Tuesday 18 January 2022

Owls Are Cool - Guest Blog Post from Timothy Knapman

Oscar is an owl; a COOL owl. And cool owls DO NOT fly – they RUN. ZOOOOOOOOOM! So when snowy owl Reggie comes along, swooping and swooshing through the sky, Oscar’s not impressed at all. But when Reggie crashes into a tree, Oscar discovers that maybe they are not so different from one another after all…

A funny and heartwarming story about how being different is cool. It introduces the burrowing owl and their spectacular legs and beautiful burrows to small children.

Guest blog post from Timothy Knapman 

Timothy Knapman here, hello! I’d like to tell you a bit about my new book, Owls Are Cool, which is illustrated by the mighty Jason Cockcroft.

Ideas for picture books can come from anywhere, but it’s often something visual. I talked to a friend about stories, and she showed me a picture of a burrowing owl. There was something proud but vulnerable in the owl’s face, and at once, I could hear a voice in my head that seemed to fit him. Getting a fix on your main character is a good start, but you still need a story. Stories aren’t just a string of events that happen for no reason, they’re like a machine in which each moving part works in harmony with the rest, and they need a motor to drive them. That motor is usually a problem that the main character has to solve. So I needed a problem to power my story. I wondered what this proud animal would feel if he saw an owl that could fly – admiration, yes, but underneath it also loss as he watched something he couldn’t do. How was he going to deal with that? That’s when I knew I had a story.

 Research is an integral part of the process of writing picture books. If I’m writing about a particular animal, I’ll read as much about them as I can before I start. It’s an excellent way to get ideas, and I think stories feel richer if they include a few particular, telling details. But I’m not bound by the facts when I tell my stories because – and this is a big secret, so don’t let it get around – picture books about animals aren’t really about animals.

Take my new book; its hero is a burrowing owl who admires/envies, and then makes friends with, a flying owl. Does that sort of thing happen in the wild? I have no idea. Because I’m not really writing about animals at all, I’m writing about how a friendship begins. The heart of my story – the hero’s mixture of admiration, showing off, and vulnerability – comes not from any biology textbook about burrowing owls but from my memory of trying to make friends when I was a little boy. 

 Writing a picture book is like writing a song. Like songs, picture books can’t go on very long; they need some kind of quirk or novelty that hooks you, and, most of all, they have to be something you’re going to want to hear over and over again (young readers love repetition). I’ve been lucky enough to write a few songs and even luckier to have written them with some very talented composers, and it’s in the collaboration that song- and picture book-writing are most alike. I don’t try to do everything in my lyrics – lyrics are not poetry, they are not meant to stand on their own; music carries at least half of the song’s meaning – and it’s the same with illustrations, such as Jason Cockcroft's glorious images for our new book. I would never tell Jason what to draw; I have no fixed ideas about what my characters and their world look like, as long as they fit the story. I want to be surprised. And the result is always far better than I was expecting – a book that sings.

 This is a picture of my desk, where I’ve written many books, including my latest. I’ve given up trying to keep it tidy because I realised recently that the chaos is good for work. Yes, I know I have to dig under piles of papers to find a pen that works, and I’ll be snatching time where I can to read five books on wildly different subjects all at the same time, but the sense of urgency – of so many deadlines, and so little time – is a great spur to get working. If you have too much time to think about a project, you often find yourself thinking about it and not writing it. And I’m lucky enough to work on a great variety of different projects. Going from a picture book to a non-fiction book to an opera adaptation to a musical means that if I get stuck on one thing, there’s always somewhere else to go. And the answer to a problem in project A often presents itself after I’ve given up and gone over to work on project C. During the first lockdown, I had no deadlines, a nice tidy desk and time to read widely for pleasure. And I didn’t write a single usable word.


A special thanks to our guest this week, Timothy Knapman!
Owls Are Cool is now available from all good booksellers.