UK Self-Publisher Emulates ‘Golden Age’ Kids Books

In Children's by Dennis Abrams

“I didn’t want to do anything that was any less beautiful than a nineteenth century children’s book.”

By Dennis Abrams

John Jackson offers both a pricey bound book and a functional app.

John Jackson has not always been a publisher. But after careers as a solicitor, businessman, and founder of the Countryside Alliance (with the goal of promoting traditional British country sports and rural life), and with a collection of folk tales gathered on a trek through northern India and Nepal ready to go but without a publisher, he decided to take matters into his own hands. And in doing so, found a way to pay homage to publishing’s past while also looking ahead to its future.

Jackson, 82, has been writing for children since he was nine, when he wrote his first book about a sardine that fell out of a tin. “I have always enjoyed writing,” he said. “It’s a way of making contact with one’s fellow beings which appeals to me, particularly, I think, because of the descriptive and emphatic possibilities in the rhythms and cadences of words put into sentences. So my writing is usually ‘me’ talking aloud and what I write is easily read ‘aloud.’ This is the case whether I’m writing a ‘serious’ piece, an account of events from my own life – A Little Piece of England – or taking myself into the world of fantasy as in Tales for Great Grand Children.”

And it was Tales that led Jackson to found JJ Press. The book’s origins go back to 1978, when Jackson and two friends traveled through Nepal in areas that had just been opened to foreign visitors. The first idea to come out of the trip was The Butterfly Walk – a book composed of photos of butterflies, which would include a prose interpretation of a Nepalese myth about the origins of the Kathmandu valley.

The Butterfly Walk project came to nothing when the market for coffee table books declined. But in the mid 80s, Jackson was encouraged to take the Nepalese myth idea and build on that. Book packager Elsie Donald, who thought Jackson’s writing  would appeal to young readers, suggested that he “mine” Hindi and Buddhist mythology and Nepali folktales, looking for themes that would appeal to children. The resulting collection was to be published by Collins; but when personnel changes there caused the deal to collapse, Jackson was left with a project on his hands that he knew was publishable, but without the time or opportunity to do anything about it.

But by 2010 he was less busy, and decided that since self-publishing was looking interesting, there was nothing to be lost by forming his own publishing business and “having a go.” JJ Books put its feet in the water in May 2011 with the re-publication of Jackson’s A Little Piece of England, and went ahead with the publication of Tales for Great Grandchildren in October 2011.

Tales, thirteen stories of lovestruck elephants, flying turtles and talking lotus flowers, with illustrations by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini, was published in a limited edition, bound in buckram, block-printed and hand bound. The goal was to use the same methods and attention to detail used to create the earliest gift books by Rackham and Dulac in the glorious “Golden Age” of children’s book publishing. The effort paid off in rave reviews for both the text and the book itself, with

Mitchell Foreman, two time winner of the Kate Greenway Medal, calling it “A truly beautiful book. A treasure.”

And Tales is now also available as an iPad app, one that Jackson believes sets a new standard for children’s illustrated book applications. “I didn’t want to do anything that was any less beautiful than a nineteenth century children’s book,” he said.  The app, which was developed by Digital Leaf gives the owner the tales and illustrations to be read and looked at, the tales read aloud by Jackson, himself a grandfather of five and a great grandfather of two, interviews with Jackson and Terrazzini, as well as 13 full watercolor illustrations animated with sound effects. “It was refreshing,” said Digital Leaf co-founder Neil Jeffries, “to create an app using the latest technologies but which still stays true to the original hardback book.”

For Jackson, whose future titles include the publication later this year of a trilogy of stories based on Hindu mythology – Tales of Creation, Tales of Destruction and Tales of Preservation – together named the Maha-Devas, the creative possibilities in self-publication are not only endless, but have been given a huge boost by the digital revolution. “Books in ‘e’ format are easily produced, stored and distributed – globally…making it easy for anyone who can afford them to have their own portable ‘library’ accessible anywhere, anytime, and at will. The quality of the content is what now matters most: that is how it should be.  Of course, the established publishing houses will continue and adapt but they will case to control the ‘gateways’ through which authors (and illustrators) must pass. It is the verdict of readers/viewers, expressed quickly and directly, that will count.”

WATCH: a trailer for the iPad app for Tales for Great Grandchildren

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.