Nagging doubts, a wrist injury and a new baby: How I illustrated a huge new poetry anthology

Published on: 03 October 2018 Author: Frann Preston-Gannon

Frann Preston-Gannon was over the moon when Nosy Crow and the National Trust asked her to illustrate their new poetry anthology. Little did she know how long it would take...

The cover of I Am the Seed That Grew the Tree, an anthology collected by Fiona Waters and illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon

I was utterly thrilled when Nosy Crow first asked me to illustrate a collection of nature poetry in collaboration with the National Trust in the winter of 2014. It was an absolute dream project.

In the beginning, none of us knew quite what an undertaking it would actually turn out to be. Little did I know then that my contribution wouldn't be completed until January 2018. And not until that September would it finally reach the bookshops - almost four years after I was first approached.

I Am the Seed That Grew the Tree is the size of 12 picture books, with 334 illustrated pages and 366 poems spanning the last four centuries. The poems were expertly chosen by Fiona Waters and they lead the reader on a journey of nature through the changing seasons.

I worked on the book chronologically. By sheer coincidence, I began working on the first poems for the January chapter of the book in January 2016. The frosty and snow-filled illustrations I was working on perfectly matched the wintry world outside my studio window.

A page from I Am the Seed That Grew the Tree, illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon

Two very different deadlines

June 2016 was completion date for the book. This was my deadline. While there is often a little wiggle room with deadlines from publishers, I had another simultaneous, and much less negotiable, deadline approaching - the wondrous and life-changing arrival of my first child. She was also due in the month of June. 

It wasn't ideal timing, but I was confident I could get on with the work while the baby slept soundly between feeds... how hard could it be?

Nosy Crow were wonderful about this tender hiccup to our plans. While having a meeting with my brilliant editor Louise, she informed me that to meet my deadline, all I had to do was produce a mere 30 illustrations a month to stay on task.

Her cheery smile did nothing to conceal the look of panic behind her eyes.

When starting a book, the usual process is to provide the publisher with sketches of each page before attempting the full colour illustrations. But this time, the project contained so much work that Nosy Crow suggested I skipped that stage entirely and went straight into the colour finals.

The months drifted by as I carried on chipping away at a mountain of work that, at times, never seemed to get any smaller.

But as the weeks passed, and as I dropped each finished illustration into my vast digital folders, there was an imperceptible change. I realised headway was being made.

But despite a lot of hard work and a repetitive strain injury to my wrist, June approached. I was only halfway through the book. We all admitted defeat and the book was delayed by a year.

A page from I Am the Seed That Grew the Tree, illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon

Nagging doubts and starting again

I popped off for a quick and restful break to have my first child. She weighed in at 8.6lb and took five hours to deliver. This book would weigh in at 4.6lb and would take a further year to arrive.

Four months later, and feeling years older, I finally came back to my work only to find there was a problem. I didn't really like most of what I had produced so far.

Not only did I still have half the book to go, but I also really wanted to go back and revisit a lot of what had been already completed. It felt like for every illustration I liked, another five needed to be redone. I ruthlessly pruned away parts I thought didn't work.

It was all very overwhelming at times and it was incredibly hard to keep the nagging doubts about my ability at bay. I would feel exhausted by the sheer volume of work before me.

But then a poem would catch my attention. It would bring back into sharp focus just what an extraordinary honour working on this book really was.

Here I was illustrating pages that would sit with the words of Blake, Dickinson, Shakespeare and Brontë. But this project was also introducing me to poets from around the world I hadn't previously known, such as Yosa Buson, Owl Woman (Tohono O'odham) and N.C Wickramasinghe to name just a few.

A page from I Am the Seed That Grew the Tree, illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon

By September 2017, I had finally produced all the illustrations. The next stage was the edits. This was a period that would take another four months. By the beginning of 2018, it was finally done.

I was a withered husk of an illustrator but the book was now out of my hands and was whisked away for the designers and the printers to do their magic.

Seeing the final product

Then suddenly, around May, I was told to await an advanced copy. I was more nervous than I thought possible. What if it turned up and I was disappointed after all that work?

The parcel arrived and, like an overexcited terrier, I traumatised the postman in my eagerness to tear it from his grip. I pulled it from the sleeves of the envelope and found it more beautifully produced than I would have thought possible. Nosy Crow had done the most incredible job and the result had made every bit of effort worth it.

I held in my hands something that was far beyond what I had hoped for.

Nestled in between the pages of this book you will find words by some of the world's most treasured and beloved poets, both old and new.

You will also find the blood, sweat and tears of one overwhelmed illustrator trying her hardest to do those words justice. I hope you enjoy it.

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