My mum once woke from a dream thinking the house was burning down because she thought someone was shouting, "Fire! Fire!". Turns out it was just the crows! I've been woken up more times by crows cawing than cockerels crowing. I've heard crows quack and croak and laugh and I swear I once heard one shout, "Cacao!"
Why don't you keep an ear out for these noisy, beautiful, clever birds and listen to what they want to tell you?
I wrote The Crows Know in a tent, in the rain, in Summer, in Wales. That Summer, I had just completed my first year working as a childminding assistant and had read countless kids books. The kids I worked with enjoyed stories with rhymes, animals and silly noises, so that was the idea behind The Crows. I would say The Crows text just hopped out of my head and onto the page but really, it was a product of my life’s passion. I’ve been writing creatively since I learnt to write, I studied Creative Writing at University and I taught English as a foreign language for over 10 years. I’ve written over 100 songs and I’m a serial rhymer and spooneriser.
That rainy day in the tent after I wrote the words, I dared to dream that it could one day become a real book, so I started thinking about illustrations. I did a few sketches of crows wearing different hats and then realised I should leave the illustrating to a real artist. Six months went by before I got round to asking Patrick Amber if he would like to get involved.
I first met Patrick at Pitsmoor Adventure Playground, a wonderful community hub in a deprived area of Sheffield. I occasionally took my friend’s kids there and Patrick was often there facilitating various youth and community projects such as paper lantern making for the well-loved Sharrow and Parkwood Springs Lantern Parades. He also taught me how to make puppets out of rubbish. From those initial meetings, I discovered that Patrick was a dedicated, down-to-earth, super talented artist and I decided that he was who I wanted to illustrate The Crows. It was late February when I sent him a copy of The Crows text and asked if he wanted to get involved, and he said yes. He had just started regularly visiting Greece to work with deprived and displaced youth and was extremely busy, so I knew that a quick, business-like turn-around would not be an option, thank goodness! Patrick did what he could, when he could and when the inspiration took him and that suited me down to the ground.
We didn’t know how long it would take to have a physical copy of the book in our hands and had no need for a deadline, so we just kept slowly working on it until we were both happy with the outcome. We thought about trying to get published through an established publishing house, but my research showed that publishers usually prefer to match their own illustrators to a manuscript. Seen as though we already had all the necessary components to produce the book, we opted for self-publishing. I started looking for printers and the first company that was recommended to me could do a run of 100 books for more or less £100! I had never imagined it would be so affordable! So after a mad 7 and a half hours of finalising the files, and some final advice from a seasoned graphic designer who also happens to be my best friend, I officially ordered the first edition.
It took us roughly a year and a half from that rainy day in Wales to collecting 100 copies from the printers. We announced the books were for sale on 9th Feb and by 13th Feb, they were sold out. It took considerably longer to process the orders and deliver the books to mostly UK addresses but some as far as Spain, Greece and Canada.
Patrick and I can still hardly believe it. To us, it all just kind of happened. But I suppose that’s how you feel when you have the good fortune of having the time to work on something you love, with someone you trust and admire.
As much as I draw, paint and craft birds in my art, I still find them tricky to depict. I like to draw birds I see around me: kingfishers, geese, goldcrests, owls and pigeons galore. They flutter about inside and outside my head, inspiring puppet shows and inviting me to paint them. Sketching and studying a living bird must be the best way to draw, but that is usually limited to sitting amongst the pigeons and ducks in the park.
When parrots and magpies swoop above, it’s hard to keep up! If I’m focusing on a specific species, I usually gather some resources and save images in a folder on my laptop I can refer to.
My searches might go something like this: ‘Crow: crow UK, carrion, in flight, close-up’. For designing shadow puppets, there are lots of silhouettes to refer to.
I like to widen my search to: ‘book illustrations, anatomical studies, work by bird artists and puppeteers’. I look at the work of artists and illustrators I like such as Joseph Crawhall, Edward Lear and Audubon.
Then I sketch and sketch, read and read and find out about their habitat and behaviour. I also refer to birds in folklore, mythology and art. It’s quite a flight of fancy!
Birds have always featured in my art: in my paintings, puppetry and carnival lanterns. I can’t imagine them ever leaving!
You can spot more birds on my website - I’ve even a section devoted to them:patrickamber.co.uk/birds