Flying with starlings: talking to Gemma Koomen about creating her first picturebook

High in the branches of an enormous tree live the tiny Treekeepers. It’s their job to “nurture and mend, gather and tend” the natural world around them.

Treekeepers are friendly and gregarious, but Sylvia is quieter than the other children and chooses to play alone - until a fledgling bird appears, demanding attention and turning Sylvia’s orderly hideout upside down.

As Sylvia cares for the noisy, inquisitive bird, her world becomes wider and more daring. When he eventually flies the nest to join his starling flock, Sylvia is bereft - until she realizes that Scruff has given her something even more important than his friendship. He’s shown her the value of connecting with others and sharing what you love. Sylvia begins to join the other children in their games - and they, in turn, discover the pleasures of her quieter activities.

Gemma Koomen's first picturebook Flock is published by Frances Lincoln First Editions. It's a gentle, thoughtful story that will stimulate children’s interest in the natural world, showing that everyone – no matter how small - has something of value to contribute. Inspired by ‘nature, nostalgia and simplicity,’ Gemma's illustrations have a timeless decorative charm, underlaid by something deeper, with real heft and insight. Despite the naive appearance of their woodland setting, the Treekeepers live in an accurately-depicted environment – it’s possible to identify flowers from Gemma's paintings, for example, and there’s an internal logic and consistency to her created world. 

I particularly like the way Gemma addresses complex themes around shyness, introversion and the give-and-take of real friendship - there’s a lot of depth here, and Flock would make a great starting point for environmental and transition projects with older kids as well as being a lovely read for younger ones. Themes include caring for the environment, the wonders of the natural world, understanding yourself and others, making friends, size and scale, creative play and flight – but you’ll need to read this lovely book to get the full picture!

Gemma Koomen's tiny Treekeepers taking a break form their work 

Flock features in our Meet the Books section on this website (click HERE to explore lots of free ideas for creative Flock-inspired activities) so I was excited to find myself chatting to Gemma Koomen in person. We met in what used to be the pulpit of a repurposed chapel that is home to one of Northumberland’s best bookshops. Huge thanks to the staff at Forum Books in Corbridge for accommodating us! 

Gemma in the pulpit at Forum Books in Corbridge
 

Welcome to Cast of Thousands, Gemma, and thanks so much for talking to us!

Flock is set in the countryside and is driven by a deep sense of connection with the natural world. Are you a rural person at heart?

I am! I grew up in the Scottish countryside in Dumfries and Galloway, and apart from four years in Glasgow and short periods on the outskirts of Oxford and in Edinburgh, I’ve always lived in the country. That connection to nature is so important to me. I can’t ignore it, it’s on my doorstep, and I think it goes in subconsciously as well as consciously. I can just walk straight out of my house into the fields and woods. I can step out into that wildness, and what I observe sustains me

Were there any books you particularly enjoyed as a child? Do you remember any that influenced you as an illustrator? 

I was really inspired by the Busy Town books by Richard Scarry. I spent a lot of my childhood poring over the details of those small worlds, and all his characters. I have a memory of hours and hours spent looking at Busy Town! I also enjoyed books by the Ahlbergs. 

Another book I loved was The Little Girl and the Tiny Doll by Aingelda Ardizzone, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. I loved the care of the girl who finds this tiny doll abandoned in a freezer in the supermarket. I read and re-read that book, and when I saw it again as an adult I was sucked straight back into it, and into that feeling of being a child. The illustrations are all pencil sketches, but when I saw them again I realized I had thought of them as coloured, because they were so vivid in my mind.

Were you aware as a child that your imagination was adding another layer to the artwork? That you were providing information not given in the text?

I think I was, because I would spend hours immersed in my own drawings. My parents said I was the kind of child you could put in front of a pad of paper and I would just draw all day! I had a narrative relationship with what I was drawing, and it felt very real. I vividly remember drawing these battles between witches and fairies and kings and queens – there were lots of fairytale motifs but my own ideas were also coming through. So I was aware of the power of drawing, it was something I was always doing on my own, and drawings in a book could be an extension of that.

How did you become an illustrator? What life choices did you make, and what inspired you?

Because I’d always drawn as a child, I knew that I would do something creative as an adult. However, I chose to study Photography, which came from thinking I couldn’t have a career in doing what I loved the most, which was painting and drawing. My parents were both artists - they had their own gallery and my Dad was earning a livelihood for our family. But they suggested I find some commercial route into a creative industry. I even started a Photography MA, but I really didn’t like it. Luckily Sunderland University let me transfer into another department, so I found myself plunged into a Masters in Illustration having never studied it. But I realized that I’d always drawn, I’d always had sketchbooks, and it was so easy for me to make that transition, because I absolutely love drawing. It’s something that takes me into myself in a way that’s really meaningful, and I’m always quite surprised by what comes out, so there’s an aspect of self-exploration about it - it’s a way to connect with myself. And I love characters, so there’s the enjoyment of seeing which characters emerge, and then there’s the challenge of the technical skill of drawing - it’s always a challenge to keep a technical ability!

Did studying photography help you as an illustrator?

I think it did. It was a Fine Art Photography course, and it was very strongly narrative-based - an individual image or sequence of images were used to tell a narrative, and we explored that a lot. It was a really good course at Glasgow School of Art, and I think it was an excellent grounding in narrative, because we had to try to get a single image to speak on multiple levels and ideas and I really do think I’ve taken that into every subsequent piece of artwork I’ve done. 

In Flock there’s an ongoing narrative, and I wanted every piece of it to be individually strong but connected to the whole. Making every image count, making every image say something that connects it to the whole – that’s a very exciting place to go in a picture book. And I think maybe that came from the photography. 

I guess the other thing is that it just taught me such grit, because I was really challenged by it. They encouraged us to take thousands of photos, and I really did. I took so many, and through that process I saw that eventually I would get to the one image that was really strong and said everything I wanted to say. But it took thousands to get there, and I wasn’t naturally good at it.

So you learned how to sift through ideas and images and be highly critical. Do you apply that to your work as an illustrator?

I think I do, although the process is probably more subconscious. With photography I really had to try, whereas with illustration I prefer to let things bubble up more naturally. I like to see what my subconscious is trying to explore and communicate, so it’s more intuitive. But that process - of knowing you’re not naturally good at something but you can persevere, and with lots of practice actually arrive at what you were wanting to get to - that was a really good experience for me. 

Scruff joins his flock       artwork copyright Gemma Koomen

So how did Flock start out? Where did your ideas come from and how did you develop them?

The very beginning was when I found this old board book about little Dutch gnomes called kabouters. There were two of them riding on a goose, and I loved the image so much that I found myself drawing my own version, which was very different. My picture showed a girl riding on the back of a starling and it made me wonder who she was and where she was going. I realized that some words were coming to me, in association with this image. I’d done a class on Skillshare about making a zine, which is a folding narrative on a bit of paper, so I used what I’d learned to make a zine about the girl. I sketched out an A4 sheet with a very basic narrative in about an hour and I put it on my social media, but other than that I left it. 

Then, a couple of years ago, Katie (who’s an editor at Quarto Books) contacted me. She’d been looking at my work online and said the magical worlds reminded her of being little and playing outside in the woods. She picked out some images, including the girl on the starling, and asked me if I’d ever thought about making a picture book. 

From my point of view, that’s where I was intentionally trying to go, but I was still building up the skills to do it - so to be approached before I felt ready was exciting but a bit daunting. Of all the things she’d picked out, though, I’d developed the girl on the starling a tiny bit more in that zine I’d made, so I found myself emailing Katie with something that was essentially a pitch. I said, I think there’s a lonely little girl who’s found a baby starling, and she needs to look after it, and somehow that’s going to bring her into a sense of belonging - because a murmuration of starlings (which is when they flock together as they fly) is such a symbol of that. And I didn’t say much more, but Katie took what I’d said and pitched it to her colleagues, and they commissioned it.

That sounds very exciting! And interesting, too, because people often think they need to send a finished dummy book to a publisher, but you were approached via your social media because they’d seen something they liked…

That’s right. But I think it really helped that I had a narrative sketched out. The idea was a little bit developed, but not so much that they thought I’d be closed-minded to suggestions. And working with them was definitely a collaboration. It was my first experience with a picture book, so I didn’t have much understanding of how to go about it. I had read so many picture books to my children - thousands of hours’ worth - so I knew what makes a good story. But trying to deal with your own work, trying to make something strong, is really different, and I wanted to give it my utmost best. I didn’t want to look back and think I’d rushed anything.

How long did it take from the book being commissioned to publication?

About two years. It’s a lot of work! The story writing and sketching - because that’s a whole process in itself – that went on for about a year, but the actual painting was more like six months full time, I think.

The Treekeeper's home tree, first double spread from the book

Individual pieces of artwork varied, but this spread of the Treekeepers’ tree took about two weeks to make. I was very committed to each painting.


You’ve brought some sketches and storyboards to share with us. Can we take a look?

Of course. Here’s one of my early storyboards. I just loved doing it!

Storyboard rough, copyright Gemma Koomen


Is this the storyboard you sent to the publisher? Did it change much?

I sent it together with a very rough 800-word story, and the publishers used the storyboard to pick out scenes they were interested in and that they wanted me to develop. There were a lot of revisions, but it didn’t in essence change all that much.  And here are some character drawings I did of Sylvia.  Zoe Tucker, who’s a fantastically talented designer at Quarto, gave me a note -“two weeks to develop Sylvia..” I had very good direction!

Sketches copyright Gemma Koomen
 

 

I had to practice getting her to move in my drawings, and explore the emotions she would need to show.

After the first round of character studies, the publishers said “oh she looks gorgeous, but she’s too old, you need to bring her down in age”. In some sketches she looks like a nine-year old, and here she looks more like a six-year old. And here I’m animating the bird… it was such fun!

Sketches copyright Gemma Koomen
Sketch and notes copyright Gemma Koomen

 

I really appreciate and enjoy seeing preparatory work like this - it feels so fresh and full of possibilities, and reminds me how important it is to be able to capture ideas and explore them fully. It can be hard for children to imagine the first steps in a process that leads to a published book, and they often think that artists and writers have to be neat and get things right first time. Being able to see the creative process in action helps them understand that we all have to explore ideas and be prepared to make mistakes to get somewhere worthwhile. So it’s great to see your sketchbooks, thank you so much for sharing them.

How did you find writing the text? Was it easier or harder than producing the artwork?

Definitely more difficult! At first I didn’t feel confident, because I didn’t feel like a writer. With my artwork, it’s been such a long process that it’s filtered into my identity, and I knew I could draw and sketch and paint. I knew I could produce this book. But I’d never had my writing validated in any way, so I often felt I was second guessing myself, unsure whether I was saying something in the right way or getting across what I wanted. 

It’s quite complicated with picture books, because you don’t want to say what the images are saying - you need the text to work independently. You’ve got this play and balance between words and pictures which makes it such a nuanced art form. 

But the publishers did give me lots of feedback to help me develop the text. About halfway through the story process, for example, after I’d pitched a full MS, they thought one scene might be too scary for a four-year old, so I changed that. And they wanted to see more of the Treekeepers - they had somehow got phased out as I developed the story, but the publishers wanted the book to end with the Treekeepers as well as begin with them – they wanted it to be cyclical, and for the drama not to be too frightening or dramatic. So I had to rewrite the whole middle section, where the bird joins his flock and Sylvia needs to rejoin hers. But how do you do that? How does Sylvia go from not wanting to play and integrate, to wanting to do those things? What are the key elements that happen to bring about that feeling of resolution? At that point I felt really stuck, and it was quite a process to go through to figure out those details.

It’s interesting (if a bit sobering!) to see how much thought and effort goes into writing a successful story for a picturebook, particularly when doing a good job means that evidence of your effort disappears. I do think you have succeeded, though! Sylvia’s journey makes sense and we definitely become invested in her story.

Thank you, I’m glad. I did spend a lot of time on the text. And I did read and learn a lot about story structure. I realized that you don’t need loads of training, but you do need to know the basic principles, and once you’ve got those principles you can apply them. And that’s what got me through it

It’s good to know that hard work does pay off! Can you tell us how you created your artwork? What media did you use?

I worked in acrylic gouache paint. I’m really messy as an artist - I don’t mean that in a negative way, just that I need to feel free to make mistakes and correct them, so I need the freedom to manipulate a medium.  I always knew I would work in acrylic for this book, because I’ve found it to be the best medium in that respect for me. You can make lots of changes but you don’t get this build up of paint, and you don’t lose any paper.  I think there’s a little bit of mixed media in there, too - pastels and a tiny bit of colouring pencils.

Zoe gave me a colour palette to work to, which is good because picture books do need to be a bit brighter. Her feedback came a couple of spreads in, when the publishers realised that things were coming out a little too brown! But I could change things by layering the paint. So that’s another reason why I used acrylics, not watercolour - when a revision came I was able to adapt the actual painting I’d already worked on.

What’s your working process? How do you go from first idea to final illustration?

I work with a thick graphite stick, because I really like working from form rather than line. I think my work is all about subtraction and addition, so I’ll be making out the forms with the graphite stick. Then I used a smaller heavy graphite pencil and an eraser to get everything how I wanted it to be. And when the composition was right – there’s a lot of room for error and change – I would trace it with a brush pen, which is quite loose and not accurate. Maybe this is coming back to my experiences with photography, but I feel like the magic happens when it’s not too accurately decided - you want to have some element of surprise. So I trace it onto big sheets of tracing paper on my lightbox, which has got a low light setting - this was something I’d seen Quentin Blake talking about, getting the magic of it, that you don’t want to be statically referencing the drawing, you want it to have its own life. So I used that technique of painting from the sketch underneath, on the lightbox. And there’s a point where you don’t refer to the composition any more, and the lightbox is off, and you’re just working on details.

Did you work digitally at any point? 

No, I didn’t. I sent the original artwork to Katie and Zoe, and they scanned it very faithfully for the colours. I think things have been cleaned up a little digitally, but that’s all

How much did you work from life? And did you make models or anything like that to help you?

I made a felt model of Sylvia at the same time as the zine, so I had a sense of scale. But my inspiration and source material came from the natural world around me. I kept going into nature and looking closely at things; asking myself “would that work?” You can’t be completely meticulous about everything, but continuity was a major challenge. I wanted my readers to believe the Treekeepers’ world is real, and that took a lot of care. 


The first double spread of the tree had to be very carefully planned because the same landscape appears later in the book, but viewed from a different angle. I had to take the original painting and raise myself imaginatively to see what it looks like from higher up.

Sylvia flying on Scruff's back



And when I came to that last spread, which is the tree from behind, I had to reference the party scene in miniature, plus things like the hammocks and the washing line which refer back to the second scene. It’s that level of continuity that makes it believable, so it was a really satisfying challenge.

The final spread, which had to reference the party scene, as well as earlier illustrations of the tree 
The second spread, showing the hammocks and washing line






There's a picture of Sylvia playing with her found objects. Is that based on personal experience? It ha a lovely feel to it.

Found objects are important to me and to both my girls. If you saw my coat - my pockets are literally full of conkers, beech nuts and other things they’ve picked up and asked me to carry for them! Feathers, stones….  my eldest daughter had a stick collection when she was little, and each one had a lot of meaning and purpose. I don’t even know where anything has come from anymore, because they’re all mixed together. We just can’t help ourselves. There is a magic in a tiny beech nut that never actually gets old!


I also really like the detailed way you’ve depicted Sylvia’s games and activities. Can you tell us more about what’s going on in those images?

I wanted Sylvia’s toys and games to feel real, like you could actually make them yourself. I wanted it to be possible for a child to make something they see in the book, if it inspired them. So these are all references to real things - like ink from oak galls, and a kite from woven materials. I did some research into doll-making because I knew that I wanted Sylvia to have stick dolls to represent her longing for company, even though she’s not consciously aware of it.

Gemma's sketch of Sylvia making dolls


It’s possible for a child to make a bird using all of the components shown on the second activity spread, where Sylvia is feeling lonely. And of course there’s the nest… I think I’m actually a bit indebted to my neighbour, who’s a Steiner teacher! And I really like the idea of forest schooling, where children only take what they need from the forest.

In my parenting, I’ve seen children being more imaginative when the stuff you give them to play with is less prescriptive. If you give them less, they play more. And I love that, the power of the imagination. 

Flock is such a lovely blend of the real and the imaginary. What about the plants you’ve depicted? Are they accurate? 

I did lots of sketches of things that grow, like coltsfoot and butterbur and crab apples, wood sorrel – things that the Treekeepers could actually pick and use. I felt it was important to be realistic, so that children reading the book can go out and refer to things in nature. It extends the possibility that there really could be Treekeepers, because I’ve drawn real flowers… I used to love that about books like Jill Barklem's Brambly Hedge!

There’s a lot in this book to inspire playful or creative responses. Are you aware of it being used in that way? Have people told you’ve they’ve played games or made things together as a result of reading it?

I’ve had families saying their kids are playing at being Treekeepers - one family told me that even though there was a big age gap between their two children, it appealed to both of them, so that was good. Another family made up a Treekeeper song, and a mum wrote to me saying that her daughter had conquered her fear of swings, because she was pretending to be Sylvia riding Scruff!  And I’ve been tagged on instagram several times by people who are out looking for Treekeepers, which is lovely.

Teachers have told me they’ve been using my book with the whole primary school for Transition Day, because having to make that first step towards making friends when you don’t know anyone can be explored through reading and talking about Sylvia. She doesn’t have any friends at the beginning of the story, but it’s not really a problem for her, because she’s actually quite happy. She’s very satisfied with her own company

She is, isn’t she? Which is lovely, because positive depictions of solitary play or introverted behaviour aren’t all that common. Being solitary isn’t the same as being lonely, of course, and one of the things I really like about your story is that Sylvia doesn’t have to abandon her gentler, more creative pursuits in order to make friends – the other children enjoy playing her quiet games as much as she enjoys being boisterous with them.

It’s good to see a shy character making friends in her own time and on her own terms. How did this aspect of the book develop?

I really wanted to have a shy character that children could empathise with. I wanted to show a believable process of integration and not make shyness look like a problem. I like the idea that the book could be useful, in that a child might identify with Sylvia and be helped to make a step that seems very challenging.... I think the book has a natural progression to the point where Sylvia joins in. Children can see Sylvia is very hesitant, and it’s her transition that is helpful to see depicted, I think. 

While I was working on Flock I tried to find stories about shyness, and characters who were shy. I wanted books that would show how to thrive in a world that doesn’t really support shy people, but I only found two that I felt did a good job. One was Oliver by Birgitta Sif, and the other was Halibut Jackson by David Lucas. But there weren’t many books around that addressed the issue of a sensitive/shy child who is struggling to integrate.

So Flock will be welcomed for that reason, as well as many others. And I can understand why it would make a good focus for a Transition project, there’s a lot in this story to unpack and explore, as well as enjoy.

What’s coming up next? Are you working on something new?

I am, but I can’t tell you what it is! I have several ideas, but I want to be sure the idea I choose is the right one, and that I can give it as much love and energy as I did with Flock

We’ll look forward to hearing more about it when it’s time to share!

Thank you so much for talking to us, Gemma, and the very best of luck with all your plans.

Sylvia playing with her new friends          image copyright Gemma Koomen for Frances Lincoln

 


More information about Gemma and her work

To explore lots of free ideas for putting Flock at the heart of chlldren's creative cross-curricular learning, read our Cast of Thousands feature HERE

Visit Gemma's website HERE and find her on instagram HERE

To find out more about Forum Books In Corbridge, Northumberland, visit their website HERE 

Here's Gemma reading Flock for Hexham Book Festival earlier this year




 

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