In November 2015, I was asked by Rachel Williams and her team at Frances Lincoln Children’s Books to come up with an idea for a book. It was an exciting opportunity, but scary at the same time!
As I walked around Islington after the meeting, an idea for a search-and-find book started taking shape: a city made entirely out of plants, full of funny characters and exciting things happening. Somewhere among the hustle and bustle, a cheeky character would be hiding.
A couple of months later, I showed some of my first drawings to the team at FLCB. They loved the idea of Plant City and encouraged me to create ‘a world, not just a book’.
This blog is about how I created that world.
The imaginary city grew out of my love for plants. I wanted this city to be – like the plants it is made of – complex and beautiful, providing its inhabitants with shelter, food and air. The people who live in Plant City look like animals but behave like humans. Because this is an imaginary world, they live in harmony with both each other and their plant world. At the same time, it was very important to me that this book wasn’t didactic or preachy as I didn’t like books with obvious morals when I was a child. Instead, I wanted to invite children and grown-ups to have fun and explore this plant wonderland.
I felt that the three characters involved in the main search-and-find story needed to be very different to each other, not only in term of looks (they’re a rabbit, a ladybird, and a lizard) but also in terms of behaviour. Daisy the rabbit is a conscientious pet owner who worries about her ladybird getting lost in a big city. She eventually turns out to be a very good detective. Ladybird is a very naughty creature who loves hiding and has no consideration for his owner’s feelings. Basil the lizard is a famous super-sleuth who has won major awards but isn’t that good at finding ladybirds! I felt that these three characters would be able to drive the story – and search – forwards, from page to page.
While I was working on the book, I realised that if Plant City was a real place, it would resemble a garden rather than a wilderness. It is organised in neighbourhoods or ‘rooms’, each of which contains a place that children will recognise and want to visit – a museum or a funfair, for example. The plants – life sustaining and beautiful, real and imaginary – act like living scaffolding, supporting the illustrations and containing all the secondary visual stories that take place. As Daisy and Basil move through the neighbourhoods, looking for Ladybird, the reader explores the city with them.
To encourage readers to explore Plant City, I filled the illustrations with secondary stories, incidents and characters. Working on the book often felt like weaving. My main plot thread – the search for Ladybird – was intertwined with other stories that allowed me to introduce humour, observation, a back story, and opportunities for discussions between children and adults reading the book together.
An example of this ‘weaving’ is the Museum spread. Here Basil, seen on the left, continues the search for Ladybird. The main text points out things to spot in the museum. But the signs and labels direct the reader’s attention to details that make up another story thread: Plant City’s history. I felt that it was important to give the city a past and an origin story. I remembered watching the classicist Mary Beard discuss the importance of the Romulus and Remus myth in building ancient Rome’s identity, so I decided that Plant City was also founded by two brothers. These two weren’t as heroic as Romulus and Remus – they were two absent-minded squirrels who forgot where they buried their two conkers. The conkers grew into trees and Plant City expanded around them. The conker idea came from my garden – squirrels often leave their winter food in the ground or in my plant pots.
Another set of stories running parallel to the main plot is created by the things the reader is asked to find in each scene: someone crying and someone sleeping, five grey mice and five bees. I hope that the crying characters will be a great opportunity for discussions between children and adults, or for inventing stories about why someone is upset. When illustrating those moments, it helped to have a snippet of text in mind, even if those words never appeared in the final book. For example: ‘When you’re sad, talk to a friend’ or ‘A tantrum in a café’.
The five grey mice are quite small and hard to spot but when you find them, you realise that most of them are carrying suitcases or rucksacks. That’s because I thought of them as immigrants – being one myself. The mice have travelled a long way to find a new home and they are now running all over Plant City to find a new place to settle. Towards the end of the book, the mice don’t carry so much luggage. I like to think this means that they are now happily settled in Plant City.
Most of the secondary characters appear only once and are not mentioned in the text; for example, the ants and aphids in the ‘Restaurants’ spread. Here the inspiration came from the successful (and often annoying) cooperation between ants and aphids in my garden. I felt that they deserved their own place in Plant City: the very trendy Aphid Juice Bar, built on young bean plants. The aphids produce the sweet nectar which is collected by the ants and then served on a sushi-restaurant style conveyor belt. Creating a story out of something small and seemingly insignificant (such as an aphid) is one of the joys of picturebook making.
I would like to thank the team at Frances Lincoln Children’s Books for all their feedback and encouragement in creating Plant City: editors Katie Cotton and Kate Davies, designers Andrew Watson and Karissa Santos, and publisher Rachel Williams. And thanks to FCBG for having Look for Ladybird on the blog!
I hope that you enjoy searching for naughty Ladybird and exploring Plant City and that you will discover stories that I didn’t even know were there!
With thanks to Katherina Manolessou for the guest blog. The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.