The Best Bear Tracker by John Condon and Julia Christians ~ #BlogTour #AuthorInterview

It’s my stop on the blog tour for The Best Bear Tracker by John Condon and Julia Christians and I am thrilled to be sharing a fascinating author interview with John.

Have you ever wondered how to track a bear? Meet the World’s Best Bear Tracker! In this one-of-a-kind picture book we discover step by step how to track a bear. There are ten rules to be exact. Although maybe you may spot a bear sooner if you try… but will you find the bear you’re looking for?

The Best Bear Tracker has all the ingredients of a classic picture book and had us in stitches from the start. It’s got that panto humour that makes children want to shout out “it’s behind you” but the twist ending takes the book to a whole new level!

I previously interviewed John about how to come up with amazing picture book ideas (read here) and let me say, The Best Bear Tracker is proof that John really does come up with cracking picture books! The twist ending in this book is one of the best I’ve ever read and my daughters and I absolutely loved it! This is a must-read picture book that children will want you to read over and over again.

And so, now it’s over to John to find out a bit more about how this brilliant picture book came to be published…

John Condon

Hi John, lovely to chat to you again! Please can you tell us a little bit about the book and the inspiration behind it?
Hi Rachael, thanks for offering to interview me. It’s always great chatting with you.

The book is about a child who believes they know how to find bears, using a specific set of rules. These rules are based on real facts about bears, so it’s perhaps no surprise that they work. However, our protagonist doesn’t seem to notice. What happens next? Well, let’s just say it’s not what the reader might expect.

I often get asked where the inspiration for one of my books has come from and no matter which book it is the answer is invariably the same… I have no idea. Part of that is due to the obscene amount of time it takes me to do anything with the ideas I generate. All of my stories (those that are published) took a long time to get to publication, and this one is no exception. I go through phases of extreme creativity in terms of idea generation (sometimes generating up to a hundred in a month) with no concern as to whether those ideas are good or bad, innovative, or contrived. I just jot them down and store them for later. I then sit on them for a while and only turn them into actual texts when I really feel like they inspire me. I think what might have tipped the balance on this one was the inclusion of a set of rules. I must have realized that would make for a good plot. The opportunity to contradict those rules was enticing, no doubt. I can’t actually remember though.

We absolutely loved this book, particularly the ending! Without giving away any spoilers, did you always have a twist ending in mind?
Thank you for saying that. It means so much. I know you are a published author yourself, so you will of course appreciate this, but each time I have a book coming out I get so anxious. Waiting to hear what people think of it leaves my nerves in tatters. So, knowing that you enjoyed it is a huge relief.

To answer your question… there is a story there. When I originally wrote it there was a twist ending in place, but it was absolutely nothing like the one in the final book. Templar bought it and then put it in line to be published. A year passed and the wonderful Editor I had been working with (Joanna McInerney) moved desk to became head of Big Picture Press. She was replaced by the equally magnificent Alison Ritchie, who soon after called me to have a frank discussion about the text, which (for her) didn’t have a satisfying enough ending. This was a shock, as I had been awaiting roughs from the illustrator (Julia Christians) at the time.

Having said that, I was delighted that Alison was rolling up her sleeves and getting stuck in straight away. The call, which also included my agent (at that time) and Katie, the new head of Picture Books (also, at that time) was uncomfortable to say the least. Having said that, it was constructive and ended on a very positive note, with me offering to generate alternative ending suggestions. Everyone was happy with that idea so that’s what I went away to do. I generated about 10-12 and then discussed half of those with members of my picture book critique group. We narrowed them down to 3 and I sent those off to Alison, with a preference for option 3. Thankfully she came back in agreement that option 3 was the winner and we worked together to tighten it. Originally, it had a double twist ending (much like The Pirates Are Coming) but Alison streamlined it to only include the ending you see now. She was magnificent on this book.

Growing up, did you always want to be a writer?
Nope! If you had said to me at aged 10 that at 46, I’d be a writer, I wouldn’t have believed you for a second. Had you told me I was going to a be a Top Gun pilot, I’d have totally believed that though. At one point I wanted to be a lawyer, and for a while I wanted to be an architect. I drew a lot as a child, so it made sense that I wandered into the arts, eventually becoming a graphic designer – specializing in packaging design.

John as a boy

I only became a writer because I also had a passion for movies and wanted to make some of my own. Here is one of the few I actually did make. In order to encourage fellow filmmakers in a group I had founded, I decided to lead by example and make a film for a competition that I wanted them to consider entering. In order to do so, I had to write some screenplays. ‘Tarot’ was one of those. If you watch until the credits finish, another film follows – ‘Death of the Dinosaurs’ (also written by me and directed by my friend, Leilani Holmes). Both films, though super short (15 seconds each), had a modicum of success and I kind of got the writing bug as a result. I then attempted to convert a screenplay into a picture book for another film project (don’t ask), and that gave me the picture book bug. That was about 11 years ago, or thereabouts.

So, to answer the question more succinctly… No, I didn’t always want to be a writer, but I did decide to become one about 16 years ago, and I knew I wanted to be a children’s writer about 11 years ago.

Can you tell us a little bit about your other picture books?
I don’t write poetic stories or nonsense stories. I try to write funny stories, but they aren’t all about the laughs. Everything I write has a heartbeat at the centre of it. Well, that’s what I aim for at least.

My debut PB, The Wondrous Dinosaurium, is about a child who wants an out of the ordinary pet but doesn’t realize how much care and attention each of them is going to require, until he leaves the pet shop. Along the way he learns to be a responsible pet owner and ends up choosing a more suitable pet. Ki-i-i-i-ind of!

My second book ‘The Pirates Are Coming’ is about a child who takes it upon himself to scour the sea for pirates every day. He knows in his heart that they will be coming soon and if they do, he is going to warn the village before they arrive. He has the very best intentions, but his eagerness gets the better of him on a few occasions and he forces the villagers to hide unnecessarily. Again, it’s a funny book and one that I’m really proud of. Like the first book it was nominated for several awards and won one last month. I think it has 11 co-editions, which is brilliant because I adore seeing my books printed in other languages.

A lot of what I write I struggle to fit into the PB format and editors tell me they should really be early reader or chapter book length stories. I have a fear of moving out into deeper waters though. I don’t mean in terms of difficulty, as PBs are very difficult to write successfully, but in terms of word count. My stories tend to sit under 500 words comfortably (in my mind at least) but plot-wise, the first drafts tend to be convoluted and need streamlining to fit the format successfully. I know that I wouldn’t have to do as much of that if I wrote chapter books. Sigh! I’ll try my hand at writing one at some point, but not today.

I think ‘The Best Bear Hunter’ is actually my first published book that couldn’t have been anything other than a picture book.

John’s Writing Room

What do you think makes a great picture book? Have you read any recently that you’ve really liked?
If, at the end of a book, I say to myself “Gah! Why didn’t I think of that?” it’s usually because I’m jealous. Ha! But if I’m jealous it’s usually because it was a great picture book. I’m also jealous (in a friendly way, of course) of anyone who gets a Christmassy picture book published. My dream is to have a cosy Christmas book out there one day. I’m working on one now that I really like but it’s not quite there yet. Fingers crossed I manage to nail it though, as I’d love to see it in print someday.

What ones have I recently really enjoyed? Well, not just because we are talking to each other right now, but I really enjoyed your debut ‘I Am NOT a Prince.’ It’s so tricky to put a genuinely innovative and relevant spin on a tired old fairy tale, but I think you did a fantastic job. I absolutely love the graphic illustrations by Beatrix Hatcher too.

What advice would you give to someone trying to write picture books?
Firstly, I’d ask what it was you wanted to achieve? If you have a story that is dear to your heart and you want to turn it into a physical book that you can read to a family member or a friend’s child, then there are less painful ways to achieve that than going down the traditional publishing route.

If, however, you want to do this as a career, you are going to need patience. This is only my third published picture book, and it’s taken me well over a decade to get here, so I would say being patient is an absolute must. That’s not to say that you won’t have success much sooner, but just in case, be prepared for the long haul.

You’ll also need resilience, because it’s such a competitive landscape out there that you will almost certainly be met with lots of rejections (as polite as they may be) before, and even after (yes!) you get published.

Writing can be a lonely pursuit, so I’d suggest you get out there (physically or virtually) and find your tribe. Having a group of like-minded people – with similar goals and experiences – to call upon for feedback, guidance, or a shoulder to cry on, is so beneficial for your mental and emotional health. They’ll also be there to celebrate triumphs in ways perhaps other friends and family can’t because they know exactly what it took for you to get there. “Where do I find my tribe, John? WHERE?” I hear you cry. SCBWI.org is a great place to start. I’ve made so many wonderful friends through SCBWI. it’s such a supportive writing/illustrating community, filled with talented and considerate people.

Researching the age group is vital as well. Hoover up as much knowledge and read as many books as possible in that age group you write in… and never stop. Yes, Shirley Hughes, A.A Milne and Beatrix Potter are inspirational authors, but they are not what is getting published today, nor will they be in 2 years (which is when the stories being bought by publishers today will hit the shelves). It behoves (love that word) you as a children’s author to know what children are reading today. And what word counts are being read too. Your 2,000-word ode to the Velveteen Rabbit may struggle to get sold because it doesn’t match what editors are buying right now. Of course, that doesn’t mean your story has no value or place but again, traditional publishers will probably not go for it at this time.

With that in mind, joining a critique group with their finger on the pulse is going to benefit you immensely. They’ll help you hone your writing and together you’ll learn what the industry wants through your combined misses and successes. Again, SCBWI can certainly help you find a critique group.

A lot of what I’ve just said may sound scary, but I only say it to give you some forewarning as to the nature of the journey, not to put you off.

Which leads to my final bit of advice. If you want to be a writer, be one. Life is too short not to follow your dreams.

Thank you John for such a wonderful interview!

The Best Bear Tracker was published by Templar, 18 August 2022

Buy Now!

ISBN:‎ 978-1787418073

About John

John lives with his family in sunny Kent and enjoys weekend walks on the beach. Well, that’s what he tells people. In reality he loves nothing more than to sit in a comfy armchair, with a fresh cup of tea, dreaming up new story ideas. In fact, that’s exactly where he is right now. Very occasionally he will go for a walk on the beach but only after putting up a good fight.

You can follow John on Twitter or via his website.

Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the tour!

I am very grateful to the publisher for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book. This voluntary review contains my honest opinion.

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