The Fox and The Star, Coralie Bickford-Smith’s first book, enjoyed phenomenal success when it was first released in 2015. A tale of love, loss and self-discovery, it was aimed at children, though its themes and Bickford-Smith’s exquisite illustration also made it an appealing title for adults. The book went on to receive numerous accolades, including Waterstone’s Book of the Year. It was also named as one of Time Out’s 100 Children’s Books of All Time.
It is unsurprising then to discover that Bickford-Smith faced a little pressure when it came to producing the follow up, The Worm and The Bird, which is published next week. Another beautifully designed work, this seemingly simple tale addresses themes of life and death, and the importance of living in the moment.
Below we talk to Bickford-Smith about managing expectation after a big success, and also gain insights into her working practice, plus how she balances her personal work with her role as a designer at Penguin.
CR: What inspired this new story? How do you hope to make people feel with this book?
CB-S: I was inspired by my own experiences. I set out to tell a tale about the tensions between a busy worm below ground and a stoic bird waiting above ground. I wanted to explore in more detail the idea of creating tension between the text and images. As Ernst Lubitsch, a film director, once said: ‘Let the audience add up two plus two and they’ll love you forever.’ I like the idea of not spelling it all out to the reader and leaving gaps for the audience to fill in themselves.
I tried to create a fable about the joys of being in the moment and the pitfalls of neglecting the present, for busy children and adults alike. Inspired by a quote from Seneca: ‘But life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.’ I would like the reader to be left with the feeling that whatever is happening in the world around them it is never too late to appreciate the small moments of calm and beauty. To stop for a second and be in the present moment. Ultimately it is a hopeful story. Be the best bird you can be.
CR: Can you talk a bit about your process – how do you begin a new book? Which comes first, the images or the words?
CB-S: A story or idea will float around in my head, I mentally explore it and consider the characters. If it feels like it has possibilities I will take it to my notebook. I work on the text, images and design all together by drawing numerous storyboards to get an overview of the book. This way I can work out the pace of the story over the required number of pages so I see how the images and text will flow across the pages. As the story, illustrations and design all develop together, it is a juggling act but each element relies on the others to make them work together as a whole.
CR: This is your second book – what useful things did you learn first time round that made this one easier (or not!)?
CB-S: I had a few rules this time, that I had learnt the hard way with The Fox and The Star. I promised myself that I would close the door to my study and stop trying to answer all the unanswered questions left at the end of each day. Another good rule was to leave one task half finished every night so when I arrived at my desk the next day I was straight back into the work, no dithering about what I had to do next. It made the practical workflow easier, but the actual creative process was still intense and prone to the usual pitfalls of any creative endeavour.
CR: The Fox and The Star was very successful – did that affect your work on this one? Did it add enjoyment and/or pressure?
CB-S: The success of The Fox and The Star was unbelievable, I was profoundly aware that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience of publishing a book, let alone a first book. When I began work on the new story I tried to hold that thought in mind, but nonetheless there was a lot of pressure emanating from within me. For a time I did lose the enjoyment of creating, it became apparent that I was not in the moment but fretting about the future reception of a new book.
Given that pressure there was an undeniable temptation following the success of Fox to play it safe and find an ending where the worm prevails or escapes. I wrestled with this for a long time. In the end I decided to stay true to who I am, to tell a story that raises questions and does not package everything neatly away at the end. I wanted to portray a more nuanced ending that will, I hope, encourage adults and children alike to consider possibilities of how to live and invite them to think about different perspectives that we have about situations.
The affirming thing about the process was that once I realised I was not living in the moment I had found the true intention of the story I was trying to tell. There was only one way out of it and that was to be present in the moment and once again enjoy the process of creating.
CR: How different for you is it to work on your own book compared to your designs for others for Penguin?
CB-S: The difference for me is that with my own book I start off with a totally blank page, you can go anywhere, create anything and tell any story. There is also the responsibility of putting your perspective out into the world and I understand now how hard that can be. When I am designing a cover for another author I am given a brief, a book or a manuscript and I am aiming to entice a reader to visit that author’s world/viewpoint. That is a big contrast between the two.
CR: And do you still enjoy doing both or do you dream of just working on your own titles?
CB-S: Each role feeds into the other nicely. It means that I am never without inspiration, due to the books I work on at Penguin, such a variety of classic literature, philosophical texts and poetry. Also that I get thought-provoking ideas fed into my brain on a regular basis that in turn informs my work on my own titles. At the moment this variety in my working week suits me well. I am aware that I need regular enforced contact with other people otherwise I would vanish quite easily into my own world.
The Worm and the Bird by Coralie Bickford-Smith is published by Particular Books on August 31; penguin.co.uk