‘I don’t consider myself an illustrator and I don’t consider myself a writer. I make things, I have ideas and then I work out what I think is the best medium to communicate that idea…’
I am talking to Tom Percival, author and illustrator of the Big Bright Feelings series published by Bloomsbury, the latest of which is Tilda Tries Again, as well as about his picture books, including The Invisible and longer texts such as The Dream Team: A Case of the Jitters. Tom has been making books for long time now, working out what he wants, taking time in the creation. The result – well crafted, enjoyable books that make their mark.
Growing up in Mid-Wales in the shadow of the Stiperstones ridge, friends lived some distance away. Left to his own devices, Tom made the most of a considerable freedom to wander but also books, making many visits to the mobile library. Perhaps not surprisingly, the stories he was drawn to were those that captured the wildness and slight danger of life, reflecting the landscape around him. In fact, the first books he remembers loving was the Tim and Tobias series created by Sheila McCullough; he was able to relate to the characters and there was that whiff of danger in the stories that he loved. He also drew. ‘I was happiest when I was making things,’ he says. Though he did do a GNVQ in art, he quickly realised that would not lead to a career so turned to Graphic Design working for an advertising company where he became interested in video work, computer animation and also music production. Does the energy and sense of design that are part of these disciplines now inform his work in picture books? He agrees, ‘It all feeds into itself. Principles of narrative apply whether you are talking about song structure … or a picture book. It’s all storytelling and you work with whatever tools there are.’
After leaving the world of advertising, he became attracted to the world of the graphic novel. It was where he saw himself going. Joining the HarperCollins design team, he had the chance to create the cover design for Derek Landy’s first Skulduggery Pleasant novel. It was a success, and he went on to create the cover designs for the whole series. This success led to interest in his work. He had an idea for a picture book character and so Tobias the lonely ghost appeared; a picture book for which he wrote the text as well as creating the illustration. He still writes his own picture books. How does this work? Which comes first – the story or the illustration? It depends he says, sometimes it will be an image, sometimes the story he tells me. Each book has its own beginning.
Does he find the restrictions of the picture book format difficult? ‘I am used to writing songs so used to trying to tell a story in three minutes’, he explains. However, he has always written longer stories designed for a middle grade audience though as yet unpublished. He confesses that at the present writing is fun while drawing seems like work – he can feel frustrated in trying to get his vision onto the page – perhaps because for a long time illustration has been his career. He is deprecating about his work but the care he takes is very apparent.
Where did the Big Bright Feelings series come from with their very particular design? He agrees they have become a ‘brand’ and as such have a certain framework. This he feels makes them reassuring and accessible to those who need them and look for them. ‘Essentially I identify a challenge that a child or indeed an adult might face and then explore that challenge hopefully in an interesting and engaging way.’ This results in the enjoyably fantastical element in these stories – Tilda’s upside-down world, the real worry in Ruby’s Worry, Norman’s wings. His latest Tilda Tries Again is a direct response to the pandemic. He wanted to reflect how for children their world changed radically through no fault and desire of their own; how difficult change like that can be. However he is very keen not to be too literal. It is interesting to learn that he did not intend to create a series: ‘Generally, I don’t want to pigeonhole myself’. It was after the appearance of Perfectly Norman, that it gradually became clear his approach could be the basis for similar topics and he has number of ideas for future titles. ‘I will keep creating these books as long as I feel there is a use for them.’ Tom’s concern for the child and their world is evident in his other books too. The Invisible for example, is quite different but still at its centre there is Tom’s emphasis on children’s understanding. ‘I wanted to make the books reflective of the society in which we live. I want everyone to see themselves in the stories I make.’
Looking across the range of his titles it is clear how successful he has been in this aim.
Ferelith Hordon is editor of Books for Keeps.
Books mentioned, all by Tom Percival:
Tilda Tries Again, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 978-1526612991, £6.99 pbk
Ruby’s Worry, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 978-1408892152, £6.99 pbk
The Big Bright Feelings series is published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, £6.99 pbk.
The Invisible, Simon and Schuster, 978-1471191305, £6.99 pbk