Founded earlier this year by author and playwright Helen Goodbarton, and artist and animator Sophie Johnson-Hill, Sojo Publishing Mouse is intent on bringing some wacky anarchy to the world of independent children’s publishing. We popped down to Sobar for a chat with them about their latest project, the very Christmassy children’s book The Glowing Snowman, and to learn all about what makes these two fun-loving publishers tick...
First off, could you tell us a little about Sojo Publishing Mouse?
Helen: It started with a story I wrote alongside a workshop Sophie was running a few years ago. Sophie was working with a group of children in creating this glowing snowman character, and I was asked to write a story to go with it. When we finished, we thought the story was so good that we wanted to try and get it out into the world, but we had a lot of trouble getting our foot in the door with most publishers. So, thinking that we didn’t already have enough on our plates, we decided to start our own.
A big part of the decision to start up was that Nottingham is so full of creative wonder that, even in this little pocket of the world that we live in, there must be so much wonderful creative talent that doesn’t go further than being someone’s hobby.
Sophie: Originally, we considered making it a kind of stepping-stone publisher, so that someone in our shoes could approach a larger publishing house and say “I’ve been published”, but now that we’ve got the ball rolling and we’ve been approached by loads of authors and illustrators, it feels like we might as well just start up a proper publishing house in its own right.
Now you’ve got Sojo Publishing Mouse set up, what are the main things that drive you as a company?
Sophie: One of our unique selling points is that we want to constantly work with new writers and artists. We’re trying to avoid falling into formulaic patterns where we just publish the work of one or two people.
Helen: Of course, as much as we love publishers like Julia Donaldson – and as much as I emulate her in my writing – her publishing house churns out book after book from her when there are so many other writers who deserve to have a go. Not to mention all the comedians, actors, popstars and footballers who are having their kids’ books published; what about all those brilliant people who haven’t had that chance given to them? I’ve enjoyed a lot of these books produced by celebrities and would never disparage them, but we just think it’s our turn.
How are you finding the modern publishing industry?
Sophie: Helen and I are both from a generation that grew up without things like the internet, and have then adapted to working in the digital age, so a lot of our work is sort of like the analogue and the digital oomphing together in this big, beautiful thing! As I’m an animator, I’m very much focused on our digital sales and the ways we can use technology, but we both think there’s something beautiful about holding a children’s book in your hands and we’re very conscious of that, too. That said, Sojo Publishing Mouse definitely embraces the whole lot. Apps, physical books, everything.
A lot of your work is done not only with children in mind, but actively involving them. Why is that?
Sophie: Kids draw better!
Helen: Definitely. Children are so imaginative, and their stories and ideas are so much more interesting than the stuff grown-ups come up with.
Sophie: And it’s so much fun. I’m currently working on a book which involves me going around schools and workshops, and the special thing about this book is that every story in it was spontaneously told by a child. No editing, no plotting, nothing; just the story as told by the child, with all the imagination and fun that involves.
What interests me most is how children engage with the creative process; I did my MA in puppetry and animation, and I ran these workshops with children where I’d record the audio of them chatting while doodling. I’d tell them that I’ve been given a character’s name and that they had to come up with the background and story. I never knew what to expect, but what I found was that the children would be more likely to use the world around them for inspiration rather than coming up with something completely fantastical. I also got them to retell stories like the nativity and found that each story was completely different depending on what the child was thinking about, looking at, or playing with.
Do you think writing kids’ books may be easier or harder than writing books for adults?
Helen: I don’t know, actually. For me, they just come out quite naturally. I’ve written songs and plays and books and poems for various youth theatre groups, so I suppose in a way I’ve always been building up to it. I originally went to drama school and realised that while I’m not necessarily an actor, I’m definitely a storyteller. I do think that has helped a lot with producing stories like The Glowing Snowman.
I also think that it all depends on the audience and what the book is for; I couldn’t write, say, young adult fiction, whereas writing for younger readers comes quite naturally to me.
Sophie: I agree, I wouldn’t say it’s particularly difficult. I think with any kind of creative artform, it can either come to you easily or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t then it just becomes a chore and you should probably try something else.
Could you tell us a bit about The Glowing Snowman?
Helen: One day I had this idea about a snowman that swallows a firefly, and all in all it must have only taken two days for me to write the whole thing. So this little girl goes into the woods one day and builds a snowman. She spends the day playing with it but leaves it there when it’s time for her to go home, which sets the snowman thinking about what its purpose is.
The snowman then has all these interactions with the animals of the forest, but it turns out they’re all just using him. Eventually, he meets a firefly and he accidentally swallows it, which makes him glow. All of a sudden, all the other animals are interested in him for who he is rather than what he can give them, and he’s stuck with this moral dilemma of whether he should let the firefly go.
Sophie: But we can’t tell you how it ends. It’s just too exciting!
Finally, do you have any advice for our readers who might want to start up a project like Sojo Publishing Mouse?
Sophie: Don’t be scared, and don’t worry about rules. I mean, obviously worry about the law and your morals, but don’t worry about what you think things are “supposed” to be like.
Helen: Exactly. Think about all the different children’s books that have been popular in the past. Books like Winnie the Pooh were so different to, say, Beatrix Potter or the works of Roald Dahl. You really don’t have to worry about things like what pages should go where and in what order. Really, you’ve just got to crack on, yoof!
Sojo Publishing Mouse’s latest book The Glowing Snowman is available online. Their next project, Kids Tell the Best Stories, will be announced soon.
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