Friday, 21 March 2014

Finding Your Voice in Children's Books

Our last post offered a brief overview of the fantastic depth in the collections of Helen Craig and Katharine Holabird held at Seven Stories. One of the interesting aspects displayed by these collections is the attention to detail that goes in to creating a series of books as successful as the Angelina Ballerina titles. Particularly noteworthy is the level of research and planning that goes into the books, as evidenced by the stacks of drafts and rough versions of stories and illustrations, created by both Helen and Katharine.

More than anything else, the collections highlight what an absorbing experience it can be to write and illustrate children’s books. The level of work and dedication required to succeed in the world of children’s books is keenly felt by Michelle Robinson, author of picturebooks such as How to Wash a Wooly Mammoth and the forthcoming There’s a Lion in my Cornflakes.

We spoke to her about her experiences finding her way into the industry and developing her own distinct style. In her own words…

“Agents and publishers are always seeking original voices - ones that grab us from the first word and hold us beyond the last. Forget interesting marketing angles, bestselling trends and clever manuscripts - a fresh voice is the only thing that will give you a chance of publication.

So how do you find that voice? Where does it come from? When you do find it, why won’t it leave you alone, even when you’re in the shower? And why must it insist on asking questions instead of providing answers?

I found my voice through hard slog. Like a child learning to ride a bike, I started off writing with the stabilisers on. I read a lot, absorbed a lot and wrote my early stories in the style of other authors. I didn’t mean to, I just hadn’t found my own way into it yet. But I was getting there.

The more I practiced, the better I became. I gained confidence, loosened up, experimented, gathered pace and was soon freewheeling in my own style. I could push the metaphor further and say I fell off a few times (and still do, regularly), but it’s getting rather tired. So, forget bicycles and picture yourself in Devon.

The birds are singing, you’re drifting in a digital-free haven and there’s nothing to do but write. Because if practicing is how I found my voice, a writing course is where. The course came at just the right time. I needed to be challenged. I had to work harder. I relished the chance to show off. I was ready to go, I just needed a captive audience: my tutors. Thanks to them I secured an agent and the first of many book deals. I’d found my voice - and I had an awful lot to say.”

The Seven Stories collection is a unique resource for aspiring writers and illustrators.

For information about research opportunities, please contact

Michelle Robinson’s next book There’s a Lion in my Cornflakes is due out in July, published by Bloomsbury.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Helen Craig's studio

At the end of February we visited author and illustrator Helen Craig at her home in Cambridge. Most of you will know Helen as the illustrator of the world famous Angelina Ballerina books (written by Katharine Holabird). We were visiting Helen to pick up artwork for the two latest books in the series: Angelina's Cinderella (published last year) and Angelina's Big City Ballet (which is due to be released in November this year).

It was in the early 1980s that Katharine Holabird first came up with the idea of a story (based on her two daughters) about a ballet loving little girl called Primrose. When Katharine showed the story to her friend and collaborator Helen Craig, Helen drew Primrose as a white mouse. The character's name was later changed to Angelina, due to the fact - as Helen points out - that there was already a little mouse called Primrose in Jill Barklem's popular Brambly Hedge series of books. Angelina's debut story book Angelina Ballerina was published in 1983. The little dancing mouse has since appeared in over 20 books, two animated series, and even on stage with the English National Ballet.

We are delighted that Helen has chosen Seven Stories as the home for her Angelina artwork - over the last few months Helen has donated the artwork for every one of the Angelina titles she has illustrated. Helen's collection includes everything from intricately detailed storyboards and dummy books, right through to her wonderful finished artwork. Seven Stories already holds Katharine Holabird's archive, which she very kindly donated to us in 2012. Katharine's fantastic collection includes, amongst a variety of other things, her drafts for the books, a selection of Angelina merchandise, and papers relating to the Angelina animations. The two collections side by side make for a truly wonderful resource for researchers and Angelina fans alike!

Helen looking through some of her rough artwork

On our visit to Cambridge, Helen was kind enough to show us around her studio. As you might expect in Helen's studio, Angelina pops up everywhere you turn. Helen showed us the very first Angelina doll she made by hand back in 1986 after the publication of the fifth book in the series.

This is Helen holding the very first Angelina doll she made by hand in 1986

Helen also talked us through her creative process and the materials she uses in her work. Most striking was her three layered box of watercolour pencils.

Helen's very neat pencil box

If you'd like to know more about the Helen Craig and Katharine Holabird collections you can email Both collections are available to view at the Seven Stories Collections department in Felling, Gateshead (Helen's collection will be searchable on our online catalogue soon). Some of Helen's artwork is currently on display in our Picturebook in Progress exhibition at the Seven Stories visitor centre in Newcastle upon Tyne. Angelina Ballerina will be featuring in other Seven Stories exhibitions and events soon!