Perfect, the story of a story

OGBQ3614I’m no sportswoman. In fact I could be the world’s most uncoordinated writer. So to use a tennis analogy seems a bit of a cheek, but it really is the only one that will do. I’m hopeless at tennis – of course- but my very sweet and long suffering son gave me a tennis lesson and, just once, I managed to hit the ball properly. It felt amazing; completely different from all the other times I’d ever ineptly whacked a tennis ball. The sound it made was wonderful, as if the ball and racket were resonant parts of a musical instrument. I  knew instantly that I’d got it right.

Just three times in my life I’ve got that feeling, instantly, from a story, that resonant thwack of knowing you’ve hit the narrative sweet spot. One of those times was early 2014. I wrote a picture book text  – ‘Perfect’ – that connected swifts and the birth of a baby, written from the perspective of the baby’s older brother. (you can read some of the back ground to the story in an earlier blog post) It addresses the negative feelings that sometimes surround the birth of any sibling, but is specifically about a disabled sibling. I hate to use that word ‘disabled’, as if that’s all there is to say about a person. But that’s kind of the point of the book – you learn that the word, the label, doesn’t matter; that a person is a person and that’s all.  Having had some contact with families with ‘disabled’ children I knew that initially it can be hard to see through the word to the person, and that there can be a period of pain, confusion, disappointment, before the person shines through and love does its magic. I wanted to give a space for those negative feelings, a way to say its normal to feel this stuff but it will pass and something good will come.

From publisher’s perspectives this is a PC minefield. All the same, I thought it was an important topic to air, and I felt I’d done it well. So I was sad (disappointed, gutted, depressed etc) when it was rejected by everyone, from my main publisher through every other major publishing house in the land.

Rejection usually puts me into a spiral of self doubt, but for some reason this just made me cross and determined. Luckily for me a small but perfectly formed publishing house in Wales, Graffeg, who had published my great friend Jackie Morris’ work, took it on. Initially I hoped to find a student illustrator to illustrate the text, but carrying a narrative is a big burden for a first outing as an illustrator so instead – quite by chance – I found Cathy Fisher. One look at a single image of hers told me that here was the person with the skill, the insight and the life experience to carry this story. I am still pinching myself that the universe dealt me such a fine card. Cathy’s images for ‘Perfect’ are stunning. Everyone who I’ve shown them to just gasps.

The book will be published in the Spring 2016, but it already has friends – people to whom I’ve read the story, and now, people who have been enchanted by Cathy’s illustrations. You can see some of their comments below. And from the 30th of December 2015 you can see some of Cathy’s images too as lovely LOVELY Emily Drabble at the Guardian is putting them up on the website. You can read the text at the end of this blog.HCRQ7425

Closer to publication I’ll post a reading of the story on line and of course you can always pre-order your copy. But for now, look at the Guardian Children’s books website and share the link with as many people as you can, so that the bravery of Graffeg – small and VERY perfect – can be rewarded.

 

Here’s what Cathy Fisher says about the experience of illustrating Perfect.

When I first met Nicola, by chance (because she had seen one my pictures on my friend’s wall) I was so exited. I felt like a child who had just found a new friend! She read “Perfect” to me in a cafe and my mind instantly filled with tender images. I was so touched. It is such an honest story. I drove home hoping she would ask me to illustrate it for her. I was thrilled when she asked me and felt blessed to have the excuse to spend summer watching swifts.It was hard to find them at first, which perturbed me. I remember so many swifts in summers when I was young. They really have dwindled.

In August I found them. That’s when I really started to understand them. At the same time I found the Boy, Baby and (although they hardly appear) Mother and Father.

The characters come to life through research, drawing and constantly thinking about them. I trawl the internet for images, study other artist’s work, take photos, read, write down thoughts, watch people, draw a lot and obsess!

I collaged my cuttings and drawings into a sketchbook, then worked out the illustrations for each page in a story board and made a dummy book.

Before I began the final artwork I presented it all to Nicola and Graffeg. From the beginning I have always felt that Nicola and I understood each other so it has felt very easy to exchange and interpret thoughts and ideas with her.

I have eight siblings and four of my own children. One of my sisters has had many years experience of fostering, so complex family stories have been intertwined in mine over the years. Experiences in my life have made me feel empathy for all the characters in “Perfect”.

All the time I was working on the final artwork I was thinking of the baby, the boy and imagining I was flying with swifts. I have been dreaming about the pictures. With each illustration I imagined I was the character while I worked.

I work with mixed media, painting and drawing, on heavy weight, handmade watercolour paper. Throughout the whole process I listened to Max Richter’s eight hour lullaby, “Sleep”. A beautiful continuous piece of music, which I am sure influenced the flow and the mood of the illustrations.

When I was drawing the illustration of Baby in the cot, I wanted to express the boys confusion to his reaction to his new baby sister. I wanted to express a gentle, soft silence, a reverence, but also his inner turmoil. The ‘scribble’ above her cot, which tumbles down and spills over into the next page, is to represent the boys own angry frustrated scribble. I was shocked at my own reaction when I drew it – I felt such anger, I cried. Expressing feelings through drawing and painting can be quite cathartic!

Nicola’s story needs to be read, listened to and talked about. I feel honoured that she asked me to illustrate it.

Almost the first person to hear Perfect was Laura Carlin, my collaborator on ‘The Promise’. Talking to Laura in the WorldLand Trust Gallery in Halesworth where we had an exhibition of Laura’s artwork for ‘The Promise’ was actually the start of ‘Perfect’

Nicola knows how to tell a story without putting on a voice for children – something you still see too much of in children’s publishing. Children aren’t stupid, they see and feel when things haven’t turned out as planned. So, as important it is to not talk down to them, we should also involve them in the not-so rosy side of life. ‘Perfect’ is beautifully written – and it does tend to make you cry – but it also tells a very truthful and real story. It made me breathe a sigh of relief to remember that words and pictures can help widen and explain the world for children. It intrigues, involves and soothes it’s reader – all at the same time.

I read ‘Perfect’ to Jackie Morris just after it was hitting its first round of rejections. She helped keep up my spirits and encouraged me to keep trying to find a publisher.

”Perfect” is a story about disappointment, and the emotions that go along with all the whirl of feelings that swirl around this. The first time Nicola read this to me it made me cry. People talk so much about diversity in books. What this has taught me is something about my painting. Every piece of work I do is a disappointment because it is never ‘perfect’. But it is what it is. And if I can see it and appreciate it for itself, then that is so much better.

It’s more than that, so much more. The pictures are gems, each one. They sing off the page. I know this text travelled through a few publishers and Nic almost gave up on ever seeing it in print. It’s so discouraging, to have such faith in a piece of work and be knocked back. I am so glad it found a home with Graffeg. It will shine. One of the best picture books I have ever read.

Nikki Gamble visionary force behind children’s literacy consultancy ‘Imagine’ let me read Perfect to her at the FCBG in Spring 2015. I should have thought to supply tissues. 

When I first heard this story, it was one of those precious moments when silence is the best response – silence to allow the beautifully wrought prose to resonate. Because stories as deeply felt, and as exquisitely crafted as ‘Perfect’ are the food that nourish the soul and help us to become better versions of ourselves. I will be reading this and putting it into the hands of as many teachers, students and children as I can.

 

PERFECT
I loved the little bedroom on the top floor of our pointy house. 
In Summer, swifts nested in the roof above it and I watched their fledglings first flights from its window. They were perfect from the very start, soaring high to slice the sky with crescent wings.
All Winter, I waited for them to return. And I waited for the baby who would sleep in the tiny, rooftop room.
The day she came was the same day that the swifts came back. They raced and chased each other, screaming over rooftops with the joy of being home
I watched them from the window.  That’s how it will be I thought, me and my sister, racing and chasing, screaming with laughter and delight.
But when my sister came home from the hospital, I could see that she would never race or chase. She didn’t even scream. Her dark eyes looked at me and she lay quite still.
 I didn’t want to hold her so I ran into the garden. I lay there, on my back, to watch the swifts, and let my tears run down into the grass, where nobody would see them.
All Summer long I played outside, alone.
When people asked about my sister, I turned my head away.
 I didn’t want to feel the way I felt. But I couldn’t love my sister, no matter how I tried.
 Every night I watched the swifts fly up and up into the dusk. They disappeared into the blue.  Sometimes I wished that I could vanish with them.
Every morning they’d be back, snipping at the air between the rooftops with their scissory wings. Their screams as sharp as arrows pointing to the stillness in my sisters room.
From outside in the garden, I’d watch them, visiting their nests in the roof above her quiet window.
Then one August dawn, I saw something on the grass, like a sooty piece of half burned paper from a garden bonfire: a fledgling swift had crashed onto the lawn. 
Down on the ground it looked all wrong, its puny legs too small, its crumpled wings too long.But when I gently stretched its crescent wings, they were quite perfect.
 Its dark eye looked at me as it lay quiet in my hands.
Perhaps, I thought, it only needs a little help
I went inside, and carried it upstairs, right up to the little bedroom on the top floor of our pointy house. 
I opened up the window and held the swift out on my hands, so it could see the sky and feel the air.
Its small feet gripped my finger for a moment, and its body trembled.
Then, its wings flickered, fast as thinking and it was gone! Scissor-slicing through the morning air until it was a black dot, high above the rooftops.
I turned around and stood beside my sister’s cot.
Her dark eyes opened and her tiny fingers curled tightly onto mine.
She smiled at me, a perfect, perfect, perfect smile.
 Perhaps, I thought, she only needs a little help.
 I picked her up. So small and warm and soft inside my arms.
I took her out into the garden and we watched the swifts together.
And I told her how it was going to be, the two of us together,
racing, chasing, screaming with delight and laughter. 
 

 

 

 

 

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