Picture Book Snob
The perfect book for you-nicorn!
This is NOT a Unicorn! by Barry Timms and Ged Adamson
What's it about? We meet a very special and versatile animal, but we can't call him a unicorn! The prefix "uni" suggests only one function when there are actually infinite uses for this creature's remarkable horn. This story introduces a variety of alternate names for the not-a-unicorn, while demonstrating just some of its amazing capabilities.
What can we learn?
There are no limits to what not-a-unicorns can do! They're incredibly practical and useful to have around, and always ready for an extraordinary adventure. And the word "UNIcorn" is definitely a misnomer!
What makes this stand out? This is an incredibly inventive book. It's lots of fun to read and I love all the wordplay. There's so much imagination here and it's a story that will inspire creativity in young readers too. Children love tales that embrace the surreal and present the familiar in unusual ways, which This is NOT a Unicorn! certainly does - and takes to the next level!
About those illustrations...
They are amazing! The illustrations are extremely colourful, striking and energetic, with a fabulous sense of fun and adventure. There are so many gorgeous scenes. My top three are the door leading to a snow-covered castle, the flower-filled garden and the one showing outer space.
There's lots to love on every page, however, and I'm quite fond of the gigantic angry fish and the pigeon that appears throughout the story too. We were thrilled to chat to illustrator Ged Adamson about his work on this book and you can read our interview below (and here).
Why we love it...
Like its unicorn, this book is unique and does more than one thing. It's an incredibly amusing story and a clever exploration of language, rhyming and creative thinking. This is NOT a Unicorn! shows children that words can be as magical as the unicorn in this story. It also encourages little readers to let their own imaginations run wild. At a time when there is a lack of diversity in children's literature, it's brilliant to see a Black main protagonist too.
Why you need it...
Although unicorn stories are popular at the moment, this one is unlike anything you will have seen before. It's a sensational celebration of creativity, language and the power of the imagination. There's lots of opportunities for potential rainy-day activities and games based on this story. My kids (four and six) have enjoyed inventing even more names and feats for not-a-unicorns to perform, and drawing pictures to express their ideas. This is one of those rare stories that continues to entertain long after the final page has been turned.
About the author:
Barry Timms spent his early years in Cornwall, mending pop-up books brought home from the library by his mum (vast swathes of Sellotape were involved). In the late '90s, Barry moved to London to study Fine Art at Central Saint Martins. By a twist of fate, he later secured an editorial job at Walker Books. He’s been editing children’s books ever since.
More recently, Barry has been writing picture books of his own and loves the challenge of structuring a story using so few words and pages.
About the illustrator: Ged Adamson was born in Liverpool and as a child was obsessed with drawing, listening to music and making up tunes. He eventually worked as a composer, but writing and illustrating for children had always been an ambition. In 2016, Ged published his first picture book, Douglas You Need Glasses! Since then, Ged written and illustrated several books including Shark Dog!, A Fox Found A Box, and Scribbly which releases next month.
We had a fascinating chat with Ged recently about his interesting career, and what he loved about illustrating this delightful tribute to a much-misunderstood animal...
This is NOT a Unicorn! looks like it must have been a fun project! What aspect of working on this book did you enjoy the most?
I enjoyed all of it - seriously! There are a lot of unicorn books and Barry’s story seemed like such a refreshing, original and funny take on the genre. I wanted to do it justice, so I had to make my unicorn different from others I’d seen. And that was loads of fun developing his look and character. I’d say the most enjoyable thing were my frequent zoom chats with Manda Scott and Alice Bartosinski at the publishers Nosy Crow. It was a tight schedule, but they made the whole thing really pleasant and stress free - they made me laugh a lot!
What did you find the most challenging?
I think the things I always find the most challenging with illustration: consistency with colour and consistency with how the characters look throughout the book. But to be honest, that’s a challenge I always enjoy. I learn something from each book I do. There’s a process called reverse text when you have white lettering on a dark background and it’s quite complicated. Getting my head round that has been quite challenging. But good on Manda for trying to explain it to me - she has the patience of a saint, ha ha!
Your images work so well with the text! Did you work closely with Barry Timms or were you given free reign?
Thanks! I was pretty much given free reign which was fantastic. I did loads of initial sketches and I’d send them to Nosy Crow as I developed those early ideas. They would give me great feedback and steer me in the right direction. I would hear from Barry once in a while to say how pleased he was with how it was going and that was so nice. Everyone was very encouraging and super positive. It’s a collaborative process really.
I love the little bird that can be spotted in the background (and their gardening and hiking gear). How did you get the idea for this character?
I live in London and the birds I see most often are pigeons. I’m not really a countryside person so I identify with a city pigeon more. I just wanted to have a pigeon eating a chip and then he drops it when he sees the (not a) unicorn. Everyone said you must have him more in the story. So, the pigeon pops up here and there. I do like that kind of thing in a picture book.
This is such a bright and colourful book and I love the palette – was it easy to create something with so many shades that complement each other or did you have to work hard at it and revise/adjust the colours as you worked?
Oh, I definitely had to work at that. One day I’d like to do a book with a very limited palette, but this certainly was not the story to do that! This one had to be very colourful and strong visually. Manda was a great help in making sure there was a consistency with the palette and suggesting things like background colours. It was the first time I felt I’d combined textured areas of colour with ‘flat’ non- textured backgrounds in a way that was balanced and effective. Also, I changed the colours in the unicorn’s tail and mane pretty late in the process as they weren’t quite right, but I think they really work well now.
I think my favourite scene is of the “open-up-the-door-icorn” with the fairy tale castle and snow in the background. What inspired this image? It’s so nice that this is your favourite image! The original idea was to have a sunny scene through the door - birds and sunshine, maybe a rainbow too. Something very green and warm. But I’ve always thought snow is the most magical thing, and to open a door to a snowy landscape is, to me, just enchantment itself. Also, I’m a winter person - I don’t flourish in the summer, ha ha! The interior and door were originally very gothic, but I changed them to look more Georgian. There’s a sort of suggestion that this is the unicorn’s house, but the reader can decide for themselves where the room is.
Do you have a favourite spread from this book and if so, why?
I love the spread where there’s a yellow background and you have a close-up of the unicorn’s and girl’s heads. I just like the simplicity of it and I’m really happy with the way I’ve done the two characters.
Is the “singing-in-the-rain-icorn” illustration a reference to Gene Kelly’s 1952 film and as a film composer, do you find yourself referencing movies whether consciously or unconsciously?
Oh, it’s absolutely meant to suggest Gene Kelly! I definitely always find myself thinking of things in terms of film when I’m working on books. I’ll always refer to ‘close-ups’ and ‘scenes’ when I’m talking about illustrations. One of my absolute favourite things is to go to the cinema and it’s been very hard not having that this past year. I actually love going on my own. I often find the soundtrack music I’m listening to fits a certain spread or image. I’d love to see one of my own stories as an animation - that would be amazing. Quite often though, the picture books that grab me have a very un-cinematic approach. So, it’s not always appropriate to have a movie inspired aesthetic for every story. But I think it’s so ingrained in me, it’s sort of my default visual thing.
The flowers in the “make-your-garden-bloom-icorn” are stunning - are you a keen gardener yourself?
Ha ha, no I’m afraid not! My partner Helen is though. We have a small garden at the back of our house and she’s doing wonderful things with it. Sometimes I watch Gardeners World with her. Monty Don has these cute dogs and the programme is very relaxing! It’s so great you like my flowers in that scene - that was such a fun illustration to do.
You’ve worked as a cartoonist, a storyboard artist, and a composer for TV and film! How did you end up writing and illustrating books for children?
I’d always wanted to do it. I know people say that but with me it really was true. I’d always draw and paint little characters and scenarios. I’d play around with ideas but then I’d get sidetracked by something else, usually music. Finally, about ten years ago, I thought I’d give it a proper go and I put together a story about a boy vampire who’s also a barber. Through that I got my fab agent Isabel Atherton and then, through her, I got a small book deal in the US. I knew if I could get in somewhere, I could make a start and build from there. And that’s what we’ve done - I’ve been really lucky.
Has your experience as a composer had an impact on the way you create art and stories?
I think it has. I wrote a lot of music for commercials and, of course, there was always a narrative that you had to follow. It’s not a job you can do without a sense of where the emotional points are in a short story. Your visual creativity develops because you’re seeing that process all the time. The ad world certainly has similarities to the picture book world. The ‘idea’ is the starting point and to make your commercial stand out, your idea has to be more quirky, funny, beautiful etc than others. People can be sniffy about TV adverts (I can definitely be sniffy about them!), but brilliant commercials occasionally appear and sometimes they can really touch you emotionally. The exact same can apply to picture books.
What do you love most about being a children’s book creator?
I love the creative freedom for one thing. You’re generally encouraged to be as creative and inventive as possible. I’ve always been someone who’s more into graphic art than fine art. Some of the most beautiful art I’ve seen has been in children’s picture books. There’s always the aspiration that I could maybe do a book like that one day. Something that makes the reader react in a way that I have with my own favourite author illustrators. I absolutely love getting responses from kids but I also love that children’s books interest adults as well. With picture books, you can be humorous and emotional in a way that reaches all ages.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors or illustrators?
I think the main thing is to aim for originality. Something in your work has to stand out. It doesn’t have to be anything huge, it can be a small thing but that can make the difference between yours and thousands of other people’s stuff. My own feeling is that, for illustrators, working exclusively in one medium (digitally on a tablet for example) can sometimes lead to stagnation. This has definitely happened to me in the past. Explore a bit - you can stumble on interesting things and happy accidents by stepping out of your comfort zone. Despite what a lot of people think, children’s books are not easy, so if you don’t have that initial love of the genre, your heart won’t be in it. And if your heart’s not in it, you’ll find it hard to be inventive and inspired.
What were your favourite books as a child?
We read a lot of the Roald Dahl books in school. I particularly loved James and the Giant Peach. As each chapter was read to the class, I would give my brother Neil the latest instalment of it before we went to sleep that same night. I wasn’t a huge reader as a child though - not conventional books anyway. I just read cartoon strips all the time. Like Peanuts. I was, and still am, a huge Snoopy and Charlie Brown fan. We had so many of those books and I’ve still got most of them. Anything illustrated, I would pore over. My dad would get these great sci-fi books and magazines with lots of cool images. He also had art books and there was a book about the Illustrated London News, the Victorian newspaper. I loved that book and still remember all the amazing drawings and etchings. I was also obsessed with football, so I used to constantly read all those magazines and annuals. It wasn’t until I was about 12 or 13 that I started to properly read fiction and novels. So, I sort of missed out on most of the children’s books that other people know so well. I discovered a lot of those as an adult really.
Are there any authors or illustrators who have influenced your own work?
A lot! Definitely Charles Schulz. Ronald Searle is possibly my top artist of all time. He’s influenced so many people. Beatrice Alemagna is an illustrator who I was in awe of when I discovered her work. Gary Larson is a cartoonist that I loved so much - I’m sure there is influence from there too. There are author/illustrators whose work I just consistently think ‘wow!’ when I see it. Nadia Shireen is one (she’s a comedy genius), Leigh Hodgkinson, Simona Ciraolo. I try to be inspired by them rather than influenced though because you have to keep your identity in your own stuff.
Do you have a favourite book to read to your own family? Rex has just turned 14 so it’s been a while since I’ve read to him. But I think the favourite picture book when he was little was Panda-Monium at the Peek Zoo by Kevin Waldron. We both thought that was so funny, a brilliant book. I’m always getting Helen and Rex to hear my latest story idea so that’s the only reading I do to them now poor things!
What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you during your career as a children’s book author and illustrator?
I don’t know if this is that funny, but it makes me laugh when I remember it. I did a school visit to read one of my books but, weirdly, the teacher decided to read it instead of me. I just stood there nodding in emphasis at various points like I’d just walked off the street. I felt incredibly awkward. I think she just really liked reading to the children.
Sometimes you draw things and you don’t realise they look like something else. For example, in my book Bird Hugs, one of the illustrations was of the bird Bernard giving a hug to a rabbit. My agent Isy said, “they look like they’re snogging.” She was totally right and none of us - me, the editor, the art director - had seen it but, when we looked again, it was blatantly obvious. It was a lucky escape!
My friend Fabi told me she was doing a book event and, after reading her story, she asked “who has a question for me?” The first kid to speak was a little girl and she said, “I have a hamster.”
Finally, I consider myself a picture book snob – is there anything you’re snobby about?
Actually lots of things, ha ha! I think I’m snobby about films. Music possibly - but I do love pop music so maybe not. I’m really interested in interiors and decor/furnishings, that kind of thing, so I can be very snobby about all that. Clothes too. Oh no, the list is endless! And I really am the last person who should be snobby about anything!
This is NOT a Unicorn! was published by Nosy Crow in April 2021 - see this book on the publisher's website
A huge thank you to the lovely people in Nosy Crow for sending us a gift of this gorgeous book and to Ged for answering all of our questions - all opinions expressed are our own