Book Island Books and Greet Pauwelijn

A Feature for Armadillo Magazine

Book Island Books is a small independent publisher of the most incredible books, all handpicked and personally chosen by Greet Pauwelijn.  She has impeccable taste and is widely known for it.  I was thrilled when I was given the opportunity to speak with Greet over zoom to learn more about her and Book Island Books.

I immediately felt at home in conversation with Greet- she has a naturally welcoming smile and manner and so instead of quickly firing my planned questions to her, we had a chat that lasted over an hour.  In the way that like minded people can, we got on well as we share a love of picture books with a timeless quality.  Proof of her love for picture books comes from the choices she makes as a publisher.  Choosing books to translate from many languages and cultures to bring to the UK market is not without its challenges.  

Continuously asking the questions about the readiness of the UK market and ‘gatekeepers’ for books dealing with loss or grief, books with a strong emotional connection and those with a multilayered narrative.  Book Island Books are not commercially produced or found on supermarket shelves- there is a far greater value to these books.  Often found in hardback and with unsurpassed illustrations, these books will stand the test of time.

Curious as to where Greet finds these books, she spoke about browsing catalogues, visiting publisher stands in Bologna and keeping abreast of award winners.  These certainly give her an edge and it brings to light new authors and illustrators to the UK.  Greet’s knowledge, experience and understanding of picture books is deep and she is willing to take risks for something she believes in.

One such risk was with Mum’s Jumper.  When showing it to a group of ‘gatekeepers’, they were less than enthusiastic about it.  Trusting her instinct with this book was certainly the right choice as it has been picked up by The Reading Agency for their Reading Well campaign and Empathy Lab have also promoted its use in classrooms.  The Reading Agency quotes  “A simple, heartfelt and ultimately uplifting book for anyone coping with loss”.  Though it is a book about loss, it is full of hope too.  It does have a sad cover but the joyous yellow endpapers are a sign of that hope.   

It is fair to say that Book Island Books are a publisher of hope.  It is within the pages of their books, within the community of support shown to Greet and her books and it is evident in the funding from the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union.  This crucial funding helped to publish The Garden of Inside-Outside by Chiara Mezzalama and Regis Lejonc and The Bird Within Me by Sara Lundberg.  

We spoke about the importance of social media to small publishers, and we shared the similar opinion of how welcoming and brilliant the book community is on twitter.  Knowing the importance of Twitter in book promotion and potential sales, Greet has a few innovative ideas to test out in the new year.  These will highlight her work, introduce us to the immense team of support she has and perhaps allow us to help bring a new book to the UK.

I was so impressed with how down to earth and kind Greet was- she is simply a working mum with a firm mission to bring high quality, timeless books to our attention.  She clearly works hard and is fully committed to the future of Book Island Books.

What does the future hold? Plenty!  Covid has obviously changed the way many of us live and work but perhaps it has also given us a chance to peruse and appreciate amazing books and to support our independent publishers who are in need now more than ever.  

To tempt you further to visit the Book Island online store, please see mini reviews for five of the incredible books available now.

The Garden of Inside-Outside by Chiara Mezzalama and Regis Lejonc

“The Story of unexpected friendship of two children, on either side of war and peace”

An award winning Graphic picture book with friendship at its core.  Children have an innate ability to transcend the boundaries of war, borders, prejudices and this book proves it.  When Chiara and her family move to Iran,she lives in a beautiful house surrounded by walls.  Inside the walls is a peaceful garden perfect for princes and princesses, Outside there is a war being raged.  When a young boy, Massoud hops over the wall, they begin a secret friendship.  The illustrations are striking and suit the genre crossing format perfectly.

The Bird Within Me by Sara Lundberg

“A universal story of longing and imagination, the perfect refrain for a young rebel”

Based on the life of Swedish artist Berta Hansson, this book imagines what life was like for young Berta growing up feeling unable to follow her dreams of being an artist.  When she loses her mother, Berta must become a woman of the home, cooking, cleaning.  However, a cooking protest gives her the courage to leave home.  The hope in this book comes from the encouragement of readers to find the courage to set off and follow their own paths. Full of exceptional illustrations that could be hung in a gallery. 

Sammy and the Skyscraper Sandwich by Lorraine Francis and Pieter Gausesaboos

“This look-and-find book is full of visual discoveries that will endlessly excite even the smallest of children, and indeed their parents”

This completely charming book deserves a lot of praise and attention.  In it’s large hardback format, this book will enchant readers as they study the superb illustrations full of fabulous details that will prompt some interesting conversations.  Sammy is hungry and sets to build the tallest sandwich to satisfy his hunger.  Pulling out all manner of ingredients, he continues to add more and more until “it’s as tall as a skyscraper standing on another skyscraper’s shoulders on top of the world’s tallest mountain.”  A fun, light hearted book perfect for bedtime reading.

Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault

“A feel-good celebration of the power of imagination and sisterhood”

Vanessa has a sister Virginia who is feeling “wolf like” and is making strange sounds and doing strange things.  It is affecting the entire house so that “up became down, bright became dim, glad became gloom.”  All colour is lost in the following pages until Vanessa has a brilliant idea.  Virginia needs to escape the doldrums, and Vanessa knows just what to do.  Providing a hopeful way of dealing with overwhelming emotions, this book should be shared widely.  Delightful illustrations and an engaging use of colour, this will allow children to think creatively.

The Umbrella by Ingrid and Dieter Schubert

“A wordless picture book that tells a thousand stories”

The story begins on the endpapers where a red umbrella leans against a tree and a dog approaches it, excitement in his eyes.  A black cat watches the scene with interest.  What happens next is an exciting adventure for the dog as the wind blows him around the world.  Through the clouds, over the savannah and across an ocean, there is much to appreciate and study on each page.  As you near the end of the book, the dog is clearly exhausted.  Wordless Picture books allow the pictures to be interpreted in infinite ways and new stories to be shared with each reader.  The vivid illustrations are to be pored over and appreciated.  This book will have children coming back again and again to tell new stories.

Scallywag Press

Meet Scallywag Press

Interview with Sarah Pakenham and Mini Reviews of Upcoming Titles

Scallywag Press is the new kid on the block, set up in 2018 by the lovely and experienced rights seller Sarah Pakenham.  Formally of Andersen Press, Sarah branched out and created her own publishing house. 

Scallywag Press is going from strength to strength with a firm list of creative picture books being published this year.  I can attest to the wonder and brilliance of each book and I look forward to seeing them out in the world. Scallywag Press is gaining beneficial press coverage with the recent publication of Jon Agee’s The Wall in the Middle of the Book.  A deserving book and one to be read and shared.  It offers humour, relevance and new perspectives.  It has multiple layers that can be explored and enjoyed by various aged children.

Sarah’s experience in the world of children’s books and publishing has given her the innate ability to trust her “gut instinct” about what she likes, wants to publish and who she wants to work with.  She is striking a balance between publishing new talent, such as We Found a Seed by Rob Ramsden and publishing old classics that deserve to be read by a new generation.  The Happy Lion by Roger Duvoisin is being re-published in June 2019 and will no doubt become a firm favourite with new readers.

Sarah believes that books should be a reflection of reality in that they reflect all cultures, genders and nationalities.  They should be about the human condition, recognising the way people behave and encouraging kindness and empathy.  As well as considerations for BAME characters, Sarah is also keen to ensure all abilities, and Neurodiverse children are well represented in the books she publishes.   In that vein of thought, Scallywag Press are proud to publish Me and My Sister by Rose Robbins.  This is a subtle look at living with an autistic sibling and the ways in which life needs to be adapted and understood. 

Currently working solely with picture books, Sarah looks for striking illustrations and an exciting narrative.  Many of the books are endearing and send powerful messages to the reader.  I particularly liked The Longest Strongest Thread by Inbal Leitner.  This gorgeous book shares an enduring message of love between a Grandma and Granddaughter.  No matter the miles, the thread of love links them together.  Knowing this story stems from a young family saying goodbye to their older relatives during WWII makes it even more special and important.

Scallywag Press aims to publish and grow each year and I know there is much more to come from Sarah and her team. 

The Beast and the Bethany- Interview with Jack Meggitt-Phillips

The Beast and the Bethany by [Jack Meggitt-Phillips, Isabelle Follath]

I saw a tantalising thread about a new book from Egmont about a Beast with a recommendation “The biggest and beastliest middle grade series since Lemony Snicket”.  Being a huge fan of The Series of Unfortunate Events, my curiousity was peaked and I emailed begging for a copy of The Beast and the Bethany by Jack Meggitt-Phillips to be sent my way.  Luckily for me, the lovely folk at Egmont were keen to shout about this book from the rooftops and my request was granted.

A completely delightful and dark book that will enchant, scare and enthral you!

An opportunity to interview Jack was presented and with no hesitation, I drafted my questions, sent them away and waited with baited breath for the return.  They are even better than I could have hoped and Jack’s signature humour is thrumming in each answer.

1.Can you describe The Beast and the Bethany in a couple of sentences?

It’s a children’s book about a beast, a youthful 511-year-old, and a child who’s about to be eaten.

Ebenezer Tweezer keeps a beast in the attic of his mansion, who he feeds all manner of things (performing monkeys, pet cats, the occasional cactus), and in return the beast vomits out presents for Ebenezer, as well as potions which keep him young and beautiful.

The beast grows ever greedier, and soon, only a nice juicy child will do, however, the child Ebenezer chooses is a rebellious prankster – one who’ll be a lot trickier to get into the beast’s belly than any cactus or pet cat. Enter Bethany…

2. What might be next for Ebenezer, Beast and Bethany? Obviously without spoiling what is set to be a series…

The series is essentially going to be about two misguided people trying, and miserably failing to become do-gooders. All whilst saving themselves and their friends from the beast’s dastardly, bone-crunching villainy. 

3. Ebenezer is eccentric and fascinating?  Is he based on anyone in your life?

He’s based on a version of myself which has much better hair, but much worse morals.

Sadly, I have no magical beast to vomit me out potions or presents, and, even on my worse days, I’ve never considered serving up a child as a snotty snack for any carnivorous creature. However, I do share Ebenezer’s obsession with peculiar teas, questionable outfits, and avoiding wrinkles.

4. What is your writing process like?  Do you have a special place to write?

I write pretty much exclusively in my dressing gown – a charming, stripy number that frankly deserves a ‘co-authored by’ credit.

I also ransom my morning pain aux chocolate from myself until I’ve written 50 lines. Sometimes entire days are lost to hunger, and I can be found crawling to the kitchen in the late evening after I’ve finally finished the 50th line. 

5. Writing is clearly a gift of yours, but what might you have chosen to do if you couldn’t be an author/writer?

I come from a deeply unpractical family who thought that in order to support the writing, I should have a sensible back up option – AKA a hitherto useless qualification to teach and offer health and safety advice to disco dancers of all ages. 

If you ever injure yourself in a sequin related accident, or an over-energetic step-ball-change, then I’m your man. Please don’t come to me with any medical related emergencies outside the field of disco dance – I’ve had to have that conversation too many times before. 

6. What tips would you offer to budding writers?

Probably the most useful thing I’ve learned is how to look at plot and story as different things. Plot is what happens, and story is what the book is actually about.

For instance, in Christmas Carol, the plot is all the ghostly visitations, whilst the story is about a man changing his ways and rediscovering what it means to live.

And in The Beast and The Bethany, it may seem as if the book is a horrifying tale of a beast devouring its meals, but in reality it’s about . . . no, that’s pretty much it, actually.

 7. Rumour has it you have a wardrobe full of fascinating items….What are your favourite items and least favourites?  Where is this love of clothes inspired from?

My Nan is my fashion icon. We’re terrible influences on each other, and we keep on enabling each other’s ill-advised purchases. I never truly feel comfortable wearing a garment unless it’s going to raise at least half a dozen sets of eyebrows, whereas she isn’t going to so much try an item of clothing on unless it has 2,000 sequins sewn into it. 

My most fashionable item would have to be one of my suits – likely a rather dashing burgundy three-piece that was acquired just before Christmas. The least fashionable would have to be one of my four hats – I look terrible in all of them, but I just won’t accept that I’m simply not a hat person. 

8. What was your favourite childhood book?

If it were not for a certain Mr Snicket, it’s likely that I would have never taken to reading, let alone writing. His books are dripping with misery, woe, and sheer terror – all the essential ingredients needed to captivate children, and show them that reading can be as exhilarating as the most dangerous and ill-tested of rollercoasters. 

9.  What are you currently reading?

My New Year’s resolution for 2020 was to read some books that have been published this century, and I’ve failed miserably. I’m something of a Victorian addict, and I’m currently gasping under the gaslights in horror at The Island of Dr Moreau.

Jack Meggitt-Phillips is clearly a character to contend with and I laughed each time I read and re-read his answers.  This series is set to be huge and I am already the biggest fan!  The Beast and the Bethany is due to be published on 3rd September 2020 by Egmont. 

Cicada Books- Publisher Spotlight

Cicada Books is an Award winning independent publisher based in London, UK.  Specializing in stunning and unique books for children, including activity books, picture and non-fiction, their books are highly sought and convey wonderful messages.  The illustrations in each book are beautifully chosen and have a huge impact on the story or information within the pages.  I was so pleased to be given the opportunity to send some questions to Ziggy Hanaor, the Director of Cicada Books.

Her responses are fantastic and provide a proper insight into the publishing world of Cicada Books and their upcoming titles.  I have been lucky enough in the past to be sent some of their books to read and review and I can highly recommend them all.  Ziggy uses the following three words to describe Cicada Books, “Handsome, Subversive and Engaging”.

Learning about indie publishers is fascinating as they need to think differently to the larger publishers, offer more unique books and be aware of their brand as they look at submissions, authors and illustrators.  Asking Ziggy about “standing out from the crowd”, she had this to say,

“I don’t think it’s a conscious decision to stand out from the crowd. I really love edgy, emerging illustration styles, and I’m always on the lookout for illustrators that have a very distinctive voice. Once we’ve found a way of working together, the books stand out quite naturally because they don’t look like the other books on the shelves. Also, we work with some great printers, and we spend a lot of time thinking about how the books will feel, so hopefully that helps them to stand out too.”

As a smaller publisher, Ziggy and Cicada Books choose to publish 10-12 books each year and I was curious about the number of submissions they receive and how they make those all important decisions about what to publish. “Submissions seem to come in waves, but we usually get two or three per week. I will always look at the stuff that comes through and try to respond (though it does get busy, so sometimes I don’t). It’s hard to say what I’m looking for. I think if you look at the Cicada website, there is an aesthetic that comes through. Even though the illustrators are all working in different mediums with very different voices, there is a certain approach, which is non-traditional, edgy, but also warm and humorous that they all share. That’s what I’m looking for, and although that sounds quite vague, I always know it when I see it!”

That last sentence, “I always know it when I see it” speaks volumes about Ziggy, her knowledge and trusting her publisher instinct.  However, Ziggy wasn’t always a publisher- “I actually started my career as a script editor in television drama. I felt quite frustrated by the corporate-ness of the editorial processes – a lot of cooks involved! I therefore took a career step sideways (or downwards if we’re talking financially) into publishing. I worked for a small independent company called Black Dog Publishing, in which we had zero budgets, but a huge amount of creative control. It was maddening and brilliant in equal measure. While I was at Black Dog I commissioned a couple books that did really well. So when I was pregnant with my first child, I had the idea that setting up my own company would be a way of earning some money and working on my own terms. It’s been a long journey with many painful lessons that I’ve learned on the way, but I don’t regret it for a minute. The freedom to commission and invest in stories and artists that I believe in is a privilege that I am grateful for every day.”

Cicada Books have a huge focus on the illustrative side of picture books. The stories are important, of course, but “Illustration is at the heart of what we do at Cicada. We find talented people on the blogs and on Instagram – and sometimes the graduate shows, and then try to find a story to work up together. Sometimes we develop stories that they generate, and sometimes we work with a pool of in-house writers to create a narrative that that suits their style. But it’s absolutely an illustrator-led process”.

The current catalogue can be viewed from the Cicada Books Website (cicadabooks.co.uk) and there are some stunning books to look forward to this season.  I am particularly keen to read Atlas of Amazing Architecture by Peter Allen, publishing October 2020.  Ziggy is looking forward to “Pocket Chaotic – that’s a really silly story about a kangaroo joey whose mum is always shoving rubbish in her pocket, illustrated by Daniel Gray-Barnett.  Another funny one will be Bartholomew and the Morning Monsters, which is about a boy who struggles to get himself ready in the morning. That one is by a young Irish illustrator called Ruan van Vliet, whose work just cracks me up.

With plenty to look forward to from Cicada Books, I am pleased to have had the chance to get to know Ziggy and her team better through this feature. 

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