many other wonderful books) started the on-line 52 Week Illustration Challenge . Initially envisioned as a challenge to help her develop her skills as an illustrator, Tania invited a few friends to join her. Today, in 2016, the challenge has over 4000 participants and has members contributing, including children, from across the globe.  I was tempted but first thought it might not be fair if a professional illustrator joined in, would it seem like showing off? But my teacher instincts kicked in and I decided to have a go, to encourage others but also to set myself the challenge of creating all of my art (one a week to a set theme) digitally. I had the gear, the software, but had had no time to learn how to use it beyond the basics.

One of the weeks was Book Cover. I have designed a few over the years so I looked for a new challenge: a book without a story. I chose 'How to Count Sheep'.  I still loved the title, too much it seemed, and didn't want to 'give it away', so I changed the title and created a cover for a book called 'Too Many Sheep'. It was a hit, floating animated sheep looking out at the audience. The response was quite interesting. Along with the positive comments about the art were requests to read the story. They had been  'invited' into the book, but I didn't have a story to share. Time to write it, again.

The story was written and edited, just as all stories are. When it was what I considered ready, I read it out loud to my husband who found it hilarious which worried me because he wasn't laughing where I thought it was meant to be funny. He told me I couldn't write a book like that for children, he said it would never be published. He was right and I was shocked. It is a book for young children, about counting sheep to go to sleep, so, I had entered my naive and innocent five year old self to write the story. You can't reference sleeping with sheep in a children's book (or probably any book for that matter). It was a disaster (but very funny for all the wrong reasons). After another edit, it was ready. I wanted to put a note on the top: All references to sleeping with sheep now removed!

This time, without the restrictions of images and a definitive title, I wrote the story. It came naturally and it was exciting. It looked nothing like the idea I had in my head. The seed shot up and out, it grew strong and it became a plant I had never imagined, it was, as it always is, very exciting to experience.
I was attending the Society of Children's Book writers and Illustrators conference in Sydney and so created a dummy of the book, all digitally drawn, to display in my portfolio. Upon showing it to the publisher from Scholastic, she insisted it was hers and Too Many Sheep was underway as a book.

Too Many Sheep, published by Scholastic and available for viewing by the public on May the 1st, 2016, is my first completely digitally illustrated book. It was a long and curvy learning experience but I have learnt so much creating this book. I hope you get a chance to read it and laugh in all the right places, perhaps you will smile when you try to work out where the sleeping references used to be. You can view the trailer on my website, http://www.christinabooth.com/, and you are most welcome to join us at celebrations of its release in Launceston on the 1st of May at Petrarch's Bookstore, or in Hobart at Fullers Bookstore on the 15th of May, and (TBC) in Ulverstone on May 28th.

There will also be some Melbourne events so watch out on my web page and Face Book page for those as well.

And if you can't sleep, don't count sheep!!

Christina Booth
Children's author and illustrator.

Editor’s note: Make sure you visit Christina’s website and watch the booktrailer for Too Many Sheep – it is a work of art and creativity in its own right!

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