In the Studio with Carys Bexington
last updated 14 December 2021
Author Carys Bexington was born and raised near the Jurassic Coast in west Dorset and spent her childhood climbing every single tree in the fields around her family’s old and draughty farm house, filling jotter after jotter with illustrated stories of her adventures. Her debut picture book, The Night Before Christmas in Wonderland (Macmillan Children’s Books) was a Christmas hit last year, culminating in being picked as one of the Sunday Times Best Books of the Year 2020.
In this special writer’s edition of In the Studio, we caught up with Carys to find out how she approaches writing for picture books, what inspired her and what’s next for her…
Hello, I’m Carys!
I primarily write rhyming picture books. As a child I loved all kinds of books, but some of my absolute favourite bedtime reads were the Rupert Bear annuals. I had (and still have) so many of them and I loved the short rhyming verse beneath the pictures and the longer prose at the bottom of the page. I think that’s why I gravitated towards rhyme when I turned to writing as an adult and why it feels so comfortable to me - I’d read so much of it as a child that my brain is now wired that way!
Carys visiting bookshops last Christmas
How I write
I tend to write in a long and free flowing way to begin with, not placing too many limitations on myself in regards to it being a ‘picture book’ with a set word count and page turn moments etc. It’s so easy to let the strictness of the format impede the process of writing a good story, because first and foremost it must be a good story. Then, when other people get their hands on it and decide to publish it and bring an illustrator on board, the next process of reducing word count and removing the parts that can be told through illustration can begin. But I like the story to be as full as possible to start with, to capture the world the story is in as much as possible.
Carys’ desk and out walking the dog
The Night Before Christmas in Wonderland
The idea for The Night Before Christmas in Wonderland came to me when I was walking my dogs and then it took me a full six months to write the whole story. I’m very much a ‘pantser’ in writing terms as I don’t plan the story out before I begin. I know the main characters and maybe a couple of snippets of verse that first sparked the idea. I find rhyme lends itself to this way of writing and I love that I’m not sure what will happen next. I read somewhere that it took Dr Seuss three months to work out how to end How the Grinch Stole Christmas and nine months to write The Cat in the Hat. Writing a great rhyming story takes time and a significant amount of pondering and reworking to get it right – even for the greats like Dr Seuss!
The snippet I built the story around was:
She hopped up and down, her whole face turning red,
Then she bellowed, ‘OI YOU! I say OFF WITH YOUR HEAD!’
I basically sat at my desk and agonised over it for months and months until the essence of the story was revealed to me through some sort of mystic sorcery from the book writing gods. I didn’t want it to read like a ‘retelling’ of a classic, I wanted it to be obviously and heavily influenced by The Night Before Christmas poem and Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky poem (which are two of my absolute favourite poems!) and Wonderland itself, but I was certain that I wanted to give this medley a brand new story for a modern audience and yet stay respectful and true to the originals. It was mighty tricky, but well worth it! Thankfully the response to the story has been incredible and I really hope it continues to be a Christmas bedtime read for years to come!
Working with an illustrator
I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in my first foray into picture book writing to be partnered with Kate Hindley, an experienced and hugely talented illustrator. Once the text was pretty much finalised for The Night Before Christmas in Wonderland, Kate started work on bringing it to life. I wasn’t involved in that side, apart from looking at roughs and the final colour spreads before they were sent to be printed. I sent back any small notes I had about parts I especially loved or questions that I had, and then I got back to work on the other stories I was working on at the time.
It was very strange to work so hard on a story for so long only to then hand it over to others to complete – but I just had to trust and remember that everyone is brilliant at what they do, and I was absolutely not disappointed!
Going forward I’ve been working away at some more The Night Before Christmas in… stories, which is very exciting. I’m also working on some longer fiction and some passion projects which include poetry for both children and adults. And, as always, more picture books that aren’t in the Christmas world but hopefully will bring the same joy and laughter to children and their parents alike. Writing for children is enormous fun and I hope to continue doing so for many years yet!