Barking Up The Right Tree: Sarah Webb and Steve McCarthy

Posted November 1, 2020 in Design

DDF apr-may-24 – Desktop

Writer Sarah Webb and illustrator Steve McCarthy are collaborating on their third picture book for children. They share their thoughts on what it takes to forge an alchemy in this field of creativity.


Picture books and other creative books become more mainstream over the last few years. Why do you think this is happening?

SMC: I find this subject fascinating, it feels as if there has been a bit of a renaissance. Children and the public are much more visually literate, and I think this is due to a number of things: certainly, the introduction of Instagram and social media in the 2000s democratized creativity, allowing people the chance to communicate visually, and I think this created a demand for more sophisticated creative books.

SW: I worked as a children’s bookseller in the 1990s and I spent a lot of time trying to hand-sell visually brave and unusual picturebooks like those by John Birmingham, Lisbeth Zwerger and Maurice Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are wasn’t too hard a sell but In the Night Kitchen took more cajoling.

Since the explosion of the internet, everyone has access to a much wider range of images – on social media, on websites – and our visual literacy has become much more sophisticated. The new wave of Irish illustrators and picturebook makers: Steve, Chris Judge, Yasmeen Ismail, Mary Murphy, Oliver Jeffers, Chris Haughton, Niamh Sharkey, Peter Donnelly show such verve and ambition in their work, it really is thrilling. What’s different now is that the world has started to take notice of the wealth of Irish talent in the field of picturebooks.


This is the third time you’ve collaborated, last time on the award winning A Sailor Went To Sea, Sea, Sea and Sally Go Round the Stars. Can you explain a little about how you came to work together and how has the experience been for each of you?

SW: I put together the text for our first book together, Sally Go Round the Stars (with Claire Ranson) and submitted it to The O’Brien Press. I pitched it as ‘the first Irish Mother Goose’.

Emma Byrne, the Design Manager at O’Brien had seen some of Steve’s work and brought me in to the office to show me. They were a series of insect drawings, quirky, funny and strongly coloured. I loved them instantly and we agreed that Steve was the right man to illustrate the book.

I first met Steve in person at the book’s launch. This is not unusual for a picturebook. In fact, it’s the norm. I was sent Steve’s rough drawings for each spread of the book and checked that they made sense in the context of the rhyme. Steve had a few questions, like what does ‘beetle her champ mean’? (It’s mashing potato with a beetle –a solid wooden masher!)

It has been the same process for all the books including the new one: I submit the text, I work on it with an editor, the text goes to Steve, Emma sends me Steve’s roughs and then afterwards (the exciting bit) I get to see the final artwork. It’s an efficient system that works well.

With this new book I tried to group the different rhymes and poems together in a logical way for Steve – so, for example, all the train poems are on one spread. It’s been a real joy to work on these books together and to see them do so well.

SMC: Way back in 2009 I was working in my brand new studio, that I couldn’t afford, with absolutely no idea how to get work as an illustrator. At that point, all my commissions were either from friends, my girlfriend or my family. I made the decision to just draw a bug every day for 100 days (this is pre-Instagram, remember) and just see if anyone noticed, and they did. Emma from O’Brien Press spotted my bugs, and in the years since, Sarah Webb has been a mentor and a champion for me in many respects, as she is for many artists.


Can you share a few details on what readers can expect from your latest book, The One With The Waggly Tail?

SMC: I wasn’t exposed to many nursery rhymes as a child, I was homeschooled, and somehow nursery rhymes just weren’t a thing. So, when it comes time to illustrate the poems, rhymes and songs for this series of books, I tend to avoid the traditional imagery, so I lean on my imagination, hopefully readers will have the similar experience when they look at them.

SW: With this collection I really wanted to make sharing the book with a child a fun and joyful experience. So I included rhymes and songs I loved sharing with my own children when they were small and my nieces now – You Are My Sunshine by Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell (such a sweet song), How Much is That Doggie in the Window (where the title of the book came from), B.I.N.G.O.

I also included lots of Irish rhymes and songs that parents may remember from their own childhoods like It’s a Long Way to Tipperary by Harry Williams and Jack Judge and Connemara Cradle Song by Padraic Colum.


What is the process from taking a great idea from eureka moment to reality?

SMC: It’s really very simple it goes, Ah Ha! – Uh Oh – Oh No, Oh No, Oh No, AH HAH!

SW: For me the idea for a book comes first – a collection of rhymes and songs for Irish children, a non-fiction book about remarkable Irish women, a novel set in Ireland during World War II (the novel I’m working on at present). I make a lot of long hand scribbles and notes about and around the book, characters, possible chapters, ideas, plot strands – all kinds of things. Then I read a lot of research books and after that, I start writing.  Collecting the rhymes and songs for The One with the Waggly Tail took several years but it was a lot of fun. Whittling it down to the final 64 pages was the hardest part!


Where do you find your inspiration? When and how do you best ignite and nurture your inner creativity?

SMC: Boredom, I’ve become incredibly adept at seeking out and cultivating real boredom, nobody will tell you this, but I will, boredom is the key to all inspiration. The next time you’re washing the dishes, or chasing cats in the garden, and your mind begins to wander, follow it.

SW: All over the place – travel (although that has obviously been curtailed recently), visiting exhibitions, talking to people, reading history books and reference books, watching movies and documentaries, talking to people and listening to their stories. One of my novels (which will be out in 2021 all being well) started as a conversation with a Professor of Circus at a conference in Amsterdam for festival programmers!


Is there a secret formula to creating a book of note?

SMC: Humans are by their very design a ‘work in progress’. None of us, not one, are finished, we’re all building ourselves one piece at a time, I think if you can create something that can become a part of someone, a part they keep, then you have a winner.

SW: Being passionate about your book. And putting your whole heart into it. I threw myself into both A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea (my first in fact) and Blazing a Trail: Irish Women Who Changed the World (illustrated by Lauren O’Neill) and both won Irish Book Awards. Tenacity, hard work and luck have a huge role to play too! See below!


Is it hard to get published? Is there a secret formula for cracking the market and getting that deal?

SMC: It’s incredibly competitive, the market is at once desperate for new work and simultaneously over saturated, there’s always someone better than you, always, and then sometimes for no reason at all, people who aren’t even that good are very successful, and probably better looking. There’s no money in it, the hours are long and stressful, most of the time you’re all alone, and nobody is there to help you. But if you love it, you don’t care, cause it’s so much fun, and no amount of rejections, building security or setbacks will stop you, getting that deal.

SW: Yes, it can be. I am in the lucky position of having some bestsellers under my belt, but even so I often have book ideas turned down and, most stingingly, whole books. You have to dust yourself down after a ‘no’ and keep going. Staying engaged with the world, coming up with new ideas that you are passionate about (and pitching them with gusto), keeping an eye on the market but not being afraid to lead the market (Blazing a Trail was one of the first Irish ‘herstory’ books) – all these things will help.

Being resilient, remaining open to trying new ideas (like a light-hearted book about animals with lots of cartoons and jokes – my book with Alan Nolan, Animal Crackers recently came out), and working super hard has worked for me.


Who would be your picture book heroes (authors and artists) and why?

SMC: Jon Klassen owns “dead pan”, Oliver Jeffers is a child stuck in a very skilled artist’s body, Carson Ellis sold her soul to a demon in a deep dark wood, and is cursed to produce nothing but exquisite works of art for the rest of her life. Chris Haughton can draw a really good crab.

SW: Beatrice Alemagna without a doubt. She’s fearless and her work is sublime. She has a very distinctive style and is a powerhouse. I also love Martin Waddell – his Owl Babies is one of those rare things, a perfect picturebook text. And Shaun Tan for his vast imagination. And finally Isabelle Arsenault’s Cloth Lullaby is a book I come back to time after time – the use of pattern and colour, the giant spiders (it’s about the artist Louise Bourgeois) – it’s just heaven, one of my favourite books.


What are the pitfalls along the way that people should watch out for?

SMC: I think everyone has a great idea, but ideas are stubborn, difficult and moody, ideas don’t do what they’re told, they change their mind, they throw tantrums. I’ve had an idea straight up not speak to me for a whole month. If you are going to get into the business of ideas, you have to learn to be patient with them, don’t be pushed around, but also be kind, don’t lose your temper, and above all, stick with them till the end.

SW: If you have written a picturebook you do not need to pay for illustrations. I cannot stress it strongly enough. Editors are looking for strong picturebook texts. They all have someone like Emma Byrne in house whose job is to match the text with the best illustrator for the job. You submit the text without illustrations (unless you are someone who can both write and illustrate, like Steve).


Your fondest picture book memory and why?

SMC: Ok, so, it’s a book, for children, but you knew that much! It had a car in it. The car was old? And the dad (I think?) had to fix the car for some reason? Anyway, so the dad and his son, they take all the broken parts of the car out, they lay them on the ground, and then (this is my favourite part) they paint them blue, and then they put them back! And the car is fixed! I do not know the name of this book, and it haunts me, I don’t even remember what happens at the end, what is the source of this miraculous paint? Does it have military or medical applications? I need to know!

SW: When I was little my dad used to read Busy Busy World by Richard Scarry to me, over and over again. For about six months it was the only book I wanted read to me and I slept with it under my pillow. When I picked it up again as a young parent to share with my own son, Sam, the memories came flooding back and I could remember my favourite story about a kangaroo nurse practically word for word.


Your favourite film/animation/short adaptation of a picture book? The treat that would have you curled up in a ball on a sofa on a winter Sunday and quite content to not move an inch.

SMC: James and the Giant Peach is a favourite of mine, I actually haven’t re-visited it since seeing it as a child! Will you hold on a sec? I’m going to go watch the trailer real quick… Oh! Oh man, lads! It holds up!! Joanna Lumley is in this movie! There’s a whole live action bit I totally forgot, I mean come on, Roald Dahl, Henry Selick, Tim Burton! I am watching that this Sunday.

SW: I’m not a huge fan of picturebook adaptations to be honest. But I do love Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman and Shrek was based on William Steig’s picturebook. I’d happily curl up and watch that one.


Irish artists and illustrators are known to create incredible books both for the local and international markets. Who do you think will be the next emerging star we should all watch out for?

SMC: Conor Nolan’s doing amazing stuff, Claire Prouvost is making great things too, Niamh Ní Bhroin, Megan Hyland, Bronagh Lee’s stuff is really really beautiful, Charlot Kristensen’s stuff is spectacular. And while I’m at it, I’d love to see Irish fine artists getting approached for children’s books, the likes of David Booth, Aches, Shane Berkery and Vanessa Power, that would be rad.

SW: Steve McCarthy! Although he’s already been hugely successful, I know he has so many brilliant picturebooks in him in the future. Also watch out for Alan O’Rourke – a Dublin picturebook maker and designer. And Úna Woods’ use of collage and pattern in her debut picturebook Have you Seen the Dublin Vampire is pretty special.


The One With The Waggly Tail – Favourite Rhymes from an Irish Childhood is published by O’Brien Press, €16.99

Words: Richard Seabrooke


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