As an intern at MidnightSun Publishing, every day brings something different. No two books are the same and so neither is the publishing process. I have the wonderful opportunity to get a glimpse behind the curtain, so to speak, to be a small part of every process involved in taking a project from its genesis as a humble manuscript, to its completion as a published and tangible book that people will hold in their hands and lose themselves in.
For children’s book author Steve Heron and illustrator Benjamin Johnston, that process is finally complete, with their masterpiece, Ling Li’s Lantern published on 1st September 2020. I had a chat with Steve and Ben about the making of their book and what the different stages of the journey looked like for them.
As with many fantastic books, the beginning of Ling Li’s journey was almost also the end. Ling Li’s Lantern was sent to many different publishing houses before MidnightSun fell in love with her story. Finally, after months of hearing ‘nothing but crickets and rejections’, as Steve puts it, from publishers other than MidnightSun, his manuscript was finally ready to take the next step in the journey. It wasn’t long before it was full steam ahead for Ling Li and her lantern.
One of the first steps was choosing an illustrator whose art would do justice to the atmosphere that Steve had created in his manuscript. In 2014, at a conference for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Steve was particularly taken by an image of a moon shining over a village by Ben Johnston and knew that he would be the perfect illustrator for Ling Li’s Lantern. Years later, Steve gave Ben’s name to MidnightSun. Ben accepted the job because he was inspired by the story, not realising the connection to the conference in 2014; a beautiful sign that the pairing was meant to be.
Steve and Ben had some initial consultation, but ultimately, Steve was happy to let Ben’s creativity run and confident that the outcome would do justice to Ling Li’s world while also showcasing Ben’s unique style and voice.
For inspiration, Ben drew from the Qing period in China, which gave him an idea of the kinds of clothes, architecture, and decorations that would make up Ling Li’s village. He also used photos from his travels to Japan to help conceptualise the scenery.
Considering how exquisite the illustrations are, it didn’t come as too much of a shock to me to hear just how much time and meticulous effort goes into the illustration process of a picture book. For example, a double spread in Ling Li’s Lantern typically took about a week from start-to finish. In order to perfect the character of Ling Li, Ben spent countless hours drawing and re-drawing her facial features until he was satisfied that he had captured her personality. After storyboarding and playing around with various mediums, Ben settled on a digital method that would create a similar look to what can be achieved with traditional brush and ink.
Steve is no way a stranger to the publishing process, having had a variety of picture books, educational readers, and middle grade books published in the past through different avenues, including self-publishing. However, Ling Li’s Lantern is his first trade-published picture book.
‘I think I appreciate more now than ever how much a picture book is a team effort and each member of the team can be proud of the result,’ Steve says. ‘What was new for me was not having to make a lot of decisions about the process. Once the publishing contract was signed I could focus on my part of the contract and trust and know that the other parts were being done by very capable people.’
Echoing that sentiment, Ben says, ‘Working with MidnightSun it was terrific to get Anna’s feedback and to work with the book designer Katherine Timotheou… I don’t understand at all when illustrators and authors don’t talk about the book along the way… that feels weird to me. So, I really appreciated Steve’s input and I think he appreciated being allowed to give it.’
The publishing journey is a long and involved one. Many different decisions are made day-to-day by a whole host of professionals dedicated to embodying the magic of each author’s story. Working with the team at MidnightSun, I have had the absolute pleasure to be a part of these journeys. Holding Ling Li’s Lantern in my hands after knowing all of the effort, dedication, and care that has gone into its production is truly surreal. Yet, in a way, the story has only just begun as the book can now finally reach its readers.
Here is some of the positive feedback that Ling Li’s Lantern has garnered so far: