Advice for grads on how to handle early success

Big Hid, a beautifully illustrated children’s book, has been published this month by Flying Eye Books. It was created by Roisin Swales when she was a student and discovered by the publisher at her graduate show. We talk to her about managing early success and what advice she would give to this year’s grads to get attention for their work

Roisin Swales Big Hid

Big Hid tackles depression, a subject that might seem unusual for a children’s book, but with Roisin Swales’ sensitive handling combined with charming illustration, it makes for an appealing book.

Swales wrote it as a student at Manchester School of Art and created a version in book form for her graduate show last year, where it was discovered by Sam Arthur, co-founder of Nobrow and Flying Eye Books, when it was displayed at the New Designers show in London.

“New Designers features an incredibly broad range of work, both in terms of disciplines and also abilities, so I always go there with an open mind and in the hope that I might find something a bit special,” says Arthur. “When I saw Roisin’s book I couldn’t quite believe it had been done for a graduate degree show! It was so well executed. I found myself walking around the Manchester School of Art stand waving around the book asking who was responsible for it. As Roisin wasn’t there I wrote her a note and left a couple of messages on her voicemail and then emailed her… and then felt like I might have overdone it! Thankfully she got back to me.”

Big Hid is published this week by Flying Eye Books, who have made very few changes from Swales’s original work in the published version. Below, we talk to Swales about the book and hear her tips for other graduates.

Roisin Swales Big Hid
Roisin Swales Big Hid

Creative Review: How did Big Hid come about? Where is the story from?

Roisin Swales: When I was writing my dissertation for my final year at university, I was looking into how to introduce dark or adult topics into children’s illustration books. Such as depression, loss of a loved one, mental health etc. My dissertation topic changed in the end, but it gave me the idea for a book based around overcoming sadness, without being a negative story.

I wanted to open a dialogue with children about the complexities of mental health at an early age, to help to make sense of confusing situations they may face. I have seen how children are quick to blame themselves when someone they love, be that a friend or a parent, is not acting themselves due to sadness, especially when they feel powerless and confused. I wanted to show how there is no quick fix for sadness, but a small gesture like a hug, and just knowing someone is there for you, is enough to help you come out of your shell.

Everyone has been a Big and a Little in their lifetime, so I tried to keep the reason for Big’s sudden sadness irrelevant. Firstly because sometimes there is no reason for sadness, but also to demonstrate children’s innocence towards situations they may be in. I wanted to allow people to attach their own meaning to the story, and let it help them in any little way it can. As well as letting children know their emotions are valid and let them know they can express how they feel without judgment.

CR: I understand that you wrote/drew it at college, did you expect it to get picked up so quickly?

RS: That’s right, Big Hid was created for my final project at university and was presented at my degree show. One of my tutors told me it would be a hit, but I am very cynical, so I didn’t think for a second that it would have ended up this way. I am so glad my tutor Ian persuaded me to pursue this story and feature it more heavily in my degree show, or else none of this would have happened. In fact, I have a lot to thank my tutors at Manchester School of Art for, they were all extremely supportive and trustworthy of me as well as all the other students on my course. They always told me I would be published one day; I think that gave me a lot of confidence in my work that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Roisin Swales Big Hid
Roisin Swales Big Hid

CR: Did you feel ready for the real world of publishing when you were at college? What was surprising/challenging about being discovered so quickly?

RS: Honestly no, I was not ready at all for the real world of art and publishing. I don’t think anyone is when they first leave university. I was shaking in my boots when I went to the New Designers show last year and started getting emails from publishers about my work. The first time Sam from Nobrow/Flying Eye rang me, I was bouncing around my house like a two-year-old having a sugar rush. It wasn’t a situation I had imagined would happen for a long time, if ever. Even though it was a bizarre situation for me I was never in a million years going to let it slip through my fingers. I had been collecting Nobrow books for years, and Sam and everyone at Nobrow are so lovely, I couldn’t have asked for a better situation, I feel very lucky indeed.

CR: What advice would you give to other illustration students who are graduating about getting their work seen?

RS: Something that I feel really helped me in the lead up to graduation was finding my specialisation of character creation and children’s book illustration. So I would say that specialisation and being true to your natural style and trusting your instincts will help you immensely. I think it is very easy to compare yourself to other illustrators and artists, doing this too often can destroy your individual voice and make you feel like you’ll never be good enough or valid in the art world. It’s not true at all. Whenever I felt lost about my style of illustration, as silly as it sounds, I’d think about how elephants and sloths couldn’t be more different, but they’re both still amazing animals. I don’t think it’s any different for illustrators. That elephant is never going to be a sloth, it isn’t fooling anyone.

With that in mind, I’d also say enter as many illustration competitions as you possibly can. The added challenge of having to work within set guidelines is great practice for the real world of freelance illustration. As well as all the contacts you could gain in the process. I entered two competitions in my final year at university, the Worldwide Picture Book illustration competition and the Macmillan Prize. I was lucky enough to get recognition for both, and it led to having my work in a catalogue of new artists and having my work exhibited alongside the other winners. The experience was fantastic and meeting people from the publishing world (who I previously saw as magic ethereal fairies who were completely unreachable) was absolutely invaluable, and the advice and critiques you get from the judges and other artists help your work get better and better. So don’t be afraid, there’s no point, just take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way, as they are gold dust.

Roisin Swales Big Hid

CR: Is there anything you wish you’d known before you began working on your first book?

RS: I am actually glad I didn’t know Big Hid was going to be published before I started working on it. I made this book for myself, it is an embodiment of me, and it came so organically and naturally. I feel like if I’d known, it may not have turned out the way it did. Although saying that, now that I have been through the process of getting a book ready for publishing, I feel like I will be able to approach it more professionally knowing all the different steps and guidelines that are involved. Also, if you’re hoping to get a picture book published, my best advice would be to make yourself a dummy book to show people. I made a dummy book of Big Hid for the New Designers show where it got picked up, and I think seeing it as a physical book helped people engage and envision it as a finished product so much easier.

CR: What’s coming up next for you?

RS: I am now living in Copenhagen in Denmark and am working as an animator. I am currently working on new ideas for my next books and I would like to develop my animation skills so I can bring my characters to life! Other than that, I am ready and extremely excited to be part of the illustration world and all the opportunities it may bring.

Big Hid is available now from Flying Eye Books, £11.99; flyingeyebooks.com. More of Roisin Swales’ work can be seen at roisinswales.com

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