Hello, Marino!

© Róisín White

Hello to the students and staff of Marino Institute of Education. Let me introduce myself. My name is Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick and I am your children’s writer-in-residence for 2017/18. I am a writer/illustrator and I’ve been making books for children since 1988. Here are some of my books:

Since 2006 I’ve also been writing novels for older kids:

My main interest as a picturebook creator is in charting the personal journeys we make in early childhood, the small events which change us, the little battles and triumphs as we grow up. I’m told that Izzy and Skunk has been used with children by psychiatrists and There is used in classrooms to introduce kids to philosophy. My novels are rooted in myth and legend but ultimately they are concerned (as so many stories are) with how we each twist and turn and struggle (and laugh and dance) towards adulthood.

Over my career I’ve worked with Irish, UK and US publishers and my books are in many languages. The Sleeping Giant has been my Irish bestseller; Izzy and Skunk, I’m a Tiger Too and There are probably my most widely read worldwide. Izzy even made it into Farsi. There has been popular in Japan and I was privileged to have the poet and philosopher Shozo Kajima translate – and write an introduction to – the Japanese edition.

My work has won many awards, including four overall Bisto/CBI Book of the Year Awards and six honours. There was an Eric Carle Museum Best Picturebooks of 2009 choice and The Long March is a Smithsonian Notable Book. My most recent book, Owl Bat Bat Owl, has just been designated a Junior Library Guild Selection for Fall 2017 in the US.

Owl Bat Bat Owl is a wordless picturebook and I look forward to sharing it with you. I’ll speak about where the idea came from and how it developed, and also about how wordless books work with children and how much they can learn from them. For those of you who’ve met me already and heard me speak about Owl Bat Bat Owl, I will be designing a new talk for you. Any suggestions? Let me know in the comments below!

I will also be writing a series of blogs during my residency especially directed towards you, student teachers in Marino. If you have any questions about my work, about one of my books, about children’s books in general, about writing and illustrating, please send them my way. You can contact me via Ciara Ní Bhroin. I’d love to hear from you.


Marino Institute of Education (MIE) is an associated college of Trinity College, Dublin, the University of Dublin. MIE offers courses across the continuum of teacher education and prepares specialist education practitioners at early years, primary and further education levels.  This is my third year as writer-in-residence.

Photo of me at work © Róisín White

Titles in Translation

If a wordless book gets picked up by a foreign publisher there’s nothing to translate, right? Nope! There’s the title. The chosen title may sound strange or awkward or just plain dull when translated directly, so books can end up with completely different titles in different countries.

I love the sound of Owl Bat Bat Owl – the roundness of ‘owl’ and the abruptness of ‘bat’ fit the story perfectly, and the lack of punctuation helps to keep the emphasis even and flowing. As a title it encapsulates the beginning of the book when the bats are refugees ‘invading’ the owls’ perch, and the end, when they are friends and intermingling.

I love the look of it too – two three-letter words repeated in reverse: Owl Bat/Bat Owl. The word shapes look pleasing together and I was delighted when the designer at Walker Books stacked the words like so:


But the very elements which please the ear and eye in English may get lost in translation so each publisher will make a decision to keep the original title or change it to something which works better in their language.

The Danish publisher chose to translate directly, and you can see how visually different it looks, though it still sounds good (to my ear). The type size has been reduced quite a bit to accommodate ‘flagermus’ and it was set in upper and lower case with some wave action on the words to keep the effect soft.


In the Taiwanese edition the title is Owl Bat without the repeat – the two words take up all the available space. The Taiwanese publishers also requested a change to the cover to allow some text on the left, so I moved the owls over to the right for them.


The Dutch publisher also used this version of the cover and changed the title completely to My Branch! My Branch! Those exclamation marks add vehemence. Much to my delight they flipped the second ‘My Branch’ upside-down. Publishers are usually resistant to flipping text in a title – I know, I’ve tried to get them to do it a few times!


The Italian title reverse translates to something like ‘head up, upside down’, which sounds clumsy in English but looks good and sounds melodic in Italian. When I told my Italian-speaking sister the Italian version was called ‘something su, something gu’ she correctly guessed, ‘Testa in Su, Testa in Giu,’ immediately.


I don’t know what the Japanese title translates as but it’s obviously not direct:


I wonder what it says?*

*Thanks to Mio Debnam and Kris Tsang I now know this translates as ‘Owl Family, Family Bat’.


Why 32 Pages?

Picturebooks are mostly 32 pages long for several reasons. One is paper size.

The maximum size sheet of paper a press can take depends on the size of the press itself. However, paper needs to maintain stability as it goes through the press and the larger the sheet in a four-colour print run, the more likely it will stretch slightly as it gets inked, causing the colour to go out of register. So there are limits to how large a sheet of paper is used for a picturebook run.

Depending on its dimensions, a 32 page book may be printed on 1 single sheet (16 individual pages on either side = 32), or split between 2 sheets of paper, each with 8 pages on either side.

The Sleeping Giant was printed on 2 sheets and the images below show the imposition proof of the first section. Because this is a test proof it’s on cheap thin paper. Also it has been rolling around our studio for several years which is why it’s so crumpled and tatty!

Giant-section 1-test sheet Giant-section 1otherside-test sheet I’ve added the page numbers on top so you can see the way the imposition works – the 16 pages are organised on the sheet so they will all end up in the right place when it is folded by the folding machine. Once the imposition sheet has been folded to check this, the print run can go ahead. The imposition print is also called the ‘blue copy’ because it was formerly printed only in blue.

On this close up of the imposition sheet you can see the fold/trim lines which don’t appear on the final printed sheets. Some artwork is ‘bleeding’ over the trim line. Illustrators always add ‘bleed’ (10-15mm) to images to allow for slight shifts when the folded section is trimmed on three sides.

Fold&bleed&trimlines -test sheetPicturebooks are many different shapes and sizes but ultimately they need to fit within a certain size of paper to be competitively priced. Sometimes publishers produce over-size books, or one which is extra tall or extra wide, and some picturebooks are pushed to 48 pages (an extra 16 pages/1 sheet) – but extra sheets mean an extra print-run & time & ink and all add to the cost. Picturebooks also come as 24 pages, 40, 56, but the pages are always in multiples of 8. You can’t add or subtract a random number of pages – say 2, or 4.

The thing is, while paper size and cost may be the main reason why the 32 page picturebook is the most common, it is a length which works very well. A 24 page book is quite short, so is often used for baby books, while 48 pages may feel like the story is being dragged out. 32 pages has a Goldilocks’ rightness to it!


Note for any illustrator thinking of creating their first picturebook: the publisher looks after these technical details of preparing the art for print. Also, they will decide the size and dimensions with you. If you want to rough up an idea within ‘acceptable’ dimensions try finding a book that is a size and shape which you feel suits your idea, and use its measurements as a guide. Bear in mind that paper sizes vary a little worldwide and that the publisher may suggest changes, so don’t get too wedded to an exact size too early in the process.


When I’m finishing a book I’m already anticipating the day I can start the new one  pulsing inside my head. This time there are three ideas – an older picturebook idea which wants a sample colour illustration, a new one which needs to be roughed up into a dummy, and a novel. To be honest I’ve already begun sneaking a few hours on these over the last few months – I wrote three chapters of the novel while we were in the US and did some work on one of the picturebook texts. In fact, both of us snuck a little work on other projects while on holidays…

…so you’d think that the minute I sent off Owl Bat Bat Owl I’d be straight into the next project, right? I thought so too. I always think so and I’m always wrong. After a few euphoric hours end-of-book ennui sets in and has to be gotten over. Himself was also at the end of a book. We took a few days off and went west.

When we got back I was raring to go. The novel was first on my list but I decided I couldn’t write another word until I made character sheets. I cleared the kitchen table to spread out the profiles as I made them. I’d written two when I realised I needed to hoover. The whole house. And put on a wash.

Then I realised I couldn’t possibly write about my characters while the ones in the book I was reading were in my head. I made a hot chocolate and curled up in a chair to finish reading it – totally necessary from a work point-of-view, I promise.

Next day a couple more character descriptions made it onto A4 coloured card and hit the table before I found myself on my knees cleaning the kitchen cupboard doors. I couldn’t possibly ignore the drips and fingerprints on them for another moment, despite managing to do so perfectly well for three years a fair while.

Meanwhile Michael, having sent off all the interior art for his book, still had to design a cover. But first he headed off to Woodies to get some plywood to make the bullet-proof case he will post the finished cover in – art is sometimes damaged in transit.

However Michael came back with plywood PLUS several lengths of wooden plank. The piles of books and work dotted around the house were getting on his nerves so much he absolutely had to make a new set of bookshelves and some work-in-progress shelves to go beside the computer desk. Twenty-four hours later we had new furniture and he finally began his cover designs.


I now had a table full of character sheets but felt compelled to sort and arrange my projects into the new work shelves. At the end of which I realised I wasn’t ready for the novel – it needs more research. Instead I will get cracking on the two picturebook ideas… though I’ll need to clear off my drawing desk first. I’ll go do that now.

I will. Cross my heart. Just as soon as I finish writing this blog.

the end…The End…no, really, THE END.

Finishing a book can turn into a cascade of endings. I’ve been ‘finishing’ Owl Bat Bat Owl for months. All the main interior art was ‘done’ before we headed to the USA for Thanksgiving, but that still left the title page, endpapers and cover, so I set to REALLY finishing it when I came back.

Then came the tweaks and corrections. Bits and pieces which my editors had spotted – these post-its adorned the print-out of the art they sent me. I peeled them off as I fixed them…


But there was even more fickity feckity stuff I spotted myself. And stuff Michael pointed out – it often takes a fresh eye to notice things this late in the game. So many things to sort that I had to list them image by image, then go through methodically and tick them off as done.

This is my first time illustrating a book digitally and I found it involves way more tweaking than usual. With physical art there is a point at which tweaking could destroy the piece so you have to just let it be – with digital you can go on messing indefinitely.

So there were tweaks to the tweaks… some from the editors and some more of my own. I felt as if my head and shoulders were actually inside the computer and my depth of focus was permanently reduced to two feet. I was vacillating between ‘I hate this book, I don’t care what it looks like’ and ‘steady…steady…not long now…one more push and it will all be over…’

There have been books where ‘I don’t care’ won the day so I’ve got to live with those flaws I was too tired to fix. This time ‘steady, steady’ won – I even pulled the cover back from my art editor for more tweaks (one for Michael, two for me) after she’d already given it the thumbs up. But the thing is there will always be flaws, stuff which could have been better. You could go on fixing and polishing indefinitely – how do you know when to STOP?

Usually it’s the publishing schedule that dictates when you have to let go at last but the problem with all that final polishing is you risk your art losing vital energy, spontaneity, freshness, so at some point IT HAS TO END. It’s the same with a novel. In theory you can keep reworking; in reality (in my opinion) books can die from overworking. You’ve got to abandon* this book and take what you’ve learnt onto the next one. When I finally put the memory stick of files in the post I was at the stage where I could no longer see the images as images, the characters as characters – they had become just so many pixels. I was way beyond doing positive work on it so it was time to let it go.

The End.

And then, having already downed my celebratory whiskey, an image bounced back with some comments I couldn’t ignore because I agreed with them… grrr! Three days later…


Until, that is, the proofs arrive…

*A poem is never finished, only abandoned. Paul Valery

Links for Picturebook Makers

Following up the last post – Dear First-time Picturebook Author –  here are the links I promised. 

Great tips from the experts:

Joyce Dunbar  http://www.booktrust.org.uk/books/writing/writing-tips/36/

Mem Fox  http://memfox.com/for-writers-hints/  and then clink on the articles underneath- Quick and Snappy, 20 dos and don’ts, Even more Advice

Malachy Doyle on how not to write a picture book http://picturebookden.blogspot.ie/2014/08/dont-do-it-how-not-to-write-picture.html?spref=fb

Lots of writers give their thoughts on picturebooks to Marilyn Singer:  http://marilynsinger.net/onwriting/what-makes-a-good-young-picture-book/

Emma Blackburn, Bloomsbury:        https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/writers/advice/327/dedicated-genre-advice/writing-for-children/


On writing in rhyme:

http://picturebookden.blogspot.ie/2013/10/to-rhyme-or-not-to-rhyme-by-natascha_3.html?spref=fb                                                                                                      and  http://nosycrow.com/blog/rhyming-picture-books


If you live in Ireland:

Children’s Books Ireland is a great source for info/links and conferences on writing for children: http://www.childrensbooksireland.ie/

SCBWI Ireland is a branch of the huge international organisation. They run courses, conferences etc.   http://scbwiireland.wordpress.com/


A useful book:

The Children’s Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook. It lists publishers and agents and also has articles on various writerly things. This year’s should be in your local library. https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/store



Tips for Dummies http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/writing-childrens-books-for-dummies-cheat-sheet.html

Why are there 32 pages in most picturebooks? Here’s an explanation: http://writersrumpus.com/2013/09/24/why-thirty-two-pages/


B/W photo © Róisín White

Dear First-time Picturebook Author

For any picturebook writers hiding amongst the many NaNoWriMo-ers out there this November, this is a letter cobbled together from my replies to questions I’ve been getting from first time picture book authors. Recently I’ve had a rush of queries, many of which were about commissioning illustrations. My replies are based on 27 years working as a picturebook author; however, the publishing business is changing rapidly and other folk may have different experiences/opinions, so get Googling to see what everyone else says!


Dear First-time Picturebook Author,

The good news is that you do not need to commission your own illustrations. You submit your text to publishers or to an agent who submits it on your behalf. If a publisher takes it, they will match your work to an illustrator, they will deal with the illustrator, they will pay the illustrator. The only publisher I have ever heard of suggesting writers find their own illustrator is An Gúm, the Irish language/government owned publisher, and that was years ago. Occasionally a well-known writer will team up with a well-known illustrator and suggest to a publisher they work on a book together, but that is a different thing altogether.

So forget trying to find an illustrator! It’s the publisher’s job to do that, not yours. That is the way the industry works. And yes, in picturebooks the royalties are split between author and illustrator.

It’s possible you feel your text needs the illustrations to work? Well of course it does! That is completely normal with a picturebook and editors are used to reading texts. You don’t need to /should not add detailed explanations of what you think the illustrations would look like – the illustrator is supposed to be free to react to your text and interpret it. However, sometimes there is something you may need to flag – for instance, the child in the story is playing with a red ball but it is never mentioned in the text. The action of the ball – which we will read visually – forms a vital part of the narrative, hitting things, breaking things, and explains gaps in the text. If your text works this way then do add notes explaining what is happening in the illustrations, but keep them very brief and to the point.

Do you have a strong idea of size/shape of your book, and of the placement of the text? If this is because it is integral to your idea then you should indicate it and why. Otherwise the size and design of book will be decided by the publishers/design editor.

Editors are really big on picturebooks written and illustrated by the same person, so should you have a go at illustrating it yourself? If you are a talented illustrator/artist then I would certainly have a go at illustrating it; otherwise don’t even consider it. (By talented, I mean professional or capable of achieving a professional standard.) Editors like books illustrated and written by the same person because of the cohesion and integration that usually brings to the idea; the author/illustrator is likely to come up with concepts which you won’t get from a writer and illustrator working separately. To this end editors will often encourage illustrators they work with to try their hand at writing, but I have never heard of an editor encouraging a writer who has never shown any artistic ability to try illustrating their own work. Picturebook art, no matter how simple the style, takes a lot of hard work, skill, and time. Some people might take as little as 2 or 3 months to illustrate a book, I take 8 – 10 months, other illustrators take a year or more.

By the way, if you are an illustrator/writer you should produce rough art (simple pencil sketches) for your idea and maybe two finished pieces – don’t do finished art for the entire book. If you find a publisher for it many things will be changed and you may have to do the whole lot again.

The not so good news is that the children’s book industry is awash with people trying to place picturebook texts and novels at the moment. I don’t say that to put you off but to encourage you to concentrate on crafting/writing the best idea and text you can before trying to place it. Just like the illustrations, developing a great text takes time and skill. My earliest books were developed over years and years. Izzy and Skunk took rewrite/re-rough after rewrite/re-rough. It was 7 years before I figured out the right way to end it and finally found a publisher for it. I have no idea how many rejection slips it got along the way, but I did gather up some useful comments amongst the ‘no thank-yous’ which helped me get there. You, Me, and the Big Blue Sea took 9 years of revising and revisiting, which included letting go my (strong) inclination to write it (badly) in rhyme, and realising the book needed to go from portrait shape to landscape. It was finally taken by a publisher who had previously rejected it. Silly Mummy, Silly Daddy was rejected at least 24 times. My niece Beth, heroine of that book, was 2 years old when I got the idea, and 16 when it was finally published. *

These days my skill levels are much higher and I can develop ideas relatively rapidly, but they still take time and attention to get right, I still like to mull them over, let them sit with me a while. And I still get rejections, only now they land in my inbox rather than on the hall floor.

When you have given your idea/text plenty of time and hard work and sweat, and it is the VERY BEST you can possibly make it, take some more time to do your homework about approaching publishers and agents. Most publishers and agents have clear guidelines on their websites setting out what kind of ideas they are looking for/not looking for, and how they like them presented.

Best of luck and happy writing, Marie-Louise

* For clarity’s sake I should say that I got all three of these book ideas in the same year (1992) and developed them simultaneously, while working on my third book, The Long March, doing many, many illustration projects for an educational publisher, and also part-time teaching. I brought the ideas (physically, because that was the norm then) around the publishers in London on two occasions, once in 1994, again in 1998. After that I got an agent and she began showing them after I reworked them yet again. There was a fourth idea which I ditched very early on, and then a fifth, I’m a Tiger Too, which I developed more quickly and which was taken by the first publisher I showed it to. So the development work on each of those early ideas was a month here, a month there, two months here, two weeks there – months and months of work with long gaps inbetween each bout. The long gaps inbetween were at least as important as the periods of actual work because time away from the idea would throw up sharply exactly what wasn’t working and suggest what might. Basically I was developing skills and learning my craft by working and reworking all these ideas; I was finding my personal writing ‘voice’ and also my visual style. At some point everything began to click into place, the ideas were working and publishers began to take real interest.

On Friday I will post links to some organisations, websites and blogs I like and which you may find useful.