Fiona Kenshole explains… with help from Scoular Anderson
‘Jets’ first appeared in 1988 – when no one quite knew what to make of them. Bob Wilson put it most clearly: sometimes the narrative is carried by the text, sometimes by the pictures and sometimes by the irony in the difference between what the text says and what the pictures show. Not comics, but with the same appeal. They are enormously enjoyable to read, and great fun to work on – and it shows!
A few years later …
As an editor, I was amazed to discover that many authors and illustrators who produced beautiful books together had never even spoken to each other, let alone met. This seemed all wrong. So the idea for a series of books was born, where authors could have a say in how their book was illustrated, where illustrators could cut or add to the text. Where the type was clear and large with careful letter spacing and line breaks. Where the stories and pictures were integrated to include all the varieties of text a new reader comes across – maps, letters, newspapers, adverts.
Where you might have to turn a page round to read it …
Where a chapter could just be one page with two words and a picture of a toilet.
The Best Writers … …The Best Illustrators
The most important thing for a series such as ‘Jets’ is that the author and illustrator like and respect each other. Finding authors was great fun -they were all excited by the idea of something new. For some stories, choosing the illustrator was easy: Helen Cresswell had always wanted to work with Colin West (so had I) so an exciting partnership was formed with Two Hoots. For other stories, it wasn’t so easy. Michael Morpurgo wrote a sweet farmyard story about an elderly cat. A realistic illustrator seemed the obvious choice. But I wanted ‘Jets’ to be tough not twee, and on the whole I’m not a fan of talking animals. I looked at lots of illustrators – many couldn’t cope with the freedom of being given a blank page to play with. They’d become used to puffing a square picture under a lump of text. For Michael, Shoo Rayner was the perfect-partner. He took the stories and added his own dimension – a silly sheep became positively deranged, while sweet old Mossop, from Mossop’s Last Chance, is now a Machiavellian character with a sinister eyepatch. Whole sub-plots evolved in the stories without any reference in the text. This is commonplace in picture books – but it’s also perfect for the beginner reader. A lot of children who aren’t comfortable with text are visually very literate and respond to different .layers of meaning in the pictures.
Series books don’t have a good name in some circles, but I’m a great believer in series publishing – children like designer labels and collectability. And it’s reassuring to read one, then pick up another knowing it will be just as accessible. I deliberately wanted a mixture of authors for ‘Jets’: well-established writers whom I’ve always admired, and first-time authors off the unsolicited reading pile who would carry the torch for the future. The same with illustrators. Some are old favourites, some just out of art school. I wanted a balance of male and female writers, and stories that were without gender stereotyping and which reflected our multicultural society. Most of all they had to be brilliant stories. And … they must make me laugh. As an editor you read texts over and over countless times. So it helps if you like them a lot.
Putting Jets Together
When a good story comes in, it’s a wonderful feeling. I rush round the office waving it at everybody. Once illustrator and author have been matched, we all sit round the table and talk about it. With Chris Powling and Scoular Anderson, the ideas get dafter and dafter- it was Scoular s idea that the Wishing Well in Harry With Spots On should be a toilet. (There seem to be a lot of toilets in ‘Jets’…) Rose Impey, Jolyne Knox and I sat down at 10 a.m. with sandwiches at the ready and mapped out Desperate for a Dog page by page, virtually line by line together. The ideas just bounced off each of us. We didn’t finish till gone 9pm, and Jolyne’s family called the police she got home so late.
It was Shoo who showed how to use integrated text and picture together to vary the pace of the book – strip cartoon to speed the action along building up to a huge double-page picture for the climax. Writer-illustrators like Bob Wilson and Robin Kingsland have a different approach -each word is carefully placed in relation to the illustration – and their books are very funny.
At roughing out stage, a story can change drastically. Scoular cut out a page of manuscript with just three brilliant pictures-showing how Harry does a handstand and sets off the school alarm! The best ‘Jets’ are cinematic in approach, using close-ups and panning across wide-angle landscapes, with lots of sound effects. But I hope I’m not sounding as if the illustrations are the most important part. These stories are for many children their first experience of independent reading so the stories have to be good. Otherwise the visual excitement is just a gimmick. The enthusiasm generated by the author-illustrator partnerships goes on after production of the book as most people want to do sequels.
The Right Name
My local librarian thinks most series’ names are pretty pathetic. In the editor’s defence – it’s not easy! A friend swears the best way is to sit down with a bottle of whisky and write down the first thing that comes into your head. ‘Jets’ started as ‘Squibs’. But can you imagine the field-day reviewers would have had -‘damp squibs’, etc? And the production manager kept calling them ‘Squids’. So they became ‘Conkers’ – which was fine. Until at the eleventh hour someone pointed out there are no conkers in Australia. Back to the drawing board. Everybody was cajoled into producing ideas. One author was very keen on ‘Burps’. In the end the publicity manager came up with Jets’ which was perfect. It still gave reviewers a field-day (jokes about crashing, etc). Any suggestions for new series’ titles gratefully received…
The first books were very successful. People Iiked them, they sold to other countries. They even got some reviews. But I didn’t want them to rest on their laurels. With a series there are opportunities for pushing out boundaries. Rachel Anderson and I are both involved with mentally handicapped children, and most of the books for them are called things like ‘I have a Mental Handicap’ which is boring if you already have one. Rachel wrote Jessy Runs Away, and Shelagh McNicholas, the illustrator, and I spent an afternoon playing with a little girl who has Down’s Syndrome, to get the pictures right. It’s a story that any child who’s run away and got lost can sympathise with, but not a ‘message’ story.
Other new directions. Children love spoof and parody. Which, if you think about it, is a sophisticated genre. Remember the Carling Black Label advert which sent up other kinds of advert? Children loved it. One of my favourite ‘Jets’ is Pesters of the West, a spoof western. It was Lisa Taylor’s first book, and I was away when she and illustrator Tony Blundell first met. I was terrified – they both had such wildly anarchic imaginations I was afraid the book would be way over the top. In fact it is inventive and original and totally unpatronising. ‘Jets’ now take in spoof history, with Cowardy Cowardy Cutlass, and parody gangster movies with Private Eye of New York.
In Clever Trevor there is a complete plot line running literally beneath the ground and shown only in pictures. This book is truly multi-layered with several different points of view carried simultaneously. Children who watch soap operas are used to this and understand how to read them. It is also very funny.
‘Jets’ are now nearly up to 30 (and so am I). They aren’t going to go on for ever. There are other new and exciting directions to take. They have broken new ground. They are great fun to work on. But best of all, from the letters all of us involved in the series have had, for many children it’s a book in the ‘Jets’ series that gets them hooked on reading. That’s why we do it and it’s the best feeling of all.
Fiona Kenshole first flew hardback ‘Jets’ as an Editor at A & C Black, who continue to originate the series. She’s now moved to 0 Collins as a Senior Editor, where she can also keep an eye on the paperbacks.
Jets’ are published in hardback by A & C Black and in paperback by Collins.
Details of those mentioned:
Two Hoots, 0 7136 2982 7, £4.95; 0 00 673006 X, £1.99 pbk
Mossop’s Last Chance, 0 7136 2984 3, £4.95; 0 00 673008 6, £1.99 pbk
Harry With Spots On, 0 7136 3224 0, £4.95; 0 00 673884 2, £2.25 pbk
Desperate for a Dog, 0 7136 2980 0, £4.95; 0 00 673007 8, £1.99 pbk
Jessy Runs Away, 0 7136 3059 0, £4.95; 0 00 673293 3, £1.99 pbk
Pesters of the West, 0 7136 3114 7, £4.95; 0 00 673345 X, £1.75 pbk
Cowardy Cowardy Cutlass, Robin Kingsland, 0 7136 3112 0, £4.95; 0 00 673346 8, £2.25 pbk
Private Eye of New York, Nigel Gray and Clive Scruton, 0 7136 3360 3, £4.95
Clever Trevor, Brough Girling and Tony Blundell, 0 7136 3302 6, £4.95
Fiona sends apologies to all the other ‘Jets’ authors and illustrators – she’s sorry she couldn’t mention everybody!