Thursday 13 May 2021

How to Be Cooler than Cool - Q&A with Sean Taylor

“For the child worried about keeping up playground appearances, How to Be Cooler than Cool by Sean Taylor is a reminder that the coolest thing is to be yourself.” – The Telegraph

Sean Taylor reveals how he wrote his latest picture book How to Be Cooler than Cool, and talks about his collaboration with illustrator Jean Jullien. Their new story features some young friends in a playground – a cat, a cockatoo, and a pig. The three of them find a pair of sunglasses and get rather excited about how cool they’re going to be, when they wear them. But their efforts to be cool result in some seriously slapstick disasters. Then a tiny chick arrives. And she shows them that just being yourself is cooler than cool.

What was the seed of inspiration for How to Be Cooler than Cool?

There’s nearly always more than one seed. In fact, it’s when several seeds start growing that you feel an interesting story is on the way.

In this case, one seed was our younger son being given a pair of sunglasses. (Even though he was small, he knew they were supposed to make him cool!) Then I found myself imagining animals in sunglasses. That felt as if it could be fun for an illustrator. And a third seed was slapstick comedy – which I’ve always loved watching. It very often revolves around deadpan (you might say ‘cool’) actors like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd suddenly, and utterly, losing control. That was the seed which felt as if it could grow into some laughter!

How did you move on from these seeds?

I started scribbling. This is the first rough story plan I came up with…

What I’m doing here is seeing how the narrative might work, split across 14 double-page spreads. Finding out if a story is going to work in a picture book format is always an important early step.

If you can make any sense of my handwriting, you’ll see that the four characters in the final book are in this first vision of the story - cool cat, cockatoo, pig and chick. I’m just slightly surprised to find that my original plan also featured an elephant…and a cucumber!

Then you wrote the story, based on this rough plan?

Yes, a first draft. It wasn’t even a full first draft. But it had something I liked about it. And one day I was having a drink with a brilliant trio of listeners: my current editor at Walker Books, Maria Tunney, my former editor, David Lloyd, and the designer who would come to work on How to Be Cooler than Cool, Deirdre McDermott. I read them the first, unfinished manuscript. This is it below. (You can see I’m still playing around with titles…A SERIOUSLY COOL STORY…A REAL COOL STORY…SUCH A COOL STORY…)

Maria, David and Deirdre were all, in their different ways, very positive about these beginnings of a story. I happened to meet up with illustrator, Jean Jullien a few weeks later, and could feel him drawing the characters in his mind as I described them to him! So I was encouraged to keep going.

Did it take long to work that early draft into a finished book?

This is the file of notes, scribbles, drafts, editorial exchanges and evolving proofs that built up as we developed the book…

Picture book stories are very short, but that doesn’t mean they take a very short time to write!

How to Be Cooler than Cool found its form over three years (which isn’t an unusual timeframe for a picture book project.) And this bulky file of notes reminds me what a lot of invention, thought and trial and error went into the process of writing the story.

To be frank, the quantity of paper reveals that there was rather more ERROR than TRIAL. All that work ended up being distilled into a very simple narrative only 286 words long! A great deal fell by the wayside.

How does it feel being illustrated by Jean Jullien?

It’s special. I’m constantly revisiting Jean’s illustrations for our previous books - , Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise and I Want To Be In A Scary Story - because they’re very popular, and I’m always being asked to read them aloud.

I never grow remotely tired of either.

Jean’s illustrations are striking and engaging. He works in simple lines and flat colours. So how does he get so much life inside those two dimensions he uses? It’s absolutely there – character, emotion, movement, LIFE. I’m delighted that we’ve formed a partnership. And I hope that How to Be Cooler than Cool will put a little light into the corners of young readers’ eyes, in the way that our other two books have.

Thank you to Sean for joining us on Picture Book Party!

Download our coooooooool activity sheets here.

How to Be Cooler than Cool is available from all good booksellers.