Jane Buckley, who won the inaugural Designer of the Year prize at the recent British Book Awards, discusses her recent promotion and the art of pairing writers and illustrators together.
I speak to Jane Buckley just after what must have been a pretty good couple of days for her. On 13th May, at the virtual British Book Awards, she won the first-ever Nibbie for Designer of the Year. Twenty-four hours later Simon & Schuster Children’s Books—where she has worked since 2008—announced it had promoted her to senior art director of picture books.
The promotion, as you might imagine, had been in train for a while (and certainly was not linked to taking home the Nibbie), but it is interesting that in the announcement S&S Children’s m.d. Rachel Denwood noted the “fundamental importance of design excellence” and the sterling work the “magical duo” of Buckley and editorial director Helen Mackenzie Smith have done in boosting the picture book list.
That reflects a point of difference in the role of picture book designers as compared to children’s fiction and non-fiction, and certainly from designers on the adult side, Buckley says: “Picture books are very collaborative from the start. Helen will get a text in and say, ‘What do you think?’ And we start to get excited and discuss illustrators. Or we will have an illustrator in mind even before the text. But regardless, [the designers] are there from the word go, thinking about the pairing of author and illustrator. And even to what we call laying the page, Helen will send the text and we will put it on page and discuss fonts, page turns... it has to have a real build. You have to look at that text and it has to flow. What I say is that we are storytellers from the start.”
A good example of this is Smirti Halls and Steve Small’s bestseller, and a Nibbie shortlistee for Children’s Non-fiction & Illustrated Book of the Year, I’m Sticking with You (right). S&S had Halls’ text in, a story of friendship between a squirrel and a bear, but was searching for the artwork. Buckley happened to be sitting down one evening to an episode of “Coronation Street”, and in the break a TSB advert came on with animations by Small. Buckley knew immediately Small’s style would be a perfect pairing for the story and tracked him down (an animator by trade and not an illustrator for hire, “he wasn’t easy to find”).
Buckley says: “We work a lot like that. Sometimes, of course, you do know the illustrator/ author pairings right away. Sometimes you don’t, so you let it sit awhile and maybe scour illustrators’ Instagram pages. Or look at this portfolio of illustrators whose work I love, which I call the ‘Little Book of Goodness’. Or it could be Helen, bringing in a greeting card and saying, ‘I found this illustrator, what do you think?’ So, we play off each other.”
This goes a way to answering a point someone raised to me after Buckley won the Nibbie (it seemed a bit like grousing, to be honest), which is the feeling that perhaps picture book designers don’t have to do that much. Surely, all they do is slap their illustrator’s work on the cover and it’s job done? I broach this delicately with Buckley and she’s not offended, though does emit a lengthy, exasperated groan before answering.
She says: “I was talking to a picture book designer friend who got asked this just the other day. We get this a lot. There is so much involved in what we do, right from the beginning. We’re storyboarding, piecing together the imagery that has to run smoothly... it is like you are piecing together a jigsaw. And it’s so important because it is for books that are read again and again. And for an audience that is ruthlessly honest; kids will let you know immediately if it doesn’t work. Plus, we will design hardback and paperback covers—not done all the time with adult books—which need to be resized. We do a lot, maybe a lot more than other designers.”
Pictured: spread from Lu Fraser and Kate Hindley’s The Littlest Yak
The road less travelled
Buckley’s move into the trade was not typical. She hails from Bradford and initially university was not on the cards: “We weren’t really encouraged at school to do A-Levels and because unemployment was so high at that time, the focus was really going out and getting a job as quickly as possible.”
So she left school at 16, working in a bank but yearning to do something creative. She eventually went back to her studies, building up an arts portfolio at the University of Bradford’s foundation course before going to Nottingham Trent University to study fine art and filmmaking. She says: “One thing that leaving school can do is give you a bit more fire in the belly. Going to Nottingham forced me out of my comfort zone of my home surroundings and gave me the confidence to meet new people. I had a very working-class upbringing and being in an environment where you’ve got people from different backgrounds was great, but quite intimidating at first.”
After Nottingham she decamped to London without a job lined up, giving herself six months to find something. Right away she landed a role as an artist’s assistant and soon after got a gig working part-time at DK, where the book design bug bit. She has remained in children’s design since, and has had stints in fiction, non-fiction and novelty, but picture books were the strongest pull: “I think they just made more sense to me, and maybe it goes back to my film- making when I was in Nottingham, because they combine the storytelling and storyboarding side of things.”
S&S Children’s has had a spring in its step the past couple of years with a new leadership team led by Denwood, and Buckley and Mackenzie Smith’s picture book side is a big part of the success. Small has followed up his collaboration with Halls with his first title as a solo author/illustrator, the hugely praised The Duck Who Didn’t Like Water, released last month. Then there is the surging popularity of Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet—the duo’s sales rose by more than 500% year on year in 2020. Their latest Supertato title, Bubbly Troubly, was out in March, while the first in a new series, I Spy Island, débuts in July.
Buckley says: “Maybe the best thing about this job is the partnerships. Like Sue and Paul, who are a joy to work with. Or [Littlest Yak creators] Lu Fraser and Kate Hindley. And we’ve Rachel Bright and Nadia Shireen [their Slug in Love launched in January] on our list now. We have all these lovely people coming together and making beautiful books, and I can’t wait to see what they all do next.”