When close friends—and fellow Londoners—Ben Bailey Smith and Sav Akyüz decided to collaborate on a children’s picture book, they already knew what they were looking for on the page. “Sav and I didn’t want the central character to be anodyne, we wanted to avoid that from the start, and that is why bear is as outrageous as he is because he reflects what we understand about children,” Smith says, about the large, mischievous character who is the star of their first joint venture, I Am Bear.
Early reviews from the target audience show that Smith and Akyuz just might be on to something. When the book, which took a little more than two years to produce, was still in its early stages, Smith tested the materials with his children. “I had a good mix of the cynical eight-year-old and the still wondrous five-year-old,” he says. Sav’s daughter was only two when the project started but she too was captivated by Bear’s bold images. Even better, there have been many requests for repeated readings from kids. “Sometimes kids will read a book for the first time and never ask for it again. That’s the most damning review a picture book can ever have,” Smith says. “That’s a bit like a first date with no calls or even texts exchanged afterwards, but we have been lucky.”
Akyüz, a digital storyboard artist, used digital tools to illustrate the bold characters. “Part of the reason was that that’s how I was set up at my job,” Akyüz says adding that going forward he plans on introducing more traditional elements. The collaboration has been a perfect symphony, both friends point out. Akyüz pointed out how to split a gag in two and that the punch line should hit when the page is turned. “He can anchor so much of what you’re trying to say in just one drawing,” Smith says.
Smith is a popular hip-hop artist who raps by the name “Doc Brown”; it’s inevitable that readers might look for evidence of this art in his picture book. But it’s Akyüz who has paid homage to the genre through a graffiti style that shows up in subtle ways, including in Bear’s B-boy stance. Smith is weary of labels and says I Am Bear isn’t really a hip-hop children’s book. “Not everybody likes rap or hip-hop but everybody’s into Bear,” he points out. Akyüz adds that there was no conscious agenda, hip-hop or otherwise, going into the project. “After we wrote it we realized that not only children but parents would love it,” he says.
Both agree that a picture book was one of the most difficult but creative projects they have ever worked on because of the rules of the game—the story has to be told in under 30 pages and still strike a chord. “You want it to reflect the anarchy and carefree nature of childhood,” Smith says. “There’s a lot of boundaries you’ve still got to stay within, which is an oxymoron because you’re now an artist with boundaries.” The duo had to stick to their guns about concepts that would be “bold but not what would be considered risque.”
Smith’s older sister, Zadie Smith, is a bestseller but Ben kept the project under wraps until it was ready. “To be fair, it’s such a different planet from what she does but I have been excited to show it to her for two years now,” Smith says.
As a rap artist, Smith is used to the concept of SOR (Sale or Return), where he would have to request that stores carry his work. He doesn’t miss that aspect of the business but remembers his roots when the duo have to do book signings. “When I hand somebody a signed copy I see that the book cover is the same size as a music sleeve would be,” he says. “That is some strange kind of poetic throwback to where I started.”
Another great start? Smith and Akyüz’s collaboration. The two are already working on a sequel, one that has the potential to be tested by Smith’s kids, now 10 and 7, and Akyüz’s, who are 4 and 2. “Hopefully this is the first prototype for a long and fruitful publishing relationship,” Smith says.
Poornima Apte is a Boston-area freelance writer and editor with a passion for books.
Photo above right is of Ben Bailey Smith photographed by Tom Wedwell; photo above left is of Sav Akyüz photographed by Ludwig Shammasian.