Daley B: birth of a best-seller

db cover goodI can honestly say that it had never been my ambition to write books for babies. This was probably a good thing. Once you realise that you can make more money writing a work of five hundred words than one of fifty thousand, there is inevitably a strong urge to do the former, even for people like me whose primary motive for writing is not financial. By 1990, however, when the idea was first placed in my head, I had been a near full-time writer for five or six years, and had already produced three YA novels, a TV play and five junior stories. However, none had sold enough to earn royalties, and I’d wasted almost a year on three failed attempts to write another YA novel. So I was up for the new challenge. I set about it with my usual optimism and breezy confidence, blissfully ignorant of the likes, dislikes and general nature of young children, who at that time had not impinged upon my life in any way.

I’d had nine or ten of my efforts rejected by Walker Books when senior editor Wendy Boase penned a guideline for authors of picture books. Sadly I can find no trace of this missive today, but her examples of what not to write for children were uncannily reminiscent of the stories I’d been sending her, some no more than fragments of whimsy, others humorous diatribes against the profit motive. I took notice. There was no formula for writing a good picture book, but there was a need to capture a child’s imagination and then take him or her on a journey which had elements of both the familiar and the bizarre, predictability and surprise, to an emotionally and intellectually satisfying conclusion. A good picture book was a big experience, an Odyssey in the mind of a child. Every word counted, both sound and meaning, as in a great poem. A picture book could not be written lazily, any more than an adult novel could.

I did have one thing in my armoury, which was that I drew pictures myself. Unlike my a-daleystartcolwriting, these involved little or no conscious thought, and for this reason my child-self was present in them. They often featured naïve and defenceless characters. One such picture involved a man in a helicopter hat with three fairly gormless rabbits on leads. I began to write a story based on this picture, which somehow evolved into a story with no man and only one rabbit. This was the germ of Daley B, which went on to sell a quarter of a million copies.

In her attempts to inspire me, Wendy had furnished me with a few Walker titles, and one of these involved a series of questions for the reader to solve, each accompanied by a picture: “Did the dog sit on the ball? Did the ball sit on the dog?” etc. This format, and the absurdism of the questions, inspired the idea of a rabbit struggling to understand what he was. “Daley B did not know what he was” was my first line, followed by “Am I a monkey? Am I a koala bear? Am I a porcupine?” (being Australian, Wendy soon had me removing the ‘bear’). I was away, conceiving a number of ridiculous questions Daley B cannot answer: it was a great way of characterising my main character, providing a pattern which the reader could anticipate, and at the same time empowering that reader, since he or she knows better than Daley B. But will Daley B find out the real answers? That’s the question which initially hooks the reader.

It’s not until the ninth page of the book that the action begins: the ‘inciting incident’ as screenwriters call it, is the arrival of the weasel Jazzy D, who causes all the rabbits to flee while Daley B stays in his tree and nibbles another acorn. Now the reader is faced with a more urgent question: will the lovable bunny get eaten?

Having established my suspenseful situation, it was now necessary to build that suspense. It wouldn’t have been much of a story if Jazzy D had gone straight up the tree and eaten Daley B.

daley b wavedThis was when I got lucky. Having begun the story with Daley B’s questions to himself, it was only natural that my naïve hero would now ask a series of questions of Jazzy D. So I had a perfect way of holding up the action. What was more, the life-or-death situation made those innocent questions all the funnier (I’m not just judging this myself, by the way – I’ve read the story to many thousands of children). The pattern of questions, combined with the ever increasing danger, turned the story into a kind of modern Goldilocks.

There was a fair amount of paring away to be done before Daley B met Wendy’s exacting standards. As always the key question is, what information is necessary to tell the story? There is no point about talking about the weather unless, for example, the wetness of the tree is an issue. For an inexperienced writer it is probably better to err on the side of brevity, and this was what I did, rigorously editing out all verbiage which I thought was not strictly necessary – a process I enjoyed, much as I enjoyed teaching precis to A-level students.

Sadly I no longer have the original version to compare with the final one – Daley B was written on a typewriter, not a PC. What I do remember, however, was cutting the description of Jazzy D: “Her teeth were as sharp as broken glass and her eyes were as quick as fleas”. Wendy insisted I put it back in. I was making a mistake common to inexperienced writers: failure to adequately establish your characters. This is crucial to the story, and what was more, the line created memorable images for the reader.

But where was the story heading? Amazingly, it had been accepted by Walker before we had worked out the ending. Various suggestions were made, by Wendy, by art director Jim Bunker, and by me, but none seemed right. So I thought about Fred, the pet rabbit we’d kept when I was growing up. When threatened, he would kick out with his back legs. Couldn’t Daley B still have this rabbit instinct, despite not knowing he was a rabbit? I liked this idea, but was it really enough of a climax?

The answer was simple. I rewrote the story, adding in another question: what are Daley7waterski B’s big feet for? Through this simple alteration, the decisive moment of the story suddenly becomes a lot more satisfying. All Daley B’s questions, and the question of whether he will survive, are answered, while the response of the other rabbits to his triumph finds him accepted and applauded, for all his eccentricities.

The story ends with another joke: “You’re a hero Daley B!” cry the other rabbits. “That’s funny” says Daley B. “I thought I was a rabbit”. Again I was lucky: the punchline was not planned, but the hero comment just seemed to invite it. One reviewer called it “a real vaudeville style zinger”, and it always seems to get a laugh – except from its supposed audience. No pre-school child gets that joke; nor do children in the first years of primary. It’s not crucial, as they’ve had their satisfaction, and in any case, why not provide something for the adults? A few years after Daley B, Walker published Sam McBratney’s Guess How Much I Love You, the sales of which (much to Wendy’s amusement) peaked every Valentine’s Day. Definitely something for adults there.

There is one other important thing to note about Daley B. It has illustrations. By Axel Scheffler. It would be very remiss of me to ignore Axel’s contribution to the book’s success.

Remarkably, however, Axel was not first choice for the artwork. At the time he’d just daley puzzleddone a couple of early-reader books and was pretty much unknown. I can’t remember the name of the first choice illustrator, but I do remember he did excellent woodland beasts. Unfortunately, however, he also did class A drugs and was apparently too incapacitated to take up the commission. So Axel got the gig – his preliminary illustrations are (at time of writing) still up on his website, and it was clear from early on that Walker had made the right choice. Covers sell books, and Axel’s simple portrayal of an endearingly puzzled bunny (with lurking weasel nearby) was the perfect advertisement for the story. Daley B was Axel’s first big hit, many years before The Gruffalo catapulted him to stardom, and I had a wry smile when this review of Daley B appeared on Amazon: “You cannot go wrong with a Donaldson/Scheffler book. The kids love them. The stories are funny, imaginative and unusual. They are craftily written and beautifully illustrated. But of all their books, I think this may be my personal favourite”.

I’m often asked why I called my character ‘Daley B’: I rarely think that hard about what to call my characters; names just occur to me. It was probably influenced by the then vogue amongst rap artists to use a single initial for a surname, but there is no significance to this! In any case I don’t think the name was that crucial to the book’s success: in Germany the rabbit was called ‘He Duda’, and the German version was one of the best sellers, leading to at least two stage adaptations.

It has to be said that sales of the first edition, a hardback, were less than we had hoped For this reason Wendy pressed for a change of title for the paperback: thus You’re A Hero Daley B was born. I have to admit I wasn’t that keen on the change of title: I like titles which are enigmatic and don’t explain everything. Then again, enigmatic titles aren’t a lot of use if no-one buys the book.

51laAoiOQSL._SY300_Sure enough, the paperback did sell in large quantities, until I had my first 100,000-seller. Sales were also helped by a number of foreign co-editions, but it was almost twenty years before a Chinese edition (not the first) really took off and I was able to watch Chinese schoolchildren acting out the story on Youtube as the sales rocketed up, first to 200,000, then to a quarter of a million. Even at a 5% royalty rate (normal for picture books, where illustrators often share royalties), I can thank Daley B for the fact I have a house to live in today.

Should I have written a follow-up, or maybe a series? I was asked to, and did half-heartedly try for a while, but I saw Daley B as a story complete in itself and could not see how or why I should continue with the character once he had solved his identity crisis. When I read The Gruffalo’s Child, a story which for me does not work at all, I feel I made the right decision. On the other hand, writers such as Michael Bond have become household names just through the exploitation of one popular character, and no writer should underestimate what an achievement it is to create a character that millions love.

Twenty-five years on, I thought again, and began conceiving further adventures for Daley B. Walker Books liked my ideas and were willing to run with one of them – but only with Axel Scheffler’s illustrations. I’d never met Axel back in the 90s (it’s not that uncommon for authors not to meet their illustrators) and only met him for the first time at the 2017 Lollies award ceremony. He has a great affection for Daley B but an enormous workload and after some consideration he declined.

I content myself with the fact that whenever I mention Daley B, someone in the audience seems to have read it, and their reaction is invariably a happy one. It’s just a little story, but I like to think that no-one else could have written it, and that unlike me, it will not age.

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