Sarah McIntyre (jabberworks) wrote,
Sarah McIntyre

picture books week at moniack mhor

I often run into writer-illustrator-performer James Mayhew at book festivals, along with his partner Antonio Reche Martinez, and we've always talked about meeting up for dinner or something, but until now it had never happened. So when the invitation came to spend A WHOLE WEEK with James, teaching a Picture Books course, I absolutely jumped at it! (And so did Toto, who booked himself onto the course!)

Here we are on our first day in the Inverness countryside, exploring the grounds of the Moniack Mhor creative writing centre and finding this adorable Hobbit House.

We also had a visiting guest speaker on Wednesday, writer-illustrator-lecturer Pam Smy, who came all the way up from Cambridge:

Pam let us see some of the amazing sketchbooks she drew in during the four years she spent working on her lavishly illustrated Thornhill novel:

James let us peek into his sketchbooks, too! Here's a bit of his experimental collage work:

To start us all off, we made books. Unsurprisingly, the best practice for making books isn't only drawing pictures and writing stories, it's... making books! I always say that the difference between a wannabe author and an author is that the wannabe starts making a lot of books, but the author finishes them. So we made sure we finished books right from the first day, even if they were short and scrappy and only took us fifteen minutes to make! Here's mine, and another by landscape architect Felicity Steers (that she gave me permission to post).

During an early session, James led us in painting to music, and he demonstrated by painting to Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade.


Here you can see some of the students' pieces laid out on our work table:


And here's one I did. I meant to use colour but I sort of forgot as I got into the piece. Time flew so quickly as we were painting that we begged James to play it again!


Another of James's sessions involved fairytale collage.

Usually when I do events, it's all I can do to get pencils and paper to the children, so it was exciting being able to have a space where we could muck in with messy paints, cut paper, oil pastels and glue.

And here's some of our final colourful collage work, laid out! I usually try to be a stickler for crediting images - #PicturesMeanBusiness! - but these pieces were all experimental, and I didn't want people on a course to worry that pictures they made would haunt them forever on the Internet, and not feel they could play around. But if you were on the course and you'd like me to add your name to one of these images, please let me know and I'll add your credit!

Here's a photo James took of me talking about the makings of Grumpycorn, which seemed appropriate because it's a very visual book all about a Unicorn trying to write a fabulous story and procrastinating.

We tried to walk people through the stages of making a picture book; here's Anna Bruder showing us her thumbnail roughs. Thumbnail roughs are very simple maps of a book's layout. (If you'd like to see the 32-page thumbnail template, I have it here on my website FAQ page, scroll way down.)


And here's Ross McInnes showing us a book he'd written the day before and thumbnailed overnight.


It was exciting to see during afternoon tutorials how many people got stuck in and finished small projects right there on the course! Here's one of two 8-page books that Felicity Steers created in one day, and they really made me laugh!


A couple people who came along already had some experience of self-publishing and selling artwork. Here's Mandy Rush, who has already put together at least five books; I really admire her enthusiastic can-do, DIY spirit.


Helen Kellock won The Moniack Mhor Writing for Children Award to come on the course, and her debut picture book, The Star in the Forest comes out this week with Thames & Hudson! I got to peek at two more of her books she has in the works, and I'm excited to see where her career's going to go.


Gabrielle Reith showed me some remarkable drawings in her sketchbooks and I absolutely can't wait to see what kind of book she'll turn them into. She's already made a lot of beautiful pins and things that you can buy in her online shop.


Fiona Thomson had already taken part in my Curtis Brown Creatives online Picture Book course (and said she enjoyed it, which was a relief to hear!). She's incredibly good at drawing Pointy dogs and I'll be curious to see how she takes forward a related book project.

Images from

While she was on the course, Kim Tillyer made this lovely Moniack Mhor souvenir book of her experience. You can buy some beautiful things she's made in her online shop.


Oo, look! Little cameos by Kim of Kevin the Roly-Poly Flying Pony and Gaspard the Fox!

It was fun discovering people's talents, some more hidden because they weren't directly linked to picture books. Here's musician and artist Sarah McFadyen playing on a fiddle she made herself, during a rather lavish Burns-themed final dinner that included a piper and an Ode to the Haggis, performed by Rikki Craig.

Sarah McFadyen's in a group called The Poozies and had to slip away one evening for a gig. We've all been having fun watching their latest music video, Soaking in The Bathtub:

And that Rikki Craig, who was attacking the Haggis, he's taught art for years and he gave me some cards with the most gorgeous paintings on them. The guy really knows how to use paint! His daughter, Abbey Craig (also in the Haggis photo), is brewing up a joint project with him and I really do hope they make a big success of it. She's getting Rikki onto social media this week, so I'll add his link as soon as he's on, so you can find out more about his paintings, and possibly their project:

Everyone on the course had an interesting personal story, and something they were working on that showed promise. And just as importantly, they created a wonderful, supportive atmosphere during the retreat; everyone was amazingly thoughtful and kind, and we often had such a good laugh. (And if we weren't already laughing, Toto would find a new way to make us laugh!)

The Moniack Mhor staff were brilliant, coming up with lots of thoughtful details for us. And the food... the food! I had no idea how good it would be. Here's one of the amazing lunch-time spreads. Staff cooked dinner the first night, and then the course participants were split into groups, and each group one night cooked us a dinner from prepared ingredients and recipes.


James and I had a separate little kitchen space in the detached cottage where we were staying, but we always wandered over to the main kitchen to rustle up some breakfast because it was so cosy and fun hanging out with everyone in there.


Lots of good chats 'round the table.


Every evening we went over to the Hobbit House; here's one evening where we shared picture books we loved, both books that were important to us in our own childhood and newer books we love now. I'd seen many of them, but some were new to me.


Sharing work was a highlight; here's Helen Kellock giving her very first reading of The Star in the Forest:


On Saturday morning, we all felt a bit bereft splitting up, it was rather poignant seeing people go back off to the farthest ends of the country after we'd spent so much time together.

Photo tweeted by @felicitysteers1

I'm going to miss everyone from Moniack Mhor, students and staff and our cosy cottage. I hope participants got a lot out of the weekend - from what I can tell, they really enjoyed it - and I certainly did. Right at the beginning I was a bit nervous; I'd been doing lots of hour-long stage events, but this was the first time I'd done longer sessions like this, with the same group of people for an extended amount of time, and I was worried they might be overly demanding, critical or even hostile. But they weren't at all, I was surprised by just how supportive and positive everyone was. And I wasn't hiding behind bright stage lights or a big fancy costume, so when I first addressed all these grownups at the big table, in standard clothes I'd wear to the studio, I blabbered a bit incoherently for the first few seconds. But when I saw how kind and friendly they were, I quickly gained confidence. I also felt challenged listening to James tell stories so beautifully from memory, and not only that, make beautiful pictures at the same time. I'm not sure I could do both in the way he does, but I'd love to practice at least one of them, telling stories from memory with much more skill and wordplay and pacing.


Huge thanks to the Moniack Mhor team (Sarah, Rachel, Richmond, Angie, Eilidh, Laura, Heather and so many more), to James and Pam, Robert the chatty driver, and to everyone, including Marilyn McCullough (she's posted some recent Instagram photos of our week!), Anna Woodman (also on Instagram!) who came along and took part! If you've not been on one of the Moniack Mhor courses and don't know if you could afford to go on one, keep an eye on the bursaries and competitions they run to win places on the course - you never know, it might be creatively just what you're looking for.

EDIT: Here are some more blog posts about the weekend!
* From Kim Tillyer
* From James Mayhew
Tags: #picturesmeanbusiness, james_mayhew, residential_course, scotland

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