When illustrator Frann Preston-Gannon calls her latest project “a labour of love”, she’s not joking: her work on I am the Seed that Grew the Tree, published by Nosy Crow in collaboration with the National Trust, had to be paused to accommodate the birth of her first child, who is now two.
“No one made me feel bad about it,” she laughs, explaining that she discovered she was pregnant almost immediately after being contracted to illustrate the poetry anthology, edited by Fiona Waters. It’s a hefty book, one Nosy Crow is clearly enamoured with, which collects 366 poems inspired by the natural world, one for each day of the year, with the 366th catering to readers in leap years. The selection spans four centuries, from Dorothy Aldis to Benjamin Zephaniah, and unfolds over 336 pages—or in its illustrator’s language, almost 170 spreads for her to populate. “There are 180 illustrations,” she says. “It’s the size of 12 picture books, or something crazy like that. It was such an incredible project to work on.”
With each spread having to accommodate between one and four poems, the illustration ranges from muted backgrounds on which the text takes precedence; to more active, inviting imagery, with large animals or plants bleeding off the page, or wheelbarrows encroaching, giving such layouts great dynamism. The placing and chronology of such artwork is essential to the book’s (strong) pacing, especially considering the seasonal hues that had to be accounted for. Page after page of pale, snowy footprints in the wintry sections, or blossoming, budding-green spring pages, could easily become monotonous, but variations in scale, composition and colour keep the collection fresh for its duration.
Preston-Gannon is quick to praise Nosy Crow’s in-house design team and the art direction she was given for this, saying: “There were meetings with every single illustration on the table, and it would take three or four hours of art direction. There was so much to take in, but they were just phenomenal.” The team “could see things cropping up” that she would have missed, being too occupied with small details to see broader patterns emerging across the entire publication, she says. But she’s likely being modest too, as clearly there’s something in the blood: the illustrator worked as a bookseller for eight years in Ottakar’s prior to art school and, after graduating, for Bounce Sales & Marketing. “I loved bookselling and kids’ books,” she says. “I want to sell and make books for the rest of my life.”
Making an impression
Publishing on 6th September as a £25 hardback, her latest comes quarter-bound in blue cloth, with type debossed onto the book’s back cover. It’s done well—often too fine a typeface renders poorly onto cloth, hindering legibility. Not here and also, pleasingly, in lieu of a dust-jacket the ISBN and r.r.p. come stickered on the reverse and can be removed—a minor detail perhaps, but how many people want such keepsake books to reveal how much cash was parted with for them? There’s also strong typesetting inside: generous spacing in terms of the tracking (horizontal) and the lead (vertical) helps younger eyes read, and a sturdy weight of type means it is readable against the numerous coloured backgrounds, as well as when rendered in white and “reversed out” of a spread.
The illustrations of Preston-Gannon, who mostly works digitally, have a textured, almost analogue feel, which she ascribes to her “sketching and scanning of textures and stuff like that... I have big folders full of mud textures, or whatever.” When asked her favourite part of the book, she replies: “I love the cover. It was tricky to do something that was not so seasonal—we didn’t want to make it look too autumnal or anything, or go too big on one colour. We had about 10 that weren’t right—not quite this, not quite that, lacking the punch. You have a bit of everything in this cover.”
The illustrator’s lot
Preston-Gannon’s début, The Journey Home, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, and she has since published a number of titles with a handful of lists. “So long as you’re doing different types of stuff with different publishers, people don’t seem to mind,” she says, adding that she has five books contracted at the moment. Forward planning and project juggling is “essential if you’re going to make it as an illustrator”, she believes. “At the beginning [of an illustrating career], you’re earn- ing what, three grand? So you have to ‘layer’ projects—it’s the only way you can have security. Just doing one book a year won’t do it. You have to think about the next thing constantly, you have to have things planned for the next couple of months.”
So it’s perhaps fortunate that it’s not her only trade: her resumé includes Dave’s Cave, which she both wrote and illustrated, and its follow-up, Dave’s Rock. Both are issued by Nosy Crow, and the manuscript for the former was her initial introduction to the publisher, after which it proposed that she tackled I am the Seed... She also has a textiles project in the works with fabrics brand VillaNova, and is working on a CBeebies commission.
Preston-Gannon’s CV also boasts a more prestigious reference than most: Where the Wild Things Are author/ illustrator Maurice Sendak, who passed away in 2012. In 2011, she was the first overseas participant in the Sendak Fellowship—“a bit of an insane way to start your career”— which sees four illustrators flown to Sendak’s Connecticut residence and accommodated, as well as being paid a stipend while they hone their craft. “It was the most nerve-wracking thing I’d done,” she says. “I’d never been away from London, really, and all of a sudden I was in the middle of Connecticut, in these woods, with a huge, amazing space to work in and do what I wanted for a month.”
The fabled illustrator didn’t offer technical advice as such, instead passing on tips to help his charges navigate the publishing industry. “He would say, ‘Don’t be in awe of these people, don’t give them what they want—give them what you want.’ But he’d also give us advice about the business... You know, ‘If [a publisher] takes you out for lunch, make sure you order the steak’, that kind of thing,” she says, chuckling.
I am the Seed that Grew the Tree (9780857637703) will be published by Nosy Crow, in association with the National Trust, on 6th September, priced £25.