Why children’s books are important?
I think when it comes to difficult topics, like sex or war, children’s books are often the first port of call for teachers and parents because they know these issues are going to be dealt with in a way that children are going to understand. I was a bookseller for many years, and lots of parents would come in saying that they needed to explain death to their children. Obviously no one wants to have to discuss that with a four year old, so it’s great that books are available to make that conversation easier.
How do you make difficult topics suitable for children?
It’s actually very difficult to know whether books are going to be appropriate for children. My first book, The Journey Home, was about animal endangerment. We went through about eight different endings as we wanted to make sure that we did the topic justice without being too dark. I try to hint at these subjects, and open the door so that parents can chose to explain it further. I also believe that children just don’t take something in if they’re not ready for it. Publishers are sometimes skittish about books dealing with these subjects; it was difficult to get the book published because I was adamant that I wouldn’t make it lighter.
Has the UK children’s book industry changed since your first book?
It’s changed a lot actually. I think that the children’s book industry is becoming more open to books dealing with dark subjects. There has been a real renaissance in children’s books; the industry has become a lot less conservative. Some phenomenal things are being published, it’s moving away from being character based, and there is a lot of scope for different types of illustration.Obviously there lots of changes in the book market due to the internet. Lots of people want cheap discount books, but in reaction to that digitalization people also want beautiful, handcrafted, hard-backed books. There is nothing like holding a hardback book in your hand: people love books as objects and want them to survive.
What advice would you give to people starting out as a children’s book illustrator.
Be as aware of the industry as possible. Most illustrators have second jobs, try and work in the same field if you can.
Learn how to deal with rejection. Again, working in children’s books helps, because there is an incredible breadth of publishers; what isn’t suitable for one might work for another.
Build your online presence. A printed portfolio is important, but people will hear about you through the internet. Once you get that snowball rolling it’s amazing how much work you can get from social media.
Which other illustrators working today should we check out?
Brian Wildsmith, Maurice Sendak, Yasmeen Ismail, Leo Lionni, Arnold Label, Emily Hughes, Jon Klassen, Ezra Jack Keats, Isabelle Arsenault, Jenny Desmond, Maggie Li, Alice Lickens, Quentin Blake, Ben Newman, Alice Provensen, Tomi Ungerer, Tove Jansson, Dr Seuss, Shaun Tan, Jo Empson,