Here's what happened: I was travelling from London to meet up with my family in Seldovia, Alaska. It's a long journey and I was very conscious that I had a picture book text due when I got back. I thought, I really ought to make good use of the time, but you know how your brain gets into a sort of fug when you're travelling for too long? Mine was like that, and I couldn't think of anything. I didn't even have my sketchbook; I'd accidentally packed it in checked luggage. So I got out my phone and started typing into it the first thing I thought of, a story starting with someone who couldn't think of a story idea.
And then I thought it would be funnier if the story's main character, the one who couldn't think of an idea, was a Unicorn. When I got to Alaska, I was further inspired by all the beautiful houses on stilts in the water. Here are a couple paintings I made of them.
I thought, if there was anywhere that would be a dream writing retreat kind of place, it would be Seldovia. So that's where I set Unicorn's writing cottage.
While I was there, I met artist and children's book illustrator Valisa Higman, who rows to work every day, from Seldovia around the headland to the floating studio her dad built, years ago. (You can read another blog post about it here.)
Valisa often posts Instagram photos of the animals she passes on her waterway commute, or who come up and sunbath on the studio dock. It made me laugh, thinking how distracted I could get if there was a cute sea otter right outside my door. And that made it into the book; Unicorn keeps having guests show up at his cottage: a narwhal, a mermaid and an unnaturally cute jellyfish.
Sometimes a clean white sheet of sketchbook paper can be a little intimidating and a fun thing I found in Seldovia was that, when my drawings weren't working out so well, I didn't even have to draw on paper, I could doodle things on beach pebbles.
But the whole point of the Grumpycorn book turns out to be that we don't need a perfect setting to create something. We can start with whatever we have. So while a writing cottage in Seldovia with visiting otters would be ideal, I can create something wherever I am. In the story, Narwhal realises that, and he starts writing about exactly what is happening in front of him, just like I did on that fuggy airplane.
I'm going back to Seldovia this year for their summer arts festival, and I'm excited to take my book back to the place where it started. And I really do hope a friendly sea otter comes by to distract me.
GRUMPYCORN is available in hardcover and paperback through supportive and reliable independent bookshop Page 45 (with a special bookplate edition for the first 100 orders!), via Foyles, Waterstones, Hive Books, Amazon, and of course you can request it at your local bookshop or library!
You can follow Valisa Higman on Instagram and on Facebook and visit her Etsy shop.