For many years, as Mark Sommerset wrote songs and played his guitar and drifted through life, he had a dream of writing children’s books. Then one day he wrote the first few lines of a story about a boy who saw a magnificent cherry tree on the other side of a river. Each day when the boy stopped to admire it he said, “If only I could cross the river.”
Mark left the story on a friend’s coffee table, where Rowan chanced to read it. She had dreams too—a whole “orchard” of them. And the most important ones were to find the love of her life and create picture books. She loved Mark’s writing so much she told her friend, “I have to meet this guy.”
And so they met to discuss the possibility of producing Mark’s story. Perhaps it is not surprising that a special chemistry and magic took over that began to make their dreams come true. Not only did they fall in love and marry, but a writer and artist coming together like this just had to create something greater than the sum of the parts. Mark describes Rowan as having the ability to manifest things and bring to life other people’s ideas. And her fluid and expressive illustrative style does just that; her images dancing with Mark’s rhythmic and playful words as together they whirl boldly across pages in perfect harmony.
As it turned out, The Boy and the Cherry Tree was not the first book they produced together. Their first book was Cork on the Ocean, a delightful story about the adventures of a cork that popped into Mark’s head while sailing on a yacht in a storm and feeling terribly seasick. He eased his way through the worst of it by telling himself, “Just be like a cork and go with the highs and the lows.” The story that unfolded is a beautiful blend of rhyme, metaphors about the sea, words of wisdom, and the exhilarating fun of a maritime adventure with jellyfish, a glass dolphin, and even a shark!
When I picked up the book from Mark’s stall at the Waiheke Market and read, “I guess you could say I’m making my way wherever my heart will lead,” I just knew I had to buy it to inspire me to follow my own heart and dreams.
Cork on the Ocean was self-published in 2007 and won a Five Star Award from The Herald on Sunday. After much more hard work, and the commitment and courage to continue to follow their dreams, Random House published their second book, Cork and the Bottle, in 2008. Adding to their happiness was the birth of their son, Linden, in 2009. Then as two more books began to take shape (The Silliest Dream, illustrated by Waiheke Artist Ingrid Berzins, and Baa Baa Smart Sheep illustrated by Rowan) Mark and Rowan set up their own publishing company, Dreamboat Books, to self-publish them in 2010.
And just to confirm that they did indeed find a way to cross the river and embrace the cherry tree (they are working on producing this book now—ten years on from when they first met), Mark and Rowan have just won the coveted Children’s Choice Award at the New Zealand Post Children’s Book of the Year Awards for Baa Baa Smart Sheep. It appeals to children not only because of a mischievous joke a sheep plays on a turkey, but the rapid dialogue between them and Rowan’s ability to capture just the perfect illustration at the moment the turkey is duped, makes young and old laugh out loud—so much so that it often brings tears to their eyes. It is easy to see why this little book of “mischief” found its way into the hearts of so many children that it won the Children’s Choice Award with a clear majority.
Mark and Rowan’s story of success is an inspiration for others to take that leap of faith to follow their dreams. In the following interview with Mark, learn more about the joy he and Rowan share while working together, some obstacles they hurdled, what inspires Mark’s stories, and new dreams they have for their future.
Update, October 25, 2013:
Mark and Rowan are launching their new book this weekend, I Love Lemonade, as part of the Waiheke Book Festival. It is a sequel to Baa Baa Smart Sheep, and sees Quirky Turkey seeking revenge for the way Baa Baa tricked him into eating “smarty pebbles”. But revenge may not be so sweet, and children can learn that “payback” does not always “pay” and, neither is it wise to believe everything you hear. Check it out on Mark and Rowan’s website.
Mark has recently returned from the Frankfurt Book Fair, where New Zealand was a guest of honour this year. For the fair he did German mock-ups of Baa Baa Smart Sheep and I Love Lemonade. And the awards continue. Two Little Bugs, published in 2011, won Book of the Year (and Best Children’s Book) at the 2012 PANZ New Zealand Book Design Awards.
Mark and Rowan’s continued success with their writing and illustrating, book sales, and winning awards for their self-published books is truly an inspiration to follow your dreams.