Nicola Davies shot to fame as one of the original presenters of TV’s The Really Wild Show, but it is as a children’s author she has received the most acclaim and has been nominated for some of the industry’s most prestigious awards. Here she writes about the process of creating a picture book, and how she created her latest, Perfect, for Graffeg.
Most people’s perception of writing picture books is that it isn’t real writing. But the text of a picture book can carry a big message; explain a big concept in a way everyone can understand. And that’s before you even start on the work that the pictures can do.
My specialty is picture books and using them to explain big, difficult things. Mostly, these relate to my passion for nature; my book Tiny that explains microbiology to under 7s, just won the Andersen Prize for non-fiction. But I also like to put big, human issues into my books, which is why I wanted to write about the birth of a disabled child.
When a disabled child is born, everybody has to adjust their expectations. There are, inevitably, powerful negative feelings involved – disappointment, grief, anger – but in time these fade as the new family member shows that they are a person, not a label. I wanted to write a story that gave a space for the negative feelings, and showed how they can change, allowing us to see the perfection in others, no matter how unfamiliar the configuration of their bodies or brains.
The idea for the story that became Perfect came initially from swifts – the migrant birds that arrive to nest in towns and cities in early May. Sometimes, their fledglings fluff a first flight and need rescuing, and it was my memory of holding one of these, and throwing it out of the loft window to re-launch it, that gave me the core of Perfect. In the hand, swifts look odd – wings too long, legs too short, and that made think about our perceptions of bodies that we label ‘disabled’.
My mother heard the world through a hearing aid, that buzzed and whistled constantly and she’d joke about receiving messages from aliens. I never heard her express a shred of self pity, but she sometimes raged about people who treated her like an idiot because she couldn’t hear properly. She always said that other people’s attitudes to her deafness were a bigger problem than the deafness itself. I never for a second thought of my mother as disabled. She was just herself; her deafness wasn’t something that defined her. But I’ve often caught myself making assumptions about people whose disabilities were unfamiliar to me – defining them by a medical diagnosis, and so making my attitude into a bigger problem, than their disability.
Mostly picture books are hard to write – there is nowhere to hide mistakes in 600 words. Every phrase is a long wrestling match with meaning. But once in a while they just happen: that fledgling swift and the way we handle disability in our society swirled around in the back of my brain and, like a photograph in developing fluid, the story swam into focus. In a day, I had a pretty finished draft that worked well when road tested on family, friends and children in schools where I was visiting author.
The response to Perfect was so good that when publisher after publisher rejected it, I was surprised (gutted, miserable, discouraged). I almost gave up, but writing friends Jackie Morris and Julia Green believed in the story and I persevered. When I showed it to Matthew Howard of Graffeg books, he almost snatched it from my hands; at last, Perfect had a home.
Finding Cathy Fisher, the artist who illustrated Perfect was a piece a pure luck. I saw her work on the wall of a physical therapist I was seeing in Bristol and knew at once I’d found the right person.
The response to Perfect has been wonderful. I’ve read it in schools and been overwhelmed as children shared their experiences of disability in their own families. People have grasped my hand and said how they wished they’d had a book like this when their brother or sister was born. It seems I’ve somehow told a story that was a part of so many lives, and yet hidden away because our society drives people with disabilities into invisibility. As a society, we are stuck in a negative cycle that shuts out people with disabilities in so many ways – everything from a lack of ramps to access public places, to bullying, to our reluctance to talk about disability and the challenges it raises for the people and families who live with it.
I know that together Cathy, Graffeg and I have created a book with an important job to do, and done it against the odds. But now there are new odds stacked against us; we are small fish in a world of big publishing sharks. Our next job is to swim hard against the tide and make sure this book reaches everyone who needs to hear its message.