Mick Manning and Brita Granström have been creating books together for over twenty years, and their innovative way of presenting information revolutionized non-fiction. In this article they explain their approach.
Mick: We have championed a picture-book approach to non-fiction for the last 22 years. We collaborate from the earliest stages of research, through the design of the rough layouts, and we often even share in creating the final illustrations. However, Brita drew most of the lovely artwork for William Shakespeare. She used coloured pencil and watercolour, with dip pen and ink at times, and for the hand lettering. We make the illustrations do a lot of the talking in our books. With four children of our own we appreciate that there is a wide spectrum of reading and learning abilities – both at home and in the classroom – so we combine a variety of approaches to try to make a biography a ‘page-turner’. To achieve this we do thorough research (the biggest part of any book, but often under appreciated) and we use a combination of visual formats. It’s a bit like storyboarding a film: establishing narrative order, having long shots and close ups, alternating between being LARGE, small, NOISY!, quiet.
Brita: The Life of William Shakespeare (which we took on in association with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust) is the latest title in our biographical series that includes What Mr Darwin Saw and The Beatles. One thing we soon learned when making biographies is the importance of childhood. Wordsworth famously said, ‘The child is father of the man’ and recently I heard Floella Benjamin say, ‘Childhood lasts forever’. Will’s childhood was the keystone for who he later became. It was very important to convey this. One spread shows Will waking up at home on a school day. Children the world over can relate to that – reluctantly getting up, having breakfast and walking to school with his bag, ready for sports and lessons: ‘And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel/and shining morning face, creeping like snail/Unwillingly to school.’ What’s changed in 500 years? There are countless references in his plays to things he would have encountered in his youth, from glove making (his father’s trade) and the life of country people (which included many of his relatives) to lawyers, teachers and soldiers.
Mick: Later we encounter the ‘lost years’ where no firm record of what he did exists, only theories. So we show these theories and so children realise that there are not always clear-cut answers. We want to encourage them to appreciate his plays in the context of his biography. Our boys go to a great comprehensive school where every year the Year Nines put on a Shakespeare play in the local theatre (our son played Bottom). We chose to show all of Will’s main plays and poetry (quite a task) and we used sequential images for this – a sort of comic strip. Romeo and Juliet is a good example. Throughout the book we have sought to bring Will’s world to life with ‘sound’ by using speech bubbles. The book exists on different levels. Some children may choose to only read the bubbles at first, but there is a more lyrical main text and also hand lettered fact labels. There are also information strips as a back up for more detailed reference. Children can pore over the book on their own, with mates, or with a teacher in the classroom. Needless to say, there is also a lot of gentle visual humour, provided by Brita. We were delighted that Simon Callow loved our book – not only did he write to us to say so, but he kindly allowed us to use a quote from him on the front cover.
William Shakespeare: Scenes from the Life of the World’s Greatest Writer is published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 978-1847803450, £12.99 hbk