Every so often you come across a picture book that just begs to be read night after night. A couple of months ago my son and I discovered Frank ‘n’ Stan, a beautifully illustrated book which tells the story of a young boy called Frank who yearns for a younger brother. One day he decides to design and build a brother from assorted pieces of junk. The result is Stan, a super friendly robot who becomes Stan’s best friend and brother rolled into one. But then when a baby sister comes along Stan feels left out and makes plans to leave. The book is out in paperback this month. I spoke to the author and illustrator, M.P. Robertson, about his life, work and breaking into the publishing industry.
M.P.Robertson has been working in children’s publishing for over 25 years. In that time he has illustrated over a hundred books and written and illustrated twelve picture books.
Where are you based and where do you work from?
I’m based in Bradford on Avon just outside Bath. Like a lot of authors/illustrators I have a shed at the top of the garden. I helped build the shed and a few years ago I built a deck, the hill is 1;4 and everything had to be carried up a 60 metre garden. It was a lot of work but on a sunny day I can sometimes be found lounging when I should be illustrating.
When did you fall in love with illustration?
I always wanted to be some kind of artist. I used to copy everything from Superman to Donald Duck. I wasn’t very interested in fine art as I felt that it was for an elite, I wanted to do something that anyone could access. My love of stories and film seemed to naturally lead into picture books.
Where did you train?
I started out doing graphics at Hounslow then became disillusioned after working a few months in an advertising agency. I took a year out doing part time jobs and drawing on the tubes and in London before doing a degree in illustration at Kingston Uni.
How did you break into publishing?
I was very fortunate to leave college at a time when there seemed to be plenty of work. Now colleges churn out ninety students per year whereas my year only had fourteen graduates. There simply isn’t the work out there to support the number of illustrators. I used to drag my portfolio around the different publishing houses and I was very lucky to get commissioned. One of my early jobs was to illustrate the Gormenghast trilogy covers. It was a dream job as I had done that for my major project at Kingston.
What was the first book you wrote, illustrated and had published?
It was called Seven Ways To Catch The Moon. It was a major rewrite of an earlier idea I had called The Fool and the Moon. which had interest but never quite made it to publication.
Did you have any favourite picture books as a child?
I had a great version of Treasure Island, I can’t remember who illustrated it but I loved the pictures. I’ve actually illustrated it about four times in various guises. One in a collection of pirate stories, one in black and white for Sainsbury’s, a Ladybird book and an audiotape cover.
I’m so glad you liked the book, I hope it doesn’t sound too arrogant to say I’m secretly quite proud of that book. It sold out quite quickly in hardback but is being published in paperback in September.
The idea came when I couldn’t get to sleep, I was catching a plane to go to the Bologna bookfair and had to be up at 3.00a.m. and my mind was churning. I’d always wanted to illustrate a book about robots and I think Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the best books ever written so the idea came of amalgamating the two. A robot Frankenstein, it’s been done before but hasn’t everything. But I needed to bring something of myself to the project. I am an only child like Frank was at the beginning of the story. I always wanted a brother or sister, but when I asked my mother she would always say “We’ll see”, unlike Frank no siblings turned up. Unfortunately I don’t know a monkey wrench from a jack hammer, so the nearest I got to building a brother was in Lego. By the time I got to the airport the story was almost there. I discussed it with my partner, Sophy Williams, who is also an illustrator and I believe it might have been her that came up with the title.
I’m considering a follow up book entitled Victor, Frank ‘n’ Stan, which would introduce a more advanced kit built robot who dislodges Stan from Frank’s affections, a bit like the bride of Frankenstein but I’m struggling with the plot a bit, so any ideas welcomed.
What advice would you give to any aspiring picture book illustrators?
It’s tough. Unless you’re blindly passionate and are prepared to be quite poor don’t do it. The picture book market is shrinking because of the pressure from digital media, Kindles etc. and it’s getting harder to make ends meet. Bleak I know, but true.
Frank ‘n’ Stan written and illustrated by M.P. Robertson is available in paperback this month.
M.P. Robertson is available for school visits, for more information click here.
All images copyright of M.P.Robertson.