5 Questions with Jo Surman - 2020 Stratford - Salariya Joint Winner

We were delighted to announce the result of the 2020 Stratford - Salariya Picture Book Prize last week, and this week we have something just as exciting to share with you all. After whittling down a record-breaking number of entries to just eight shortlisted entries, our judging panel couldn't decide between a final two; Jo Surman and Kael Tudor. Both Jo and Kael have now been crowned the joint winners of the 2020 Stratford - Salariya Prize!

The competition, which has been running now for four years, welcomes authors who have a wonderful story to tell and illustrators who can create charming images, suitable for children aged 0-5. The cash prize of £1,000 will be split equally between the two winners, they will receive career advice from United Agent's Jodie Hodges and there is a potential that their work may be published under our very own 'Scribblers' imprint.

Today we are bringing you an exclusive interview with one of the joint winners - Jo Surman!

Joanne studied art to Btec level then went on to gain a B.A. (hons) in Design and Communication, finally completing the set by gaining her Masters degree in Illustration with distinction in 2018. After a career that began in advertising Joanne wove through many spheres of the design industry including software graphics, 3D modelling and animation for the computer games industry and children’s television (BBC and Channel 4), website design and interactive software design for heritage sites (National Trust) and museums. Joanne decided to focus on her passion for illustration and now works solely writing and creating illustrations for children’s books using a variety of styles and media.


Question One:

What made you enter the Stratford - Salariya competition and why?

My tutors first told me about the competition three years ago and we were encouraged to enter it but I didn’t feel that my project was quite ready then. I had heard about Salariya while looking at independent publishers of children’s books whilst researching for my dissertations because I wanted to get to know the market. I liked the ethos of Salariya and felt that my story and illustrations would fit their mindset. I also had some of their books for my children i.e. the Very Peculiar History books and some of the Graffex classics. 

I had also come across Salariya because I found out that they were one of the first companies to produce Augmented Reality books and I was developing an augmented reality book for my course (www.meangenie.co.uk) but was surprised how few companies had embraced it. I also knew that the Stratford Literary festival was a prestigious event because it’s right on my doorstep so it seemed a great combination of very notable names.


Question Two:

What inspired your idea? Have you been working on it for a while or was it a spur of the moment?

The original idea was something I had come up with for my masters course four years ago but I always wanted to develop it further so I came back to it about 8 months ago. I was developing the images anyway in the hope of creating a mock-up book to present to publishers but when I realised that the competition was drawing close I decided to develop a few double page spreads to a finished level and submit them to the competition. I love the idea of playful inquisitive little foxes on a quest and I thought there was a lot of scope for humour and engagement with these little characters.

I have always loved foxes but wanted them to appeal to children in a way that they could relate to, I thought that there were similarities in the ways in which fox cubs and puppies learnt through play so I kind-of blended the two creatures into one.  My fox characters have the obvious instantly recognisable features of a fox i.e. the bushy tails, the pointed faces and ears but I have rounded them out and plumbed them up to resemble puppies. 

Anyone who has had a dog knows that it’s like inviting a comedian into your house, there is always laughter and joy when there is a dog in your home and I have gained so much inspiration from my dog Chloe who is often snuggled up next to me while I’m working.


Question Three:

How did you get into writing / illustrating? Have you been doing it long?

I was lucky to have had parents who read to me and my brother every night, my mum read the Dr Seuss books and The Pogles to me and I still have the original copies of the books which I treasure. My father made up stories about a little plasticine man who lived in a toy shop and came to life every night and went on adventures. I hung on his words and visualised every moment of his stories. Home was full of love, inspiration and comfort. I had always loved art, even at pre-school the carers would say that I didn’t want to do anything else but draw and create.  My father helped me make a stop frame animated cine film about the Plasticine Man. 

On leaving school my mum guided me to apply for art school and I was accepted at Stourbridge College of Art. This gave me a wonderful grounding in many applications of creativity but I chose to take my degree in graphic design. My mum sadly passed away just after I finished my degree so I didn’t feel that I could go to the degree ceremony. It was always in the back of my mind to do a second degree so that my family could see me achieve my degree and attend the ceremony as a homage to my mum. Being a graphic designer taught me about form, balance, generating impact and crating mood through images.

On leaving university I worked in graphic design agencies and began to embrace computer art. I broke into the computer games industry and learnt 3D modelling and animation but it was always at the back of my mind that I wanted to work for children and illustrate so I moved into creating software for education and heritage sites. I decided to go freelance and work in children’s television and my skills translated well so I soon got work for independent production companies creating 3D animations for their educational programmes for the BBC and channel 4. I did this for a few years and then I gave up work to have children. 

This time was quite influential however because I began to buy children’s picture books and I think I loved them as much as my children! I felt myself plunged back into my childhood world of bedside lights, warm beds and magical worlds. The regular trips to the book shops were a real treat but I also found myself carefully studying the illustrations and subconsciously learning the craft of children’s storytelling. I knew I would need a portfolio because I would need to do another course in order to have a professional looking body of work. I applied to do my MA in Illustration at Herefordshire University and thankfully was accepted. My tutors Barbara Brownie and Kate Milner were fantastic – I didn’t realise how much I didn’t know about designing, illustrating and creating picture books until I did the course! It wasn’t long before my tutors teased out and helped me develop my personal style, it was a real journey of self-discovery! What was interesting was that sub consciously I can look back and see how much I was drawing from my childhood experiences of reading with my parents. 

My husband was a great support and I was able to work around the children being at school because it was a part time course. Stories are constantly whirling around in my head and I’m spotting the textures and forms of nature when I take the dog for a walk. Sometime I stop and photograph things and put them in a library on my computer when I get home and sketch from them to develop them into graphic forms. I see other worlds in every day, an empty acorn cupule of an acorn and think of it as a fairy cup and the knot in a tree as a doorway to hidden places.


'Snow' was the title of Jo's winning entry, and here she shares some more detail about its creation:

For this project I created the backgrounds in pastels and then scanned them in and used them as my first layer on which to build upon in Photoshop. I always draw my ideas first in my sketchbook and drew endless sketches of foxes tumbling and playing together. I wanted the palette of  my images to create the mood so my first images at the beginning of the book are quite warm in palette to represent autumn but as the reader progresses through the story the cold sets in the palette gradually changes to blues and minty greens, creating a feeling of impending snow. I also wanted the foxes to stand out so I enhanced the orange of them and added touches of pink so that they pinged and jumped out from their backgrounds.

Writing the story was the desire to take the reader on a journey, both physical and a journey seeking knowledge. I realise that some children haven’t seen snow yet and I wondered how they could grasp the concept of what snow is and what a magical thing it is, even as adults we feel a thrill and sense of beauty and magic at the sight of falling snow. I also thought that it would be good to learn about nature on the way and a great way to do this would be to get the inquisitive foxes to ask a variety of creatures about what this illusive thing called snow was? Each animal in turn would be in a hurry but would give them a clue as to what snow meant to them by telling the foxes what they had to do to prepare for it’s coming. It would be a journey of discovery for the foxes but they would still be perplexed at the end, only the coming of snow and them actually experiencing it would be enough. The beginning of the story would be enticing because it began with a mystery and it all makes sense at the end.

I also wanted to subtly introduce new words to the children, words that were a little longer and more complicated but they would be able to work out the meaning in context with the words around them and the illustrations. Therefore not only does each animal give a brief account of what snow means for them they also each add a new word to describe the snow. I thought that 2 main characters were better than one because it allowed for interaction between them and the capacity for comedy and humour, I thought the book would have parent appeal because it was educational too.


Question Four:

How did you prepare yourself for entering the competition?

I had been developing my images for the book with a view to approaching publishers when it was finished, I had even thought of making a few printed books and sending them out but when I realised that the Salariya competition was getting closer I decided to work on a few good pieces and refine the wording for the story. 

The original story had been quite lengthy and I knew that I had to cut the wording down because it didn’t need to be that complex. I had found from reading picture books to my children that they loved repetitive lines, they knew when they were coming and we would say them together, so I deliberately wrote in the same line as each fox asks the new animal what snow is.

I looked at what pictures I had and how I could improve upon them.  I researched what many animals did to prepare for the snow and whittled it down by choosing the ones with most contrast i.e. migration, hibernation etc. I changed many of my original elements in the illustrations to match the words and give greater meaning and impact and refined the palettes to create continuity throughout the book.


Question Five:

What are you most looking forward to in the future? What are your goals with writing/illustrating?

I want to keep writing in and illustrating in abundance. I have several stories in mind that I would like to put down on paper. 

Sometimes you need the external validation as a catalyst to propel you forward and the Stratford - Salariya Picture Book Prize has certainly done that for me, it’s as if someone has said yes, you can do it. I think that as creative people we are naturally self-doubting, throughout college I was always uncomfortable showing my work, it’s as if you’re bearing your soul somehow, and I certainly didn’t expect to win this competition. I think it has certainly given me confidence and I am bursting with ideas and enthusiasm now.

I have the privilege of saying that I am doing what I love and it’s also a way of saying thank you to my mother and father, even though they are sadly not here anymore, for all the gifts they gave me, telling stories was a wonderful way of showing their love and that time spent together was precious, it instilled in me a lifelong love of books. I cherished the nights I spent reading stories to my children, they were beautiful, intimate moments. I’ve also been able to pass that custom on to my children and share that joy all over again!


We hope this interview with Jo has helped you get to know a little more about her and we hope you will join us in congratulating and celebrating this achievement! Jo mentioned that she found us through our Augmented Reality books - you can watch a video of one of our books here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fy5-8_NUS6w