Staring at the colourful outdoor banner on a wind-swept Bologna morning March 2018, I could hardly believe I was back at a book fair. I hadn’t been to one since Frankfurt, eleven years earlier with my previous company MQ Publications.

Now I was back; older but probably not much wiser. Still here I was, for some baffling reason known only to the gods and my two dogs, entering a new phase of publishing and writing. And, unlike the heady days with my old publishing company, I knew hardly a soul here. No meetings. No appointments, No crazy publishing dinners. So. Where to begin? What conversations as a newcomer in the children’s book world were there to be had?

I suppose the first thing that struck me, having delicately navigated the complex layout of the place, was the visceral shock. Such a profusion of tantalising imagery. So many beautiful pictures on display. I was a hare stuck in headlights; paralysed not with fear, but with awe. Each aisle opened up endless vistas of delight. Such imagination. Verve. Intimacy. The world should really be a better place with so much glorious art to be had. 

I felt the stirrings of spring. Of growth. This razz-dazzle ‘fair wandering’ gave rise to a vague instinct about a new poetry book. I remember coining the title and sub-title in my mind while resting on a bench outside the doors struggling with a double scoop chocolate ice cream cone in the sun. 

OK. Now I was now on the hunt for visual inspiration. 

I found myself walking past the Cambridge Art School stand. Our fab new German friends (George and Susanne) had recommended it to me over a chance meeting at dinner the night before. Fascinated by the lively pictures adorning the walls, I wandered in. It felt like home for some unaccountable reason. As I ran my fingers through the student portfolios on display, my breath caught. I had spotted it. Junli’s portfolio. Some wonderful creatures jumped out at me; funny, warm-hearted and beautifully drafted. Treasures really. I asked about these prints with a pounding heart. Sounds odd, but I take illustration very very seriously. (My old company had published, amongst other things, loads of striking gift books and the idea of books as wonderful packages to read, look at and hold has always resonated for me.)

‘Oh. Those prints are by Junli Song. She is just graduating this year. Would you like an appointment to see more later?’ No question. Of course, I wanted to see more. 

Coming back the next day, the stars smiled. Junli was actually working on the stand and we got to meet. That was the clincher. She was smart. Talented. Funny. I showed her my just published poetry book, Firecrackers. She seemed to like it so I gave her a copy. 

I knew Junli could be the magic ingredient for Cherry Moon. 

We continued to communicate during that spring and I was thrilled when Junli agreed to work together with me on Cherry Moon, my third solo Poetry collection and Junli’s first published book project.

The months that followed were filled with joy; lots of laughter and great lashings of creative-flow as Junli and I discussed every aspect of every poem and illustration. Junli by this time had left Cambridge and had gone back to her hometown of Chicago for a print fellowship. But that didn’t stop us skyping nearly every week. 

Happily, Junli and I worked closely together in a very old-fashioned publishing model: the publisher/writer…me, working directly with the illustrator. No art director. No editorial director. Just us. And a wonderful designer named, Sarah Pyke.

What I experienced as an author was exhilarating. Junli was able to take my concepts…my words…my arrangements on the page… and transform them like a fairy godmother into something new and original. And she did it all the hard way. With detailed and gaspingly original prints.

Her magic wand created a world of snail funerals, animal picnics, fleas jumping over the moon, floating creatures, bats piloting little jet planes and more. Concepts and visualisations I had never thought of. Meanwhile the cover had definitely by now turned into the ultimate mid-summer night’s dream animal/human romp. 

What had started as a smallish book with 37 illustrations, grew into a block-buster 180 page poetry book with over 60 remarkable printed illustrations. 

I wanted to give a number of the poems two spreads each because it seemed that the poems called out to become little visual stories in their own right and to have their own narrative. My instinct and Junli’s was to allow the child (or adult) reader the space and time to linger just a wee bit longer on the ideas and themes presented in the poems. 

Unimaginable. Certainly more expensive. Crazy? Rhetorical question.

And now, a mere year later it is April 2019 and (lightening speed in publishing) Cherry Moon is making its debut in May. It has already received some great reviews. Plus how exciting that Junli was honoured to have been chosen by the Bologna Art Organisers to have six of her prints displayed. A great first achievement for her.

Junli and I were both at the Bologna Book Fair this April. Troika Books (our co-publisher)  and ZaZaKids Books (my little company) and Saltway Global distributors hosted a fabulous Cherry Moon book launch celebration at the fair. Loads of buzz and even more Prosecco. 

But the best thing of all is that Cherry Moon is as Junli and I envisaged it. Only better. Because nothing beats holding a real living and breathing book in your hands.