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How to write AND illustrate a truly inspiring children's book

  • by Teigan Margetts

Ever heard of Maurice Sendak?!? Of course you have, because he's the most famous children's author of all time (and honestly, who doesn't love Where the Wild Things Are?). But do you know why else he's so famous? Because he wrote and illustrated all of his books. 

The number of people in the world who are talented enough to both write and illustrate children's books are few and far between. But here are Ethicool, we are fortunate enough to have found one of them! We're beyond excited to have Tom Gregory, author of The World Under Wings join our growing team. Here's a bit more about Tom and his gorgeous new book. 

PS. Would you like to get your book published with Ethicool, just like Tom? We highly recommend a manuscript assessment to give yourself the best chance. More info here.

Tom, your first book just got published! Can you tell us a bit more about yourself? 

Absolutely! I grew up in Shropshire right on the border of England and Wales surrounded by some really amazing countryside. With mountains, rivers, lakes, forests and the sea all within reach; its no wonder I quickly became fascinated with the natural world and the creatures in it.

Growing up I’d spend hours sprawled on the floor tracing pictures from nature books, or copying illustrations from my favourite stories before I grew into creating pictures and tales of my own.

There’s never been anything that could hold my attention quite like drawing can! 

When I moved to London to study illustration and animation, I gravitated towards its parks, wide open spaces full of nature that reminded me of home, they’re a good substitute since I get my best ideas when I’m walking, swimming or just spending time in wild spaces. Since graduating I’ve focused on writing and illustrating stories that combine my passion for drawing with the natural world that’s always inspired me.

You are our very first author-illustrator, which is an amazing combination of skills! Many authors and illustrators we work with say that their passion for their profession started in their childhood. Can you tell me if anything from your childhood comes to mind here?

I’ve always loved reading and was a classic example of the kid who’d smuggle a torch to bed so they could squeeze in one more chapter, with no chance of sleep until I knew if the Skyship crashed or whether Bilbo made it out of the cave unscathed.

Whenever I finished a great book, I hated thinking that the story was over so I’d imagine what would happen to the characters next and write stories of my own in the authors’ worlds; which I guess is where I first began writing for fun. 

As much as I loved writing, I never really imagined myself being able to do it as anything other than a fun pastime. It wasn’t until I was at university that I started thinking about the possibility of writing as well as illustrating. In the same way you see actors writing scripts so they could have something to star in, I began writing again so I’d have stories to illustrate, but in doing that I’ve fallen back in love with writing!

Writing AND illustrating a book must be a challenge! Can you tell us more about the creative process for The World Under Wings? Tell us all about your process!

There were definitely some tough times making the book single-handedly but there are lots of benefits to it too.

I think good collaboration between an author and illustrator is key to making a great book, ideally the words and illustrations should both inform each other as they develop naturally together. This is much easier to achieve as both the writer and illustrator since no one knows what you’re thinking or how to interpret it quite as well as you do, this meant that I could tweak the words or illustrations at any time to make them fit the other better.

But not having a collaborator to bounce ideas off can be a massive drawback. This meant it was even more important for me to have family and friends who could give honest opinions and most importantly criticisms of the book as it evolved. I’m excited to try my hand at illustrating other people’s words in the future, or to see what another illustrator could come up with in response to one of my stories. 

I’d call my process for illustrating The World Under Wings “digital cut-out”; it’s inspired by Matisse, one of my favourite artists, and adapted to digital work to make it easily reworkable. I always sketch out my illustrations by hand first, normally loads of times. Then once I have a good idea what I’d like them to look like I hand paint lots of different textures which I scan into my computer.

Next, I cut them all together in photoshop, making each animal, tree, person or building separately out of these “digital cut-outs”. This leaves me with a big “toybox” of images that I can piece together like stickers, moving and resizing them until I’m happy with where everything sits.

Getting published as a first-time author-illustrator can be a challenge. What has been your experience to date, and do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

I think it’s really important to look for ideas in the things that you care about, for me that normally means getting outside and amongst nature, or watching David Attenborough’s documentaries about wildlife further afield (I’m pretty sure that’s where I first learnt about Arctic Terns).

Writing or illustrating a book is a long process, so your idea has to be one that can you can stay interested in for weeks or even months. But if you can get to the end of your book and still love it, that’s a great sign that other people will too! 

Like I mentioned earlier its especially important If you’re illustrating and writing the book by yourself that you reach out to lots of friends and family for feedback, there are loads of things (good or bad) that you’ll never be able to spot in your own work that will stand out straight away to fresh eyes. 

The best piece of advice I can give is that you have to be the first person to believe in your work and what you can do. You have to believe that if you put time and effort into writing or illustrating a story, it’ll be worth it in the end. And once you’re finished you have to have faith that people will connect with your story. That parts tricky, I sat on my finished book for ages before I convinced myself it was ready to send it off to publishers, but I’m so glad I took the leap!

For those of us who haven’t read The World Under Wings yet, can you tell us what it’s about?

The World Under Wings is inspired by the amazing Arctic Terns who travel the length of the whole world in their migrations. These fascinating birds see more sunlight than any other animals on the planet as they soar from the Arctic to Antarctica and back every single year.

The story picks up as they begin their mammoth journey one year, only to notice that all over the planet, nature is in danger. So they decide to do something about it, but they quickly realise they can’t do it alone as it’ll take everyone pulling together to make a real difference. On their adventure they cross some of the worlds most incredible landscapes and meet a whole cast of characters with a part to play in protecting their planet.

It’s a story about working together, with an optimistic message about saving our home and theirs from the problems facing it. I hope readers come away from the book feeling like they can make a difference in protecting the planet, no matter how big and scary climate change can seem!

Looking after our planet is a key theme in The World Under Wings. Can you tell us why that’s important to you? 

I think growing up surrounded by nature really makes you care about preserving it, so that future generations get to do the same.

There are endless amazing places and creatures out there in the world so it’s a tragedy whenever we lose even one. I think we all have a responsibility to do what we can help protect the environment.

And finally! A big part of Ethicool’s vision is to inspire the next generation to create change. If you could inspire the next generation of kids to do just one thing, what would it be?

That’s a great question!

I’d like the next generation to spend as much time as they can having adventures. Whether that’s going somewhere they’ve never been, learning to do something they never could, or simply trying a food they’ve never eaten. Even if you don’t like what you find, you always come out of an adventure wiser for having been on it!

Tom's gorgeous new book, The World Under Wings, is now exclusively available via Ehicool Books. Grab your copy here.

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