Under the Cover: Whatever Next, Grandma!

21 September 2021

It's time to take another peep behind the scenes, and this time, we're going to be looking at a self-published title! As well as working with established publishers around the world, here at Beehive we also love to help budding authors bring their own stories to life. It's been a joy to work with new writer, Alison Grunwald, on her zany series, Whatever Next, Grandma. Each book in the series is packed with wacky incidents in the life of a rather extraordinary grandma!

In searching for an illustrator to realise her vision, Alison found Mike Phillips, and with his characterful style, they have together created a truly funny, charming series of stories. Before we take a closer look, let's hear a bit more from Alison about her background, and what led her to jump in to the world of children's books...

Alison (author): I was born in London in 1954 and grew up in Finchley. These days I live in the leafy glades of Cricklewood with my husband of 45 years, Henry. I attended JFS Comprehensive School in Camden Town. By the sixth form I had made up my mind to train as a news reporter and my first job was as an indentured reporter on the Hendon Times Group. I worked in journalism for the next five years, becoming a freelance reporter on BBC radio's 'London News Desk'. I narrowly missed being trained as a BBC newsreader in my early 20s, spectacularly flunking the audition by mispronouncing the words Schiphol and Sheremetyevo. (Go on...you try it!). I worked in Barnet primary schools as a TA for ten years, focusing mostly on teaching reading through phonics and frequently working with anxious children arriving in the UK from hotspots around the world. This truly activated my heart-centre. I developed a way of using humour, raps and games to help the learning process, and my "Whatever Next, Grandma!" stories probably have their origin in this desire to entertain, and to build confidence in emerging as well as more capable readers up to the age of eight or nine.

Beehive has been lucky enough to have been representing illustrator Mike Phillips since 1998, and since then, he's worked on countless imaginative children's books with the team. So, Mike – tell us a bit about your journey into illustration

Mike (illustrator): I was born in East London in 1961, as a boy I would draw all my favourite characters from my favourite comics. I left school at 15 and went into the printing industry, and there I learnt how books were put together and how bleed was used. I never studied art anywhere, but kept drawing during this period with the dream of becoming a cartoonist. I started sending cartoons to the newspapers and various magazines in 1993 and then added birthday cards in 95, by 98 I was confident enough to look for an agent and Beehive took me on. I've been, happily, illustrating for them ever since.

Grandma in the stories is quite a character! Alison, how would you describe her - and do you share any similarities?

Alison: The Grandma in my 'Whatever Next, Grandma!' series is impetuous, bossy and bad-tempered. She is also devoted to her long-suffering cat, Gertrude, brave and able to engineer scintillating escapes from the jaws of death or from any adventure that goes south. Though I don't have her red frizzy hair, we do share a lamentable ignorance of geography, a love of silly jokes and passion for animals, especially cats. The one element that young readers can be sure of in every story is Grandma's unerring instinct for peril - if there's trouble she will find it.

And Mike - what's your take on Grandma?

Mike: I think Grandma is a great character, with her wacky wardrobe! She is someone who can get herself tangled in absolutely anything, and just as easily walk out the other side without even knowing the trouble she's caused! I don't know where her next adventure will take her, but I'm looking forward to finding out!

As a first-time author, the process of getting your idea onto the page and then out into the world can be quite daunting! We'd always recommend getting some advice from experienced professionals to help you along your journey. Here, Alison describes a bit more about how she approached this.

Alison: When I started writing Grandma I quickly realised that I needed help. I am baffled by technology and have been known to weep at the computer! I searched for a literary consultant to proof-read the stories and suggest page-layouts and fonts. I found her in established author, Claire Wingfield, who has taught me a great deal about self-publishing. The book covers need to be designed and when she has done this Claire uploads the approved files on to Amazon and IngramSpark. Waiting to see the final proofs takes patience as they sometimes take a week or more to arrive, but seeing the familiar cardboard envelopes lying on the doormat always fills me with excitement and it is a great thrill to hand over copies to my eight grandchildren and know they will be showing them proudly to their school friends at the first opportunity.

Researching, I discovered talented illustrators all over the world, but not one whose work I sampled quite 'got' Grandma and her cynical feline side-kick. Luckily, I came across Beehive and emailed Ellie, asking if she had an artist who might be right for these stories. They had to have a dry wit and a passion for the ridiculous. They needed to be easy to work with and able to deliver pictures on time. I had a budget, and knew I had to stay within it if I was to publish the whole series. Ellie drew my attention to the brilliant work of Mike Phillips, and looking through his wonderful catalogue I hoped he would be interested in working with a debut author. Would he find my stories good enough? I was thrilled (and a bit surprised) when he said yes. Mike is responsive, ingenious and instinctively aware of what will work. He reads the tories and then works from my instructions, first producing black and white roughs, then the full-colour versions. If I need amendments he is always happy to oblige and if I'm stuck for a picture idea he will rescue me with a lively, witty offering that is a perfect fit for the story.

Mike, which has been your favourite title in the series to work on?

Mike: I think 'Grandma Rides a Pony ' was my favourite to draw. Drawing horses is always tricky and I really have to work carefully to get them right, it's always nice to be challenged. I think the pencil work on this book took me the longest with lots of photos to study. Planning each picture was great fun.

We're certainly looking forward to seeing what sort of scrapes Grandma gets into next! We've loved working on this series with Alison and Mike – another self-publishing success story. Hopefully, it's an inspiration to any budding children's authors out there! Alison had some final words about the process, and the satisfaction of having realised a long-held ambition...

Alison: I feel very fortunate to have found Beehive, Mike and Claire. I love the chuckles and final applause from the schoolchildren I have read the stories to - despite this having had to be over Zoom due to Covid. It has been just under a year since my first book, 'Grandma And The Angry Octopus' went on sale. Three more are now available, showcasing Mike's flair and humour. In the most recent, 'Grandma Rides a Pony', Grandma learns a timely lesson about telling lies and ends up in a spin, wondering how it all went so wrong. For the future, I would like to do a lot more reading, hopefully in person.

You can find out more about the series and purchase the books here!