Tell us a bit about Tower Block Books and what you do: Tower Block Books is a small press publisher with a focus on picture books about places. It all started with an idea for a book borrowed from my children. At the time I was working as an architect and lecturer and was too scared to do a book on my own, so I approached my good friend, designer and photographer Amandine Alessandra. Together we set up Tower Block Books, self-published The Big Letter Hunt in the East End of London and later did Big Letter Hunt London with Batsford Books. I now work mostly by myself. Tower Block Books is possibly the smallest of small presses – a one-woman-wearing-many-hats show: I write, commission, edit, art direct, design, get books produced, and do sales and marketing.
… and a bit about your books: The Big Letter Hunt is about spotting giant letterforms in the buildings and structures around you. On a walk along the Regent’s Canal towards Victoria Park, when my daughters were only two years old and still in their double buggy, one of them pointed up to the gables of a derelict warehouse and said “Look mummy, it’s an M”. And so it was, we could all see it. A couple of years later, when
Amandine and I started photographing and plotting our letter-finds on a map we realised they all congregated around Bethnal Green (where we both lived) and the surrounding area. With young kids in tow we weren’t walking very far, our everyday city was suddenly small. So our found alphabet became very much about the East End and its buildings and details – a sash window on Victorian terraced house, a 1960s housing estate, a balcony of a mansion block, bits of contemporary office towers.
This summer we published two new picture books: What Did Alex See?, which is inspired by walking and noticing things on Columbia Road; and My Bedroom, a sort of ode to a child’s creative, safe space. I wore both the author and publisher hats on these ones, and I’m chuffed to have collaborated with the most incredible illustrators – both part of the illustration and animation collective Peepshow. Lucy Vigrass did the artwork for What Did Alex See? and I can’t imagine working with anyone else on this project. We met on Columbia Road when our kids were small. They ended up going to the same nursery and then school on that same street. So we both walked up and down Columbia Road many times a day, every day, at a child’s pace, absorbing details and bumping into familiar faces. I feel very lucky that Lucy said yes to doing this book with me. Jenny Bowers, who worked on My Bedroom, is a great illustrator. She has an amazing sense of colour and is just the best at capturing the stuff that makes up a child’s world.
What’s next for Tower Block Books?: I’m working or spreading the word about our new books and getting them into kids’ hands. At the moment I’m selling books directly to independent bookshops and online but I’m trying to carve out some more time to concentrate on developing new books for next spring. There will be some new projects coming out this winter and I’m happy to have help with foreign rights from Koja
Agency, who represents some great small publishers.
What do you think are the best things about raising kids in London?: Most people who haven’t raised kids in London (or who don’t have kids) can’t imagine why
anyone would. But when you find yourself doing just that you realise it’s actually a great place to raise kids. We lived in Stockholm for five months, but apart from that we lived in East London until our kids were five and a half. They were lucky to have been born at the end of a long stretch of Labour government; there had been some investment in playgrounds, children’s centres (Sure Starts, remember those?), parks and pocket parks. We were within a short walking distance of Haggerston Park, London Fields and Victoria Park; the Olympic Park was a bus-ride away; we’d always find a friend at Ion Square, Hackney City Farm or Jesus Green; and every Friday there was nature club at the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve – I miss all of this, and especially the people we
used to share those afternoons with. I miss free museums too, and most of all the NHS.
… and the challenges?: I don’t miss the mice on the tube.
Describe your perfect day in London with kids in tow: London’s never perfect, that’s its charm! Hard to say, but it would probably involve a cycle ride through a park, buying bread (from Pavilion or Today Bread), a picnic with friends at another park, book-browsing (at Foyles, Daunt Books, the London Review, Broadway Bookshop, oh there are so many good ones and my kids love bookshops too), seeing an exhibition, a late-afternoon drink at a kid-friendly pub, good Turkish food… Gosh, I’m getting homesick now.
Photo credit: Rute Nieto Ferreira