Later this week, Emily Mackenzie will return to her Slaley First School skipping ground (I’m pretty sure everyone skips at school) for the first time in more than 20 years.
The visit will mark the realisation of an ambition which Emily, who grew up in Slaley, Northumberland, has harboured since she was a pupil there: writing and illustrating a children’s book and getting it published.
WANTED! Ralfy Rabbit, Book Burglar (Bloomsbury) is the book in question and it is a charming love letter to literature for youngsters - told via the (bob)tale of a mask-wearing rabbit who is obsessed with reading - so much so that it gets him on the wrong side of the law.
“About four years ago I created a batch of rabbit bookmarks which I screen-printed,” explains Emily, who has lived in Edinburgh since moving there to study graphic design at the city’s College of Art.
“They were all multi-coloured and they all had t-shirts on which said ‘I Love Books’. That was the starting point which had me thinking about this rabbit character, Ralfy. Also, I wanted to make a book about loving books and about how much I loved them as a kid, so it came from there really.”
Having spent seven years designing book covers for non-fiction books in the Scottish capital, Emily says she was under no illusions about how long and complex the process of bringing a book to the bookshelf would be.
“I was very prepared for how many people would be involved behind the scenes and how long it can take. But it’s so worth it. I’ve wanted to do this for such a long time.”
Aside from her previous job (she left the publishers in 2011 to pursue a career as an illustrator full time) Emily had also seen the process of creating a children’s book from very close quarters.
Her uncle is Mick Manning, who together with his partner Brita Granström has written and illustrated some of the most celebrated children’s books of recent years from their home in Berwick, including What’s Under the Bed? Tail-End Charlie and The World is Full of Babies.
“I’ve always admired and been very excited about their work and how passionate they are about it,” says Emily, whose parents Steve and Sue Bland are both graphic designers and whose brothers Tom and Alex are a photographer and animator respectively. (“Yes, there is a pattern there!”)
“They’ve been working together since I was a young teenager, so seeing them get their books published and being so prolific has had a massive influence on me.”
As did her childhood surroundings.
“I grew up beside the beautiful pine forest in Slaley, in the middle of nowhere, so I loved any books which had a forest in them,” she laughs before offering some highlights from her younger self’s list of favourite reads.
“I loved Otto the Bear by Ivan Ganstschev and The Winter Bear by Ruth Craft and Erik Blegvad. I adored the rich autumnal watercolours of bears, forests and fruit trees in Otto the Bear and the winter landscapes with the little lost teddy bear stuck in a tree in The Winter Bear.
“I don’t know where my mum managed to find those - I’ve never seen them anywhere else,” she laughs.
“I also love all of Quentin Blake’s books too and Dogger by Shirley Hughes. Basically, I had a soft spot for books about bears and cuddly toys.”Although Emily doesn’t have a children of her own, she wasn’t short of youngsters to introduce Ralfy to while she was making her debut book.
“I have lots of friends who have children and lots of nephews and nieces, so I’ve enjoyed reading the book to them,” she says, adding that she has incorporated some of their names into the library scene at the end of the book, when ***SPOILER ALERT*** Ralfy sees the error of his ways and is introduced to a whole new (legal) world of books.
“I wanted them to have fun trying to spot their names,” she laughs.
Meanwhile Emily herself had lots of fun rabbiting-up the titles of literature classics for another of the book’s eye-catching spreads.
The Rabbit with the Dandelion Tattoo and The Remains of the Lettuce were two of my favourites. I won’t ruin any more of them for those who will be looking to get a copy of the picture book.
And on that very subject, on Thursday (the official day of publication), Emily will be giving the front window at Cogito Books, on St Mary’s Chare in Hexham, a Ralfy makeover before doing a reading and signing session from 3.30pm onwards.
“I’m really looking forward to coming back to launch the book,” she says. “There’s the public readings on Thursday and then I’m doing some school sessions on Friday,” including the aforementioned one at Slaley First School.
“It’s going to feel funny, going back there after 20 years or so, but I can’t wait to introduce Ralfy to them.”