Long before she created her award-winning children's book "The Fox and the Star," before the prizes and acclaim, before the career, even before the university degree in Typography and Graphic Communication, designer Coralie Bickford-Smith had an idea for a story about a little girl.
The idea first popped up while she was studying at Reading University. She didn't have the know-how to make the idea come alive, and so she let it sit. The idea, the little girl, kept appearing, and Bickford-Smith kept putting her aside as she made a name for herself as a book cover designer at Penguin UK.
When she discovered a family of foxes living in her back garden, Bickford-Smith transformed her little girl into a little fox. Her desire to "let him out," to let her idea fully form, grew but still she didn't act. "It just bubbled around in my head and surfaced at various points, then I would think 'Don't be silly, this won't happen,' and put it away again," Bickford-Smith told Spine.
The little fox wouldn't leave, but it took an editor to finally make Bickford-Smith stop and pay attention. "I had been working at Penguin as a cover designer for the past 14 years. An editor asked me to go for coffee and have a chat with her. I just thought she wanted a piece of design work doing, like a wedding invite. I was very up front and just said, 'What do you want?' When she asked if I thought I had a book in me, I was pretty stunned."
Stunned, but also prodded to act. Bickford-Smith presented some rough ideas to the editor, Penguin offered her a book deal, and she took a six-month sabbatical to bring her idea into the light. And then the fox became a cat.
The idea for the little girl came from Bickford-Smith's own life. After her mother died she felt left behind, nervous and lacking confidence. So too the little girl, and then the little fox, felt alone and unconfident. When Bickford-Smith moved into a house occupied by an abandoned cat, all of a sudden she was living with her fox. "My fox became this living thing that was around me every day in the form of this cat that had appeared and been kind of left behind. … I guess the cat had lost his owner too and was readjusting. It made my story very real."
During her sabbatical, Bickford-Smith "disappeared into my imagination for six months." She worked in her attic, projecting her story onto her new feline housemate as she figured out how to juggle the dual roles of author and illustrator. After creating storyboards with rough ideas for text and pictures, Bickford-Smith honed in on the words while trying to remain mindful of the images.
"That was a difficult part of the process, one that as a designer I had never really had experience of," Bickford-Smith said. "Having both elements be flexible, namely the words and the pictures, made a really wobbly skeleton. One change of a word changed the picture. It was hard work, trying to keep it all standing."
A lot of the designer's work for Penguin has been heavily inspired by Victorian book binding. She let the Williams — Blake and Morris — serve as guides to page layout and design. "I wanted to evoke a sense of traditional book design, a strong grid based on the Golden ratio," she said. "I wanted the page layout to be structured and strict so that when I broke out of the grid, it would create a sense of playfulness."
When it came to designing the cover, Bickford-Smith stayed with the Victorians. "For the hardback cover, the dark blue cloth that binds it and the white foil stamped into the boards is a printing technique that I absolutely love working with. … This kind of cover is very Victorian," she said. "Much of my work harks back to the beautiful book bindings from the Victorian era. Books should be loved and treasured and passed down through generations."
The publishers mostly left Bickford-Smith to her own devices during the book's creation. Bickford-Smith worked closely with the publishers when it came to production. "I knew the team that would be producing the book as they were all the same people I work with on a daily basis, so I was very much involved. … I had my nose in every decision!"
The paperback edition of "The Fox and The Star" was released in the UK last month. The book is larger and the cover features a bigger, more prominent Fox. "It was felt that is should be more character led." Bickford-Smith was nervous about Fox's increased size — "my fox is not an anatomically correct fox" — but now that he's out in the world, she's proud of him.
"Now he has his own life and path to tread, and I need to tread my own path too," she said. "It is hard to let him go."