“Recently, in order to learn more about writing, I started transcribing the texts of picture books that I like. This exercise helps me notice such details as punctuation marks, repetition of words and phrases, words in capitals, page breaks, etc., and better understand how the author approached the text.”
While studying illustration at Cambridge School of Art, Margarita Surnaite drew a sketch of a rabbit that caught her instructor’s attention. Margarita started to build a story around that rabbit and today it is the star of her #firstpicturebook as an author/illustrator. Published by Andersen Press, THE LOST BOOK is a "lovely book [that] embeds a message about the importance of reading and the issue of overuse of technology in an appealing fantasy adventure.... An excellent read-aloud choice" (starred review, School Library Journal).
Q. Was THE LOST BOOK the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. No, it wasn't. My first picture book that I showed to publishers was called "Different" and it was my Bachelor's degree final project. I submitted it to Nami Concours, an international children's book illustration competition held in Korea, and it won an award. This gave me confidence that picture book making might be the right path for me. When I created this project, I knew very little about the picture book market. The book turned out very experimental and dark so eventually I decided to shelve it.
Q. What inspired THE LOST BOOK?
A. One day, during my MA Children's Book Illustration studies, I was presenting new book ideas. What caught my tutor's attention, however, was a sketch of a rabbit holding a book and sitting next to people looking at their phones. I realized that this sketch had the potential to turn into a story, so I started developing the rabbit character and building the world around him. It's amusing to think that "The Lost Book" wouldn't exist today if my tutor hadn't brought my attention to that sketch.
Whether intentionally or not, my stories almost always originate from my observations or personal experiences. While developing "The Lost Book", I became very aware how distracted people have become, especially due to their digital devices. The scenes of the human world in "The Lost Book" were influenced by my experience of visiting London.
Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. I came up with this title early on. I made a list of potential titles, but "The Lost Book" seemed like the best choice to me. I liked that this title could have a literal and metaphorical meaning, which was fitting for the story. I'm glad that my publisher decided to keep it.
Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?
A. I write and draw both ways. I brainstorm ideas and develop my characters on paper and then create finished dummy books on the computer. While I'm working on a dummy book, I like to print out sheets with thumbnail-sized spreads and make edits with a pencil. I make new printouts with each round of revisions. I also print out, cut, and glue together mini dummy books to check how the pacing and page turns work. I always keep a notebook around that I use for messy drafting and problem solving of my stories.
Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. The spread with the escalator scene is probably one of my favorites. It was already in the first draft.
Q. How did you select the names for your characters?
A. I chose my main character's name "Henry" spontaneously. I can't remember when and why I decided to name him that, but for some reason it felt right.
Q. What made you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. In my first dummy book the story was told in first person. But a year later, I revised the story and wrote it in third person instead. I wanted to use more than one point of view.
Q. Why did you write THE LOST BOOK in past tense?
A. It felt natural to tell the story in past tense.
Q. Did you outline your story first or did you create your story while writing it?
A. I started by developing my characters first. I drew them over and over again until I had some idea of who they are, what they want, and what kind of world they live in. Then I began to piece the story together by making a storyboard.
Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. The images appeared first. I figured out most of the story through sketching and storyboarding. Words came later in the process.
Q. Did THE LOST BOOK receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Yes, a few. I didn't actively submit to publishers though. As an MA Children's Book Illustration student, I got to exhibit "The Lost Book" at the graduation show in London and at the Cambridge School of Art stand during Bologna Children's Book Fair, which were attended by industry professionals.
Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on THE LOST BOOK.
A. I got the offer on December 22 so it felt like receiving an early Christmas gift. I was very excited but also slightly worried about all the work and creative challenges waiting ahead of me in order to complete this book.
Q. How long did THE LOST BOOK take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. I received the contract at the beginning of 2017 and the book came out in 2019. It took over two years. However, I started developing the story in autumn 2014.
Q. Was there a part that you really loved but had to edit out? Or did you think of something later that you wanted to add?
A. Luckily, the majority of the story stayed the same. I had to take out one spread because the dummy book was longer than 32 pages. However, I am happy with the changes that my editor suggested.
Q. Did you create any book swag for THE LOST BOOK? If so, what kind?
A. I made some bookmarks and a book trailer.
Q. What is your #1 tip for picture-book writers?
A. It sounds cliché, but read as many picture books as you can. I was skeptical hearing this advice over and over again from different picture book writers. In the past year, however, I finally started to understand its importance. Reading picture books is key to learning the craft of picture book making.
Don't read picture books just for pleasure. Study them. Read them silently. Read them aloud. Analyze them inside out: the text, the illustrations, the design choices, the plot structures, etc. Ask yourself what makes them work and what doesn't. Read a wide range of picture books such as classics, award-winning, bestselling and newly released books. Explore books in genres, subjects, and styles that usually don't appeal to you.
Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. When I read picture books, I'm naturally more drawn to images than text. Recently, in order to learn more about writing, I started transcribing the texts of picture books that I like. This exercise helps me notice such details as punctuation marks, repetition of words and phrases, words in capitals, page breaks, etc., and better understand how the author approached the text.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. I'm working on my second author-illustrated picture book. Publication is planned for 2021. I'm also developing new picture book stories to query literary agents this year.
Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)
Book trailer for THE LOST BOOK