Here are Hilda and the Runaway Baby on the title page of their book, with an epic journey ahead of them: Hilda living her peaceful, solitary life at the foot of the hill, the baby poised for adventure at the top. But they have a fairly epic journey behind them too – their story was first sketched out in 2008 during a game at an evening class.
This first storyboard was made in about twenty minutes, in response to Michael Sowa’s painting of a pig pulling a pram, Midsummer Night. My books usually begin as doodles (such as these of The Girl with the Parrot on her Head and her boxes), their stories teased out slowly in sketchbooks. But the process for Hilda and the Runaway Baby, apart from being much faster, was basically the same one of building a story from an image (or images) in answer to the questions it provokes – who is this girl with a parrot on her head? Why does she have these boxes of wolves and the dark? Or, how does a pig end up pulling a pram, and where is she pulling it to? Well, she’s rescuing a baby of course – an adventurous baby.
There was a lot wrong with this storyboard, as the red scribbles, made during my MA in Children’s Book Illustration, suggest. There was bad design (full-bleed images butting up against each other, page-turns in all the wrong places), bad pacing (several images where one would do, other parts squished to obscurity), and the peculiar static effect of Hilda and the baby turning around and trying to set off backwards through the book. There was also the problem hinted at by my note on the baby’s homecoming: “But I want the pig!” Whether I meant this as my thought or the baby’s, it started the process of shifting the focus onto this friendliest, reddest of pigs. So now it’s the baby who insists, post-rescue, that the restored (pig-less) status quo will just not do.
Hilda wasn’t always a red pig: when I first screen-printed the characters I tried her in pink too, but I’d met these striking red Tamworths in Herefordshire, and the red Hildas felt right.
I revised The Runaway Baby (as it was called until I realised Hilda should get top billing) through many storyboards and dummy books, screen-printed some sample illustrations and entered it in the 2012 Macmillan Prize: I was extremely happy when it won the Lara Jones Award, but it didn’t find a publisher until 2014 when Walker decided it could be my third book.
Taking years to get from storyboard to published book can be frustrating, but it has its advantages too. One is that while stories are hanging around they seem to snowball, rolling along and gathering up bits of my life – experiences, places and people, pigs. So the mountainous landscape Hilda and the baby inhabit is a (probably indefensible) mixture of the Spanish Alpujarras (white hilltop villages, almond trees and chimneys with hats on), Northern Argentina (mountains and poplars) and the Malvern hills (the Herefordshire beacon has snuck into a mountain range).
Another advantage of the epic process was that when I finally came to make the artwork for Hilda I was a bit better-equipped – as hopefully shown by the student and final versions above. Only a bit though – this was still my most challenging book to illustrate, and often felt like an insane undertaking. Screen-printing is an excellent way to make yourself simplify your imagery and limit your colour palette – unless you just decide not to do those things, and instead print an eleven-colour book containing townscapes featuring numerous tiny cats, chickens, figs, flowers, violins and people with faces smaller than lentils, alongside landscapes which need to be atmospheric, feel as if you could walk into them, and convey at least five distinct times of day and night… well, as Hilda says,
Hilda is my longest and shortest book: it has 32 pages where my others have 40, but a few more words, and its designer’s genius idea of changing the format from portrait to landscape allowed us to fit whole landscapes on half-spreads, which almost felt like having twice as many pages (and twice as much printing to do). This meant I could establish both characters more firmly at the beginning of the book, and feel surer I was leaving them satisfied at the end.
Babies, apparently, can be problematic protagonists outside baby books (although, surely John Burningham’s Avacado Baby and Raymond Briggs’ The Elephant and the Bad Baby two of the best picturebooks EVER). So it was useful to realize that Hilda, for me, was the point of the book, and the character I must persuade a publisher to fall for. Having said that, I also fell for the baby: it helped that by the time I was making the illustrations, my first niece was hurtling through babyhood demonstrating astonishing intelligence, resourcefulness and charm – like many babies as described by their families, I suppose, although their cats might have different ideas.
Pick up your copy of Hilda and the Runaway Baby at your local bookshop.