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Five Steps to Working in Collaboration:

How writer Gail Aldwin and illustrator Fiona Zechmeister created Pandemonium a picture book for children 2–7 years

It’s an exciting experience to see words and images bring a children’s picture book to life. There were many drafts to get the story and illustrations for Pandemonium right and this article shares what I learnt from the process. The collaboration with Fiona involved many emails and Skype calls because she is based in Austria and at the time I was volunteering in Uganda. However, due to Covid-19, I was repatriated to England in March 2020. Bandwidth and time differences where the first obstacles to negotiate. True collaboration is about effective communication and trust which builds over time. So, although there were challenges at the beginning, we learnt how to work together to produce the twenty-eight pages of the book. The theme of the story relates to identity and belonging:

Peta doesn’t look like other pandas in the toy department because of her purple coat. This provides camouflage and enables her to get up to mischief. When an assistant spots Peta this puts an end to her tricks. Peta must learn more about herself… but does this stop Peta’s fun? Of course not!

Here are some of my tips for a successful author/illustrator collaboration:

1. Find strengths in each other’s work

Following acceptance of the manuscript for Pandemonium by Victorina Press, my publisher appointed an illustrator to develop the story into a full colour picture book for young children. Fiona Zechmeister is an experienced cover designer and has previously illustrated two children’s picture books for Victorina Press. From the start of our collaboration, I had great confidence in Fiona’s skills and talents as she produced the cover for my debut novel The String Games which won a finalist badge for its design in the 2019 International Book Awards. She loves to work with watercolour and this is seen in the cover of The String Games with the pale blue backwash set against the twine configured title and the profile at the bottom of the page.

During our collaboration there had to be compromises on both sides. Sometimes I was obliged to change the text to suit the illustrations better. At other times, the illustrations needed more detail to tell a parallel visual story which accompanied the text. It was by listening to each other and accepting sensitive criticism that we were able to move forward. Willingness to review and revise both the visual images and the text led to the successful completion of the project.

2. Understand the preparatory steps in illustration

I had no idea what was involved in the early stages of the illustration process. Fiona studied the anatomy of bears to inform the illustrations in Pandemonium. As you can see from Fiona’s sketch book below, knowing how muscles work together allowed Fiona to create fun characters full of movement. This gave me an appreciation of the background work that informs effective illustration.

3. Establish an open dialogue

For the next stage in the process, Fiona developed thumbnails to accompany the text. Her early illustrations showed movement and gesture to create a fun-loving, cheeky panda. These were then incorporated into sketched images for each page of the book. It was thrilling to see the tricks that Peta got up to in the department store and how these were abruptly ended by a shop assistant. Through open dialogue, Fiona and I were able to smooth out differences of interpretation to dovetail the images and text.

4. Share market research

As this is the first children’s picture book I’ve developed, I wanted to be sure of the target audience. I therefore conducted a little market research to see how the story and colour images were received by families. This clarified the target age for Pandemonium as children from 2–7 years. It also identified elements of the story that appealed to parents and grandparents, for example, the central theme which relates to identity. In terms of illustrations, everyone loved the fluffy panda images but some readers were concerned about the black eye patches. Fiona resolved this issue by making Peta have bright sparkly eyes in the illustrations. We were also both aware of the need for the book to be commercially appealing, and potential purchasers confirmed the cover to have ‘pick-me-up’ qualities.

5. Celebrate steps along the way

As Fiona works on a freelance basis for Victorina Press, other projects sometimes drew her away from Pandemonium. I also continued to work with educators as a remote volunteer, so I was unavailable for chunks of time, too. This extended the period of our collaboration to about a year. Thanks to the flexibility of Victorina Press, it wasn’t a problem. Over this extended period, we celebrated small steps along the way and congratulated each other on overcoming challenges.  

Working on a children’s picture book has been an engrossing and demanding experience. For collaboration to be effective, it’s more than double the effort but the outcome is totally worth the investment. It’s not always easy working with another creative person but with perseverance, understanding and commitment, the final product is elevated to a new level. Hopefully, by sharing these steps anyone interested in following our journey will find the process a little easier.


Praise for Pandemonium

Pandemonium is absolutely delightful! Peta the panda is stuffed full of fun and young ones will adore her.

Wendy White, Tir na n-Og Award Winner

The beautiful illustrations are full of movement and excitement, and the joyous story will appeal to young children and their parents.

Liz Poulain, children’s author and illustrator

Victorina Press Seasonal Promotion 

Order Pandemonium or any other Victorina Press titles including The String Games directly from the publisher and receive 30% discount by entering the coupon code XMAS2020 (one use per customer). Please support this small independent press in their mission to discover unheard voices and promote inclusion. 

Pandemonium:  https://www.victorinapress.com/product/pan-de-mo-nium/

The String Games:   https://www.victorinapress.com/product/the-string-games/

Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Pand-Mo-Nium-Gail-Aldwin/dp/199936967X

About Gail Aldwin

Novelist, poet and scriptwriter, Gail Aldwin’s coming-of-age novel The String Games was a finalist in The People’s Book Prize and shortlisted in the Dorchester Literary Festival Writing Prize 2020. The idea for Pandemonium came to Gail when she was teaching a module on writing for children to undergraduates at the University of South Wales. Gail lives with her family in a house that overlooks water meadows in Dorset. Find out more about Gail on her blog: https://gailaldwin.com

Twitter:                     https://twitter.com/gailaldwin

Facebook:         https://www.facebook.com/gailaldwinwriter/

About Fiona Zechmeister

Fiona holds a degree in Visual Communication and a Masters in Publishing from the University of Derby. She works as an illustrator creating book covers and children’s books. Pandemonium is the third children’s picture book Fiona has illustrated. The others are I am Adila from Gaza and Songo. Find out more about Fiona on her website: https://www.fionazeich.net

Fiona holds a degree in Visual Communication and a Masters in Publishing from the University of Derby. She works as an illustrator creating book covers and children’s books. Pandemonium is the third children’s picture book Fiona has illustrated. The others are I am Adila from Gaza and Songo. Find out more about Fiona on her website: https://www.fionazeich.net

Twitter:                     https://twitter.com/fionazeichnet

Instagram:          https://www.instagram.com/fionazeichnet/

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