A Picture Book By Any Other Name

I have a new publication out this month. It’s a picture book. It’s nothing at all like a picture book.

Allow me to explain.

Back in 2003, I was an aspiring children’s writer. My aspirations took me regularly to the local library, where I would comb review magazines such as Magpies and Viewpoint – to see what was being published, and by whom, to find reading recommendations, and – let’s be honest – to torture myself with little frissons of envy

One such frisson – more of a seismic tremor, really – occurred when, scanning the review columns, I happened upon the title How to Make a Bird, by Martine Murray.

Instantly, I was a mix of excitement and regret. For I knew exactly what this book must be – a slightly weird, lyrical picture book about someone trying to build a bird from raw materials, about the tangible and the intangible, maybe even the existential. And oh, how I wished I had written it. It felt like a perfect fit for me, rightfully mine somehow. If only I’d had the idea first.

Oh, well. Resigned to my frisson, I read the actual review. And realised the book wasn’t at all what I’d imagined. It was a Young Adult novel and there was no actual bird building; there were metaphorical birds only. My idea was mine! I could still write it! I wrote it – a slightly weird, lyrical picture book about … you get the idea.

I sent it off. Some publishers loved it. Some gave it the ‘back slowly away from me please’ side-eye. All of them rejected it. It was too weird, too quiet, too something-or-other. It didn’t really work for children. It was hard to see who the market was. Lovely language, but …

I put it in my metaphorical drawer. And every now and then when I ran across an unsuspecting publisher, I gave it another airing. I would preface these conversations with “I’ve got this slightly weird manuscript, probably unpublishable but …”

I’m pretty sure that’s not the best way to begin a pitch, but eventually it worked … just not quite how I expected.

My “How to Make a Bird” is no longer a picture book. It’s a prose poem. Or a short story. Or an indeterminate fragment of something, with a quiet little narrative arc.

The truth is I’m not entirely sure what to call it. But I can tell you that it’s almost identical to the version I wrote twelve years ago; it’s just meeting the world in a completely different format. It’s one of twenty-two pieces in a new Penguin Books anthology entitled Where the Shoreline Used to Beand sits alongside work by luminaries such as Shaun Tan and Margo Lanagan.

And in a lovely little twist, it’s accompanied by an illustration by Kyle Hughes-Odgers, with whom I collaborated on Ten Tiny Things. Since then, Kyle has gone on to write and illustrate two of his own picture books, the most recent being Can a Skeleton Have an X-Ray? This is a slightly weird and lyrical, maybe even existential, picture book which poses questions such as Why do onions make me cry? and Who builds the wings for birds to fly?

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Yep. Bird-wing building. Kyle had just finished illustrating that spread when Penguin contacted him out of the blue and asked if he’d like to draw something to go with my piece.

Funny how things work out. And funny how I only ever saw this as a picture book, but as soon as Jane Godwin at Penguin said to me, “Maybe it could be a sort of prose poem?”, I immediately thought, Of course!

You never know where something might end up. And while it’s important to stay true to your own sense of what’s right for a story, it can be equally important to be open to possibilities you might never have come up with on your own.

Also important, of course, is being open to the opportunities presented by shameless theft. So in that spirit, I’d like to thank Martine Murray for How to Make a Bird – for the title, and more. Our stories are nothing alike, but without hers, mine would never have existed.

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