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Jane Hissey answers questions about Old Bear and how she feels about Adjoa Andoh reading her books!

by Jeannie Brown

There has been an exciting new development in the Old Bear book series by Jane Hissey! The world-renowned actor, director and voice artist, Adjoa Andoh, who has landed roles in Doctor Who, Silent Witness, Line of Duty, Invictus and Bridgerton (to name but a few) has made the audiobooks of Old Bear and Ruby picture books by Jane Hissey for Cloudaloud. “We couldn’t be more thrilled,” says Marisa McGreevy-Rose, Chief Content Officer and Co-founder of Cloudaloud. “Adjoa’s stellar performance combines soaring talent with warmth and humour. Cloudaloud children will love listening for the first time whilst their parents rediscover their own childhood favourites.”

My first cuddly toy was called Marmalade because he was yellow, it’s clear that I was a child genius I know. He was a confidante, never prone to interrupt (thank Goodness otherwise that might have been a little spooky), soft, durable (you’d have to be to survive being squished in between a bedframe and a wall like a pancake every night) and very good at cuddling. With these types of attachments that we make to our soft toys as children it’s easy to see why the Old Bear books by Jane Hissey are so widely admired. We all have an Old Bear toy or something equivalent in our lives and the Old Bear book series manages to capture this sense of comfort and safety that all cuddly toys bring to us. 

The books have maintained their popularity since 1986 when it’s first release saw it become one of the bestselling picture books of all time and went on to sell an unbelievable seven million copies worldwide. The books are also award winning as the stop frame animation television series based on these books has won a BAFTA!

You can’t help but feel a sense of warmth and nostalgia when you think about an Old Bear book. It tells the story of how a much-loved teddy bear is lost and finally found again. Bramwell Brown and his friends Little Bear, Duck and Rabbit attempt to rescue Old Bear from the attic using a number of ingenious methods.

With the release of Adjoa Andoh’s audiobook readings of the Old Bear book series we thought it would be a perfect time to reflect on the history of the books and ask the wonderful Jane Hissey some questions about the books and her tips on how to become a successful author. 

1. I love the detail in the Old Bear books, in the story and illustrations. Please could you tell me the story of how Old Bear came to be? 

I had been teaching in a sixth form College for a few years and left teaching when my first child was born. I had trained as an illustrator and began to build up a portfolio of drawings of old toys (just for fun). An editor at the publisher Random House saw some greetings cards that I had illustrated and asked me if I would like to do a children’s book. I asked if I could write it too so I could put into it all the things I wanted to draw. I chose a group of characters that seemed to work together and the story developed from there. That book was Old Bear!

2. Do you feel any sense of pressure when you write a new book in the series because the original is so adored?

I did at first but my second book, Little Bear’s Trousers was such fun to do that I soon forgot about worrying and just enjoyed the new book. It is still one of my favourites!

3. Did you have a long-term plan for how you wanted the series to develop or do you write and focus on one story at a time? 

I had absolutely no long-term plan. It all just happened, one book at a time. Each book was so different and I gradually added new characters to the original gang but I didn’t even try to think too far ahead. I think I was too busy writing and illustrating and looking after my young children to plan ahead much!

4. I know you draw from life but do you always have an idea of what scene you want to create for your illustrations and the story itself?

When I write the story I always have the illustrations in mind and I have got quite good at dividing a story into about 15 spreads (like scenes in a play) so it fits a 32 page book. After the story is written I do very simple, ‘back of an envelope’ sketches to plan out the book and then I work on a full-size dummy book. It is surprising how close to the original, scribbly sketches the final artwork often ends up. 

5. What other illustrators inspire you and why?

I admire people like Quentin Blake who can do quick illustrations with a flowing style and make them look effortless. I only work from ‘life’ and my illustrations take ages to do. 

I like the work of Nick Butterworth (who writes and illustrates the Percy the Park Keeper books) because he puts in lots of little details that I know children love.

6. What advice would you give to someone who wants to write a book but doesn’t know where to start?

I think before you write for children you need to spend many, many hours reading to them. You will find out what they like in a book eg repetition, silly things, surprises etc. You will also sense how long (or short!) a story should be for each age-group.

7. What advice would you give to someone who has written a book and is trying to find a publishing agent? 

I always say get a copy of The Writers’ and Artists Yearbook or the Children’s Writers and Artists’ Yearbook which has all the information you need about finding agents and publishers and will save you so much time. It will point you in the right direction and has lots of good advice.

8. What is the most enjoyable thing about creating children’s books? 

Over the years there have been so many fun bits. I love the moment when the story is written and I can start the drawings.

I love the moment when the drawings are all done and I can start putting the book together with the designer and I love visiting schools and talking to children about how it is all done because they are wonderful listeners and might go on to write and illustrate books themselves one day.

9. What have you found challenging about the process of publishing a book? How do you overcome writer’s block? 

I find the most difficult thing about writing a new book is having a new idea that hasn’t been done before. There are so many wonderful books out there! I have often spent months trying to think of new ideas.

I write lists of things I would like to include in my illustrations; bubbles, feathers, baskets, balloons, boxes cakes etc and these have often given me an idea for a story. Sometimes a new character that I have found (or made) like Hoot the owl or Splash the seal, will suggest a story as their character develops. 

I find I can draw at any time of day or night but I have to be wide awake to write. I love writing on a long train journey and once, to get me away from distractions I drove the car to a car park not far away (with lovely views) I parked there all day with a flask of tea and just wrote undisturbed! It worked!

10. How did the idea for the animation series happen?

I was approached by people who wanted to make the animation series based on the books and I worked closely with the director and producer on all 40 plus episodes. It was very hard work keeping up with the animation studio and we were often discussing storylines and planning moves or making props long into the night! But the hard work paid off; the animation series ended up so close to the feel of the books that I still feel very proud of them and I don’t think they could have been done better. 

11. The Old Bear book series has had continued success for many years, what would be your tips in helping a book become a ‘series’ specifically rather than a standalone book. In general, what ‘ingredients’ do you think makes up an interesting book series?

I am not sure I am the right person to answer that because I never planned to write a series of books; it just happened. I suppose a group of well-developed characters allows the writer to be creative with the plot while ‘knowing’ what each character would do with a particular storyline. 

12. And finally…how did you feel when you heard that Adjoa Andoh would be making the audiobooks for Old Bear? I’m sure she’ll sound fantastic!

I was delighted that Adjoa Andoh would be reading my books. I think she has such a warm and reassuring voice and she is fun to listen to! I think she will enjoy reading the stories and that is what any writer wants!

The Hissey catalogue will be released on the Cloudaloud audiobook app in early 2022, with two Christmas titles, Little Bear and the Silver Star and Jolly Snow, publishing in December 2021

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