BE MY SUNFLOWER: An interview with Kathryn Simmonds

BE MY SUNFLOWER: An interview with Kathryn Simmonds

Today Kathryn Simmonds talks about her beautiful, bright new book BE MY SUNFLOWER, which is illustrated by Ros Beardshaw.

Without giving too much away, can you tell us about your new picture book, Be My Sunflower

Sure! Vernon is a nervous sunflower seed who thinks the world is big and scary, and he doesn’t like the idea of growing into a flower.  When all the children plant their seeds, Vernon is given to a little girl called Carla, but once he’s safe and snug in his pot, he wants to stay there. So Vernon sits tight while his friends begin to sprout leaves. But Carla wants so much for him to become her sunflower…if he can find the courage to blossom.

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This is your debut picture book, so I was wondering if you could share with us your journey to publication? 

I’ve always loved picture books.  Many years ago I worked in the children’s department of a large publisher where lots of amazing books would flow through the office, and I decided to write my own one day. Since then, I’ve written and published poetry and short stories, and also tutored adults in poetry, so I’ve learned quite a lot about the need to understand structure. When it came to learning how to write for young children, I read picture books closely, wrote some texts (which failed in different ways) and then when I had some ideas I was more confident about, I sent them off to an agent.

It may have been one of the few occasions when having written poetry worked to my advantage rather than eliciting confused stares, as my agent read a poem or two I’d published and liked them. (One of those poems was written in the voice of a tomato plant… I was going through a phase of anthropomorphising nature at the time). Things happened fairly quickly and Be my Sunflower was picked up by Walker Books.  But even though I then had an agent, I realised that there was a lot to learn, and the learning process goes on forever. But that is the joy of writing.  

Vernon, the seed in the story, is such a lovely character! Who or what inspired him? 

Vernon was inspired by a real seed whose name I sadly don’t know. The idea for the story came during the first lockdown when it seemed that we were all buried in our pots, living a hidden life. My youngest daughter was five at the time, and one of her activities from school was to plant a sunflower seed. We planted five or six seeds…but one of them wasn’t growing and we started to wonder why. The idea for Vernon was born!

The story is more widely about being called to enjoy life outside your pot, and in that sense I hope it speaks to children and adults alike.

The illustrations by Ros Beardshaw are wonderful! Do you have a favourite illustration you could share with us?

I’m spoiled for choice, and it was a joy to have Ros illustrate the text.

There are so many gorgeous spreads, and the colour palette she’s chosen really sings – terracotta, yellows and blues. It’s so hard to pick a favourite, but one of them would be the spread when we first meet Vernon, poking up from the seed packet while his friends are dancing with excitement. I think she’s captured Vernon’s vulnerability, and his determination to keep apart.

I loved all the scenes at school with Miss Okoro! Do you have any special memories of growing seeds and science lessons from when you were younger? 

Ros has imagined the school setting wonderfully, those scenes really come alive. Strangely enough I only remember growing cress at school (though I do remember making ‘elderberry champagne’ which was a lot of fun!). My elder daughter brought home a sunflower pot from school, and after it didn’t grow, she planted it outside in a pot full of dry dirt. To our surprise it grew like fury and she had to stand on a chair to water it. So I guess nature gets on with things in her own way.  

It felt like ‘fear of change’ is an important theme in the story. Would you agree? What other themes do you think are important in the book? 

Yes, I think it’s a story which encourages children to understand that challenges are necessary part of life. For me – to quote Huey Lewis and The News, which shows my age – it’s also a story about The Power of Love. Other people can literally love us into life. Vernon is quite content to stay in his pot, but it’s only the tender loving care of Carla, the little girl who planted him, which encourages him to be brave.  

Can you recommend another picture book you’ve enjoyed recently and one you’re looking forward to reading in 2024? 

The combination of Frances Stickley’s text and Tim Hopgood’s illustration in ‘Love, the Earth’ is winning. It’s a love letter from the earth which is heartfelt without being cute or sentimental, a real joy.  And I love the charm of John Bond’s, ‘Much Too Busy’, which has a valuable lesson for us all. Not a picture book, but recently we read Tor Freeman’s ‘Sister Clawdetta: Murder at the Monastery’, and this cat-nun-detective delighted the whole family. I’m incredibly lucky that she’s illustrating my second book for Walker as her work is genius. Catherine Cawthorne’s ‘The Big Bad Wolf Investigates Fairy Tales’ is a fabulous idea for a book, and has illustrations by Sara Ogilvie, so I’m looking forward to that.  

Finally, if Be My Sunflower was a song, which song would it be and why? 

Ah, this one is easy – Be My Baby by the Ronettes. Sweet and simple: Don’t disappoint me, be my love!

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