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06/10/14 Sam Arthur of Flying Eye Books

When you’re a kid, imagination is so powerful that you need something tactile to hold on to. While turning the pages of a picture book can be considered archaic in the age of touchscreen swiping, few things make childhood fantasy more tangible than a shiny hardbound picture book.

Understanding the importance of picture books, independent London publisher Nobrow put up Flying Eye Books, an imprint that creates offbeat children’s titles with visuals to attract ADD-riddled young’uns. Consider Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space, an intro to astronomy co-written by a quantum computer mechanic. With graphics worthy of a SXSW poster, it’s a full-throttle space odyssey enthralling enough to snap kids from their YouTube vortex. Other books aim to keep the pre-teen set busy, appealing to budding gourmands with a book of easy French recipes, or inspiring Calvin & Hobbes-like craftiness with a step-by-step on homemade robot assembly.

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From a cutesy exploration of the paranormal through Dora-trumping explorer Hilda (The Hildafolk series) to a nifty use of transparent paper to exhibit animals at night (One Night, Far From Here), Flying Eye has opened the children’s book market to curiouser, more compelling worlds and allowed kids to once again dream via the printed page.

Gathering a stable of award-winning authors and illustrators under Flying Eye is Sam Arthur, the imprint’s cofounder. Arthur talks to NOUS about reimagining the picture book for a new generation and the children’s classics that have stood the test of time.

Would you say a different set of design principles is followed when creating children’s books, as opposed to ones for Nobrow’s adult readers? Did the distraction caused by apps, YouTube, and the like influence the aesthetic you aimed for? 

To the first part: no, with a little bit of yes. One of the reasons we started up the children’s list under Flying Eye Books was to deliver the same aesthetics and quality in design to the children’s market. Children are just important as adults in the book trade so there should not be a compromise on quality. They deserve the same care, attention and production value as adults. We are, after all, aiming to renew and reinvigorate the love of print. The yes part is making the books a little bit more child-friendly. We recently published a children’s cookbook called Big Meals for Little Hands, which had a padded cover to protect it from messy fingers.

To the second part, it’s not necessarily something that directly influenced our decision on the aesthetics, however all the “distractions” do vie for time and attention, so what we have to do is simply give something that an app or YouTube can’t. What can a picture book deliver? Why is it so special? What makes a child want to come back to it? These are things that need to be considered with each new book we publish.

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Did you notice a problem with how children’s books today presented themselves visually? And what were some books that have stood the test of time in this genre?

Ladybird Books and Puffin illustrated picture books. Love these. Also, Maurice Sendak, Judith Kerr, Peter Spier, Rosemary Wells, Raymond Briggs, John Vernon Lord, and Dahlov Ipcar all have amazing work that still holds up in contemporary society. One thing we have noticed though is a huge reliance on paperbacks in this country. Yes, they are inexpensive, which is good, but they don’t feel as special. We feel like children’s books should be something to get excited about and adding a bit more to the production values is just one way of doing that.

Besides spot-color printing and transparent pages, are there other techniques you’d like to explore in the world of print?

We’re always looking at new and exciting formats for our books. Our Leporello range plays around with this a bit. They’re concertina books which fold out into long friezes, detailing a linear narrative through illustration. It gives artists opportunities to work on something to a much larger scale and readers the opportunity to enjoy the book in a different way. We’re always exploring new ideas and seeing how far we can push ourselves to create exciting and beautiful new works.

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What has been some unlikely culture you’ve been exposed to that has inspired certain books? For example, could SNL’s Laser Cats have had even the slightest bit of influence to Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space?

I’ve never heard of Laser Cats! There are many influences seeping in which we may or may not be aware of. But off the top of my head, Bicycle by Ugo Gattoni was definitely a product of having the Olympics here in London in 2013.

How do you and Alex usually go from an idea for a children’s book to the actual page?

Individually we work on ideas, then we share them. If there is a consensus, then we’ll approach artists. If the resulting drafts are liked by both of us, then we move forward with them. Alternatively we have a submissions guideline on our website for picture books and we are always interested in looking at proposals for new books.

Why do you think the response toward Hilda (of the Hildafolk series) has been so great? What was the inspiration behind this newly beloved character?

Luke [Pearson, author & illustrator of the series] would be a better person to tell you about the inspiration behind the character. We’ve got a great video of him up on our website talking us through his ideas and process.

However, I do think Hilda has had such a positive response across the board because she is a universally appealing character. She isn’t perfect, she’s a bit quirky, very thoughtful and funny. Luke has created two strong female characters in Hilda and her mother and the relationship they have with each other and the world around them is real. Their world is one that is magical, strange yet still familiar. But perhaps what is central to her popularity is her personality. Her inquisitive nature, her sense of adventure, her contemplations of the world around her which are both playful and at times quite philosophical are qualities which make her so charming and identifiable for children and adults. Hilda is a character that needs to exist, both in the books and our world, too. And, of course, there is the fact that she is a fearless little explorer. She taps into our adventurous spirit, which is something that even adults still hold onto.

Have you discovered any new artists you’re excited about publishing soon?

Yes! There’s a couple we’ll be publishing at the end of this year. Simona Ciraolo, winner of Sebastian Walker 2014, is writing a picture book called Hug Me, about a cactus in search of a hug. The other is Ella Bailey. She’s created a gorgeous Halloween book called No Such Thing. Both haven’t been published yet so we’re very excited to see the response they get.

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