Sunday, 30 April 2017

Catching up with Spring

It's been a while since I've posted to my blog, I've had a few things on my plate this spring which have kept me occupied, and when I do have time to write I've tended to summarize in a few words on Twitter!

So what have I been up to? Well, I can say that after a long time in gestation, Magic For Sale will be released through Holiday House Inc in the US on 25th July. Written by Carrie Clickard, it's a spooky 32- page picture book in rhyming verse, full of potions and monsters.... I can't show much of my work on this book yet, but I can reveal the cover!

Magic For Sale can be pre-ordered through the publisher or online sellers now, more on this title shortly!

Until recently I've had little experience of working with schools, despite the number of books I've illustrated - for a variety of reasons it was just an area I'd never really pursued. But in February I crossed an important threshold and did two school visits to a local school. It was a revelation! Here's my report on the experience for the SCBWI journal Words & Pictures. I can now officially count myself within the ranks of author/illustrators who visit schools, if you're involved with schools, do get in touch!

Right now I'm working on a series of three early-reader novels about historic harbour boats in New Zealand, black-and-white drawings and coloured covers. I'll reveal more about these lovely stories once the project is completed, but you can see some work in progress through my instagram account @studionib. Here's the chaos of my drawing desk at the moment:

These last few years I've been working exclusively on commissioned artwork, so my own self-written projects have been shamefully pushed into a neglected corner. It's a very different process for me to work on my own stories rather than commissioned ones, but, much as I love working on texts written by others, I'm trying to devote more time to my own ideas now.

Everyone has ideas, even non-writers and illustrators, some of them good, some bad, all my ideas get jotted down in a little notebook I carry everywhere with me. But these are just concepts, polishing them into a finished story submission for professional publishing can be challenging, it's a different part of the brain than pure illustration. I'm not much for developing ideas from my illustrations, because my drawings tell their own, visual narrative, I actually prefer not to think too much about images at all when I write stories! Anyway, it's an area I'm trying to revive.... wish me luck!

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Sketches from Tokyo Part 2

Here's a few more pocket sketchbook scribbles from my recent trip back to Tokyo.

Writing nenga-jo (New Year greeting cards) on the train.

It's always great to be in Japan, I never get tired of the country or lose the desire to go back, no matter how long I'm separated from it, even if, like this time, the entire trip was spent in the Tokyo metropolis. But in fact it's the urban city that really sparked my interest when I first went, and still holds my biggest fascination even now, uptown or downtown, the people, architecture, and life. Searching for the details of humanity in the great sprawling concrete monster, that's what really attracts me in Tokyo. It's an utterly contrasted world to green and historic Norwich (which I have an entirely different kind of affection for).  

Standing room only
Nevertheless this trip was quite a different experience from previous return visits, largely due to the time of year - everything shuts over New Year except shops, so no galleries and so on. I did get to see a number of friends and clients though, which was great. 

And on the trains there were all sorts of people....

Compared to train portraits I didn't get to draw the urban sprawl of the city itself so much, once you're out of the station exit things get very busy, the sojourn of the train journey comes to an abrupt end when you get off and head into the chaos. But also central Tokyo buildings are complicated... so many lines in those structures, with a fine-point pen you need time to do it justice, and time was something very limited on this trip. There's just so much to nail down when you're running around, nevertheless I did scribble this of the Shibuya crossing while waiting for someone.

Standing outside the Shibuya Crossing koban, waiting...

And so, all too soon, it was the last day.... one more train trip into the city before back to the UK.

Final sketch before we left, once more standing up on a crowded train, drawing the man sitting in front.

I love Tokyo, that will never change, it never ceases to amaze and inspire me, even plain old train journeys. 

Will I ever get to live there again? I don't know, maybe, maybe not. My daughter would like to move back, but we're not going anywhere while she's at school, and there's so much I need to achieve in the UK. But we've every intention of travelling back to Japan whenever possible. I continue to work regularly with clients in Tokyo and elsewhere, my books are always in the shops in Japan (a quick perusal of the shelves in Aoyama's Crayon House children's bookshop found three of my titles),  I exhibit in galleries in Tokyo.... crucially we have family, and the old guard of friends remain. 

Japan will always be part of our lives.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Tokyo Sketchbook Part 1

Here's some train journey portraits from our recent trip back to Japan.. I've been a bit slow to share these sketches, mainly because there's been so much going on since our return, work, personal and of course on the world front. What a month it's turning out to be!

But anyway, here's what I got up to in my little pocket sketchbook, better late than never!

One of the last days of work before the New Year break.
Christmas? Nobody celebrates. Boxing Day? What's that?

It was only a two week trip, and I was down with a very bad cold for most of it, but I was on the Denentoshi line into Tokyo a lot. It's about a half-hour journey from northern Yokohama across the Tama river and into Tokyo, getting off or changing trains at Shibuya or Omotesando. Most of these sketches were drawn on this train line, sitting down whenever I could, but sometimes standing all the way....
Passengers without phones or tablets are in a minority

Usually I travel back to Tokyo in the summer, and in much better health! We weren't expecting much in the way of Christmas cheer in Tokyo, it's just an ordinary working day (apart from retail promotions), but I hadn't expected to be quarantined in bed. Boxing day was actually the first day I was well enough to travel into the city.

Though my virus was picked up in the UK and hammered me throughout the whole trip, I wasn't the only one with a cold. I've not been back in the winter for several years and was really struck by the sheer number of people with face masks, either to contain viruses, or perhaps to prevent catching one.

I don't colour my train observation drawings, partly because there's not enough time on a train journey, but also it would be a dead giveaway of what I was up to. Just drawing, quietly, without being noticed.... pen drawing is both surreptitious and what I really love doing the most.

These were all very rapid sketches, there's never quite enough time on commuter trains, but sometimes having to curtail a sketch gives it a certain power of it's own...

It wasn't particularly wintery during our visit, apart from a few chilly evenings it was an unseasonably warm New Year, however there were more clothes to draw than the summer, it was great to get to grips with the way passengers wrapped up. Everyone has a dress policy in Tokyo.

I loved this guy's woolly jacket.
scarves, bags, coats... the start of the January sales.

A senior citizen who spent the entire journey
talking to her friend and waving her hands about,
making it rather difficult to pin them down!

More sketches to follow!

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

30 years of Japan

Today will be remembered by many as the 1st anniversary of David Bowie's death, but it also represents a special anniversary for me, as it marks 30 years to the day that I first set foot in Japan.

10th January 1987 - my first view of Japan
10th January 1987 - a date ingrained into my memory. It was a one-way ticket into the unknown, on a year's working visa for a sponsor I knew almost nothing about. A country in which I was to live permanently for 21 years without a break, and have frequently returned to in the years since I left in 2008.

What was I thinking? Previously the longest I'd ever been away from the UK was a 10-Day excursion to Europe with my mum & dad. I'd only been on a plane once before and had never travelled anywhere overseas on my own. I was walking away from a promising expanding illustration career in London, I'd just finished my debut trade picture book for Andre Deutsch (The Secret in the Matchbox), my editorial illustrations graced the pages of everything from City Limits to Cosmo, Working Woman and Homes & Gardens. I'd just said farewell to the solid community of my Crouch End studio, abandoning everything I'd worked for over the previous five years, and plunged into this weird fascination for a country I knew only from it's art history, and second-hand through friends in Anjinkai, the London-based Anglo-Japanese society. It was madness, but I just had to go, something just took over, I had never felt so strongly that I had to travel to a place, not just to visit, but to live there.

It was no accident I went to Japan, it was an irresistibly unstoppable urge. Since becoming fascinated with Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, my interest in Japan had expanded into wider appreciation of Edo-era history, then finally through the wide circle of Japanese and former ex-pat British friends I made through Anjinkai, people who had all lived in or were born in Japan.

They all knew Japan first hand, now it was my turn. All I had was a suitcase of clothes, some language study books and my illustration portfolio. The plan was to study the culture of shitamachi (old downtown Tokyo), do whatever illustration work was commissioned by my sponsor, and learn the language. I was committed to one year, hoped for two, possibly even three. Thinking back on it now I can barely imagine the risk I was taking. I had an unshaken belief it was the right thing to do, that everything would be alright.... and after many arduous months it did eventually turn out alright. Little did I suspect I'd be there 21 years, encountering acclamation, frustration, triumph, transgression, love, tragedy and cataclysm in great, smothering dollops. Tokyo would bring it all on.

What would have happened had I never set foot in Tokyo? Would I even still be an illustrator?

First photo of me in Japan, wide eyed and fresh off the plane, a few days after my arrival in January 1987. Location is Asakusa, the person who took the photo refused to press the shutter unless I made a 'peace' sign, ubiquitous in Japan at that time.

I've actually just come back from nearly 3 weeks in Japan, where daughter and I spent Christmas and New Year with her grandparents, this latest visit was my first time back to Japan in 2 years, so the longest I've been away from the country since I moved there all those years ago. As there's not much to do over the New Year period (virtually all clients were away and many of my old friends) on this latest trip back I spent a lot of time just going to my old haunts. Looking around familiar locations I was intensely aware of the significance in my personal history.

One of the most memorable days on this latest trip was to re-visit Yanaka, an old downtown suburb of Tokyo that survived both earthquakes and wartime bombing, and where I lived for a year from May '87. Prior to that I was housed by my sponsor for a few traumatic months in a far-flung new town out in the countriside. Higashi Kurume - nothing there was as old as I was - at that time the town (mostly fields) was less than 20 years old, about as far removed from my fascination with old Edo as you could get. Unsurprisingly things did not turn out well with my sponsor. To their credit they did their best and I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunity they offered - they wanted to help me and thought I would be a useful asset to their company. But nothing had been planned, they had no work role for me or any understanding of my aims in Japan. We were as different as chalk and cheese - I assumed they were a sophisticated illustration rep involved with the creative business, they were in fact a hack office for the worst kind of businessman's titilating magazine, with fingers in various other activities from Chinese medicine to a local bakery. They thought of me as a student on a gap year, a foreign visitor they would (eventually) think of some role for. Relationships deteriorated rapidly.

So discovering the tranquil beauty of Yanaka and eventually finding my own residence close by was I feel the real start of my life in Japan. Though only a drab condominium flat, it was my own rented property in an area I wanted to live, away from my sponsor, and it got me on my feet. Seeing the old town again on this trip after all these years was fascinating and heart-warming. I loved Yanaka then, and still .... I only moved away eventually because things moved rapidly for me in uptown Aoyama, and I needed to be closer to facilities.

Yanaka today. There's a thing about cats...
Things have changed in Yanaka since I lived there, very many of the old wooden buildings have gone (as I examined in previous blog posts here and here), nevertheless the town undoubtedly has a much more lively and tourist-friendly culture now, the atmosphere of the area has if anything become even more enhanced through the arrival of tiny galleries, crafts and boutique cafes. It's become a landmark place to visit for Tokyoites and tourists alike. When I lived near Yanaka I rarely saw another foreigner, it was incredibly hard to find a letting agent that would even show me property. Now the area is one of the most cosmopolitan in Tokyo.

At the entrance to Yanaka Ginza, the main shopping street

Most satisfying of all was to once more stand outside the Yoshida Yasake-ten, a preserved Edo-era Victualler, part of the Shitamachi Museum. My old mansion flat stood a minute's walk away, and the whole of the crossing around the old building, the cafe on the corner, the Sembei-seller, the public Sento - all was exactly the same as when I lived there in 1987. Nothing had changed - one memory at least was completely preserved!
Yoshida Yasake-ten photographed in 1987

Me outside the same building a couple of weeks ago, I don't do 'peace' signs now. EVER!

As I cast my mind back to that fateful day of 10th January 1987, I vividly remember every hour - it was cold and crisp, blue sky but dry air, everywhere was new and luridly bright, I was terrified and somewhat bewildered, and yet fascinated. That night it clouded over and snowed heavily, giving everything an even more surreal image the following day when I was taken, not to somewhere in Tokyo, but out to the fields of Higashi Kurume. The property I was left alone in that first winter was so bitterly cold I spent almost all my time under a kotatsu or in bed. The first few months in Japan were tough, but I was gripped by a fascination for Tokyo that has never diminished over these 30 years.

Tokyo, you've given me enlightenment, glamour, terror and heartbreak. I've more crazy experiences than I can remember - some wonderful, some anguishing. You picked me up, bathed me in limelight, chewed me to bits and cast me down. 30 years of toil, enrapture, triumph and loss. But I still love you, and today I celebrate!!

Monday, 19 December 2016

Dear colleagues and creatives, readers and rebels, fans and fantasists. To all my readers and friends,

Warmest Wishes for a sparkling festive season!
Illustration adapted from
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus
by L. Frank Baum (Hesperus Press, 1st Dec 2016).

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Poster Competition to save Sutton Coldfeld Library

(photo © Sutton Coldfield News)

 The Campaign to save Sutton Coldfield Library has launched a poster competition open to anyone aged under 18, to raise awareness of the proposed closure of the library by Birmingham City Council.

I've been asked to judge the entries, more details are in this local newspaper article, deadline for submissions is 19th December.

Sutton Coldfield library was my portal to the world as I grew up, I discovered art, design, history and fiction through browsing the shelves. I can honestly say that had it not been for the fantastic service provided by the library and it's full-time professional staff I would not have followed the path I have. The library played a key role in making me an illustrator.

Today it's just as vital a service. Despite the growth the Web, the internet is not a replacement for a well-run library, Sutton is a substantial town, it needs it's library service!

"It the right of all children, regardless of ability to pay, to have access to the knowledge and understanding they will need in their lives. Libraries can provide this. Libraries do for the intellectual and emotional development, what hospitals do for body and mind. To deprive children of their right to knowledge and understanding is to deny them their future". (Michael Morpurgo)

The group are looking for poster designs (any size, any medium) to use on their website, twitter and facebook accounts to highlight why it's important to keep a library in Sutton town centre, and what the library means to residents.

Three winners will be selected from all entries, one each in the following categories: 0-7 years, 7-11 and 11+, with hundreds of pounds of books up for grabs.

Competition entrants are asked to email a photo of their submission to this email address  by Monday 19th December including the name and age of the person who designed the poster.

More information on the campaign is on the group website.

There is an online petition against the library closure.

Monday, 12 December 2016

The Day I met Bob Dylan

The news is so full of unbelievable and depressing stories lately, it's a relief when something comes up that warms the heart. Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel prize for literature is one of the more encouraging bit of news to hit the headlines, the other night I watched BBC4 broadcast the Martin Scorsese documentary of Dylan, this weekend the radio (which I spend far more attention to than TV) was full of Dylan celebrations.

Believe it or not I actually did meet him, once, in a North London cafe. This is a true story.

Stained glass panel made for Façade on an interior door

If memory serves correctly it was 1985, or possibly '86. I was working freelance in Façade Studios, a cooperative of illustrators and graphic designers who shared space in the converted aisle of disused Park Church on Crouch Hill, Crouch End, N8. I've mentioned Façade a couple of times before, but to summarize - Park Church was a 19th Century structure, long disused as a church, though the Nave was still used by the gospel church of Cherubim and Seraphim. The aisles had been blocked off and rented out as shared space for illustrators, on the west side of the church cartoonist John Minnion worked, on our slightly more rowdy east side facing the street, were graphic designers Andy Royston and Chris Millett, and a fluctuating number of illustrators including Jane Ray, Willie Ryan, Simone Lopez and myself. Next to the church itself was the church hall, originally the animation studio of our landlords Bob Bura and John Hardwick (of Trumpton/Camberwick Green fame).

Soon after we set up our studio Bura and Hardwick retired, sold the hall to pop supremos the Eurythmics (Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox), who turned it into their recording studio, and sold the church to the Nigerian Gospel movement Cherubim and Seraphim, who became our new landlords.

Park Church with the Church Hall (Eurythmics studios) beyond. The door behind the lampost was the entrance to Façade Art Studios, which stretched parallel with the street uphill towards the door on the left,  the entrance to Cherubim and Seraphim Gospel church.

It didn't take long for things to get very busy at the recording studios next door. Sound engineers used the spare art studios on the West side. Dave Stewart was often seen around, Annie Lennox less so, I think I only caught sight of her once in the 3 years I was at Façade. Our studio door was more prominent on the street than the music studio, so it always attracted attention - not all of it welcome. Happy memories are of responding to a knock on our door to find Paula Yates (RIP) from The Tube with a film crew pointing a camera into my face - they thought we were the music studio next door. The postman sometimes shoved materials meant for the Eurythmics through our door too, including once Annie Lennox's precious childhood photos from her mum. One of the temporary illustrators in our group thought it was somehow okey to open the package and look through the photos, which were quickly recovered and re-directed next door with apologies.

So, its summer, the word was out that Bob Dylan was in town recording with Dave and Annie. Nothing to do with us of course, but people kept knocking on our door - fans who'd heard a rumour. One particular die-hard Dylan fan kept knocking on our door every day, claiming she was his long lost relative and needed to see him urgently. "He's not here, we're an illustration collective, nothing to do with music" we insisted, but she wouldn't take no for an answer - even when one of us let her in to look around our studios. "see - no music here" we said. "You're lieing, where are you hiding him?" she insisted, I wasn't there at the time but I heard it was a struggle to get her to leave.

It was starting to get a little scary, we just wanted to be left in peace to work.

Me in the studio, 1985
Over the road from our studios was a small hole-in-the-wall cafe, run by retired celebrity strong-woman, Joan Rhodes. Joan was a former wrestler, music hall artiste and actress who in the 1950's and '60's became a household name for bending iron bars and ripping up telephone directories on stage - here's a clip of her in action, and another here on German TV in 1975. She was a close friend of Quentin Crisp, and appeared with minor roles in films like Burke & Hare, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, and Elephant Man, also the TV series Dick Turpin.

By 1985 Joan had long since retired, but all of this glittering career was displayed on the walls of her tiny cafe on Crouch Hill, photos and memorabilia of the golden age of stage and British film, it was a unique place. Naturally Joan's Cafe was a magnet for us creative types, our closest hang-out at lunchtime. The basic food may have left something to be desired, but Joan was a unique character.

When Joan died in 2010, the Telegraph ran a fascinating obituary here.

So, it was a quiet, sunny day, no-one else was in my studio, so I nipped over to Joan's for my regular cuppa and sandwich. There were just two other people in the cafe hunched over the corner table, one I instantly recognised as our neighbour, musician Dave Stewart. The other was a man wearing a heavy parka with the hood pulled low over his head....  it was the middle of summer, t-shirt weather, so this alone drew attention. I sat on the next table (there were only about four tables in the cafe), and chatted nervously to Joan. Dave said something to Joan too (I don't recall what), but all talk was directed towards Joan, not to me of course...

Such was the scenario of my encounter with Bob Dylan. What do you do in that situation? - "Hey Bob, hows it going? I loooove your music" - no, I wasn't going to say that. I wasn't going to say anything! Let him eat his lunch in peace, he doesn't want to be disturbed, he's incognito, can't you see he's trying not to be spotted? Just mind your own business John, eat your sandwich, pay your bill and leave, that's the dignified thing to do, of course, he doesn't want to talk to local riffraff.

Hey, I don't even like Bob Dylan's music.

Dave and Bob (not my photo- happy to credit if photographer identified)

The sandwich is on the table, I examine every detail of the thing on my plate, and begin to eat in silence.

"Arn't you hot in that coat?" I blurt.

Dave glances at me out of the corner of his eye then at the hooded guy, but says nothing. "Yeah, but you know" comes a slow drawl from under the hood. Know? know what? That he has to hide in the corner of cafe's under a cowl to avoid mad fans? Am I a mad fan? No! I don't know anything about him. Why am I saying anything? Shut up John!

"It's quite warm today isn't it" I say to the room at large.

Joan grins and agrees. Bob shifts in his chair.  Dave is impassive. I can't remember exactly what was said next, but I think Joan explained to Dave and Bob I was their studio neighbour - an illustrator working next door. Bob or Dave (not sure which) asked me what kind of illustration - all kinds, children's books, editorial, say I.... "That's good", says Bob.

I mention our old landlords were Trumpton animators Burra & Hardwick, who sold the old hall to Dave's studio. Dave nods - we have a mutual connection. Are you here for a while? I ask Bob. "No". I mentioned that we were being pestered by people looking for him. "Just ignore them", says Bob.

We left the cafe at the same time, I held the door open for him, wished them good luck with the sessions and he shook my hand. And that was that.

I'm glad I wasn't a particular fan at the time (though later grew to love his work), had I been more aware I'd probably have asked even more stupid questions than I had already, but brains turn to mush in these circumstances, I had no idea....

That evening I met a friend of my house-mates who was a total Dylan fanatic, and said "here, shake the hand that shook the hand of Bob". By that time I'd repeated my story to several people, it felt like some kind of spiritual experience rather than the rather mundane encounter of reality.

Next time pop-pickers I'll have to tell you about the time I unknowingly met Kylie Minogue, blissfully unaware who she was... but that's another story.

I wish I'd got to know Joan a bit better though. 

Sunday, 4 December 2016

New Book Release! 'The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus'

I've a new book out for Christmas! The title kind of gives away who it's about!

John Shelley Santa 01

Most people will think of L. Frank Baum as the author of The Wizard of Oz, but he was an incredibly prolific author who created many other wonderful and classic titles, one of which is The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, first published in 1902.

Hesperus Press, which focuses on publishing neglected classics, has just released a new paperback edition of the book with interior pen drawings by me.

Released on 1st December in paperback,  I contributed 22 black & white drawings (note: the cover however is not my illustration).
Book details are here:

ISBN 13: 9781843915904

Here's a taste of some of the interior drawings:
John Shelley Santa 02
John Shelley Santa 03

The blurb from the publisher's site: Who is Santa Claus? We all know he is real, but where did he come from, and how does he deliver presents to all the children of the world? In this wonderful book, L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, tells the true story of Santa Claus, from being found as a baby in the woods to making the first toy the world has ever seen (a carving of his cat Blinkie), to the invention of the dolly, the Christmas stocking, the Christmas tree, his battles with the evil Awgwas and being granted the mantle of immortality so he can keep bringing joy to children for ever. Beautifully written, and with glorious new illustration by John Shelley, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus brings the magic of the Oz books to the life of Father Christmas. Introducing unforgettable characters like the Master Woodsman, Necile the Wood-Nymph and little Mayrie, who just wants a toy of her own, this is a book for children of all ages, and is as immortal as Santa Claus himself.

John Shelley Santa 04

John Shelley Santa 05
You'll have to buy the book to see more!

This was a fun book to illustrate, the narrative rolls on quickly with many scene changes that could have been illustrated. With limited space for illustration though it was a struggle to decide which passages to illustrate and which to leave. Inevitably I drew more than were initially commissioned, thankfully the publisher found room to include all.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Facing up with the SCBWI Conference

Last weekend was the annual SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) conference in Winchester, which was as ever educating and inspiring.

Sunrise over Winchester on the first morning of the SCBWI Conference

I've volunteered with SCBWI for very many years now, initially when I was in Japan, and, since my return to the UK, with the British Isles chapter. Apart from supporting Anne-Marie Perks on the illustrator's committee I co-run our network in East Anglia with writer Helen Moss, and edit the Friday (illustration themed) page of our web-journal Words & Pictures. As the Conference is such a key part of the SCBWI calendar I wish I could go every year, but picture book deadlines and other concerns have often intervened. As a volunteer I try to attend once every other year at least, though I'm not directly involved in organising the Conference itself (I may be raising my hand next year though!).

One of the highlights of the weekend - and there were many - was receiving a prize in recognition for volunteering, I was greatly surprised and absolutely delighted - thank you SCBWI!!

John Shelley award

There are full reports of the Conference on Words & Pictures, so these are just my thoughts. This year I was there to help out, but also on a personal level with the hope of reviving interest in my own picture book ideas. All my children's book work over recent years has been commissioned texts for publishers in the US and Japan, written by others. These titles have been sometimes complex projects that completely absorbed my attention, just looking at the past three years -  Stone Giant - Michelangelo's David and How He Came to Be (written by Jane Sutcliffe), Crinkle, Crackle, Crack - It's Spring (written by Marion Dane Bauer) Will's Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk (also by Jane Sutcliffe) Yozora o Miage-yo (written by Yuriko Matsuoka) and,  forthcoming from Holiday House in 2017,  Magic For Sale (written by Carrie Clickard). 

All of these books have been wonderful projects, fine texts by marvelously talented writers, but concentrating on these has meant I've neglected my own stories, which remain as rough idea notes and little more, I've not submitted dummies to publishers for a very long time. However right now I'm working on black and white ink drawings for novels, so taking a break from commissioned picture books, this slight breather is encouraging me to once more look over my story concepts and ideas.

It's hard to believe I've been back in the UK for almost nine years now - my life in Japan still seems like just yesterday (though I do go back whenever I can). After an initial period of re-adjustment I enthusiastically pursued UK publishing, but the obstacles of the book trade in this country compared to the relatively easier markets (for me at least!) of Japan and the US led me to focus on my Japanese and American connections, hence most of my work still comes from overseas. It's about time I really tackled British publishing head on and started submitting again!

Will's Words on sale through P & G Wells bookshop at the Conference

So, was the Conference as inspiring as I'd hoped? Absolutely! The activities for illustrators were brilliant, from the fringe event Sketchcrawl around Winchester, which really got the creative cells buzzing, to the illustration keynote from Leigh Hodgkinson, and really excellent Pulse events - a hands-on picture book workshop from Viv Schwarz, and thorough session on promotion from Paul Stickland. Plus the sheer energy of seeing all my old friends, new faces, discussion, companionship - it was terrific.

Industry Picture Book Panel talk, with Miranda Baker (Nosy Crow) seen here with the book, David McDougall (Walker), Caroline Walsh (agent) and Polly Whybrow (Bloomsbury)
Some of the costumes at the Mass Book Launch (photo: George Kirk)
Hard at work during Viv Schwarz's workshop
Leigh Hodgkinson artwork
The Marvellous Paul Stickland

But what about my plan to get writing? In addition to the illustrator activities, two key-note presentations particularly inspired me, one from author David Almond (who I've known since he presented to our Tokyo SCBWI group many years ago) and another from Sarah Davies of the Greenhouse Literary Agency. Both these had me squirming in my seat, their passion for the story really shook me up, I've got to write, I've got to write!!!

David Almond (photo: Candy Gourlay)
This isn't the first time I've been to an SCBWI conference and been inspired to write, but with no major picture book projects on now I've no excuse NOT to write now, to actually do something about it.

My problem is that I regard myself as a professional illustrator, with years of experience and a back catalogue of over 50 published children's books illustrated, and the confidence that brings. I've struggled with creative writing though, it's not my natural form of expression, although I can write, I don't feel I'm a comfortable picture book writer. My pictures already tell stories, but expanding them to create a binding narrative is a struggle. When I write, pictures kind of get in the way, I'd rather write without thinking of images, then once the story is there come back to illustrate it with my 'artist' hat on. This may not be the best way for an illustrator to go about writing picture books!

I wonder if I'd feel a little more comfortable writing longer fiction than picture books. Because I don't feel my words are as professional or instill me with as much assuredness as my drawings, I've not much confidence when it comes to submitting to publishers. Also I don't take story rejection well, my one attempt at writing a novel when I was 16 was shelved after two publisher rejections (it really was not very good though!), previous picture book dummies sent to publishers have also been shelved rather than worked on and improved.

Although I've had stories published in Japanese through children's publishers in Tokyo, I've not been published as a writer in the West, only as an illustrator. This really has to change!

Anyway, the Conference really helped me feel a bit more focused on this, I've a lot to thank SCBWI for, not only the award, but the companionship and encouragement. Maybe this time I will get writing again, it really is about time! As a US editor once told me, "if you want to make a mark you have to produce your own stories, it's no good sharing your royalties and glory, your books should all be yours".  Indeed!