• Picture Book Snob

Rachel Lawston speaks to Picture Book Snob

We chat to Rachel Lawston about her debut, Finn's Garden Friends, and how her experience with a literacy charity shaped the way she writes and designs children's books...

Author Rachel Lawston

Rachel Lawston is a book designer turned author whose debut, Finn's Garden Friends, will be released on 28th April by Pikku Publishing. We were delighted to chat to Rachel recently as part of the blog tour for Finn's Garden Friends.

What inspired you to write Finn’s Garden Friends? Was it a long journey from that first kernel of an idea to first draft, and then to finished book?

Yes, it has been a very long journey, which may have begun when I moved to London!

In Hampshire, where I grew up, I was surrounded by nature, and I have always felt a connection to the natural world. When I first moved to London, I really missed that connection and green space! But when I started volunteering at WWT London Wetland Centre in 2009, it helped me realise just how much nature can be found in the city. Since then, I have become more interested in nature connection and how it impacts mental wellbeing.


The idea for the book came about during a discussion about nature connection and how many children do not realise just how much wildlife can be found on their doorstep. There is so much to discover!


Do you have an allotment and/or are you a keen gardener?

I would love to have a garden, but like Finn, I live in a flat. I do have a shared front garden, though, and my very kind neighbours allow me to place bird feeders and a birdbath to attract wildlife into our shared space. I also live right next to Bushy Park, a huge semi-natural parkland, which my husband and I call our “back garden!” I am currently on the waiting list for an allotment and hope to have my very own one soon!

Finn's Garden Friends by Rachel Lawston and Lia Visirin, Pikku Publishing
Rachel's favourite of Rachel Visirin's illustrations for Finn's Garden Friends

Is this story inspired by real people and/or experiences from your own childhood? My Nanny, Irene and her friend Eric had a wonderful garden when I was small. Eric was a keen gardener and a member of the National Trust; he would often share gardening experiences and his love for the natural world love with me. I remember they had three ponds in their garden and kept koi carp in one of them. There was a local heron who was particularly fond of their fish. Eric used to call him … actually, I am not sure I can mention it here! Haha! My Step-Dad Tom and my Mum keep a wildlife garden. I would say their love of birds and hill walking has had a significant influence on me.


Did the book go through many drafts and/or evolve much as you were working on it?

Oh gosh, yes, so many drafts! But each time, it got better!


The message that every creature has its place in the world and everyone is entitled to be here is lovely and timely. Was this something you wanted to convey from the start, or did it emerge as the story developed?

Yes, the idea was there at the outset. Through connecting with nature, children can learn to empathise not only with the natural world but also with each other.

Finn's Garden Friends by Rachel Lawston and Lia Visirin, Pikku Publishing
Illustration from Finn's Garden Friends by Lia Visirin

I love how this book encourages children to take an interest in and take care of their environment and the creatures that inhabit it. Is conservation and the environment very important to you?

Very much so! I have been a Learning Volunteer at WWT London Wetland Centre since 2009 and have always had a real passion for sharing my interest in the natural world and conservation.


I love all the garden facts at the back of the book and my children enjoy these too. Did you have to do research about hedgehogs and foxes or were you drawing on existing knowledge?

My husband, Paul, is a natural history consultant and the Learning Manager at the London Wetland Centre. When I was writing the book, I researched and discovered some of the facts, so some I already knew, but others he shared.


One of my favourite parts of the book is the list at the back of plants and creatures to spot on the allotment. It’s great how this makes the story interactive, is a fun activity which increases and prolongs the entertainment the book provides, and also adds an educational dimension. How did you get the idea for this?

When I worked as a reading volunteer for Beanstalk (many years ago now), I shared a Where’s Wally? book with a young boy who was terrified of reading and didn’t like books. He loved that book so much, as it allowed him to create his own stories and connect with the book in ways that other books hadn’t. That moment has stayed with me throughout my career and really impacted how I design and write.

Finn's Garden Friends by Rachel Lawston and Lia Visirin, Pikku Publishing
Illustration by Lia Visirin

It must be so exciting to see your words brought to life by an artist. When did you first see Finn, his family and his garden friends as Lia Visirin imagined them, and did they look similar to how you had pictured her yourself?

So exciting! I was fortunate as I was able to design my book as well as write it. Lia and I collaborated well, and our vision for the book was very similar. I first saw her interpretation of Finn, his family and garden friends back in August 2020, when she delivered the character samples. Although I was the book designer and author for the book, it was important to me that Lia felt she had freedom. So I let her lead the way on the characters.


Before you saw the illustrations, were you ever nervous about how Lia might interpret your work?

I wasn’t, actually. Because I am a book designer and collaborated closely on the book, I knew that Lia would create something extraordinary.


How did it feel to see the finished product for the first time and were you impatient to see Lia’s work?

Gosh, the feeling of seeing the finished book was the most fantastic experience! Lia fed the work through gradually, so although it wasn’t a surprise, it was a wonderful pleasure to witness it developing week-by-by.


Do you have a favourite spread from this book?

I love the penultimate spread of the story, where Finn meets the fox cubs!

Dogger by Shirley Hughes and Mog the Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr
Two of Rachel's favourite childhood books

Have you always wanted to be a writer and/or how did you become a children’s book author?

Yes, very much so. I have worked in children’s publishing as a book designer since 2007 but never had the confidence to share any of my stories until last year. When I did share this one, I really wasn’t expecting it to be published!


Could you tell us a bit about your creative process? How do you come up with ideas? Do you have a favourite place or time of day to work?

Paul and I love to go on evening/night walks looking for hedgehogs, amphibians and bats in Bushy Park. I often find that is the best time for coming up with ideas!


When you begin writing a story, do you already know exactly what happens and how it will end or is the plot more fluid and subject to change?

I like to map the story out in my head, to begin with, then share it verbally with Paul. Once I have settled on the direction, I tend to sit on it for a week or so. Then I sit in front of my computer and start tapping away!


Are you working on anything at the moment, and if so, can you tell us anything about it?

I am! I am working on another book. I cannot say too much as I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but it will be another nature theme that I am sure children will love!

Mighty Min by Melissa Castrillón, an artist Rachel admires

What’s the funniest/strangest/most unusual thing that’s happened to you during your children’s book career (apart from a pandemic)?

I am finally getting the hang of Twitter! I have met lots of lovely people, passionate about children’s books, and connected with some of my biggest heroes in the worlds of empathy and conservation.


What were your favourite books when you were younger? Are there any authors and/or illustrators from your childhood who have had a particular influence on you?

I LOVED Dogger by Shirley Hughes and Mog the Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr.


Are there any contemporary authors/illustrators who you admire and/or who have inspired you?

Gosh, so many! I am not sure I can mention them all. Mostly as I work daily with illustrators and authors. I would hate for anyone to feel left out or unappreciated! I am going to play it safe and choose someone I don’t know personally - I love Melissa Castrillón’s work.


Do you have any advice for aspiring children’s book authors?

Write about things that you love!


Finally, I consider myself a picture book snob - is there anything you’re snobby about?

According to my husband, I am particularly funny about things being just so…


Finn's Garden Friends will be released by Pikku Publishing on Wed. 28th April 2021 - see this book on the publisher's website


Don't forget to visit all the other brilliant blogs and #Bookstagram pages on this blog tour: