Creating a book that opens up conversation – Publishing a children’s book on emotions

14 Jan 2019

It’s OK to Feel the Way You Do won the 2018 ABIA Small Publishers’ Children’s Book of the Year.

We talk to both author/illustrator and publisher about the collaborative process of creating this award-winning picture book that has opened up important dialogue for children about their feelings and emotions.

Josh Langley, who has just released a new book for adults about harnessing one’s creativity, developed the children’s story with Big Sky Publishing’s Diane Evans.

Author / Illustrator (and self-confessed daydreamer) Josh Langley:

Josh Langley receiving his ABIA

How did you come to work with Big Sky Publishing?  

I’d already had four books published through Big Sky so I had a great working relationship with them, especially with Diane. As a small indie publisher I love how they weren’t afraid to take risks in publishing such an unconventional kid’s books like mine.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

Diane was keen to do a follow up to my first kids’ book, Being You is Enough and my partner had suggested I do a book on feelings and emotions. I was initially hesitant, thinking I wasn’t qualified to take on a topic as important as that. I’m a bit of a lone wolf when it comes to being a children’s author, as I don’t have kids, and I’m not a school teacher, counsellor or psychologist. I mostly write my books for my younger self, based on my own personal experiences as an adult. When I took that angle, I realised I had the perfect book about feelings in my hands.

Did you take a full draft to your publisher initially? Or did you just discuss the concept with them?

I mentioned the initial idea with Diane and she was very keen and then left it up to me to do a first draft. It’s then I pushed all else aside and worked like a man possessed on the first manuscript. I’m a bit OCD when it comes to working on creative projects! It’s all or nothing, much to the chagrin of my partner.

Was the original form of the book much different to how it ended up? What happened along the way?

My first draft for It’s Ok to Feel the Way You Do, was a bit of a dog’s breakfast, so Diane gave me feedback on how I could deliver a more coherent message and keep it tight and simple. I’d already done about 60% of the illustrations, so it was mainly about reworking the manuscript until a really strong message evolved and then add in the new illustrations.

We’d already agreed that the format, feel and style of the book would reflect that of Being You is Enough in order to create a book series, so it was an easy template to work with.

However I’ve quickly learned that the final book will look very different from my initial first draft and I love that. I rely on feedback and outside input especially from Diane and other staff at BSP to make sure the book is the best it possibly can be from every aspect.

As the artist behind the idea, what was the process of developing the book like? How did you feel as the project developed?

Unlike a lot of other authors, I really get into every aspect of the process, from developing the idea, writing the book, illustrating and the constant back and forth on email during the editing process. Mind you, it does my head in when we’re up to the 23rd change to the one PDF Manuscript and there’s balloons and highlights and comments everywhere! Regardless, I’m always fascinated to see how the final book will look!

Diane will offer suggestions (and Sharon at BSP will add in her thoughts as well), then I’ll work them in, and we go back and forth until we’re all happy. Once we’re nearing the final edits, I always take a step back and see if the manuscript still fits my original intent and has my ‘voice’. If those two aspects are ticked, then I’m happy.

Can you describe what it’s like to work with a publisher/editor? What is the greatest thing they brought to the book’s development? What did they see in the book that you didn’t initially see?

The publisher is so important, as they can see the idea or manuscript with fresh eyes and see what works and what doesn’t. I’m too close to it to be objective. I’m also in a very fortunate position as the illustrator as well as the author so I can bring a manuscript together faster and make any changes quickly. I can knock out a new illustration between 10 minutes and an hour or so.

Diane was able to take my rather rambling idea and shape it into a simple to execute manuscript. I had too many conflicting, big ideas and Diane encouraged me to look at it from different angles and helped me get back to basics.

You’ve had a lot of positive feedback about the book, particularly from psychologists and counsellors. Is this the greatest outcome of the story from your perspective?

That was great validation for me, considering my initial hesitation in tackling the topic. However, what really gets me choked up is the feedback from parents. I’m constantly hearing about how the book has instigated conversations between them and their kids and the results have been life changing. And that includes a lot of boys, who are not renowned for sharing their feelings.

One mum recently told me that her normally unsettled, angry and anxious 5-year-old son, was a lot calmer and happier after they had many chats about the book. He could finally understand his feelings and talk openly about them. Now if that boy grows up to be able to better express himself and lead a happier life, then It’s Ok to Feel the Way You Do has done way more that I could ever dream of.  

Diane Evans from Big Sky Publishing:

When the story first came to you, what was your impression? 

Josh Langley and Diane Evans of Big Sky Publishing – celebrating their win at the 2018 ABIA

I have had the pleasure of working closely with Josh for a number of years on his books. We found that his first adult book Unconventional Happiness really resonated with parents, teachers and kids so we suggested he write a book especially for children.  He was initially a little hesitant, doubting his credentials in the area!, but in his normal enthusiastic style he leapt to the challenge. His first kids book Being You is Enough was very well received so we asked him to do a follow up.  When I saw his first draft of It’s OK to Feel the Way You Do I knew there was a little work to do with the structure but I had lots of “goose bump” moments as I read it and his words and illustrations connected.  His book was both different and powerful and I knew he had written another important book for kids.

What could you see in the story that made Big Sky go ahead with it?

I loved that the book spoke directly to kids and didn’t try to preach or ”tell” them how to feel. Josh has a very unique way of sharing himself in his books and breaking down complex emotions and making them fun and relatable. I felt that his book filled a gap in the market as it would help kids feel good about themselves and understand their feelings and also provide a valuable resource and conversation starter for parents and carers. As a parent myself I saw a lot of potential for the book and my 12 year-old son read it and gave it the thumbs up as well.

What was the biggest challenge for the book?

With any unique concept it was finding the balance between respecting and showcasing the individuality of Josh’s work while creating a book that works structurally and fits the market.

How many people were involved in creating this book and how long did it take to create?

While Josh and I worked closely on the book, Sharon our PR/Marketing Director and the whole team at BSP, (and Josh’s partner Andy) all played important roles in designing, editing, marketing and of course celebrating!  There were many rounds of editing and finessing and I knew we were on a good thing when I never tired of rereading it and it continued to make me smile. The process took approximately three-four months from draft to print.

What’s the best thing about working with an author and a group of people to bring a book to life?

I don’t think I can over-emphasise the contribution Josh’s attitude makes to the success of the publishing process. He is delightful to work with and his approach makes the process flow so smoothly. He is very open to suggestions and ideas and puts his heart and soul into improving the outcome. Josh is always up for a joke and has a way of making people feel energised. The best thing about working with Josh to bring his books to life is being allowed into the bold, bright inner-world of Josh’s mind and helping him mould some of those insights and wisdom into a book that has helped so many kids. And I get to do it all again in 2019 as we get started on his new kid’s book!

What’s one thing you wish readers were aware about in regards to a publisher’s contribution to a book?

Publishers invest as much blood, sweat and tears into a book as the author.  We ride all the highs and lows with them.

What did you learn about the publishing trade in developing this title?

You really do need to push the boundaries of ”normal”, trust your intuition with titles and don’t underestimate the power of reader reviews.  Working with an author like Josh, who is prepared to throw his whole self into projects and knock down barriers, really is a privilege.


Nominations for Small Publishers’ Children’s Book of the Year open soon.