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The Storm Whale In Winter, by Benji Davies [Behind the Book]

last updated 29 November 2016

The beautiful story of The Storm Whale has fast become a well known, much loved children’s picture book.

The storm whale in winter

For the last story time event this year, The Bright Emporium will be showing an exhibition of artwork from the books, along with a reading of The Storm Whale in Winter by the artist himself, Benji Davies — a fitting close to the end of the year and the perfect story for this festive season.

Beni Davies’ artwork has a filmic feel and as with the movies we see, behind every director is a huge team of people helping to make it happen. It’s the same with picture books — albeit on a smaller scale. There’s a great quote from illustrator, David Litchfield that perfectly describes this:

“What I discovered when creating The Bear & The Piano is that it’s a lot like filmmaking, in that when you watch E.T. or Jaws, you are apparently watching a film made by Steven Spielberg. But in the credits there are hundreds of other people who make that film what it is and how it looks and feels. The editor, the lighting department, the sound, the music. All these different people offering input into the final movie” — David Litchfield

So who are the people behind the book? I spoke to the team at Simon and Schuster who helped make the magic happen…

Noi in his room - the storm whale in winter

Lara Hancock, Editorial Director at Simon & Schuster on the creative, collaborative process:

LM: Benji had thought of the idea at art school, and so there was a skeleton of an idea there already. But is the finished piece (both books included) anywhere near the original? And as the original was an animation, was it very different from other projects you’ve worked on, in terms of taking an animated story back to a book format?

LH: It is very different, yes. The intended audience was different (the original animation is older in feel, whereas this book is aimed at very young children) so that meant some changes to the story, and to the feel overall. Then of course the strict page count, and ideal word count for a picture book imposed their own framework on the story too. The Storm Whale in Winter is entirely new and while it develops themes and ideas from Benji’s original animation, it sits very separately from it.

LM: What is the editorial process like? Is it something very collaborative, in that you sit in a room together in order to plan the story and text? Was the story fully formed, or was it a question of discovery as you all came up with ideas?

LH: The editorial process on picture books is very collaborative. It has to run in tandem with the art direction for the artwork, and with the page design too, so it’s always a very open and discursive part of the process. Sometimes you think you’ve hit upon a final version of the text, only to find that it doesn’t quite work with the illustration, or that the illustration tells some of the story itself so you can lose some of the words. Sometimes you realise that the picture can do something a little different from the text (subvert it almost) and that this can bring in a lot of humour. Often you discover that the text you thought was perfect when you read it on a sheet of A4 needs to be completely revisited once it has been put into a layout, because there’s not enough to carry all the page turns. So the process is quite a fluid, organic one, with ideas coming from everyone involved in the book.

Jane Buckley, Art Director at Simon & Schuster — on creating The Storm Whale:

I have found, from my own experience of working in picture books, that as a team, we’re not only design and editorial, we’re story tellers too. It’s our mission to make sure that the project, both illustration and text, reflects that. The beauty of working with Benji and the fact that he comes from an animation background, is that everything is in place. We have a responsibility to execute this in the best way possible and in a way that a child understands and remembers – forever.

On a personal front, most designers have a favourite childhood story that they look fondly back on, mine is The Snowman, by Raymond Briggs. So to work on a book that holds the same timeless feel, is a true honour. So thank you Benji.

whale pod from the storm whale in winter

Elisa Offord, Marketing and PR Director at Simon & Schuster — on marketing The Storm Whale:

LM: Did you have a very firm idea of publicity for the book and how did you plan to promote the title? Did you find that it gained traction very quickly – and how important is it for an artist to be diligent in making their name out there online, and over social media channels?

As soon as we heard the idea, saw the text and artwork sample for The Storm Whale we knew it was a special book.

We introduced Benji to the UK trade at a dinner held a few months in advance of publication, where he met key members of the book trade including the children’s buyers at Waterstones, Tescos, Sainsburys and WHSmith, independent booksellers and the buyers from Bertrams and Gardners wholesalers.

Benji spoke at the dinner and all the guests received a signed print and saw a preview of the final pages of the book. The Storm Whale was also featured in our highlights brochure and presented to the trade, librarians, media contacts and influencers as one of our picture book debuts of the year.

The storm whale endpapers with poem by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

The poem on the left reads: ‘The wonder of the world, The beauty and the power, The shapes of things, Their colours, lights and shades, These I saw. Look ye also while life lasts’ – Denys Watkins-Pitchford.

It was really important to highlight the book and Benji in this way and to gather the interest of booksellers, librarians and reviewers early on. We also advertised the book in the wholesalers catalogues and Bertrams Booktime; a books magazine for consumers that is distributed to independent bookshops. It was picked in The Bookseller highlights too. All of these things set the path for a successful launch. On publication Benji held a party, which we contributed to financially, and invited key members of the book trade and reviewers along to. It’s really important for authors and illustrators to be active on social media and online. because engaging with the picture book bloggers, other illustrators, booksellers and influencers really helps get everyone excited about a new picture book talent.

Noi runs to greet his father at the light house

It’s quite a small world and vital for artists not only to post about their own work, but to support each too. Taking part in events, which sometimes at first can be quite small, is really important too. Most author events are organised with either a bookseller partner or via a librarian or teacher at a school. These people are what we call the ‘gatekeepers’. They play a massive role in suggesting books to parents and children and championing authors and illustrators. Some are also involved in nominating books for awards on a regional and national level. Benji was completely brilliant from word go, both on social media, and getting out and about doing events and charming all the gatekeepers and his audiences. Once Benji had a bit of event experience we started putting him forward for literary festivals too and gave him some advice on event format for larger audiences.

storm whale 2 launch with simon and schuster

Pictures from the launch of The Storm Whale in Winter, which took place at Waterstones in Tottenham Court Road, hosted by Simon and Schuster.

The Storm Whale took off quite quickly in Waterstones, with many booksellers recommending it and putting it front of store on tables, but the big break was when it won The Evening Standard Oscars First Book Prize. It was this and the good sales record at Waterstones and the wholesalers that lead to the supermarkets and other retailers becoming interested in Benji’s books.

Another pivotal moment was when Grandad’s Island won The Sainsbury’s Children’s Book Prize, leading very nicely into our plans for The Storm Whale in Winter, which has received a major marketing campaign including advertorial features in magazines including Little London and The Lady, and a social media campaign including highly targeted promoted posts on Facebook and Instagram.


We funded a wonderful trailer created by Benji and an award winning animation team, which was used across social media and promoted on YouTube – views for the trailer at last count across social and YouTube were over 60,000! We’ve also just launched a campaign with Silence Media, which places banners that expand out to play the trailer on highly targeted websites, capturing the online Christmas shopping market. Benji produced the most amazing bespoke window at Waterstones Piccadilly and elements of that are now in the window at the children’s independent shop, The Alligators Mouth in Richmond, just in time for an event there at the beginning of December. All of this alongside appearances at Edinburgh, The Children’s Bookshow, Wigtown, Seven Stories and Cheltenham, plus various school visits have meant a very busy few months for Benji and The Storm Whale in Winter. The good news is the hard work is paying off as the sales are up a huge 98% on the sales of the first book in the same number of weeks.

With huge thanks to Lara Hancock, Jane Buckley and Elisa Offord.

More about Benji . . .

“Being an author-illustrator can be a solitary and seemingly thankless task. Like looking for something in the long grass when you’re not sure what it looks like, you poke about with a big stick and the longer you look the more it feels like it’s going to rain. You ask for help but really you need to find the thing yourself or… well it won’t be yours. And when you find it you hope that what you find won’t look the same as the one somebody else already found. Although it needs to look similar or nobody will have clue what it is when you show it to them. So it can feel fruitless — until you find it.” Benji Davies

— From Children’s Book Awards and Why They Matter . . . Read the full article here.

noi running along the beach with fishing net

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