Her first storybook – Parrots Don’t Live in the City! – launched this summer. We talk to full time mum and debut children’s book author Lucy Reynolds about her own childhood, creativity and reading with her eight-month-old son…
Lucy Reynolds, 38, lives in Herne Hill with her husband, Tom, their eight-month old baby, Ralph, and a dog called Ebi.
Do you remember your first piece of creative writing, as a child?
It was a tiny homemade book, bound with a colourful twist of mum’s sewing thread, by a seven-year-old me. It told the tale of Samuel Archibald Acrobat, who’d always dreamed of actually becoming an acrobat – because of his surname, see? But he was just too shy to take the stage. Fret not – it ended happily, with an emboldened Samuel being fired from a canon to rapturous applause…
What inspired creativity in you when you were growing up?
Freedom to roam – to build dens, explore the woods, invent games, plant seeds, mix potions, scramble about and make up stories. Mum always used to goad us (in a voice I can mimic but not write down!) ‘You have acres of English countryside to explore – you cannot be bored!’. So we’d roll our eyes and head out in whatever the weather to invent our own entertainment.
Were your parents writers/artists?
My dad is a voracious reader, a wonderful writer and an unassailable champion of The Spelling Game. My mum is an endlessly talented and unstoppable maker and creator – she loves to sew, cook, play the cello, garden, read, knit, pickle, decorate, sing…
Our house was full to the brim with books as we were growing up, and mum and dad always read to us – I remember huddling round, captivated, as they led us through The Endless Steppe, Children on the Oregon Trail, Goodnight Mister Tom.
Both have been a huge influence in terms of my love of reading, literature and the arts in general. And concocting random homemade Christmas presents…
It took me a long time to build the confidence to try and be creative myself, and to dare to show anybody my creations
What was your childhood home like?
I grew up on a small farm in Somerset, down the end of a mile-long pot-holed lane. It was a thatched cottage; there was an orchard; we had a stream with fossils in it. Our kitchen had a muddy floor, an aga, and a regular assortment of baby animals brought in from the cold.
It was chaotic, hard working and wonderful. But on the downside, while every other kid in the country was snuggling down to watch Grange Hill, I’d be sticking my wellies on and trudging out across dark fields to herd 500 turkeys to bed!
Did school nurture you, artistically?
I’d like to say ‘Yes’, but no, not really! I loved school in every way – I had some memorably fantastic teachers and was really fostered and stretched academically. But it took me a long time to build the confidence to try and be creative myself, and to dare to show anybody my creations. Creativity for me was always tinged with fear at school – I suppose it still is to some extent.
What piece of writing do you remember feeling particularly proud of as a child/teenager?
A close reading of W.H. Auden’s mesmerising poem, ‘Lullaby’ – ‘Lay your sleeping head, my love, Human on my faithless arm…’. I was sixteen and it was the first time I’d been asked to really carefully analyse a poem. The more I unpicked the words, and absorbed the sounds, and unravelled the layers of Auden’s meaning, the more it seemed to grow before my eyes and suddenly extend so far beyond the words on the page – I hadn’t known that poems could do that before. I was asked to read my analysis to the class and remember my teacher saying he’d been ‘humbled’ by it. That stayed with me forever and set me on a life trajectory that I can pinpoint back to that one moment.
Did you go on to study English/creative writing?
Yes – for almost a decade. I studied English Literature and Language at Oxford University and almost fell off my perch when I found out I’d got a First. I was working at a local meat factory (one of my least glamorous holiday jobs!) when mum rang the office there to tell me my results. I nearly burst with pride and disbelief.
But it gave me the confidence to stay on and complete an MPhil in 20th Century Literature, and then a PhD on the poetry of Thomas Hardy, Robert Browning and Gerard Manley Hopkins. My PhD supervisor was the incredible Irish poet and critic, Tom Paulin, and I feel so lucky to have been taught by him – he helped me to discover the amazing world of words and the secret life of letters.
When did you begin focusing on writing kids’ books as a career?
After university I spent ten years working as a consultant managing community, regeneration and health projects. It was really fast-paced and stimulating, but the hours didn’t leave much space for creativity. Three years ago I decided to go freelance, which gave me more time for writing, and enabled me to focus on completing some of my children’s book drafts.
One morning I showed these to my good friend, Jenna Herman, as we sat glugging tea. Jenna had studied Fine Art at university with me, and we’d often talked about creating a children’s book together. She liked the stories so we just said ‘Let’s go for it’ – and here we are!
Can you describe your first book?
Parrots Don’t Live in the City! is a rhyming picture book for 2-6 year olds, written by me and hand-illustrated by Jenna. It celebrates the brilliant, bolshy parakeets that are now glimpsed all over the country, and that captivate little children.
In creating the book, we wanted to inspire children to pause and notice nature, and to experience the sense of wonder it can bring, even in the depths of the city. The book’s also about the pleasure of words. Publishers often advise against writing children’s books in rhyme (partly because it makes them difficult to translate and so to market internationally). But for me the rhyming element is essential. Rhyme puts a rhythm in your head; it stays with you, memorised, for years; and it helps children to develop language and literacy skills. In learning to anticipate the rhyming pair, children learn to make predictions when they read, and that’s hugely important – as well as fun!
Do you envisage it being difficult to make a living as a children’s book author?
Yes! But I think we can make it. Since our launch we’ve sold more books than we ever could have imagined. Margins on books are notoriously small, though, and there is a catch-22 when you’re self-published – you can either sell high volume to stockists, but with a significant trade discount; or you can sell relatively small volumes independently, with better margins. Or combine both, with LOTS of trips to the Post Office as we do!
Because book margins will always be tight, we’re building our business, Doodles & Scribbles, in other ways too. We’ve read our book to hundreds of children across the country now, and offer combined ‘Book Reading and Craft’ workshops, which are proving popular – we’ve got a big one coming up with Barnardo’s.
We’ve also teamed up with Bumble Box, to create a ‘Family Craft & Activity Box’. This contains one of our books, prettily gift-wrapped, along with four beautifully designed family games and craft/learning activities – all about birds. And we’re developing a line of prints, accessories and postcards ready for Christmas. So by combining these complementary elements we’re aiming to grow well beyond what we can achieve through book margins alone.
When did children come along, and how has this impacted your career?
Ralph was born just before Christmas and has been the most incredible thing ever to have happened to me. It took a very long time for us to have children and was a hugely emotional journey. Part of my reason for stepping back from mainstream consulting was to create more space around trying for a family – it was during this time that I wrote these stories, so they’re deeply interwoven with my journey towards motherhood.
We’ve had to teach ourselves everything, from paper weighting and finishes, to binding options, inventory management, business banking, distributor managemen
Where do you look for inspiration now?
Constantly when I’m out and about – I eavesdrop on funny things children say; I notice things while I’m walking the dog; I catch words or phrases that have a nice lilt. I often jot down ideas and just see what comes of them. The parrots story arose from my husband absolutely refusing to believe that I’d seen one – I was quite annoyed at the time but now look where it’s led!
In what ways do you encourage creativity with Ralph?
Ralph’s first word will probably be ‘parrots’ – I recite our story to him most nights. He’s still quite little, but I do read to him lots and sing to him and let him just explore the world in his own little way – mainly by putting things in his mouth.
He comes along to all of our craft and activity workshops, so will probably be very adept at creating parrot masks and collages – a key life skill! – as well as gathering wild flower seeds, spotting songbirds, hunting for minibeasts and all of the other activities we get up to.
My hope is to give him the freedom, space and encouragement he needs to experiment, try things out, and discover what animates and inspires him as he ventures out into the world.
What is your home like now?
Well, right now it’s full of boxes of parrot books… It’s an old Victorian brick house, with wooden floors and iron fireplaces, but with a modern glass extension that fills the space with light. There’s a wall of bookshelves in the living room, where all of my books live, and next to these is my Granny’s scrolly old piano.
From the living room you look out into the garden, which is my labour of love – it’s full of Verbena, Echinacea and Phlox blooms right now. You approach the house up a set of stone steps, and when I hear our dog’s paws skidding along the floorboards to greet me, that’s when I know I’m home.
How do you balance work/life?
I’m learning. I’m still up lots each night with Ralph, so do some of my work on the night shift through bleary eyes. Jenna and I have become regular nocturnal correspondents and seem to do our best business thinking in the middle of the night.
In the day I have stricter boundaries – when Ralph’s awake he has my full attention and my phone and laptop go away; when he naps, I flip into work mode and plough through my to-do list in a frenzy. I should probably learn to rest while he does but then I wouldn’t be sitting here, writing this (at 2am) with a book under my wing!
I do think you can have it all, but for me it often comes at the expense of sleep. Regardless, I want to be a strong role model for Ralph – a loving, capable, attentive mother and wife; but also creative and ambitious and energetic in what I do professionally.
Can you describe your workspace?
I would describe it as transient. I work whenever and wherever I can snatch a bit of time – on the bus, pushing the buggy, hiding in the loo. When I do settle to work, I choose the kitchen – there’s a big glass wall, so it’s always light, and it’s a lovely calm place with a pendant lamp and an old wooden table. I like to lay out a fresh sheet of notepaper, put my feet up on the dog, and have a mug of hot water to hand. Plus a bar of chocolate if I’ve been truly organised in my preparation.
Any tips for other creative parents looking to follow their creative dreams?
Say ‘yes’ to everything, always be inquisitive and don’t be discouraged. We’ve been faced with some really big challenges (e.g. not having an agent or publisher), but we’ve always just said ‘Let’s get on with it’ and learned so much along the way.
We’ve also been bowled over by the number of friends who have turned out to have really relevant and helpful advice, contacts and guidance to give – especially other parents who are now following the creative path. It’s made this an amazing collaborative journey.
We have three other books in this series, due for release next year, and lots more drafts in development. If we can launch these to the same success as our first book and make a name for ourselves as a fresh new partnership in children’s publishing, whilst keeping the freedom and flexibility to be full-time mums, I would be as exultant as a pandemonium of parrots.
Any other comments?
A lot of our journey has involved the inevitably steep learning curve around setting up our own publishing company (Doodles and Scribbles), and producing a real book. We’ve had to teach ourselves everything, from paper weighting and finishes, to binding options, inventory management, business banking, distributor management – the list goes on and on. We’ve come such a long way since we said ‘Let’s go for it!’ back in that cafe.
So, to anyone who’s embarking on a similar journey, I’d say that there will be so many things you won’t know you don’t know, until, somehow, you suddenly know them. And once you know them, you’ll feel unbelievably proud of how far you’ve come and just how much you’ve grown.
Parrots Don’t Live in the City!, written by Lucy Reynolds and illustrated by Jenna Herman, is available at selected bookstores and online for £7.99. Each book comes with a special green feather inside and those ordered directly are prettily wrapped – perfect as a gift, or just a bedtime story treat. For more information about the book, activity boxes, gifts and prints, and upcoming workshops and events, head to: www.doodlesandscribbles.co.uk