From book selling to book writing: Bob Johnston’s big new adventure

Gutter Bookshop founder on writing a children’s picture book about marriage equality

Michael Emberley’s front-cover illustration to Our Big Day written by Bob Johnston

Michael Emberley’s front-cover illustration to Our Big Day written by Bob Johnston

 

It’s no secret that I love books. I’ve enjoyed reading since I was a small child and pretty much lived in our local library from the age of seven. When we were little, Mum would always read us a picture book at bedtime until we were old enough to read ourselves, and from there, I progressed to early readers, then popular children’s books like Winnie The Pooh and Roald Dahl, and then into a whole world of books and reading.

My first proper job aged 16 was in our local bookshop and, after getting an English literature degree in 1994, I went to work full-time for bookshops in Stoke-on-Trent, Reading and London before moving to Dublin in 2000 to work for Waterstones in the Jervis Shopping Centre, and then onto the larger Waterstones on Dublin’s Dawson Street. In 2009, I opened my own independent bookshop, The Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar, followed by a second Gutter branch in Dalkey in 2013. I’ve now been selling books to people for over 30 years and I have so many stories to tell, but I never actually expected to become a published author.

I’ve always secretly written bits of fiction. Back in 2006 I was unemployed for a few months and managed to write the first draft of a children’s novel. I’ve also written some short stories, some chapters of an adult novel, and two other picture books for young children. But I was never brave enough to show my work to anyone, and after setting up The Gutter in 2009, I struggled to find any time at all to write.

I am still full of admiration for anyone who can hold down a demanding full-time job and find the time to write, I feel that I can barely find time enough to sleep! But in 2019 I was approached by Michael O’Brien, publisher at The O’Brien Press, who asked me if I would be interested in submitting something to them around the idea of the marriage equality referendum and same-sex relationships aimed at the children’s market. They felt it was something that was under-represented in Irish children’s books and in their own publications, and they knew I had been actively involved with the equality campaign. As a person who struggles to say no and also loves a new challenge, I agreed and began to work on a children’s picture book text.

The marriage of Bob Johnston, left, and the artist Leon McAleenan, in August 2016 on their 15-year anniversary. Photograph: Ivan Patarcic
The marriage of Bob Johnston, left, and the artist Leon McAleenan, in August 2016 on their 15-year anniversary. Photograph: Ivan Patarcic

I married my husband, the artist Leon McAleenan, in August 2016 on our 15-year anniversary after the marriage equality referendum passed on May 22nd, 2015 and then came into law in November 2015. It was a day of celebration, love and laughter as we finally formalised our relationship in front of all our friends and family. I wanted to capture that joy in my book and also celebrate the huge amount of work that so many people had put into the marriage equality campaign over so many years.

I worked through several drafts of a picture book text that was tentatively titled Uncle David’s Wedding before submitting a superb, finished version to The O’Brien Press in late 2019. It was rejected. But they asked me to try again as they believed there was potential in aspects of my story, so I set about a second set of drafts and re-submitted to them in early 2020. With some further edits, we were finally ready to sign publishing contracts in March 2020, then everything suddenly ground to a halt due to lockdowns and Covid-19.

I thought that my opportunity had passed, but a year later we revisited the book and finally signed contracts in April 2021, and the amazing illustrator Michael Emberley was brought on board to draft pictures that would bring my words to life. The first time I saw the rough drafts of Michael’s illustrations I cried. He had brilliantly managed to capture all the love and joy that was so central to this story and what we wanted to show in the book.

Bear, the big black dog who belongs to Uncle David and his partner Simon, is brought to life in all his chaotic giant dog glory, as is their niece who acts as ring-bearer at the ceremony and gets into just as much trouble as Bear. It was important to me that children enjoyed the story and could laugh along with all the wedding mishaps as well as seeing two men who love each other getting married. Children have already told me how much they love Bear and want him to feature in more books!

Working with a publisher and illustrator has taught me so much about how children’s books are created and how valuable it is for others to offer feedback on your writing. Seeing rough drafts of the book that finally became Our Big Day highlighted yet more text changes that I needed to make, and I worked with our editor Eoin O’Brien until the day the book went to print to make this the best children’s book we possibly could.

From cover design to endpaper colours, the text font used, to the final book title, there were more decisions to be made in creating a book than I ever could have imagined. It’s said that creating a book is a team effort and publishing Our Big Day has proved that this is completely true.

It’s important to note that additional funding from The Arts Council allows small Irish publishers like The O’Brien Press to create these books that tell uniquely Irish stories for Irish adults and children to enjoy. I’m delighted that Dubray Books have chosen Our Big Day for their Picture Book Recommends for May, and that bookshops across Ireland and Britain are stocking my first book on their shelves. After 30 years of celebrating and selling books written by others, it feels strangely wonderful to see my own book on bookshop shelves and to see children, parents, grandparents and others enjoying a story I’ve written.
Our Big Day, a new picture book and a heart-warming celebration of love, family, weddings and marriage equality by Bob Johnston, illustrated by Michael Emberley, is in bookshops now, published by The O’Brien Press.

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