Friday, September 5, 2008

Creating a Picture Book - "Mending Lucille"

LATEST: "Mending Lucille" is "Book of the Month" in Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth - "Melbourne's Child" parenting magazine has made "Mending Lucille" their book of the month. Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth editions of the paper have followed suit.

The Highs and the Lows of Creating a Winning Picture Book

"Mending Lucille" written by J.R.Poulter & illustrated by Sarah Davis, Lothian/Hachette Livre, hb, 2008, ISBN 9780734410337:
The book has had the most amazing reception.
It sold out the first print run in its first week of release.
It was picked up by ASO.
Within its first fortnight has become a recommended book for counseling and biblio-therapy by Monash Medical Centre's Australian Centre for Grief Education and a site devoted to counselling parents/carers of children suffering the trauma of loss/bereavement.

The following story of the creation of "Mending Lucille" is based around a presentation Sarah & I were invited to give at SCWBI International Conference, Sydney, February 2008 - a huge honour for 2 relative newbies.

• First version written in one sitting – started with the first line ‘A raging and roaring and rolling in the sky like a storm –’ the next line came immediately I committed the 1st to paper. The whole story took less than 15 minutes to write.
• It was submitted to Lothian almost as an afterthought - they were looking for more humorous material at that time.
• Later submitted the 2nd version - more like a poem – this version wasn’t used.
• The story behind the story – can’t be told in its entirety, as it goes back generations and many folk affected are still alive. I was motivated to write by the pervading sense of loss and grief that hung, mist-like in the homes of relatives who had suffered terrible loss as children.

• The story was to have been released pre the Hachette/Lothian merger.
• Helen originally contracted Caroline Magerl to do the illustrations.
• I very much like Caroline’s work. My favourite example of her style and what I imagine she might have used for “Mending Lucille” was her utterly beautiful “Grandma’s Shoes”- see below:

• After the takeover by Hachette, the pace quickened.
Caroline Magerl decided to devote herself more to her art and withdrew. []
• I was sent an example of Leith Walton’s work. Couldn’t find the picture the publisher sent, which was very different to Caroline's work but still well executed. This is Leith’s submission for the ‘Book of Pi’ competition.

• Hachette decided against Leith for my particular project and the hunt was on for another illustrator. [Wonder what he’s doing now.]

• Jenny Gibson, art teacher/web designer, had submitted her portfolio. Jenny had done the humorous illustrations for my education series, “Poetry Action for Classroom and Stage”. This is one of her line drawings. Hachette decided against using her work for this particular project. [see more of Jenny's work: ]

• At this stage, I asked Helen if I could “have a go at finding an illustrator”. Helen gave me my head!

• I Googled ‘illustrators’ specifying ‘pages from Australia’ – two sites came up worth checking. The SCBWI site was one.
• I found two artists – one on each site and contacted the sites. Sarah Davis was the artist I found on the SCWBI site. Site Coordinator, Susanne Gervay, responded to my enquiry almost immediately and sent me Sarah’s contact details. Susanne has been an enormously encouraging mentor to both Sarah and I and subsequently invited us to present our story of the book's creation at the SCWBI International Conference, Sydney February 2008.
• This is the picture that drew me to Sarah – it was so multi-layered! []

• Rang Sarah and told her I had a contract with Lothian. Would she be interested in doing a couple of sketches for Helen? I couldn’t guarantee she would get the contract & I couldn’t pay her.
• Sarah loved the ms and submitted sketches. [ I got first peak within 48 ours.]
• I contacted Helen, my wonderful editor at Lothian. She was wary, Sarah not being a ‘known’ illustrator and pairing her with me, not exactly a ‘known’ myself! I was so excited at discovering Sarah that I didn't hesitate to say to Helen, ‘Sarah’s the one – just wait till you see the samples!’
• Helen loved the samples - the rest is history!

Lucille, the ragdoll:

• Sarah got underway with the illustrations, sending me updates - the two of us just gob smacked at how unified a vision we had of the book!
• This is an early picture Sarah sent me. It visualised a key element in the story, one Hachette now felt should be changed. The dead bird:

• The story was as originally written when Sarah started illustrating. However, at about the same time, Hachette took over Lothian.
• I was told I needed to eliminate any reference to or hint of ‘death’ from the text.
• This was no easy task as the dead bird symbol was one of the key elements to the story.
• I had seen the need for a story like Mending Lucille. So many children have been and are being left without one of their central carers/parents and popular opinion was always that the children were not affected adversely.
• Re death/bereavement: It was generally felt children ‘got over it’, ‘they were too young to be aware of what was happening’. Death's very finality allowed for recovery, for moving on, it gave a sense of closure.
• Re loss/abandonment: Of more devastating proportions for a child, however, is the loss of a parent on going - a parent's abandonment of the child. The general consensus was ‘it was better for the child than living in an unhappy home’ etc. There is no easy moving on from this type of loss because the parent is still alive is a profound loss, an inconsolable loss – it does not go away.

• I had used the reference to ‘death’ in relation to the bird to gentle the story down – the fate of the mother was to be deliberately left ‘open’. Whether literally dead or gone from the child’s life, she was effectively ‘dead’ to the child I was not looking at pros and cons – not looking for reasons why – this was the child’s story, from her perspective.
• Children are not generally told reasons and even of they are – they are too young to take them in – it is the loss that registers. The ‘unspeakable’ grieving – no one speaks to the child in a language he/she can understand about their loss till someone like Chrissie comes and starts to reach out to them at their level & so begin to console and mend the child.

• I needed to find a way to still tell the story without compromise, but keep the publisher happy. I found a path through but fought for some of my more resonating text.
• I drafted changes and ran them by Sarah – would this still fit with her vision of the whole? Yes, Sarah could see how it could be interpreted visually!

• We both feel that what we now have, the final book, is a braver text, more controversial in ways, more honest! This is Sarah’s revised version of the bird and the rosebush:

• The changes to the text introduced the cage that is loss and grief…Sarah’s evocative illustration:

• The bird becomes the spirit soaring! The end flaps:

"Mending Lucille", Lothian, 2008, hardback, ISBN 978-0-7344-1033-7

To read the illustrator's side of the story of "Mending Lucille" - go to:

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Peter Taylor - Author and Illustrator said...

Thanks so much for posting this, Jennifer. I'll send the link to all my fellow Children's Book Council committee members.

It's a wonderful book that should be awarded.

Best wishes,

Peter Taylor

J.R.Poulter/J.R.McRae said...

Thanks for all your help and encouragement Peter!
How's it going with that quirky new project of your own? Love those illustrations!

Chris Gordon said...


I really enjoyed reading this page as well as your website as a whole.

I stumbled across this memory book for children called "Someone I Love Is Dying".

This book is a tool for children and parents dealing with terminal illness and the loss of a loved one. The beginning children's story highlights various stages of grief and concludes with a journal. The journal is used to record the child's feelings while creating their very own memory book.

More info can be found at:

Best of luck with your endeavors,