‘‘I was asked by my publisher to write Oi Cat! and I flatly refused. I said: ‘That’s it, that’s enough’.”
It’s a surprising confession from author Kes Gray given the commercial and critical success of the first two books in his Oi series with Jim Field. The first, Oi Frog!, was nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2012 while the second, Oi Dog!, was shortlisted for both the Sainsbury’s Children’s Book Award 2016 and Children’s Book of the Year at the British Book Awards.
He explains that he is not a fan of writing sequels in general. “Oi Dog! was the first time I’d ever written a sequel; I’d only go there if I was as happy with the sequel as I was with the first book.” However, after his meeting with editor Emma Layfield of Hodder Children’s Books, he started trying out ideas on his train journey. “By the time I’d got home, I’d pretty much written it. And it’s been a lot of fun.”
Following on from the first two books, Oi Cat! sees the dopey dog character try to help an increasingly grumpy cat get out of sitting on a gnat, as decreed by the series’ Machiavellian frog. His not-so-helpful suggestions include “If you were a pony you could sit on some macaroni”, and “If you were a lark you could sit on a shark”.
Illustrator Field says creating the book has been “a more fun process” than working on its predecessor Oi Dog! “To try and better Oi Frog! was a big challenge and we were both unsure whether we should do a sequel until Kes’ wife Claire persuaded him. For this book, there was less pressure. I just enjoyed coming up with the new animals and their seating arrangements.”
Rhyme and reason
The idea for the series came from the old rhyme “the cat sat on the mat”. Gray says: “I used to work in advertising and one of the things that you learn is to take familiar patterns and break them, throw them up in the air and see if you can spin them in another direction. At some point I started to push ‘the cat sat on the mat’ around, and ended up here.”
Layfield suggested that Field would be a good fit for Gray’s text and so the series was born, as well as two other books they have collaborated on since then, How Many Legs? and Quick Quack Quentin. Gray says of the partnership: “We get on very well and we’re both pretty much on the same wavelength, so it’s very easy working together. It’s always healthy for the eye of an illustrator to look at the words and the eye of the author to look at the pictures. You both see things slightly differently, and I think ultimately you get a better book for that.”
Initially, Gray writes the text and then Field comes up with a rough storyboard. Field explains: “He writes and I draw, then he suggests things and I suggest things. We then chip away at the book until we have something we both strongly believe in. We’re both very particular so it’s got to be right for both of us. We can still be tweaking the last word and adjusting a colour until the last minute before production.”
Field creates his illustrations using pencil and paper from rough to final for the line work, which is then scanned and artworked in Photoshop. Though he does “quite a bit” of online research into the animals’ appearances before illustrating them, he says that Gray’s inventive rhyme combinations can be a challenge, particularly drawing a pile of fajitas for the “cheetahs will sit on fajitas” rhyme in Oi Dog!
His favourite rhyme to illustrate in Oi Cat! was the pheasant sitting on a present, who “seemed to come out particularly well as an upper-class Victorian”. Gray’s favourite rhyme to write was “bats sit on bats”. He says: “With this book, I wanted it to offer something slightly different to the other two books and I’m taking more liberties with the rhymes, they are becoming more tongue in cheek.”
In the picture
Gray feels that his background, working for 20 years as a writer of television commercials, has been a useful grounding for his career in picture books. “If there’s a better preparation for writing picture books than writing TV commercials, I really don’t know what it is because commercials are a really short, tight discipline. You learn how pictures and words work together.”
Field also “fell into” working on picture books. Before doing so, he was an animation director for nine years, as well as working as a freelance illustrator on the odd editorial commission. Then his promotional card landed on the desk of Kingfisher Books’ art director Eliz Hüseyin, who commissioned him to illustrate a new series. There only ended up being two books in the series but through this experience, Field met Chris Inns, art director at Macmillan Children’s Books, and began working on Peter Bently’s manuscript for Cats Ahoy!
“It completely changed my career path,” Field says. Despite his previous aversion to sequels, Gray says there will be further books in the series, which will “go somewhere else”, but for now he simply hopes people enjoy Oi Cat! as much as the first two books. He says: “I think there’s always a danger when you continue a series that people go, ‘It’s just more of the same’. I hope people come to this one and they get to know the characters a little bit better.”
His favourite of the three main characters is the “well-intentioned but dim” dog, while Field’s is the cat, because “he is such fun to draw — and the grumpier he gets, the funnier it is”.
With more books in the pipeline, Gray’s main concern now is whether he can keep coming up with rhymes for them. He says: “I’ve just fallen in love with the idea now. I’m always thinking ‘Where else could I go?’
“The Oi series has been really nice, it’s crept up on all of us. There were no plans for it to ever be more than one book but it’s just evolved, and I think that’s always the best way.”