LAURA MUNCIE, Author of the children’s book  WHAT LOVE CAN DO

What Love Can Do is your first published book. Do you remember when you wrote your first story and what it was about?

As a kid I kept a diary with mini-stories about the day’s events and sketches, those were my first attempts at writing. I also enjoyed writing scripts and persuading my unwilling brother and friends to act them out. In school, I really didn’t enjoy Maths so I would have a “doodle day” sketching and writing stories on paper scraps and hiding them under the maths books when the teacher looked over. There was a strong focus on academic achievement at school, so sitting doodling and writing silly stories would have been considered a waste of learning time. But for me, it was necessary because I’m a creative person. Maths, for me anyway, was so dry and boring, that paying attention was like trying to hold my breath underwater for long periods of time. Doodling and writing were my oxygen.

What inspired you to write What Love Can Do?

Many events over a few years shaped and inspired ‘What Love Can Do’, including sad experiences.

In 2018 we lost my brother Stephen to brain cancer – it was a shock to everyone who knew him. Stephen remained amazingly positive throughout his treatment which included brain surgery. Saying goodbye to him was a very low and dark time for my parents, family, and Stephen’s friends. The only thing that sustained us was the generous outpouring of kindness and love shown to all of us. Stephen was a truck driver and his work colleagues named a new truck after him. Friends who we hadn’t heard from in a long time stepped back into our lives. It was really special, and if there is more room in a broken heart, fortunately for us it was filled with the kindness and love of friends and family. The reoccurring star motif in ‘What Love Can Do’ was inspired by my brother’s love of astronomy and ‘Star Wars’.

At the same time as my brother becoming terminally ill, we lost our unborn baby at 22 weeks. This had an impact not only on myself and my husband but on our 3-year-old son who was desperate for a sibling. I remember a friend asking me how I was coping with two deaths in a short space of time. I remember saying that it was taking a lot of love just to get through the days. Navigating all the raw feelings at home, among the wider family, coping with my own feelings, was difficult. That’s when I returned to sketching as a way to escape and process some of those emotions. I remember reading “When I turned to face grief, I saw that it was just love in a heavy coat” and thinking how true that was and so I channeled that into early ideas for ‘What Love Can Do’.

More of the prose was written sometime later in the labour ward when having our daughter Lucy. Germany had just entered its first lockdown and at that time there were no treatments for Covid or vaccines. It was a high-risk pregnancy as Lucy was originally a twin, but her twin had died at 11 weeks and I had become diabetic. When we arrived at the hospital, we were quite nervous about Lucy’s wellbeing, and with a deadly new virus taking life I had to remain alone in my room, that’s when I remembered I had notes for ‘What Love Can Do’ on my phone. So I got out my phone and started typing to pass the time in the maternity ward.

Other images and words for the book evolved after seeing what people were doing on social media to keep their chin up during the pandemic. One friend has daughters who highland dance and they were in their street dancing. I loved seeing that, along with videos on social media of people singing on balconies, dancing, playing with their pets and some of those things found their way into the picture book.

You are also the illustrator of What Love Can Do. What came first: the text or the images?

The words and illustrations mostly arrived together. I’m very influenced by music and listen to the radio and this is often when little characters arrive in my imagination dancing or acting out the song lyrics. Music can spark an image in my mind about how a character should look or act which then combines with memories, experiences, and things I see or read.

Sometimes the ideas have something worthwhile in them, sometimes not. But I have to catch them before they fly off, even if that means pulling the car over and writing them down. But the words always arrive with a mental image attached which I then develop or discard.

Can you tell us about the techniques you used to illustrate What Love Can Do and the struggles, if any, you found during the process?

Technique wise I have discovered my own process is to write out words on my iPad even if they aren’t full sentences, then using Procreate I sketch roughly the accompanying visualisation of those words. If it feels like things are on a roll, I keep refining the images. If the initial spurt of creative energy has passed, I’ll leave it and return to it the next day. If I feel the well of ideas has run dry completely, I might start to experiment with a colour palette and see what colours suit the story. Sometimes choosing colours can reset the imagination and stimulate ideas, or I switch on the radio and see if music throws an idea my way.

I also ask my 6-year-old son what he thinks, because little kids come up with great ideas. In the case of ‘What Love Can Do’ my son laughed and laughed at a sketch of a dancing dog I drew, so that had to be included.

There were a lot of struggles with the illustration, mainly because I submitted the book for consideration too early. I wasn’t fully satisfied with my work but couldn’t see how to make the artwork better. In my early illustrations, the human proportions weren’t quite right, the characters had arms that were too long, or the pose was a bit rigid. My dissatisfaction was keeping me awake at night, so I went back to the drawing board, drawing puppets into every character to find out what was wrong with them. I consulted another experienced artist to get her opinion. Ultimately, I redrew many images and then asked Adelaide if she would consider the revised images. I’m very lucky she said yes!

What Love Can Do presents a diversity of characters. How does that reflect your own understanding of characters?

I wanted ‘What Love Can Do’ to represent people around the globe. I didn’t want to illustrate it with the typical Mum, Dad, and kids throughout because families come in all shapes and sizes. Some of my characters are Dads on their own, Mums on their own, some are Grandparents looking after children, some are siblings looking after each other. I have a very diverse family and circle of friends, so that was incorporated into the artwork. Diversity is what I know to be real life and it should be positively represented in all books. So I tried to reflect on real life in the characters, from diversity in the clothing for example to the hairstyles.

What other authors and/or illustrators are an inspiration to you?

I’m a big fan of German illustrator author Rotraut Susanne Berner, especially her Wimmel books, which are picture books with no words. I love them because hidden in the busy street scenes are many mini-stories. For example, on one page of the book, a gust of wind catches a letter with a heart on it, on the next page the letter is picked up by a crow, you can follow the crow from page to page until on the last page the bird drops the love letter onto a kissing couple. There are dozens of these mini-stories inside her street scenes, she’s brilliant.

In another book, there are children in an art gallery and there is a tiny painting of The Gruffalo and on the painting and she has written AS for Axel Scheffler the illustrator of The Gruffalo. The painting is so tiny you almost miss it. I had the good fortune to meet Axel Scheffler at a book event and mentioned that Rotraut was one of my favourite illustrators and he grinned and said, “yeah Rotraut is a friend of mine”. I love that she does this with her books, hides stories inside stories, and gives nods to other illustrators. The street scenes are so well crafted and observed with timber-framed houses nestled beside towers of concrete flats. That’s very typical here in Germany, she captures German life beautifully.

What were your favorite books when you were the age your readers are?

‘The Magic Blanket’ by Stella Farris was a childhood favourite. It’s about a boy who flies on his blanket and thinks he sees objects in the clouds but when he gets nearer the clouds reveal something else. It maximises the power of the page-turn as you find out that what the boy thinks is a flying saucer is really a dragonfly, and the pop-up images are amazing – as a little kid they look gigantic. I also loved ‘Molly Mouse Goes Shopping’ by Caryl Koelling. It is an interactive book with a little mouse on a string that goes on an adventure. I loved putting Molly on the record player and making her go round and round. It’s a book ahead of its time with its clever interaction between child and book. I have hopes of creating an interactive book one day. 

Your readers are not only the children but also the parents, educators, etc… How do you expect What Love Can Do to impact both and influence their dynamic?

Picture books do differ from other genres because the audience is both the adult who reads and the child who is looking and listening (and possibly chewing) the book. So, this presents certain challenges. The language has to be simple for the infant, but it can’t be too boring for the adult. The setting has to be familiar to a little child; home, school, park are common settings, but then you need to make that original. I also wanted to consider life as we are experiencing it. The pandemic has been traumatic, families have been separated due to social distancing, people have missed out on key moments. We haven’t been able to celebrate events like the birth of a new baby, weddings, or mourn.

My hope is ‘What Love Can Do’ might create a soft caring space for caregivers and young children to just be together and experience something cosy, safe, and gentle. I hoped to remind people of their families despite this separation, by including multiple generations in the artwork. So there are Granny and Grandpa figures included that might allow the adult reader a moment to remind the child of all those who love them. The pandemic also placed additional demands on families with kids because working from home was necessary and childcare and schooling were disrupted. I often felt as a parent that I wasn’t doing enough for my children because of those demands. But kids are very adaptable and while we couldn’t go out and do fun things as a family, there were other small gestures that were possible. Just brushing their hair and telling them it looks sensational or doing a silly dance, counting the stars before bed, reading together.

I hoped my book would reassure parents and caregivers that however stressful the day might have been, they have shown care and possibly not realised it, and therefore shouldn’t be too hard on themselves. I also made sure the book wasn’t too long. When it’s bedtime parents are tired too, so a short snuggly bedtime book can be helpful for everyone.

Are you working on new stories/illustrations right now? Do you have any other books in the oven?

I recently completed a German colouring book “Zum Bunten Wald” and had it printed locally – it’s available in bookshops in and around my town of Obertshausen. I have another book that is in development called “Penny June Plays Bassoon” and I hope with some time and attention this book idea could become a real book. Penny has a long way to go to be ready, so I’ll be busy with her for a while.

What advice would you give aspiring writers and illustrators?

Make sure those around you realise that what you are doing is real work. It’s easy for non-writers to think of writing and illustrating as a hobby or an excuse to sit around gazing out the window. Make sure key people in your life realise it’s a job. Schedule time to develop your craft, and if like me you have one shared PC in the home, book time on the PC, and don’t allow yourself to get sidelined or distracted. The biggest challenge for me as a Mum of 2 little children, was making sure I could manage their needs while developing a new career. The key was being flexible, grabbing any spare moment even if it was only 30 mins a day. Most writers have other jobs and/or childcare responsibilities, so grabbing spare moments is vital. You get better at maximising those snippets of time the more you use them.

Secondly, send your manuscripts to be critiqued by agencies who specialise in supporting writers. These agencies don’t just tell you what isn’t working they also identify strengths and that’s important to know. I have acquaintances in writer-illustrator circles who are really talented but can’t get a publisher or agent. Manuscript analysis can identify what is tripping you up, it can save time and avoid the disappointment of repeated rejection.

Finally, surround yourself with people who believe in you. They will help when you feel like giving up. My circle of friends and family with an encouraging phone call or message on Facebook stopped me from giving up many times. They did more than they’ll ever realise, and I’m grateful.