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A Happy Hippo Tale

This week we discover the story behind a book; the genesis and tenacity that led to a delightful new children's book being published by Andy Cooper & Leigh Jackson.

They say every journalist has a book in them, just waiting to be written. What I am not sure I have ever heard said is that it might take 30+ years and a trip to Woolacombe beach for their book to actually be published.

Yet that is the story behind the rather remarkable publication this month of my debut book, a children’s story called Harry the Hippopotamus. And that beautiful stretch of sand in North Devon is pivotal to my success. Oh, that and my granddaughter.

You see, I first wrote ‘Harry’ as a callow 23-year-old writer tentatively making his way in the world of journalism. Reader, you only need to glance at my picture to know I was 23 a very, very long time ago. 31 years ago, to be precise.

At the time my Mum was a primary school teacher and I actually first wrote the manuscript for the book for her to read to her class. They seemed to love it and I did try a couple of publishers to see if they were interested but got nowhere.

I just left it then and thought little more of it. Two summers ago my partner Tanya and I were bringing our then two-year-old granddaughter Bonnie back from a day on the beach at Woolacombe. We got stuck in holiday traffic in Braunton and Bonnie demanded a story as she was bored.

The only thing I could think of was to recite ‘Harry’ from memory. She liked it so much it prompted me to think about resurrecting it.

I realised a children’s book without illustrations is a little like a cream tea without jam and so I put out an appeal on Twitter and, as luck would have it, Sampford Peverell-based illustrator Leigh Jackson saw it and stepped forward to offer to draw ‘Harry’.

A few weeks later and we had ourselves a completed book to pitch to publishers. And I am delighted to say that remarkably – and to my everlasting surprise and delight – major independent company, Olympia Publishers, got in touch to say they wanted to publish the tale via their Bumblebee Books imprint.

I only really believed it when a box of freshly-minted copies of Harry the Hippopotamus was delivered by our postman at just about the same time as my younger son pointed out the book had been listed by Waterstones and Amazon.

It has been a very strange experience going from being an editor to being ‘edited’, although I am bound to say Olympia have been very ‘light touch’ from the beginning of this process and a delight to work with.

As has Leigh, my collaborator and illustrator. It must be a symptom of the new Covid age we live in that at the time we were published he and I had met face-to-face precisely three times, with our fourth meet-up being a (socially distanced) celebratory pint down the pub on the day the book came out.

In many ways this is illustrative of how life has changed for those wanting to push their book the way of a publisher. I know Leigh and I have been lucky and there are many out there who would want to be in our shoes, but at least in an online connected world there is the opportunity to pitch to publishers in so many ways and in so many directions.

Turning back to the time when I was trying to tout Harry for possible publication all those years ago, I was told I would be best getting a literary agent to do this for me. Although I am not decrying the use of such agents these days (and Conville & Walsh, if you are reading this, I think you’re wonderful), my experience shows there is now at least the opportunity to go direct to a potential publisher.

The book—aimed at 0 to six-year-olds—tells the story of Harry, a young hippopotamus with a big problem…he can’t say the word ‘hippopotamus’. No matter how hard he tries he can’t say the vital word and this leads to a lot of frustration on his part and mickey-taking from other animals. But after many travails, Harry does come out triumphant in the end.

And, to be honest, that’s how I feel…triumphant in the end. It might have taken all those years, a day at the beach and a bored youngster in a traffic jam to get me there but I can now call myself an author and that, to me, is the best story of all.

Harry the Hippopotamus, by Andy Cooper & Leigh Jackson, is published by Olympia Publishers. Click here for more info.