The Baker by the Sea, by Paula White

The Baker by the Sea by Paula White is one of the five books on the shortlist for the 2023 Klaus Flugge Prize.

Written in homage to her grandad and a tribute to an enduring way of life, Paula’s book describes a young boy helping his father, the baker in a fishing village. The boy thinks fishermen have the most important job, but working with his father changes his perceptions. The judges admire her lyrical depiction of the landscape, the strong sense of place and the rolling tempo: ‘It works magic’.

Former Klaus Flugge Prize judge, Senior Lecturer in Education: Primary English and Children's Literature, Mat Tobin interviewed Paula about her book.

What inspired you to create The Baker by the Sea? Could you share the story behind its creation and how it relates to your childhood on the Suffolk Coast?

I think the first little sparks of inspiration for The Baker by the Sea began in my second year of the MA at Cambridge. At the time, I was researching old local trades and ended up drawing inside an old smokehouse for a few weeks and then became more interested in our rich fishing heritage. My mum then casually informed me that my Great Grandad ‘Lordy’ Howe was a skipper on a fishing boat in the early 1900s – and I was hooked! I wanted to find out more about him and his working life as a fisherman. I visited relatives who remembered him, listened to stories and found old photos of him and his boat. I made a wordless picture book about the day in the life of a Lowestoft fisherman, but during my research, I also came across the story of the lost beach village by the sea - where a whole fishing community lived and worked. I popped it away in my head to save for later maybe and continued working on a few different projects. But the beach village stayed with me and I eventually felt the need to share its beauty – of such a unique and special place, its people and their way of life and to keep its history alive! I also wanted to tell the story of my Grandad Percy, the baker - who went against the norm and didn’t go to sea with his father, my Great Grandad, as was expected of him. I really enjoyed researching my family and the local fishing heritage. I think it is important to realise where you come from - to find a sense of belonging. It helped me to feel grounded - and proud!

When I was growing up in the 1980s, the harbour was still relatively busy, but thinking back now, I can remember the number of fishing boats in the harbour declining as the decade went on and hearing of lots of school friends Dads losing their jobs, due to the trades associated with the fishing industry dwindling out too…

My childhood was very family orientated with lots of love from many aunties, uncles and cousins. I was close to my maternal grandparents – Granadad Percy the baker lived just down the road, we played in their garden, had many days out on the beach – playing where the fishermen used to dry their nets, walks in Dunwich Woods, playing rounder’s or building dens on Southwold common - we didn’t have to go far to have an adventure.

The Suffolk and Norfolk coast is beautiful and refreshing! I guess those memories of happy times by the beach, of big open windy skies must have stayed with me? We visited Dad’s family in Southwold and in the Suffolk countryside every weekend - so weekends were often spent going for walks, playing and visiting lovely family. I really was very lucky. We also went to the Lake District every year to see family. I loved it there, I still do! The scenery is the complete opposite to the Suffolk coast. The love for anything fishy is still with me - I have lots of stories to tell, of exciting fishing trips and adventures. And, Dads side of the family has some equally exciting maritime stories to tell too! I am so lucky to have such a rich family history full of exciting and funny tales.

Part of your journey into illustration and design led you to complete an MA in Children's Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art. Can you tell us a little about some of the modules you took there and the lecturers who had an impact on your work?

My time on the MA at Cambridge was such a positive experience. I applied for the MA after being made redundant from a job I adored - a drawing and printmaking lecturer. At the time I wasn’t quite aware of how much my confidence had been affected by losing my job – and I think choosing to do the MA part time helped as it gave me time to heal and the opportunity to immerse myself in something that I loved and never felt I had time for - drawing! The first module was twelve whole weeks of observational drawing! It was heaven! To be able to spend weeks drawing, without the guilt - I loved it. That time was so precious. During those twelve weeks, I became increasingly interested in the everyday, sketching workers, buildings and everyday scenes like local markets and trades.

All the staff on the MA were very helpful and willing to give constructive feedback. Pam Smy was so positive, honest and encouraging and she always managed to talk me around when I was having a wobble with my confidence. She also supported my love and interest for my own local and family heritage – and encouraged me to go with my heart. And Martin Salisbury is so inspiring and an endless fountain of knowledge. He knows so many of the greats too – so to be taught by Martin was such a privilege. He had some special treats up his sleeve; he even fished out an original Barbara Jones School Print for me to see and touch! They were both very generous with their time and knowledge and still are.


My First Attempt At A Sequence

The process from the original idea to the finished product can be a long one. I wondered whether you could share some of the story of how The Baker by the Sea started in sketchbooks and ended up on the finished page.

The Baker by the Sea was a very long journey! Originally called ‘Bread, Buns and Biscuits’ -it was part of my final masters project in 2018. I submitted ‘Bread, Buns and Biscuits’ into the 2019 Templar Illustration Prize and ended up winning and part of the prize was to be considered for publication and thankfully, Templar loved the story and wanted to work with me. The story was developed over two years, with a boy being introduced to the story, new text and some new illustrations, and its new title.

I love drawing from observation so when I began my research for my final masters project, I initially started drawing farms and local trades with the idea of maybe making a non-fiction book with some kind of local link but I think the beach village was still in my mind and I knew I just had to tell its story somehow. I visited the old site of the beach village and sketched the few remaining buildings in all weathers, trying to imagine myself there. I interviewed old residents, sketched the scale model of the village and also made my own little card and clay houses to sketch. This helped me build up a picture of the village in my mind so I could draw it easily – and know my way around its little streets!

I love working in my sketchbook and mostly do all my initial sketches and research work in there – I also love to explore and experiment with different tools and media to achieve a suitable outcome. When working out ideas for spreads, I use my old photocopier to quickly explore scale and composition and I cut and paste the old-fashioned way to come up with pleasing layouts and spreads.

For the final artwork, I prefer to work in my sketchbook as I find large sheets of white paper intimidating and I often try to trick myself into thinking I am not working on a ‘final’ drawing – just happily working in my sketchbook – attempting to stay loose and not get too stressed!

I used pencil and ink wash - and an old felt tip pen to achieve a nostalgic atmosphere in my final illustrations. Everything was drawn by hand and sent off to the Templar, where the originals were cleaned of any fluff or slightly edited ready for print.

Can you talk us through your relationship with Ruth Symons and Genevieve Webster as Editor and Designer & how they worked alongside you to help reach the incredible final draft?

When I think of Ruth and Genevieve - I smile! They are so kind, encouraging and generous with their time. I met Genevieve a few times before the covid lockdowns and she immediately made me feel so welcome and at ease straight away. I think we share the same sense of humour, and a few giggles helped me to calm my nerves. Due to covid, I met Ruth over phonecalls, emails and eventually zoom! We didn’t meet in person until the Klaus Flugge Prize event at Waterstones. She was just as nice as I knew she would be.

Whilst working on the book, email was our main form of communication – sending thumbnails and roughs and the text. When we were ready to see the story as a whole, we worked with a pdf of the book and Genevieve and Ruth could pop digital ‘post-it-notes’ on the pages, with feedback and suggestions – such as a soft sketchy edge that may look better than a harsh edge, or figures could be added to the scene or less smoke in one scene to make it look less industrial. I’d work on the suggestions and send them back again for their review and we would discuss again until we were all happy with the outcome. One example was the harbour scene, which was originally a double page spread, but we needed to cut some pages from the book, so it was suggested we make it into a single page full bleed with an image of the bakery or baker and a fisherman on the opposite side. I used photoshop to mock up ideas quickly so they could be sent off for review. Ruth and Genevieve always give me honest feedback and are a pleasure to work with. I respect their roles, experience and knowledge and always take onboard their suggestions and we work through any changes together. I think it helps that they both shared my love for the story and ‘got it’. It is special to find people who believe in your story, and you too! The publishing world is still new to me and I am learning as I go. I am so lucky to have Ruth and Genevieve there for me.

I absolutely adored the opening spreads of the book that pan over the Suffolk countryside until it finally arrives at the village: ‘If you keep walking over the hills and across the fields, you will come to the edge, where the land meets the sea’ What was the thinking over these opening spreads and the effect you wanted to achieve? Did it go through many changes?

Those few opening spreads, when we pan over the hills and across the fields to the edge of the coast were always there from the beginning. I wanted to show that journey to the very edge of the country. I think I always felt this – and still do, when we were travelling home from holidays in the Lake District or the North. The proportions of the sky and land seem to change as you journey closer to home to the coast, the sky seems to open up and the land gets smaller; perhaps the sky seemed even bigger when I was little? Memories of laying on the back parcel shelf of Dad’s Ford Cortina – cloud watching and watching the world go by… the mountains of the Lakes dominating much of the view, then the closer to home the sky would take over… and the light would change too. It can be quite a stark and fresh light here. I guess those opening few spreads are a little affectionate nod to my childhood and that epic Lake District drive – and coming home.

The images of the hills and fields came from a trip to the Peak District. I went alone, so I could just spend time drawing and not feeling guilty about my friends or family getting bored while I sketched away for hours. It was a glorious few days away of drawing, quiet hills and sheep. I do love the dramatic scenery of the North, it is so different, but no less beautiful than Suffolk.

The Baker by the Sea celebrates a time that is seeped in nostalgia. Although it rests on the fringes of my own childhood, just out of reach, I cannot help but want to go back and be a part of this community. Was this something that you hoped your readers felt too?

I am so pleased you said mentioned that you wanted to go back and be part of this community. I felt the same as soon as I started to discover its story, its community and my own family history. I wanted to go back and find out what life was like, what my Great Grandad’s front room or kitchen was like, what life was like onboard the fishing boats and for those left at home, the life of Babs at the Corner Café or the boatbuilders. Each character in the story could have a spin off story; I wonder if Babs wore fluffy slippers, had a pink dressing gown and had her hair in curlers at night? Did she have a blue or yellow budgie?

I would love to go back to that world. I have visited lots of local schools and events since the book was published to read the story and chat about the life in the beach village. I love talking to the children about the local past and bringing this special time back to life – they can relate to images and events in the book when they visit the old beach village site too. I hope I managed to create a time and place that can transport them back to a time when everyone in the community helped each other, worked together and to be proud of their heritage.

Can I be cheeky and ask for a tour of your workspace - it was great to get a snippet from your video. It’d also be great to see some of the materials that you work with.

Yes. I can dig a few old ones out… (at the moment it looks like a storage room, I need to put frames and prints away!)

I am always fascinated by the process that illustrators go through from initial concept and sketchbook to the finished product. Could you talk us through a particular spread that you loved in the book and how it went through this process?

One of my favourite spreads in the book was when I describe some of the trades in the beach village. I wanted to show all the different trades but knew there were too many to dedicate a number of pages. In the end I was torn between showing either the boatbuilders or the coopers. I worked on them separately, but had to decide on just one spread. I worked through different layouts and compositions and decided that the boatbuilders scenes maybe looked a little busy. The thumbnails for the coopers and the buildings worked, but I decided I wanted the boatbuilders in there somewhere – so I then worked on combining the two. I knew I also wanted to have enough space so I could illustrate that cold, bitter and windy North Sea sky! And when I put the boy into the scene, the spread just seemed to work. I hope I managed to capture the atmosphere down on the beach and how the workers carried on working in all weathers.

Were there any picture book illustrators who had an impact on you (inspired you) when you were younger and are there illustrators today whose work you enjoy?

Ever since I can remember I have adored my old 1973 copy of Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas (it’s older than me and very battered and precious!). I still read it every Christmas Eve and never fail to spot a new detail that I have missed over 40 or so years! I really appreciate his ability to portray the everyday, the little details such as ketchup bottle labels or the how the snow drifts and settles on window ledges. All these tiny details that make it so familiar and comfortable for us to view.  I also loved The Church Mice books by Graham Oakley – once again the illustrations showed tiny details of everyday life, they are so lively and funny. I was obsessed with cats when I was little and desperately wanted my own Sampson cat! I had my favourite Ladybird and Puffin books and enjoyed Pat Hutchins and John Burningham. I think all of these books have inspired me and had an impact on my work today – there is certainly a shared love for the everyday. Today I admire Eric Ravilious, John Minton, Edward Bawden, Charles Keeping, Edward Ardizzone and David Gentleman, Kenneth Rowntree, Barbara Jones and Evaline Ness. I am also a fan of William Grill and Michael Foreman too! I have a soft spot for Gerald Rose – especially his book Old Winkle and the Seagulls which features my hometown of Lowestoft.

Can you share a little with us about current and future projects and what we can look forward to reading from you in the future? I know you’re already a successful artist and textile designer but hope we can enjoy more stories from you.

I am currently working on (hopefully) my second book! I’ve done so much research and have a story that I think I’m happy with and I’m at that stage of trying to whittle it down for the first time – I have so much! I’m also at that exciting stage of beginning to make thumbnails and sketching out ideas for spreads - and hopefully this will help to reduce some of the word count. I am feeling excited but nervous too and I will be learning as I go. But I am glad to have the support from the Templar girls.

(Ps – I’m not really a textile designer – I only made a limited collection of Elvis Hawaiian shirts and shorts after my degree. I went into printmaking after that – so I don’t see myself as a textile designer as such 😉)

The Baker by the Sea is published by Templar, 978-1787419186, £7.99 pbk.


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