John Condon’s latest picture book, The Best Bear Tracker, with Julia Christians has just hit the shelves. Sarah Broadley took the opportunity to have lots of picture book & bear chat! Pull up a chair, enjoy…
1. Bears are everywhere, if you know where to look! There are many picture books with animals as the main driving force behind the story, did bears come to mind first or were there a menagerie of animals considered before settling on our big-pawed friend?
It was always bears. Although, at one point there was an expanded version of the story that involved dragons. Not instead of bears, but as well as. My editor (Alison Ritchie) decided that simpler was better and so the dragons were banished. In hindsight, I agree that it was a wise decision, although I was miffed at the time.
2. There are ten bear tracker rules in The Best Bear Tracker, alongside some excellent information about bears – what research did you do? Have you ever seen a bear in real-life?
I read many online articles about bears (mostly how to avoid accidentally stumbling across one, rather than actively searching for them) and decided what level of knowledge would best suit this particular bear tracker.
I have seen bears in real life but never in the wild. Not sure I’d be happy about spotting one in the wild. If I did, I’d hopefully be in some kind of vehicle, so I could make a hasty exit from the area. As cute as bears are, they aren’t the friendliest, and are surprisingly fast.
3. What advice would you give to explorers when searching for treasure – be it gold, fossils, or bears?
I think in each case there is a rule from ‘The Best Bear Tracker’ would apply. Rule Number 10: Never give up. Perseverance has been vital to any successes I’ve had, so I’d hope it would work for others too. Especially treasure hunters. Yaaaar!
Although it wasn’t one of the official rules, the main character in the story lists all of the equipment you will need to successfully track bears. I totally agree that the right equipment for the task at hand is vital. It’s unlikely you’ll find dinosaur bones using a vacuum cleaner (unless your room hasn’t been tidied in a veeeeery long time) and you may struggle to find buried gold using the London Underground map, so always choose the right equipment for the job. I should also say, depending on what country you live in, it may not be wise to actually go looking for bears as they generally like to keep themselves to themselves and get grumpy when disturbed.
4. ‘The Best Bear Tracker’ is illustrated by Julia Christians; can you tell us a little about working with her on your story?
The reality is that I don’t really work with any of the illustrators. I do my bit and they do theirs, pretty much in isolation from each other. I do write illustration notes and they are passed onto the illustrator (or not – that’s up to the publisher). I then get to see roughs but rarely try to influence those, unless I feel a valuable part of the story has been changed somehow. Again, that’s very rare.
I am sometimes jealous of those successful author/illustrator partnerships who work on multiple stories. I imagine them sitting down at a table (or even over zoom) batting ideas around and developing the story together. Whether that actually happens in reality is another matter, but I’d enjoy giving it a go.
I’ve only ever met one of the illustrators (Steve brown. He’s a lovely guy) and that was well after our book ‘The Wondrous Dinosaurium’ had been completed. I almost met Matt Hunt, as we were both asked to do an event at a literary festival, after the launch of ‘The Pirates Are Coming’ but Covid put paid to that. Having said that, it may not have happened in any case, as I had no idea how to do an event. I think authors and illustrators are just expected to be naturals at this stuff. If you aren’t, the alternative option is not to do the event. I wish there was a third option where you are shown/trained how to do it. A half-day workshop where you (and the illustrator, if they are local and willing) figure out, and practice, the event and then you can confidently take it on the road. I haven’t promoted any of my books so far because I can’t do that on my own. General anxiety holds me back from doing a lot of things that would benefit my writing career. Sigh!
5. From Winnie the Pooh to Ballou from The Jungle Book and every bear in between, who is your favourite bear in a children’s book?
Gosh! That’s a tough one. There are so many great bears in children’s literature, from the classics (some of which you have mentioned) to the many relative newcomers. I do have a very soft spot for Pooh because he is such a simple but thoughtful character. In total contrast I also love Lorek Byrnison because he’s a complex character who keeps you on your toes. Like most real bears you need to keep your wits about you when in his presence, as you never know what mood he’s in. He is fearless but protective. He’s grumpy but hugely loyal. And he’s certainly someone you would want on your side in times of danger.
6. What’s next for John Condon? Any further adventures coming up?
Well, it has certainly been an adventure so far, and I hope it continues. If I’m allowed to publish another picture book, I’ll be grateful. Hopefully, there will be another one after that too. I’d also like to have something published for older readers if the opportunity arose. I wrote a draft of an illustrated chapter book, but I don’t know if it would sell now, as something similar was recently published. So, I’m just taking it one book at a time and trying not get too far ahead of myself. I definitely would like to find a new agent though (as my last one retired from the industry at the beginning of the year).