Kids Say the Darndest Things…

Reading a picturebook to an audience of adults can be nerve-wracking. Adults are often intimidated by the form, worried that they aren’t going to ‘get’ it, scared they’ll laugh in the wrong place, so they tense up. Reading a SILENT book with adults is even more daunting. Reading picture books with kids is a doddle, but what happens when the book has no words?

The first time I attempted reading Owl Bat Bat Owl was with 70 kids in Limerick Library and I have to admit to wondering how exactly it was going to work. I needn’t have worried. I’ve read it many times now, in many places, and kids always nail it!

Kids: ‘It’s daytime, the bats should be asleep.’

Me: ‘Why do you think they’re out, flying around?’

‘Something bad has happened.’

Me: ‘Like what?’

‘They’ve lost their home.’ ‘Their tree has fallen down.’  A girl in Dun Laoghaire said, ‘Someone dropped a bomb on their cave.’

Only a couple of reviewers have made the link between the story and the refugee crisis; kids don’t use that term but those suggestions tell me they’re making the connection.

Me: ‘What’s happening now?’

‘I think they’re practising segregation.’ 9 year old, Limerick library. Pole-axed me and the other adults in the room – that he used the term and obviously completely understood it.

Hoots of laughter.

Me: ‘What do you think the mammies are saying?

‘Get back up here, right this minute!’ Delivered with cross faces, hands on hips and Angry-Irish-Mammy voice.

‘Oh, oh! I think something bad is going to happen and then they’ll make friends.’ 3 year old, Moncton, Canada. Wow – what anticipation, and from a tot! Then she farted loudly, exploded into giggles and rolled around on the floor, to general hilarity.

‘They’ve got the wrong babies!’

Me: ‘What do you think will happen next?’

‘They’ll all be friends.’

‘Let me tell, let me tell! And the two mammies had a nice cup of tea and a chat, while their babies played in the light of the moon.’ 8 year old Nigerian girl, Limerick.

And there be spiders:

Adults hardly ever notice them, but kids spot them very quickly and realise there’s another story to explore.

Owl Bat Bat Owl Walker Books/Candlewick

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’.


Painting with Pixels

Like all my picturebook ideas Owl Bat Bat Owl began super-rough…


…before progressing to more coherent roughs, coherent enough for a publisher to decide they wanted it. Actually, I didn’t think this version was ready to be seen but I was visiting Walker Books to talk over an idea and Michael insisted I bring Owl Bat with me too.

Once Walker took the book I had to decide how I was going to make the final art. Because Owl Bat is a silent/wordless story the art needs to be very easy to read and the characters need to be front and centre of all images, their faces and eyes communicating a huge amount of story. I basically designed the images so the branch the owls and bats are on is a stage and the reader’s visual POV never changes. I wanted to use a very simple style and have easy control of the palette so I decided I would colour the art digitally – the first time ever. I did initially think I’d create the line by hand so I tried a few different things, beginning with scraperboard, then trying ink, then pencil:

In the end none worked. With my back against the wall and time ticking I began messing about on the computer, having a go at ‘painting’ the way I paint in acrylics, laying down a rough ground, then over-painting. I used a ‘brush’ that gave me a nice textured look and wielded it in my normal way, using quick slap-dash strokes, and suddenly it all began to work and feel like it was mine.

I also realised I could create a digital palette by referencing images from my previous books, which was a relief as I am a compulsive colour mixer, never using paint as it comes from the tube, always adding at least a smidge of something else to achieve the shade I want. It took a couple of weeks to get used to using an Intuos pad and pen while looking at the screen, then I was away.


The art took as long as it would have to paint on paper but I had much more control. Digitally it’s so easy to redo details without messing up the whole piece, easy to change a single colour, to lighten/darken single elements, and for these illustrations (because of the way I designed the images) that control was really important. Ultimately I think I’d have had to paint the images very large to have the same control on paper and many many images would have hit the bin along the way.


There were some heart-stopping moments when I thought it had all gone wrong and I wondered what the hell I was thinking trying to learn to make digital art ‘on the job’, but I got there, with some hand-holding from Audrey, Maria and Andrea in Walker Books. Will I be painting with pixels again? Absolutely!

Owl Bat Bat Owl is published by Walker Books tomorrow. Happy Birthday, little book!


Picturebooks are a parade of deadlines. The big ‘lines’ in the process are for the final dummy and the completion of finished art, but inside that whole process are mini deadlines. New dummies or art for Bologna, for Frankfurt, a sample cover for a sales meeting, colour work  for a catalogue. A couple of weeks ago Michael pulled a 24 hour day to get some work done for a sales meeting. The request was a bit sudden and we had a friend coming from the US for a few days, so Michael did a few hours each day while our visitor slept in, then got seriously stuck in as I drove our departing guest to the airport at 7am Sunday morning. He worked straight through to 7am the next day. That Sunday happened to be our wedding anniversary so I was a wee bit miffed, but completely sympathetic.

Right now I’m the one crunching. I’ve spent the last month getting as much art as possible done in time for the Frankfurt book fair, and now I have one month to complete the book.

I can do it, if I keep my head down. I won’t try any crazy 24 hour stuff – the day when I could is long gone – but I will work steadily and keep going in the evenings and through the weekends. And I’ll try not to channel my inner Douglas Adams, who famously said, ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise the make as they go by.’ Though if I were to pull out my contract with Walker Books I’m pretty sure the official delivery date was May. This year.


Michael (as a bat) whooshes away on his bike, with me (as owl) sleeping in. Most recent ‘Gone Cycling’ note from Michael.

Getting the Lead Out


Sarah McIntyre’s PicturesMeanBusiness campaign is all about highlighting the work involved in illustrating (and why illustrators should always be credited), so Michael and myself thought we’d try and give you an idea of the drawing work we do when developing a picturebook.

Right now I am working on the colour art for a book, all of it on computer. This ‘finished art’ will take me three to four months total, but there’s been a whole pile of hand-drawing just to get to this stage.

In April 2014 there were scribbled ‘thumbnail’ sketches, as I tried to catch the idea which was emerging. Sometime later I began exploring the story’s characters in more detail, filling a sketchbook. Then several weeks were spent working towards a proper full-size dummy.

After a meeting with the editorial team at Walker Books I made a new dummy, taking their comments, Michael’s comments, and my own new thoughts into account. Another round of comments got me to a third dummy/draft and another editorial meeting, at which point I got the go-ahead to begin the final art.

I then sat down and began redrawing the 32 images, this time for scanning into the computer as the templates for the colour art. I traced the previous images, making final tweaks as I went, double-checking details: have I held each of the eight character’s faces/personalities/proportions properly through-out? Have any of them become stiff/lost their energy and appeal during all this redrawing? Is the background detail working? On and on. It took two weeks straight and I drew my way through nearly 1 metre of pencil lead!

Michael does most of his rough work in sketchbooks. He does even more preliminary drawing than I do, exploring characters, poses, expressions, interactions, humour, emotion, trying out lots of alternatives, always seeking out that perfect image. With the book he’s working on now, he’s reacting to and interpreting a text by Barbara Bottner. His illustration style is very line-led so he spends a ton of time on these drawings.

There are around 2235 individual sketches for this book in just four of the sketchbooks below, and there’s another couple of hundred loose sketches lying around the studio.

Michael will trace/tweak the images he chooses for the book, transfer them to watercolour paper, then work the final colour quickly to keep it all light and alive.

PS: If you’re wondering why this post isn’t illustrated with drawings we’re talking about, there’s a certain amount of ‘keeping things under wraps’ involved with books which won’t be out until the end of next year! Watch out for more posts about illustrating over the next few months.