26 July 2018

David O’Connell: ‘a bad rhyme is like nails on a blackboard’

David O'Connell, author-illustratorDavid O'Connell, Photo by Dave Warren
by Katie Smart Author Interviews

David O’Connell, is an author-illustrator and he leads our new Writing a Children’s Picture Book course. His first illustrated children’s chapter book, Monster & Chips, came out in 2013, and he worked with Sarah McIntyre (who leads the Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book course) on the children’s picture book Jampires. He has also collaborated with Sam Watkins, Francesca Gambatesa and Tom Nicoll. His latest children’s chapter book series is The Dundoodle Mysteries, illustrated by Claire Powell.

Do you prefer writing about human characters, animal characters or monsters in picture books? Do you think children find it easier to identify with one sort of character over another? And is one kind of character more inherently funny?
Personally, I love writing about monsters – they can be funny or scary, or can be used to represent ideas or other abstract concepts. You can do things with them that you can’t do with animals or people. For example, a two-headed monster can have a conversation with itself! They’re great for illustrators too, as they can go to town on their design.

I don’t think children find it easier to identify with one type of character over another, however: if the writer has done their job in creating a believable, likeable character that is in a situation the reader can relate to, then their appearance shouldn’t matter.

Young children love slapstick and the absurd, and this can work with all types of characters, but I do love funny animals in particular. They’re familiar and we know how they should behave in the real world so they can be made to look ridiculous quite easily: a huge elephant riding a tiny tricycle is a simple concept that will easily get a laugh.

Lots of people get into writing and illustrating children’s picture books after studying art or illustration at college – but you were a biochemist – and then worked in IT! That’s got to be an unusual career path … How did you get from there to where you are now?
I’d always been writing and drawing as a child, but I loved sciences too. I studied biochemistry at University as a ‘sensible’ career choice then, after a few years working in laboratories and hospitals, went into IT because I needed the cash! When my partner had to work abroad for a couple of years, I quit my job and followed. It gave me a chance to think about what I really wanted to do, and to take the step into children’s books even though I had zero qualifications. I floundered about for quite a while but eventually found SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). Through them I met Sarah McIntyre, who asked me if I wanted to work with her on the book which became Jampires. That was my break into the business. You could say I’ve had a bit of luck, but I think it’s more about putting yourself in situations where luck is more likely to happen.

You do lots of school visits as part of your work as a children’s book writer. Have you ever found that a classroom session with kids has sparked an idea for a children’s book?
Not directly, but I have asked kids to help me create characters that will appear in my books, so they can understand the process through which stories are made. What’s so useful about school visits is that it’s a chance to remind yourself of how your readership see the world. Children have a very straightforward logic. For a character to be ordinary on one page, then have magical powers on the next page without any explanation seems perfectly reasonable to them – it’s just ‘magic’ and that’s that it as far as they are concerned. It’s very refreshing. School visits are also a great way of keeping in touch with children’s culture and seeing what else they’re into. There’s a bit of a disconnect between children’s books and other forms of entertainment: children’s TV is far more experimental, bizarre and risky than children’s books, and they love it! I wish publishers would pay more attention to the content and style of kid’s TV rather than just producing licensed spin-offs.

You write and illustrate – but you seem to do more of the writing than the illustrating (whereas for your collaborator Sarah McIntyre it’s the other way around …). Do your ideas always start with words? Or do they sometimes start with pictures?
I do mostly start off with words. I’m a bit of a list-maker, so I’ll write down ideas, first lines and bits of dialogue in a notebook. Sometimes, I’ll turn that into a flowchart, linking all the bits of information in order with arrows. It can end up looking a bit like a comic – I’m a big fan of comics – and their slightly diagrammatic nature can be very helpful in putting a story together.

However, when it comes to creating characters I nearly always start out with a sketch. You can say so much about a personality with a few quick pencil strokes: their expression, their posture, the look in their eyes. It’s much easier to flesh them out that way.

You and your collaborator (and co-tutor) Sarah McIntyre co-authored/ illustrated the picture book Jampires. It’s really unusual for two people working together on a picture book to both write AND draw (rather than splitting the work so that one is writing and one is drawing). What was the best thing about working this way? And what was the most difficult thing?
The best thing is having someone with whom you can bounce ideas around. You’re both invested in the words and pictures so there are two minds at works on it simultaneously. You can start off with two completely different approaches and end up with something that’s a combination of, and yet better than, both. Or something that’s completely different because you’re challenging each other to be more creative and go outside your comfort zone. With my own books I’ve learned to love the editing process (most of the time!) because I see it as a collaborative process with the editor, they’re part of the creative team and not someone who’s trying to tell you what to do and be annoying. A good editor will act as a springboard to better things for your story. I do think it’s important to understand that the other person in your collaboration might have a very different way of working to you, and you have respect that and give them the space to do it, even if it means going at a different pace than you’d like. In truth, the most difficult thing is probably that nobody really understands that we both worked on both sides of the book. Sarah often gets listed as the writer, and I get listed as the illustrator, if I get mentioned at all!

You’re currently working on a chapter book series, The Dundoodle Mysteries, written by you with illustrations by Claire Powell. Book one: The Chocolate Factory Ghost was extremely well received and book two, The Dentist of Darkness is highly anticipated. What’s different about working on a series for older children aged 7-9 as opposed to a picture book for children aged 2-6?
Picture books are tough to write! People assume that they are easy because they are short and simple-looking. But every word and sentence is highly crafted – you’ve only got a small number of sentences to get your story across so it has to be exactly right. Older fiction gives you more freedom in that sense because you’ve got the room to explore ideas: you can give your character more depth and spend time on description, something that the illustrations will normally do in a picture book. It’s very satisfying to write because that extra detail allows you get so much more absorbed into the world you’re writing about. But you do need stamina. Going from five hundred words to thirty thousand or so is quite a jump.

To rhyme or not to rhyme – that is the question … You’ve done both – which do you prefer?
I do love the fun of rhyme and there will forever remain a place in my heart for a filthy limerick. However, I think you have to think very carefully about whether your story needs it. If your story is strong then it might not need the extra decoration, and a bad rhyme is like nails on a blackboard.

What’s the hardest thing about writing children’s picture book texts? What has been your biggest struggle?
Picture books often deal with simple, universal themes and the biggest challenge is finding new ways to retell familiar stories. The books I created with Francesca Gambatesa (When I’m A Monster Like You, Dad! and When I’m A Mummy Like You!) look at parent-child relationships – the oldest stories around! – and finding an engaging, fresh take on something like that is a real challenge. With those books, it was about turning things on their head and pointing out the fun of childhood to the little ones so desperate to grow up and be like their mum and dad.

Language – and its sounds and textures – is very important in picture books. Do you have a favourite word that you’ve used in a picture book? Have you made up any words in your books?
Jampires is a food-based book. Food is always a good source of interesting sounding words, particularly ones suggestive of eating sounds. Jampires has ‘dollop’ in it, which is a brilliant word: it’s almost a sound effect, it describes something both heavy and wet, yet with splatter-potential, which could be a good or bad thing! It’s also wonderful to say out loud, which is important with picture books. In my Monster & Chips fiction series, the action was set in a diner run by monsters and I took great pleasure in making up food for the specials board. Roasted Gurglefish in a Belchberry Cream Sauce was a favourite.

Jampires is about jam-eating vampires – what’s your favourite flavour of jam?
Strawberry (followed by cherry then rhubarb). Tea with jam and bread is one of my favourite things, which sounds like two Julie Andrews songs stuck together…

You can enrol now for our brand new online Writing a Children’s Picture Book course taught by David O’Connell.

Or, you can enrol on our online Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book course taught by Sarah McIntyre.

And for those who want to do both there’s our Writing and Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book course taught by Sarah McIntyre and David O’Connell.

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