We’re Going to…. Chat to Sarah Bowie

Happy 2018 to everyone! To start of the New Year we at OBP chatted to author and illustrator Sarah Bowie about her upcoming picture book We’re Going to the Zoo!

What inspired you to write We’re Going to the Zoo?

I have very clear memories of going to the zoo myself when I was a little girl and I wanted to remember what it was like when you’re seeing these wild and exotic creatures for the first time in real life

What was your process for creating this book?

I started very simply, with a sketchpad and pencil. I tried to bypass my ‘front brain’ by just doodling and writing as quickly as possible. After a while I started to hear a grumpy little voice saying ‘The zoo is BORING!’, which is not what I’d been aiming for at all. However, I just went with it, kept doodling and writing and listening to what she and the other characters were saying. The important thing at the early stage is not to judge, you can always go back and fix things later. So that was how I got the original proposal written. After that I focused on page layout and pacing. It’s usually at this stage that I finalise the writing too. Once that’s nailed down, I focus on the artwork.

What materials do you use when illustrating picture books?

I usually work in traditional media, but this time I decided to work digitally. I used an iPad Pro – you can draw directly onto the screen using an Apple pencil. It made the process a lot quicker, and it helped me to loosen up and be bolder with my drawing. Don’t know if I’d use it again though … we’ll see!

Could you tell us a bit about Kitty and Clara’s relationship?

In many ways they’re typical siblings. Clara, the slightly older one, has decided she’s too grown-up for silly things like drawing and going to the zoo and hanging out with her younger sister. Meanwhile Kitty still enjoys all of those things, and actually misses having her sister around.

Do you like going to the zoo? And did you enjoy going as a child?

Yes I do. It’s good to see that the animals have plenty of space to roam about it, and the fact that it helps conserve endangered species is important too. I loved the zoo as a child, there’s something magical about seeing these beautiful animals for the first time.

What is your favourite animal?

The fruit bats. I actually didn’t discover these until I was a grown-up and they stole my heart the first time I saw them. For starters, they’re surprisingly big, so you can really see their cute furry faces and their little paws. They look like teddy bears with wings to me. And they’re so full of character. I honestly could run away with all the fruit bats.


Which illustration was your favourite to draw?

Drumroll …… The FRUIT BATS!

Was the experience of creating this book different to when you working on Let’s See Ireland?

Yes, in that I was far better prepared psychologically for how difficult it is to make a picture book well. It’s so easy to lose control of things like pacing, and for the drawing to lose its consistency. With Let’s See Ireland I went down a lot of blind alley ways before I got to the end of that book. This one was a bit more straightforward.

What was your favourite picture book growing up?

It was an Omnibus of Fairy Tales. I remember I was too young to read the words, and so I would spend what seemed like hours poring over the pictures, making up my own stories.

What’s your next project?

Currently working on a comic for grown-ups … It may be a while yet before it’s finished

Oh and there’s my daily bus sketches. I’ve started to keep a sketchbook record of the people I see on my bus commute every day. There’s an archive of them here: http://www.sarahbowie.com/sketchbooks-1 and I update them Mon-Fri on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sarahbowieillustration/

Sarah Bowie, January 2018

We’re Going to the Zoo by Sarah Bowie will be published in February 2018 and will be available here and in all good bookshops! Sarah Bowie’s first picture book, Let’s See Ireland is available here now and in all good bookshops!

The Cover Design of The Woodcutter and his Family

Emma Byrne takes us through the fascinating design process that created the eye-catching cover of Frank McGuinness’s upcoming novel.

This is a novel that chronicles James Joyce as he lies on his death bed. A writer’s thoughts on his life, his children’s thoughts on their famous father, and a final story to defy them all.

Given the breadth of James Joyce’s life, and more importantly his work – a bridge, as it were, from an older tradition to a newer one – I felt that a cover inspired by the old technique of letterpress had an intriguing potential.

Letterpress was the normal way of printing text in Europe, from its invention in the mid-15th century by Gutenburg, until the late-19th century.  (The Chinese had invented ceramic moveable type in the 11th century.) Much like our digital revolution and the huge opportunities brought about by social media, Gutenburg’s moveable type changed the dissemination of information forever. Texts were no longer written by specialist scribes for the select few. Words, knowledge and ideas, could be printed and seen by many. It was an invention that brought great power.

I had used a letterpress in college, and as a budding typographer was impressed by the sheer discipline, patience and respect it gave me for letterform. Today, anyone can type an essay on their phone, if they wish, but creating something in letterpress is a game of control and endurance. Fitting letters – wood or metal type – into a chase (a metal frame) is sometimes like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. So, we use furniture (metal, wood or resin spacing tools) various em-spaced leading in different lengths –to fit the letters into the chase.

Wood type is cut and this fact tied in nicely with the title of Frank McGuinness’s second novel, The Woodcutter and His Family. I mocked up a cover approach using images of wooden type that I found online. Again, thinking about how Joyce’s work continues to connect us to an older literary tradition, I mixed a serif and a sans serif typeface. For me, the serif represents a traditional letterform and the sans serif evokes a modernist typeface. I wanted the title to fill the entire cover, so it meant breaking the word ‘woodcutter’ over three lines.


I presented the cover draft and my approach was liked by The O’Brien Press team, especially the sales team. Most importantly for us, the author himself loved the resonance that the image creates. This was progress; my next thought was when the danger loomed … I wondered if I could recreate this cover approach using only letterpress!

I contacted the National Print Museum and, to our delight, the museum’s education officer, Gretta Halpin, loved the idea too. We arranged for us to visit the museum early one morning to recreate the cover with wooden letterform, and the artisan compositor Mary Plunkett was to be our printer for the day.

The first thing to do was look for type. I noticed (with great relief) that there was plenty of wooden type. The museum had several drawers or ‘cabinets’ of wooden Caslon (a serifed font) and Frutiger (a sans serif font).

The next step was to pull out the type case of our chosen letterforms and see how they might work together.

Once we had the type together in galleys we began the slow task of fitting it to the chase. The challenge here was fitting the two fonts together. This process alone took about two hours. With the type finally placed snugly in the chase, the furniture was held in place by tightening a quoin key or a locking device.

The type was now ‘set’ (hence the term ‘typesetting’) and we then prepared the paper by cutting it to size and brought it to the Vandercook press.





Before Mary inked up the press, she ran a sheet of paper through it to see how the type might sit, that is, where it would land on the page.

A few adjustments later and the press was inked and ready for the first proof!

This way we could see the position of the type, and see if anything needed nudging or moving.

After a few further adjustments, we started the run.

And so the print that appears on the book cover, under the dust jacket was born. The image on the dust jacket shows the serif and sans serif wooden type set in their chase. Something that might take 10 minutes on a computer had taken us a number of hours. These disciplined and patient hours, immersed in the letterpress process, have given me a new appreciation of letterform, and its many iterations.



With thanks to Arts Council Ireland,  Mary Plunkett and the National Print Museum.

Emma Byrne, August 2017

The Woodcutter and his Family by Frank McGuinness will be published in September 2017 and will available here and in all good bookshops!

Illustrating The Moon Spun Round – W.B. Yeats for Children

The Moon Spun Round – W.B. Yeats for Children Edited by Noreen Doody and Illustrated by Shona Shirley MacDonald

Shona Shirley MacDonald chats to us about her experience of illustrating this beautiful book. Emma Byrne, who designed the book, describes the commissioning process and the importance of illustration for a book like this.


Shona Shirley MacDonald

When I first heard about the project I was instantly keen to get started and already imagining how the finished book might look. Near the beginning I was lent a biography of W.B. Yeats and ended up reading it all in one sitting, which I think was quite useful and must have helped to inform the working-in-studioway I interpreted his poems. The introduction and background about Yeats as a child by Noreen Doody also added to that. Apart from learning a bit about his life, however, I didn’t search for any analyses of his text (with the exception of ‘Running to Paradise’), so for the most part I just illustrated it the way it made sense to me, taking into consideration that the anthology is aimed at children.

I was already familiar with some of the poems, including ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, but I hadn’t realised they were written by Yeats. Mostly the poems and stories were new to me, but they were not hugely difficult to conjure images for, as they are already rich in imagery. Each illustration had its own meandering and tricky journey, though. The most difficult poem to illustrate was ‘Running to Paradise’, it seemed quite obscure, and it took me some time to fully get to grips with it. Also I was initially worried about what to do with ‘The Man in His Boots’, but then I realised it was set in a haunted house, and if I couldn’t make that look interesting then I shouldn’t be an illustrator. Perhaps my favourite illustrations in the book are the ones I did for ‘The Wisdom of the King’, as they were some of the last ones I illustrated, and it was nice at that point to create a series that belonged together rather than individual images, as for many of the poems.

With all the detail that went into each illustration it was certainly a time-consuming project to work on, but it was enjoyable. However you always need another set of eyes. Emma, the designer, was great at guiding the project, allowing me space to interpret the poems, but also giving feedback and constructive criticism. My partner Ciarán who is also an artist was another huge help throughout the project.

There is still much I have to read of Yeats’s poetry, but working on this book has brought me an appreciation of his work. It was brilliant to have the chance to create strange and magical images for such beautiful poetry, and my hope is that children and adults alike will get enjoyment out of reading the book too.


Emma Byrne – Commissioning The Moon Spun Round 

As a fan of the work of our national poet, I was hugely excited when this book came across my desk. I also knew it would be an enormous challenge to find an illustrator who could interpret, embellish and visualise the work yet enhance it – without overpowering it. This takes discipline and sensitivity – where both the text and visuals combined take the reader on a road, a journey the reader needs to finish themselves.

The physical book was important to Yeats, and it seemed fitting to convey that in this exploration of his work for children . The packaging, which included the flaps, a secret poster, and different laminate cover all enhanced this, but the lynchpin, was always going to be the illustration.

I hadn’t worked with Shona before, but had asked her to do a sample for another project. It wasn’t right for that particular book, but I saw a magic in it, and kept her work in mind. I saw her work online, and saw these imagined worlds full of strange creatures at play and thought, this is perfect! I asked her to do a fully worked sample for ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree,’ to see if she could do the whole project.

I told her to lose all inhibitions and immerse herself in the work – and interpret freely. I told her a little of the world of Yeats and some of his obsessions with fairies and the magic in nature, but really it was just all in the text. When the resulting sample came in, to say I was blown away was putting it mildly. I knew it was going to be very special.

The initial concept, which starts as the poet is standing ‘… on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,’ and the explosion of life and colour that works its way up the page, was in itself very strong. But it’s exceptional beauty came in the detail that revealed itself in creatures and unfolding colour as the poem progressed. All of this whilst creating an atmosphere and visual tension. This artwork, like the poem, would reward by revisiting again and again.

I showed it to the inhouse team, and they all agreed, this was the illustrator for the project. Also the author, Noreen Doody, was suitably impressed. So we set out a schedule and all got to work. Each illustration had a series of rough approaches before we went to colour – so hugely time consuming. Each poem brought a different interpretation, and a different approach in concept and visualisation.

It is difficult to choose favourites, but if I had to, I think the second illustration for ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, where the swan becomes the lake is genius, as is the power in the illustration for ‘To A Child Dancing in the Wind. The cover art, which features characters from the whole book, is also very clever stuff.

These illuminations of Shona Shirley MacDonald, would, I have no doubt, have pleased W.B. Yeats very much. The combined work of Noreen Doody and Shona makes for an exceptional book that will bring young and old great enjoyment – for years to come.

Shona Shirley MacDonald and Emma Byrne, October 2016

The Moon Spun Round is available here and in all good bookshops!


Our take on ‘Dubliners’ by James Joyce

DublinersOur wonderful designer Emma Byrne gives her thoughts on designing the jacket for our new edition of Dubliners by James Joyce, which was published last year as part of Dublin One City One Book 2012.


When something like Dubliners by James Joyce comes across your desk for a new jacket and design concept, it really deserves a little more attention. How do you represent the visual shell of one of the most famous books in the English language? Indeed.

All of life is here in this collection of fifteen short stories. The characters of these stories, these ordinary Dubliners lives, loves, triumphs and failures are observed with a sharpness and empathy that few writers have ever achieved.

Father Flynn in The Sisters, Jimmy Doyle trying to better himself and failing in After the Race, these, for me, were just two ‘windows’ on these Dubliners’ lives that convinced me that using the ‘window’ as a metaphor might be the approach to take. The stories centre on Joyce’s idea of an epiphany: a moment where a character has a special moment of self-understanding or illumination. The initial stories in the collection are narrated by children as protagonists and, as the stories continue, they deal with the lives and concerns of progressively older people. This is in line with Joyce’s tripartite division of the collection into childhood, adolescence and maturity.

There I had my two design elements:

1.The tripartite division of the collection of short stories into childhood, adolescence and maturity. This is achieved by splitting the word ‘Dubliners’ in three. Also within the book three photographs break up the main body of text.

2. A ‘window’ looking onto Dublin of the period hidden behind the letters. As the stories look deeply at their characters, the image used is College Green in 1914.

What did you think of our cover?

For more information on Dubliners click here.

Throughout the month of June receive a 20% discount on all our James Joyce books when you buy online at www.obrien.ie!

Happy Bloomsday!