15 January 2019

Karl Newson: ‘I’m a big believer in not talking down to children in stories’

Karl Newson, author-illustrator
by Katie Smart Author Interviews, Writing Tips

Karl Newson is a professional children’s book writer and illustrator – and he gives editorial feedback to the students on our new children’s picture book courses. Karl is the author of A Bear is a Bear (except when he’s not), Here Comes the SunFum and Little Grey’s Birthday Surprise. He’s also illustrated children’s picture books such as Superchimp by Giles Paley-Phillips and The Gingerbread Man by Saviour Pirotta.

We asked Karl about his writing and illustrating journey – all the way from first attempts to seeing his published work being read out on CBeebies. His story is certainly one which emphasises the importance of determination and persistence, as we’ll hear … 

What led you to become an author and illustrator of children’s picture books?
I remember very little of the books I read when I was small – only Panda and the Snow by Oda Taro and The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson, illustrated by Joanne Cole – so for me, it all really began when my own two children came along and we got into the bedtime story routine. I saw how much enjoyment they got from reading picture books and wondered at the ones we read over and over and over, so much so that my children had memorised some texts and could read them back to me before they were even able to fully structure sentences on their own. I had always enjoyed being creative so I thought I’d have a go at writing something to read to them at bedtime. At that time I was making a lot of abstract paintings and also trying my hand at being a singer-songwriter(!), so I figured I would blend the two together and see where it took me. My children loved the story I wrote for them (luckily!) and it encouraged me to write more and to look into the publishing word in more detail. I soon realised I wanted to be an illustrator too, not just the writer, and so I decided to work at learning to become one. I taught myself and mostly stopped writing altogether. Six years later I got my first children’s book illustration commission; two years after that I started writing again; and a few years on from then I signed with my agent, Jodie Hodges, and began doing more professional illustration work – after which my first authored book was published. By then it was too late for my book to be a bedtime story for my children, but they are still my inspiration and I keep a photo of them when small on my desk to remind me where it all began.

When you come up with a new idea for a book, what inspires you first? A character, a situation, a new world, or something completely different?
Usually it’s a line; particularly the melody of a line. I like the way words sound when they are read aloud. Their weight and drag and pinch and delay all work to create a soundscape that I think is the key to why some writers hook us better than others, and definitely in the case of songs. It might be something I’ll hear but most often the words just appear in my head and I let them lead the way. Like in my story about a bear, I was in the middle of writing something completely different when a thought in my head said ‘A bear is a bear,’ and I instantly thought ‘except when it’s not,’ and that was it, the idea was there, all I had to do was write it up.

You also write some nonsense poetry – what’s your favourite nonsensical word?
There are too many words to choose from so can I choose one I made up myself? Mudwaffler. It became a story character, and the inspiration for my picture book review blog which allowed me to root myself in the picture book world of Twitter. It’s utterly nonsense but did me the world of good!

Your children’s picture book Fum (illustrated by Lucy Fleming) was recently read by Arthur Darvill on CBeebies as one of their Bed Time Stories – what was this exciting experience like for you?
It was an absolute dream. A pinch-me moment! To see a story I wrote being brilliantly read – performed! – on children’s TV by a well-known actor to thousands of children around the country is something I never imagined possible. I’m lucky enough to have it happen twice now, with George Ezra reading Here Comes the Sun last summer. I was on the edge of my seat both times, amazed at what I was seeing. I’m hoping they’ll bring me back for a third one day!

The latest picture book you’ve authored The Same But Different Too (illustrated by Kate Hindley), out this May, promises to celebrate the things that unite us. Is it important for you that children’s books carry a message?
No, not at all. I know some writers like to include a message or moral of the story but I prefer to just entertain and let the child take from it what they want to. I’m a big believer in not talking down to children in stories, so any message or moral in my books isn’t intended as a lesson, it’s there as a side observation to the narrative. In The Same But Different Too we see children and animals from around the world comparing themselves in completely fantastic situations (all down to the genius of illustrator Kate Hindley and Nosy Crow’s Lou Bolongaro and Nia Roberts). It’s not an in-your-face moral, but it’s there if you can see it. I never get an idea for a story based around a message or moral and tend to shy away from books that revolve around delivering only that. No child wants to be preached to. And I don’t imagine them ever choosing a book that is ‘preachy’ as a repeat read. Adults tend to, but not children and I think people forget that sometimes – it is for the child, not the adult reader. For me, it’s got to be entertaining every time – adventurous, fun, freeing, and idea-seeding. Not schooling.

You’ve been doing a brilliant job of providing feedback for writers and illustrators on our three new writing and illustrating children’s picture book courses. What’s the most rewarding part of teaching others about picture books?
Seeing the evolution of everyone from the first week to the last. The transformations that come are brilliant. It’s not just in style, but in approach and in confidence. Everyone supports each other too, which is wonderful to see. I’ve seen ideas spark and be fully developed and ready to go come the end of the course. That’s pretty good going for six weeks’ work!

Any advice you’d like to pass on to would-be picture book creators who already write and draw but don’t know how to get going with becoming a children’s picture book writer and/or illustrator?
Well, I’d suggest enrolling on the Curtis Brown Creative courses! Sarah McIntyre’s and David O’Connell’s individually run courses are packed full with everything you’d need to know to about children’s picture book illustration and writing. And the joint course cleverly combines the two. They’re perfect for anyone thinking about becoming a children’s picture book author and/or illustrator. And I’ve learnt from them myself. As well as recommending the courses, I would say to write and draw as much and as often as possible and to read as many picture books – both new and old – as you can. Make notes. Ask why. Find answers. Find trends. Research who, what, when, how. Find a box to call your own and then think outside of it. Only can bring what you you have to offer to a story in your own way, but often the fuel to do that lies in the outside world. Most of all, don’t put pressure on yourself to be the next Julia Donaldson. Be you.

If you’re interested in learning more about becoming a children’s picture book author and/ or illustrator take a look at our three specialised online courses, all of which include individual feedback from Karl Newson:

Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book with Sarah McIntyre

Writing a Children’s Picture Book with David O’Connell

Writing & Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book with David O’Connell and Sarah McIntyre

(Enrol by Monday 21st Jan, the courses start on 24th Jan)

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