Day At The Desk

Day At The Desk - blog post image

Today's 'A Day At The Desk' welcomes the author illustrator duo Sam Hay and Sarah Massini, my stars of the week and creators of the  Star in the Jar (reviewed here), a book that bought tears to my eyes.

Star in the Jar is a fabulously clever and apparently simple tale (believe me, the simplest ones are the hardest to create), a heart warming and reassuring story of sibling love, loss and joy.  Everybody I know who's under five (or has kids or grandchildren under five!) will be receiving this from me for their birthday this year; it's an absolute must have for the family bookshelf.  

So, you can imagine how thrilled I was when Sam and Sarah agreed to answer questions. I immediately rushed to our local primary school with a few copies of Star in the Jar and asked their lovely Year 7 students what they would like to ask Sam, the author and Sarah, the illustrator of this gorgeous book.  This is what they said:-

Which comes first - pictures or words?


Where did the idea for the story come from?

SAM SAYS: The inspiration for the story was my young son. Ever since he was tiny, he’s collected things: feathers, stones, fossils, old leaves, shrivelled-up conkers... It’s all treasure to him. He squirrels it away in his bedroom. His big sister is very sensible and always makes sure he stays safe and does the right thing. Star in the Jar is really just their relationship.

Did you base the pictures on anybody you know?

SARAH: The brother and sister characters are based on my cousin's children in Australia, as they are exactly the right ages. The love and connection they have is really evident, and I wanted to convey that in the illustrations.

Did you write it with a pen or a computer?

SAM: I scribbled it very quickly on paper with a pencil. I love pencils.

Did you show the writer the pictures before you coloured them in?

SARAH: I think Sam did see the first drawings. We each work with the publisher (who prints and sells the books) - not really with each other.

SAM: I was completely blown-away when I saw the early drawings. Sarah had captured the story perfectly! I think I may have had a mini cry, they were so brilliant!

Is your book printed on recycled paper?

SARAH: Not sure - I suspect it's a composite - part recycled, part not.

How did you choose the size and shape of the book?

SARAH: No, the publisher did. They usually work with 4 or 5 different formats for all their books, and choose the one they feel best suits each book.

Did you do lots of pictures then choose one for each page?

SARAH: I usually scribble out loads of possible layouts - VERY SCRIBBLY. Then I'll choose the one I think is the best for each page. Then I'll do a set of thumbnail (very small and rough) sketches for the whole book. Then the publisher and I will discuss how it's looking and I might make a few changes to the thumbnails, according to their views. Then I'll do a set of detailed pencil roughs, at which point there might be a bit more to-ing and fro-ing to get them right. And finally, when everybody is happy I'll do the final art, with a few corrections to these at the very end. It's a long process. (You can see some of these development stages on my Instagram page Sarah_Massini)

Who chose which pictures to use?

SARAH: A combination of me and the publishers - but mainly me!

Did you show the story to children first to make sure they liked it?

SAM: I think I showed it to my children as soon I wrote it. I often bounce my stories off them as they are very honest. I can instantly tell from their faces whether they like something, or whether something works.

What other books have you done?

SARAH: I've done quite a few now - maybe about 15 - I'm not sure. I did The Velveteen Rabbit last year which is an old, quite well known book. It had 65 pages - so lots of illustrations.

SAM: I’ve written more than 30 books for children of all ages.

What is your favourite book?

SARAH: I like books by Maurice Sendak like Where The Wild Things Are - but my favourite is a book that he illustrated called Hands Are To Hold, mainly because the children in it are drawn brilliantly, full of life and energy.

SAM: My favourite book? Blimey, that’s such a hard question! I LOVE so many picture books. When it comes to novels for older children, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl would be in my top ten. So would Holes by Louis Sachar and Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson. My favourite book growing up, was an adventure story called the Mystery of the Island by Isobel Knight about a group of children fending for themselves on a remote ScottishIsland. It was very exciting! I still sometimes return to that one. I love all sorts of books, though, and my favourites change, a lot!

What books make you laugh?

SARAH: Joke books! I like P G Wodehouse too.

SAM: The Wimpy Kid books are very funny. I love The Day the Crayons Quit, too.

What books make you cry?

SARAH: Sad books! Usually you get to the sad bits in books when you're reading on a train, and you start crying, which is a bit embarrassing.

SAM: I blub at lots of books, not just sad ones! It doesn’t take much to set me off. Every time I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to my son I cry when Charlie finds that golden ticket. Every time! My son thinks I’m bonkers. I also found Wonder by RJ Palacio incredibly moving. I read that book with a group of children in a primary school book group, and I had to pretend I had a cold, so they wouldn’t spot me blubbing! Lots of picture books have a huge impact on me, too. Sarah’s work has a real ability to touch me. I felt very moved by her STAR IN THE JAR pictures. Possibly because I felt she caught my children’s relationship at a particular stage in their lives, so perfectly. What a softie, eh!

15. Does the writer tell the artist what to draw or the other way around?

SARAH: Sometimes the publisher tells me what to draw. That can be very restricting. It's always best to allow the illustrator to let their own creativity flow freely. So with Star In The Jar, I received Sam's story as a Word document (which I printed on 3 sheets of A4 paper), and at the very beginning I was allowed to explore it visually entirely by myself, which is usually the best way.

SAM: Oh gosh, no! I could never tell an artist what to draw. Quite the opposite. I just sit in wonder at they produce. My artistic abilities extend to wobbly stick men, so I’m just astounded by what Sarah and her fellow artists can draw. Astonishing!

Are your books based on true stories?

SAM: Some of them are, or there are elements of truth in them. Sometimes I name characters after people I know, or have known! A lot of my stories come from observing people. I’m a terribly nosey person. If I bumped into you in the supermarket I wouldn’t be able to resist peeping into your trolley to see what you had in there... I love people-watching.

How long did it take to write and illustrate?

SARAH: About six months to illustrate - like I said it's a long, slow process and my style is quite detailed, so I'm r-e-a-l-l-y slow.

SAM: I wrote STAR very quickly. In one afternoon. I often find the stories that feel right, write themselves. That was the case with STAR. They don’t always work so fast. But once I started writing STAR the words and rhythms just tumbled out of my pencil in one giant wave. Of course there is always an element of tweaking and honing, thereafter. But STAR didn’t change much from that original version.

Do you carry a notebook around with you in case you see something that would go in your book?

SARAH: I have a notebook full of story ideas, but I never have time to develop them as I'm always being asked to illustrate stories that brilliant authors like Sam have written. For visual inspiration I'm mad for Pinterest - it's like my library, for ideas and also picture reference.

SAM: Always! But old envelopes/gas bills/shopping lists are just as useful. I scribble words on anything that I have to hand. Newspapers, sometimes. Then I forget I’ve written on them and have to go foraging through the grubby recycle bags searching for them. Yuk!


Thank you SO much Sam and Sarah for your fabulous, funny and fascinating answers and to the children for your brilliant questions - I hope you've enjoyed learning a little more about the process of producing a book. Kids, if you'd like to send in questions for publishers, translators, librarians, booksellers, printers ... anybody else in the publishing industry please get in touch, I'll put them to the professionals and we can see what happens during a day at their desks.  

Meanwhile, you can find Star in the Jar or any other of Sam and Sarah's other books (click their names to see the huge library of work they've produced) at:-

Local Library

Local Bookshop

Buy Online

And you can follow my stars of the week on Twitter - @samhayauthor @sarahmassini


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