Dance, the hotly anticipated opening instalment in Big Picture Press’ brand-new Welcome to the Arts series, took its bow last week at a packed launch party at the iconic Sadler’s Wells, London.
Authored by Sadler’s Wells CEO and artistic director Sir Alistair Spalding and illustrated by the award-winning Jason Raish, the book is a visual masterpiece years in the making. The event signalled the start of Big Picture Press’ 10-year anniversary celebrations – offering both a chance to look back at a remarkable first decade of publishing, and to cast eyes ahead to an exciting future.
For Jo McInerney, head of Big Picture Press, the attraction to the imprint was instantaneous. “I remember when Big Picture Press launched. I was on a publishing MA course at uni. I was like ‘that is the imprint I want to work for!’ They were doing stuff no-one else was, and I knew I was going to get there somehow…”
Founded by Rachel Williams and Jenny Broom, Big Picture Press had signalled its intentions from the off with early successes in the form of Aleksandra & Daniel Mizielinski’s perennial-favourite Maps, and Animalium, the opening salvo in the now iconic Welcome to the Museum series. The blueprint was in place from the outset: “You can tell what a Big Picture Press book is,” says McInerney. “Because it’s not just beautiful quality or filled with nice art, but the whole package seems to be integrated. And it will push the boundaries all the time. It’s not straight non-fiction; Big Picture will build a whole world within a book.”
Senior Designer Winsome d’Abreu can recall the exact moment she first encountered the worlds lurking between those covers. “I was working for another team as a freelancer. I was photocopying. And out of the printer I saw some pages from Animalium… I was literally salivating over it. I found out a couple of weeks later that Big Picture Press were looking for a designer. I thought ‘oh my goodness, please!’” The imprint’s impact at the time can’t be understated. “Non-fiction was sort of the ugly sister,” remembers d’Abreu. “But Animalium was ground-breaking in so many ways – for me, and I think for many other people as well. It’s for children but adults could appreciate it as well. That was a whole new concept for me with non-fiction.”
For McInerney, who took over the reins in 2020, the objective has always been clear: “We wanted exceptional quality books that people could pour over, that you could return to time and time again and get totally lost in. That was our foundation.” Design was the obsession, with long hours spent discussing artists. “We made a wish list of illustrators and ideas that we really wanted to work with – both big-hitting established authors and debut talent that we’d watched from afar and who we thought had something really special.” Names on that initial wish list included Sam Rodriguez (Human 2.0), Romy Blumel (101 Dogs), and Lara Hawthorne (The Night Flower) – all now Big Picture Press alumni. “We slowly went through and ticked them off!”
The team has cultivated a collaborative, artist-led environment, trusting its talent to follow their passions and make their mark. “We commission everything in house,” says McInerney. “Often we don’t have the manuscript. We just say ‘hey we like your work. Can you tell us what ideas you’re into?’ and we’ll develop something from scratch.” The Big Picture Press way of working “allows the illustrator to take the lead,” suggests d’Abreu. “If you have an illustrator with good strong vision, and they’re in sympathy with what you’re hoping to achieve, they’re going to think of things that you hadn’t, and in a different way. It’s allowing illustrators to take the initiative, steering them a bit, sure, but letting them lead, and that’s how you get some different qualities into the books.”
This approach has resulted in a string of acclaimed, bestselling titles over the past decade. Take What Do You See When You Look At a Tree?. The team found illustrator Emma Carlisle on Instagram. “We encouraged her to be free with her illustration style and do what we knew that she could do. We created it over the pandemic and had loads of time to explore,” recalls McInerney. These artistic explorations would eventually find the book shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. “It’s nice that it’s been so successful because we didn’t really see it coming. We knew we’d made something lovely, but it was so nice that it resonated with everyone else.”
De Nichol’s Art of Protest brings together an empowering history, the author’s personal tale, and a series of activities – all brought to life through the work of a talented five-strong illustration team, each with a distinct, recognisable style – and absolutely no pressure to conform or meld in with a master-style. Each page pops, with a variety of voices that talks to the book’s wider themes of speaking up and being heard. The book has won more awards than any other title in the imprint’s history – including the prestigious BolognaRagazzi. With its impact both in school libraries and within the artist community. McInerney believes that it “has been really great for the imprint to say that this is a book we really stand for, a book that we’re so proud of.”
And of course, Welcome to the Museum, the imprint’s flagship series continues to soar, having now grown to ten titles and selling over 2.5m copies globally: “Wherever we are in the world,” says McInerney, “As soon as we hold up an Animalium, they say ‘I know that.’” Get ready for an upcoming instalment creeping and crawling its way into bookstores in the coming year… And with Welcome to the Arts, Big Picture Press is building on this legacy and pushing boundaries once more as they enter a whole new space. “Dance is a huge one for us. It’s been about five years of development work, and probably two years of actually working on it.” As ever, the patient creative process has proved worth it, with a book fit for Strictly superfans and the two-footed among us alike. “It’s just gorgeous… and it’s lovely to rely on partners like Kew or Sadler’s Wells who are able to trust us with their vision.”
As the imprint marks a decade in business, Big Picture Press is set for a milestone year of exciting new publishing, industry celebrations, social media moments, and a long-planned move into merchandising. “It’s a unique environment, so highly creative. I’ve never felt so incredibly excited about what I’m working on than I do here,” says d’Abreu. And for McInerney, it’s the potential paths ahead that excite: “We’re growing in lots of different ways so it will be interesting to see where we go from here. But we’ll be keeping true to our core roots that things have to be beautiful, they have to be timeless. We have the right fit, the right team. We’re all really focused and aligned. It’s an exciting time.” The next decade of extraordinary illustrated publishing awaits.
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