The Vault: Interview with picture book author Danny Parker

In late 2015, Allison Tait caught up with picture book author Danny Parker for a chat as part of our So you want to be a writer podcast. Danny and his family have been in Australia since 2004 – arriving from the UK on something of an adventure and never looking back.

His full time job is as a writer in residence at a large independent boys’ school in Perth. But when he’s not doing that, he’s writing picture books – the first three of which covered losing his father, becoming a dad himself and the wonderful (and odd) world of parenting. This interview is worth a listen for anyone looking at writing picture books and wanting to know how it all works…

Duration: 30 minutes


Transcript

Allison
Danny Parker is a children’s book author with four books in his new young reader’s series, Lola’s Toybox, published by Hardy Grant in August this year, and four more to come in the next 12 months. He also has Perfect, his four-published picture book, illustrated by Freya Blackwood, out this month through Little Hare, plus eight other picture books in the pipeline.

He’s the presenter of the Writing Picture Books course for the Australian Writers’ Centre in Perth, and he is a very busy man.

Welcome to the program, Danny. Thanks so much for making some time for us today.

Danny
You’re very welcome.

Allison
Let’s talk about this enormous number of picture books you’ve got coming out, are picture books your first love?

Danny
Yeah. I would say very much. I came… I came to writing through the picture book sort of format, and the very first thing that I did, which came about three or four years ago was… I didn’t really know it when I wrote it, but it was a picture text.

And the way I came into writing, really, was through a relationship with a dear friend of mine now, Matt Ottley, who’s an illustrator. I showed him the story and said, “Could you help me with where to put the words on the page?” sort of thing.

He recognized that it was actually potentially a really good picture book story, in his view. And he sort of picked me up and mentored me through the process. So, I realized then that I wasn’t writing poetry, I was actually writing little picture books.

Allison
Oh, OK. So, it was obviously a rhyming…

Danny
No, no… I’ve got a couple of books coming out that are in verse, but, no, it was just a response to a pretty significant life event, when we lost my dad 12 or 13 years ago. But, it was a very… it was poetic sort of approach to… I was looking at the time for something to read, to find, that would help me through sort of that period. I couldn’t find anything in the genre that I like, which is small. I like to read short things.

In response I wrote a story about, effectively about the sort of life cycle of a tree, having been a small tree beneath the big tree and then there’s a storm one night and the large tree gets blown down. The little tree grows up to be big and strong, and eventually a little tree grows underneath it. We lost my dad and then about a year later my son was born.

It kind of felt like a very personal thing to be writing, even though it was really about trees.

Matt took that up and said, “Look, there’s some things you need to know about picture books,” and took me on this sort of whirlwind tour really of how to think ‘picture book’ when you’re writing.

Allison
So you didn’t actually realize that you had written a picture book at that point?

Danny
I’ve got a big family, I’m the youngest of six, and obviously it was quite a surprise losing Dad. One of my sister-in-laws — is it sister-in-laws or sisters-in-laws? One of my sisters-in-law, I think, she is a fine artist, and a very fine artist at that, and I had written this story and she had done some pictures to go with the story.

But, I didn’t realize then that illustration in a picture book world was an art form in itself. It wasn’t really a matter of just simply drawing the pictures of the words, but of finding another story inside the text and helping the book become deeper and more significant. And Matt, obviously, saw immediately that this was a text that he could do other stories within.

So, it went from being a story with pictures to a picture book, really.

Allison
Interesting.

Danny
It was an incredible journey.

Allison
Do you think that’s a mistake that a lot of people make about picture books, in thinking that it’s a story with pictures instead of a picture book so to speak?

Danny
Yeah. I think it’s a funny space, isn’t it? There are lots of brilliant books with pictures, and there are lots of activity books or lift-a-flap books or whatever books where, you know, the pictures really do need to be directly… because they’re reinforcing the words. But, the picture book model itself seems to allow two very distinctly different… perhaps different creative souls, i.e. the writer and the illustrator to get together to create, usually with the help of an editor, I guess, that third thing, that other place, the sort of space between the words and the pictures where another story can happen.

I think that’s really obvious when you read to kids, because they see the other stories because they’re reading the pictures as much as they’re reading or hearing the words.

But, yeah, I think certainly when I started I thought, for example, Trees, ironically now called Tree, but at the time you could see that there were trees everywhere on the illustration, so we didn’t have to say the word ‘tree’…

Allison
Right.

Danny
It’s those sorts of things. And if you’re freed up as a writer from having to say, “There was a terrible storm that night,” because you can see that there’s a terrible storm, then you’re free to be more poetic with the way you describe the storm, so your capacity as a writer is stretched a little bit more, but you can find other ways of talking about stormy, in that instance.

Allison
I believe you’re a teacher in your actual day job.

Danny
Yeah.

Allison
Was Tree the first thing you sort of really seriously wrote? Or were there other things that you had worked on prior to that?

Danny
I’ve always written. One of the lovely things about being published is suddenly the words that you’ve got published seem to… in other people’s eyes they seem to have an authenticity that everything else you’ve ever done didn’t have. You’re sort of asked things like, “When did you start writing…” Children often say, “When did you first start writing?” And you’re forced to reflect and it’s absolutely true that I’ve always written. But, when I look back now I never much enjoyed certain aspects of English as a student at school in the UK — loved drama, loved Shakespeare, loved all of that side of things. I teach drama now, but the only areas of English that I really enjoyed were either wonderful teachers, and I had a few of those, or poetry. I used to love the confined nature of the short line, the fact that you couldn’t… I have a great tendency to just sort of blather on, you know?

And being confined to six syllables or nine syllables and having to find a way of communicating in that sort of way.

I was a nurse for a while, actually. I recently rediscovered lots of the poetry that I wrote when I was nursing. It’s very much about patients I knew at the time or things that I was doing at the time. It’s very much like a diary, you know? You look back and say, “Oh, crickey, yeah, 1987 I was talking to Ms. Miggins about…” so and so.

But, yeah, I’ve always have. And I don’t think ever seriously thinking that it would ever be published, certainly the poetry was never to be published, that sort of thing was just, you know, to attract girls, I suppose.

Allison
It’s often for the best when that’s not published, isn’t it?

Danny
But, it wasn’t really until I met Matt, and as I say, he saw in the work… and I had a lot of little stories like Tree that I had been tinkering around with, because it was always a way of just being creative, I think. I’ve written lots of plays for students. So, I’m very at home sitting in front of the keyboard.

From that, really… we needed somebody to sort out the contract. He very kindly offered me the services of his literary agent who said, “I’ll do this one for you, if you like, but you have to remember if I don’t like you and you don’t like me we go our separate ways after it, because it’s already in the bag, I haven’t got to do any work for you. But have you got anything else?”

So I sent her a few other things and things just started coming in.

Allison
Wow
.

Danny
I know.

Allison
Do you think an agent… I’m skipping ahead a little bit, but do you think an agent is important for picture book writers?

Danny
For me, personally, the intricacy of contract, the ins and outs of whether you’re being paid a fee or whether you’re on royalties… I think it’s a minefield. My personal feeling is that my agent, Margaret Kennedy has been very useful indeed.

I have… and this is just me, but I’ve been extremely lucky with the relationship that I struck up with Margaret Lemonde at Little Hare. And, I haven’t needed an agent to shop my work around so much, because they’ve sort of gone with me and said, “Let’s have a look at a new story… let’s have a look at another idea.”

I certainly know writers who really don’t want to lose 10 percent or whatever it is and feel that, you know, part of the job is to, you know, get off your backside and get your work out there.

So, look, I think it’s swings and roundabouts, so, I’ve only known the way I’ve done it. Yeah, it’s probably hard for me to comment with any authenticity really.

Allison
When you’re sort of starting out, you said that Matt kind of mentored you through the process. What do you think were the biggest, if you could call them mistakes, that you were kind of making in your text when you started out? What would those things be? And, are they the kinds of things that you see regularly in sort of students for the Australian Writers’ Centre?

Danny
Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think they are… well, they are in, ultimately in the world of the picture book, they are something that will be changed, so I guess you can see them as mistakes in the first place. But, they’re very obvious things to do, and that… overwriting, really. Just thinking that if you don’t pack your text with everything you’re expecting the reader to see that they won’t see it.

And, of course, it’s not only you in this journey. You’re going to give this text to an illustrator who isn’t going to want it to say the green pig climbed up the hill, because that’s what they’re going to illustrate and you’re going to see that the green pig is climbing up the hill, possibly.

But, the difficulty is, and this is a really difficult one, it’s a difficult one when you’re being in a great relationship with a publisher, it’s a difficult one for everybody, you feel if you don’t say it in the text how is the illustrator going to know…

Allison
That was going to be my next question, because clearly that’s the next question? Are they reading your mind? I mean how do you know?

Danny
That’s right… that’s right.

So, I think what follows on from that is if the nugget, if the kernel of the story is the… a picture book text has to have something universal that will attract attention and be of interest to parents reading to children, to children on their own, open to interpretation on sort of a universal scale.

So, you would hope that once the nugget of the idea has been accepted then it becomes a conversation where things are cut, things are changed, things move around. But, it’s incredibly difficult to write something as spare as it ends up, because obviously you sent in 74 words people would say, “Great, it’s kind of an abstract poem, there’s nothing happening.”

Allison
It’s a caption.

Danny
So, no, it’s not fair… it’s not fair. But, unfortunately, I think that’s the most common thing, that every beautiful detail of the child’s walk to the sandpit is described with wonderful, wonderful language and you think, “That’s all going.”

Allison
Yeah, that’s sad, isn’t it?

Danny
Writers love writing, don’t they? And they love the words.

Allison
Yeah.

Danny
Of course they do, and that’s fantastic. But, the difficult thing is to… you can put illustration notes if you want into your text, but the difficult thing I think to start with is to realize is the illustrator is a creative individual themselves and it’s their job to do… for a start it takes an awful lot longer, often, to do the illustrations, in my opinion and in my experience than it has taken you to do the story. That’s probably contentious, actually.

But, their job is not simply to illustrate your words, but actually to find something for them that’s universal and beautiful about the story. So, very often if you read a text without showing the pictures you won’t have a full idea of the story at all. And equally if you just saw the pictures and didn’t read the text you’d think, “Crickey, what’s going on?”

But, it’s when you put those two together.

Coming back to your question, if it’s a mistake, then it’s not realizing that you are a part of a team of creative people who are all kind of marching in the same direction.

Allison
It’s interesting. I guess that is, as you say, something that you only learn with experience, because you don’t… like, when you’re writing your first one, if you don’t know who might be working with, how it might work, or…

Danny
I think also, though, on a related note, often people come to writing a picture book because of some significant personal passion, something they feel strongly about and they feel should be out there for kids to realize and understand. And often if it doesn’t have a universal appeal, i.e. it’s something that’s absolutely appropriate to them in their family right now, right here and now, the chances of it actually having an appeal to a publisher are diminished, I think, because they can’t see a market, basically. They want to sell your books, don’t they? So, they’re not sure who’s going to go and buy a book about your particular issue in your family today.

And that’s hard because writers care passionately, and this issue is a very personal and important issue for them. And, it’s hard to be told, “Well, actually that might be important to you…”

Allison
Frankly, no one else cares. Yeah. Yeah, that’s not easy.

Danny
No. No, it’s not.

Allison
So, how many drafts would you say that you do until you get from idea to kind of final text?

Danny
It completely depends, Perfect, the book that’s out this month was a remarkable little journey. It does actually rhyme perfect… well, it kind of half-rhymes. And, came from a very specific moment where… it was a Saturday, my daughter was home from school, Jude, my wife was out and about, I forget where my son was, but I said to Abby, my daughter, “What do you want to do today?” And she said, “Oh Dad, I just need a crayon and somewhere to scribble.” Something absolutely beautiful about the balance of that, just that line, “A crayon and somewhere to scribble,” that I had to go and write a story around the simplicity, not only of the context of that, that we don’t need all of the stuff that we generally sort of think we need. But, also to try and find out the language to balance sort of that phrase.

So, I have no idea to this day what she did on that Saturday. That’s another subject.

But, that story was relatively quick, because a bit like a rhyming, you know, like a ten syllable line… I knew in that instance that in this case the noun came first, the verb came at the end, and that I wanted it to bounce, I wanted it to rhyme, I wanted it to have a rhythm.

Once you’re in there it was a relatively quick… and almost untouched from the editor sort of perspective. So, it really didn’t take very long at all. But, by that time I suppose it’s important to remember that I had quite a few contracts with this particular publisher already, so they were ready to accept something and say, “Oh, yeah, we know you, we know…”

There’s been other stories that have been on my desktop for years. And, I’ll go back to and I’ll tinker with and think, “Oh, what was I thinking,” or, “Oh, this is really lovely.”

But, I have a friend in the UK who is a stand-up comedian and he always says of content, he’ll say, “Look, I know there’s one in there somewhere.” There’s something in there, I just…

Allison
You haven’t quite unearthed it yet. Yeah.

Danny
I’ve got a lot of those on my desktop, a lot of stories about something that I know has a resonance, I just don’t quite know the best way to communicate it yet. And, I might have, you know, multiple goes, and sometimes my filing system isn’t brilliant, I’ll read something and think, “I can’t imagine I wrote that.” And then realize that I’ve got six versions beyond it, you know?

Allison
Yeah, wow.

Danny
So, lots. I think I’ve been very lucky with my editor at Little Hare, because she kind of gets that what I’m sending her isn’t going to necessarily be the finished product, and I’m not going to jump up and down and say, “You can’t change my words.”

Because I think that’s another… it’s a difficult one sometimes, but the editor is a creative being as well. They’re not there just to sort of dot some ‘i’s and make sure you put capital letters. They’re actually engaged in the process of communicating that story.

Yeah, I wish there was a simple answer, but it just entirely depends.

The chapter books are a different conversation. You’re writing 3,500 words and the editor is looking for a whole sort of instance, the shape of the story across the book, and they’re also looking for how it fits into the other books in the series, the Lola books aren’t actually sequential, so you have to embed enough information in any one of them for a reader to understand the whole world of all of them.

So, they’re sort of looking for, “Have you said this, because we need to say it, it isn’t said in this text yet. Have you done this?” You know? So editorial becomes a little bit more of a
content-based thing.

Allison
OK, let’s talk about that for a moment. How and why did you segue into that younger readers chapter book sort of end of town?

Danny
Well, I had a period of long service leave, a couple of years ago, a year ago, crickey, it’s only a year ago. And, I was writing and writing and writing, as I always do. And, I had written something that was not a chapter book. My son was madly into scootering at the time. And, I had this sort of picture book idea about a kid who… sort of a Famous Five kind of group of skaters or scooter riders… I don’t know if you know much about scootering, but if you ever get down onto a skate park there’s an incredible hierarchy that sort of works between BMX riders and skateboarders and scooters. And scooters are coming along at a rate knots are becoming very high tech. And kids that were younger than skateboard riders were really good at scootering, but skateboard riders didn’t really kind of recognize their skills because, you know, they’re silly things, scooters are.

And I had written this story, but it was too long for a picture book really. And I wrote to my editor at Little Hare and said, “Look, I know you don’t do longer work, but do you have any idea of who I could approach?” And she directed me to their parent company, to Hardy Grant and said, “Look, if there’s any value in the work, it’s not for me to say, but the person you need to speak to is Hilary Rogers at Hardy Grant,” she’s a series commissioner, and a very fine one too. And, she’s responsible for Billie B. Brown and Zac Power and those serious sort of players in the world.

And she wrote me a really beautiful email that said, “This is rubbish.”

Allison
I love those ones, the ‘beautiful rubbish.’

Danny
“But, I do know everything you’ve written, because I’m on the acquisitions board at Little Hare. So, I’d love to work with you. Let’s have a chat.”

So, it was one of those beautifully fortuitous conversations right at the beginning of my long service, I had six months.

And they had a couple of ideas around the office about sort of… I suppose it’s important to talk to students about things have to be marketable. The publisher isn’t an arts/cultural sort of protector of the cultural arts, although good ones do that.

But, they need to sell books.

So, they’ve been sort of really researching the market and having a think about what could we put in the market that wasn’t there at the moment. And they had a couple of ideas, and just said, “We’d like to do something along the lines of toys coming to life, but not a Toy Story, probably in the real world, maybe as a result of a toy box. What do you think?” And we chucked ideas between each other for a month or so. They sent me some books, I read loads of stuff. We talked about our passions. And I’ve always loved portals and sort of Doctor Who type… I’m not a Doctor Who fan particularly, but I’ve always loved Alice in Wonderland, and those portal stories.

I suggested that this toy box, rather than her toys coming to life, was actually a gateway to a magical kingdom of toys that are there because their children aren’t playing with them, basically.

So, each book goes into parts of this kingdom, to a different land in this kingdom. So, if you’re in Cuddleton, obviously they’re cuddly toys. If you’re Timber Fields they’re wooden toys. If you go to the Silk Lakes, then you’re finding all of those beautiful silky types and parachutes and things like that.

And it sort of started from there really. And I was asked to write… I mean I didn’t think of it at the time, it was kind of testing me out, I suppose it was, I was asked to write a 4,000-word draft, you know? “How do you see one of these stories panning out? What does it feel like?” And then as a result of that we had a couple of Skype meetings, I know hard to imagine, because I’m rubbish on Skype.

And the result was, “Let’s start with four books.”

Yeah, it wasn’t really so much anything more than having started one story that I knew was too long for a picture book, and then sort of getting caught up in the machinery of just the right time, right place, I imagine.

Allison
And finding yourself in a whole different world.

Danny
Yeah, and it is a very different world. But, they complement each other beautifully. It’s lovely to go from… and the Lola books are 3,500 words, ten chapters, you’re looking at trying to sort of keep a rhythm and a pace in a chapter that makes the kid want to turn the next page.

And then back to a picture book which has a different landscape entirely and trying to get the nugget of that universal idea in 150 words, you know? Which is…

Allison
Challenging.

Danny
Yeah.

Allison
Lucky you like short and challenging, isn’t it?

Danny
Yeah, it is. It is — yeah, yeah. God knows if I ever had to do a novel, that would be… I think that would be terrifying.

Allison
Just switching gears slightly, how do you promote your books? Are you doing a lot of kind of visits, at your end of town in that sort of younger readers area, what does promotion look like?

Danny
I have to say it’s kind of a little bit of a rush, and it’s stepped up in the last… well, since Lola came out really. Um, and the guys at Hardy Grant have been very good at setting up opportunities for me to come and speak to book shops and to speak to schools, and talk to retailers. I’ve been out to Sydney and to Melbourne to do that. And they’ve been over to WA, I live in Perth, they’ve been over to WA doing Book Week this year, and sort of walking around lots of libraries and places.

I think sort of the job in author, those of us who don’t have to have a proper job — I didn’t mean it.

Allison
Just as far as that dead silence there.

Danny
Out and about in schools, you know, and trying to create a passion for writing and reading in kids and then hopefully the byproduct of that is that those kids are involved and interested in that author’s work and maybe go on and buy some of it.

But, yeah, I think it’s that combination. It certainly seems to be… I think until you become really well-known, I think you’ve got to roll your sleeves up and get into schools and libraries and do that.

I have to say having worked in schools in the UK I’m sure there is a market for the visiting author, but it does seem really buoyant in Australia. It doesn’t seem like a really, you know, a really valued resource by schools and libraries.

Allison
I guess as a teacher, like with your background, you would not find it too much of a chore either, would you?

Danny
No, I love it. I really enjoy it.

I’m a drama teacher by profession, and that sort of sense… communicates to the group of people is always… I do quite a lot of picture books as plays as well. So, sometimes I can take three or four kids and do sort of a short version of a picture book as a piece of theatre, which is always nice and exciting.

Allison
Oh, that’s fun.

Danny
Yeah, it’s nice. And just another way of looking at the work, really. Anything that gets kids to want to read more has got to be a good thing.

Allison
As far as, again, your end of town with the younger readers, like do you think that an author website and social media is important for authors in your area?

Danny
I’m increasingly beginning to realize that it is. I’m somebody who’s… I’m 48, and I’m not very… well, not at all technically… until I find a typewriter that can work quicker than I’m thinking then I don’t really understand any of it.

So, I do have a Facebook page, or inside a Facebook account I’ve got a page called Danny Parker Books. And I do have an Instagram account as of about three minutes ago, which I forget what it’s called, but it’s there.

And I do have a website, and the website is very brilliant and beautifully made by an ex-student of mine, who writes to me occasionally and says, “Dan, can you send me some information, you’ve got a new book out and it’s not on your website.” But, I actually… my mom can tell you how good my website is because in England that’s sometimes the only way she can communicate with me.

Allison
Oh, fair enough.

Danny
But it’s not very good.

I think the answer to your question is they absolutely should be and proper people are making them work. I’m just not. But, it is an intention of mine to get on. Another ex-student who is doing very well in the field of social media and promotion and those things, we’re hooking up in a little while to try and get a little bit more thoughtful about what I do.

Allison
Excellent.

Danny
I’ve got a full time job. I’m kind of busy and I write in the evenings and the weekends and when I’m done writing and teaching, I don’t have — I don’t know how people do it. I don’t know how they sit and update things and whatnot.

Allison
When there’s books to write and other things to do. I quite understand.

Danny
I’ve got children. You know, I’ve got two brilliant, brilliant kids, I want to spend some time with them too. But, no, I do think it’s probably… if I didn’t have an income I think I would probably be forced to be all over it.

And that’s a terrible thing to say, certainly to people, you know, that are absolutely dreaming of being published, but ultimately you’re just a human, I mean you do what you can.

Allison
Yep, that’s exactly right.

All right, just to finish up, we do our famous and fabulous three top tips. So, I’m just wondering if you could give us your top three tips for picture book writers.

Danny
Gosh, three.

Allison
I know, three.

Danny
I would say get into bookshops, into children’s bookshops, more than libraries probably, libraries are a fantastic resource. But, have a look at what’s actually on the shelf. That would be a first thing.

And realize that it took 18 months to get there, or there abouts.

Really have a look at what subjects and what things are hot. What is almost every third book about and don’t write that story.

In a sense, look for something that isn’t there, because although it might be on its way, it’s a gap in the market, and there is a market and you need to be thinking about that.

Three — the second would be, and this is sort of similar to something we said earlier, which is to be really, really brutal with your own edits. Don’t hold onto your words like they’re your children, you know? Really don’t worry.

In fact, I was told once, and I think it’s brilliant, when the first picture book I had was published, called Tree, the conversation sort of went like this: “Danny, I really love your story, I just want to change one thing, the words.”

I know that sounds brutal – but it actually wasn’t that bad.

Allison
That’s brutal.

Danny
If my editor ever listens to this she’ll probably shoot me from a distance. But, it felt like that, to me it felt like that. You know? Like, “Well, hang on a second, if I cut back and cut back and cut back and cut back, there isn’t anything left, is there?”

But, to not be so caught up personally in the story, although of course it’s a personal thing. There are, you know, I say to kids sometimes if three pink flamingos burst through the window now and flew around the room and then flew off singing ‘Happy Birthday,’ we’d all go home and tell that story, it would be the same story, but we’d all tell it differently.

You’ve just got to be prepared sometimes to tell the story in another way if you want someone to read it.

So, that would be my second thing.

And then the third, which I’m sure probably every single person you’ve ever talked to says is just keep going. Don’t let the amount of people who don’t realize how brilliant you are tell you that you’re no good. You’ve just got to keep going, you know?

Allison
You’ve just got to find the one, don’t you who thinks you are brilliant?

Danny
Yeah, you really do. And there is someone there. I know… it’s really hard. I do these sessions for adults with the Australian Writers’ Centre, as you know, and that feeling that it’s an impossible mountain to climb sort of comes at you in waves sometimes. You think, you know, if it was easy… it wouldn’t have any value, you know?

Allison
No, that’s right.

Danny
The point is you’ve got to keep going and you’ve got to be prepared to change it and change and change it. And, persistence and resilience is very important.

Allison
Brilliant. Well, I think we should leave it right there because that is sensational advice to finish on.

Thank you so much for your time.

Danny
You are welcome.

Allison
We’re all looking forward to the deluge of Danny Parker picture books that will all be coming our way.

Danny
Yeah.

Allison
So, best of luck with all of those deadlines.

Danny
Thank you very much.

Allison
Thanks.

Danny
Thanks.


Comments