The BookBrunch Interview: Vivian French from Picture Hooks

Jasmin Kirkbride
News - Interviews Friday, 22nd April 2016

Vivian French from Picture Hooks on mentoring illustrators and building confidence on the eve of this year's event, which teams budding talent with established stars

One of the first things you notice about Vivian French is that she has this fantastically naughty laugh. It comes out when I question her about the incredible number of books she’s published. "It’s really embarrassing because the answer is I don’t know!" she confesses. "It’s more than 250 – in fact, it’s probably crawling up towards really rather ridiculous numbers – but I always excuse myself by saying I have been around a rather long time. My first books were published in 1990!"

These books span fiction, non-fiction, plays and novels for children and young adults, and earned her an MBE this year for services to literature, literacy, illustration and the arts. Today, however, we have met to talk about her latest venture: the Picture Hooks Conference, happening this weekend in Glasgow, on 23 April.

The honorary illustrator

"Picture Hooks came about because every single book I’ve ever published has always had illustrations," explains French. "I’ve always loved illustration. If I had my time again I would like to have gone to art college but because my brother went I think my family felt that one was enough, so I didn’t. But I’ve always been very friendly with illustrators. I was very lucky because my very first books were at Walker Books, and there was an amazing designer there called Amelia Edwards who tucked me under her wing and she showed me what she was doing – layouts and design – so I always felt that I had one foot in the illustrator camp even though I wasn’t an illustrator. An honorary illustrator, if you like."

French went on to work at Edinburgh College of Art with illustration students, giving them feedback on their stories and design.  Then, "some five or six years ago" she and literary agent Lucy Juckes set up a brand new mentor scheme to support illustrators and Picture Hooks was born.

"Lucy was telling me about one of her clients – an illustrator – who had graduated from college and was out in the big wide world. She was lovely, but she was not getting work because she just didn’t have enough know-how about how to present it, how to make the illustrations live. She was missing out on continuity and the other little basic things that an illustrator needs. It sounds strange, but a lot of them come out of art college and the technique is all there, but they still don’t know that a character in a picture book needs to move from left to right! There are so many illustrators out there that you really need a bit of an edge."

Picture Hooks aims to help give illustrators that edge, through pairing successful illustrators (last year’s mentors included Nick Sharratt) with fresh talent for a year of one-to-one sessions. "We didn’t mind particularly what age applicants were or what stage they were at, but they did have to be – as it were – slightly floundering and needing help!". As far as French knows, it’s the only scheme like it in the UK.

Picture Hooks started with five mentors, but this year it’s going up to eight and in the future, French is hoping to see it rise to ten. "We are so lucky, because at the end of their mentor scheme, they have this amazing exhibition at the National Gallery of Scotland, and it runs for three months – this last exhibition we had over 300,000 people going through! The graduates have four pictures up and the mentors have two pictures up."

Roaring success

Many of the illustrators who have taken part in the scheme have gone on to be very successful. Naomi Howarth’s picture book The Crow’s Tale was shortlisted for this year’s Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, for instance, and Maisie Shearring won the 2015 Bologna Children’s Book Fair International Award for Illustration. "It’s like having your very own editor for a year," Shearring said, praising the scheme.

"What’s lovely is that the mentors seem to get as much out of it as the mentees, almost," said French. Some of the mentors – like Sharratt – have enjoyed the process so much they have signed up to be mentors again.

"We pay the mentors, but we don’t pay the graduates and they do have to apply. Lucy, Jonathan Gibbs who’s head of illustration at Edinburgh College of Art, Linda McClellan from the National Gallery of Scotland, and I all sit down and go through the applications. We have to be quite careful to select people who we think are going to benefit from the particular mentors that we have in mind. Also, we do try to keep our standards very, very high, because, frankly, we need people to know that if somebody’s joined the Picture Hooks scheme they’re going to be good."

The Picture Hooks conference was launched alongside the scheme three years ago, and is happening this coming weekend. Speakers include Andrea MacDonald, Executive Editor for Picture Books from Penguin Random House, and Tessa Strickland, co-founder and Editor-in-Chief at Barefoot Books, amongst a host of other talks and workshops. French says they try to include "anything that we can think of that’s going to support emerging illustrators." Last year involved an illustration speed-dating session with publishers and this year features seminars on marketing and publicity.

"We started the scheme at the very beginning with a conference to raise awareness. Up till now, we have held them in Edinburgh at the Art College. We’re very lucky because we get so much support from Jonathan and the College, but we decided we really needed to spread it out, so we’re going to the CCA [Centre for Contemporary Arts] in Glasgow.

"The other thing is that up till now, Picture Hooks has been Scotland-centric. We’re supported by Creative Scotland and they are very good, so we’ll have our usual Scottish applicants, but we’re hoping that we may – if funding comes through alright – be able to open it up to people from England as well. Because as far as I’m aware there is absolutely nothing else doing what we do."

Much of the conference is getting illustrators networking, no mean feat as according to French illustrators are on average even more reclusive than authors. In the mentor scheme mentees are asked to lead seminars in conjunction with their mentors, so that they get used to public speaking . "When I was working at Walker Books, I would hear illustrators come in and present their work and they’d say things like, ‘Well, I don’t actually like this one very much, but it’s not too bad.’ It’s just building their confidence: telling them they can do it and people will want to see them and they do have something to say."

Why illustrators?

Though the scheme and conference have met with enthusiasm, it does beg the question: why illustrators?

"The trouble is that the industry is getting harder and harder. When I started 25 years ago, if you put together a book about sleeping like a log, you could probably get it published somewhere, but now it’s so, so difficult. Being mentored by someone who’s different helps illustrators not to get bound into one style of working. It makes them use new techniques, new methods, and makes them think about the bog standard things: characterization, emotion and continuity. In this day and age you really need to be professional and to know how a picture book – and any kind of illustrated narrative – works.

"We also take them down to publishing companies - one of the reasons why we were at Bologna was to chat up lots of publishers. With my hand on my heart I can say that we never, ever have had a negative reaction, or even a chilly one. Everybody says, ‘Oh right, fantastic!’ In a way, we’re making their life easier, because it means that the people who come from us will just be that little bit further ahead and they won’t have to have their hands held quite so tightly when they first come to the publisher. They’re pre-prepared, as it were. And the publishers we meet are so generous."

Talk of generosity turns to talk of money, and I ask whether there are similar problems for illustrators as are being highlighted for author payments at the moment. "There is a payment problem, I think it applies to illustrators just as much as authors, if not more so! I’m always fending off people for my illustrators at College, because they have people writing to them who’ve seen their work in art shows and things, and they say things like, ‘Oh, we love your work, will you illustrate this book for me? There won’t be any payment, but it will be a wonderful opportunity for you – people will see your work!’ Actually I don’t believe people should work for nothing, they should be paid. Also, there’s this flat fee business, some illustrators do work certain kinds of jobs for flat fees, especially with the recession, but children’s sales are actually going up, so really children’s book authors and illustrators ought to be getting paid more!"

In addition to the Conference and mentor scheme, Picture Hooks is also running three two-day Masterclasses this year, with an impressive bunch of leaders, including Tiffany Leeson, Creative Director of Egmont Publishing. "All these people I met when they were baby art directors and we’ve sort of grown up in the publishing world together!" French finishes with that excellent laugh. "I have a rather lovely network of friends that I do call upon. In fact I rather suspect that people run away when they see me coming, because they think I’m going to say, ‘Oh, would you fancy coming to talk to Picturehooks?’"

But honestly, from where I’m standing, I can’t see that any of these friends could possibly mind.

Link to Picture Hook conference site:

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