Ian Eagleton’s writing career is going from strength to strength. His debut children's picture book ‘Nen and The Lonely Fisherman' (Owlet Press) illustrated by James Mayhew, has now sold over 10,000 copies worldwide and was the winner of the 2023 Polari Children’s & YA Prize. In addition to publishing two more sensitive picture books, ‘Violet’s Tempest’ (Lantana) and ‘The Woodcutter and the Snow Prince’ (Owlet Press), Ian has gone on to showcase his middle grade debut, 'Glitter Boy' (Scholastic) bringing awareness to homophobic bullying - making national press and TV news!
To celebrate the publication of his newest children's picture book, publishing a third time with Owlet Press, we caught up with Ian to talk to him about his new book, his journey in children's publishing, and what useful tips he might have for aspiring writers.
Having now published four picture books and one middle grade, what would you tell Ian who was starting out as a writer?
It never gets any easier! Just when you think you’ve got something cracked or you’ve been successful, something will happen, you’ll have a knockback, and you have to pick yourself up and start again. I heard an interesting idea that the first book you write will be your worst. A bit harsh, perhaps, but I like the idea that as a writer I am constantly evolving, challenging myself, pushing myself, trying new ways of working. I’m currently working on a series of funny, silly picture books and I never thought I’d have the confidence to try that! So, I would probably tell myself to keep writing and challenge myself and not to pigeon-hole myself into thinking I can only write a certain type of story.
You mentioned previously that you were close to giving up or taking a break from writing, just before you landed your first two contracts – what message would you give to aspiring writers?
Listen to advice – even if it’s hard to accept.
Take some time and rest if you need to.
If you’re writing picture books, then read a lot of picture books. What draws you to one story and not the other?
Spend a lot of time reading children’s poetry – there’s definitely a connection between poetry and picture book writing!
Celebrate every win and triumph, however small.
Join a writer’s group or critique group.
Support other writers.
Be determined, stubborn, and driven in pursuit of your goals.
What have you learned about the publishing industry along the way?
It can be an incredibly slow and frustrating business! I’m incredibly impatient and there’s a lot of negotiating, meetings, conversations and so on that go on behind the scenes. This might mean you’re waiting to hear back about a manuscript you’ve written for months and months. Things can seem like they’re a done deal and then the sales team might decide your book isn’t commercial enough. It can be brutal! There’s lots of waiting and uncertainty. However, I have had the most glorious meetings with publishers and it’s then that I get to see how passionate people in the industry are about getting children to read, and enjoy reading! The children’s publishing industry is full of the some of the kindest, most caring, and most astute people I’ve met. Getting to write for children is a huge privilege that I take very seriously, so I wouldn’t change it for the world!
Do you feel your writing has evolved with each book – if so, how?
Definitely! I’ve been very lucky to have been guided by the editors at Owlet Press who have helped me to hone my craft. My writing style is naturally quite lyrical and poetic, but sometimes this means that my initial drafts can feel ‘overstuffed’. I’ve worked really hard on streamlining my writing and making it clear and concise, whilst also keeping my natural style of writing. Very often , keeping things back and paring it down allows the illustrator to enlighten and develop the story further. With The Woodcutter and the Snow Prince there were times when I needed to take a step back as the writer so that the illustrator, Davide Ortu, could have more space and freedom to build the magical, icy world that the story exists in. Similarly, with Rory’s Room of Rectangles, Jessica’s artwork has done a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of showing Rory’s feelings. It’s getting the balance right and making sure that you, as the writer, are working in partnership with the illustrator.
You’ve launched some really successful LGBT-inclusive titles –Rory’s Room of Rectangles features a blended family – so what is it about this story that relates to you as an author?
Making cards for Father’s Day was always something I had to navigate carefully and gently as a teacher. There are so many families now that look different to the ‘mum and dad’ set up and it’s something children can become really aware of when they’re making any kind of card in the classroom for their family. I wanted to explore those difficult feelings.
My husband and I had also just adopted our little baby boy and agreed to meet our son’s birth father. It was a really lovely, positive meeting which was also very emotional and difficult. It got me thinking about different families and the different people who might be involved in our son’s life.
I also had a life-changing trip to an art gallery as a teenager – my parents took me – and I remember feeling overwhelmed, excited, and empowered.
Sam Langley-Swain at Owlet Press was also another important driving factor in shaping the story. We had originally begun to explore adoption and same-sex family structures in the story but both felt that including a step-dad and step-family would be really important to lots of children.
What are the key take-aways you hope people get from the story?
I hope young readers take away the idea that all feelings are valid. Rory’s stepdad comforts him by telling him that his feelings of guilt, confusion and anger are perfectly reasonable and understandable and that he shouldn’t be ashamed of them. I also hope the book will open up stories about different family structures – I’ve taught so many children who live in a blended family and I think the book explores the ups and downs of family life perfectly. This is also a very child-centred book – we are really let into Rory’s thoughts and feelings and his concern over being torn between his dad and stepdad. Lots of children might feel like this too and hopefully they will be able to see their family represented in the book. Finally, it would be brilliant if young readers could take away the message that art can be a really powerful tool for self-expression. Painting, drawing, building, imagining, colouring in, dreaming are all methods Rory uses to cope with his changing emotions.
What do you love most within Jessica Knight’s beautiful illustrations?
Jessica’s artwork is just so warm and gentle! What I particularly like is that, due to Jessica’s illustrations, the book warrants repeat readings – there’s so much to see and explore. I love all the artwork hanging in the gallery and it’s lovely to see so many different people represented throughout the book. Jessica has certainly captured a diverse, inclusive community! It’s also great to see so many different body shapes and sizes represented in our book. I really like the way Jessica has represented Rory’s thoughts and worries about his dad and how she has balanced quiet moments of domesticity and family life with dramatic, powerful moments when the art gallery seems to come to life.
'Rory's Room of Rectanlges' by Ian Eagleton, illustrated by Jessica Knight is published on 18th May 2023 by Owlet Press. Format: paperback. For ages 4+