As part of the Children's Book Festival being celebrated across Ireland this month, I will be reviewing a number of children's books on the blog and offering a fascinating insight into the world of children's books authors and illustrators.
Today, the featured book is 'Three By The Sea' by award winning author and illustrator Mini Grey. This is a wonderful book with a warm message of friendship portrayed through the extraordinary characters of the culinary-minded Mouse, the gardening Dog and the wonderful eye-patched Cat, and of course one very foxy Travelling Salesman! It is engaging, witty, quirky and has brilliantly detailed illustrations which the boys love; they spot something new every time we read it and we've read it lots of times!
I asked Mini the following questions about her work.
How important is illustration in engaging children in books? In picture books, Words and Pictures are a fantastic double act, each doing a different job, maybe even telling a different story – but you need both of them to have the whole story. So the illustration is a totally key part of the story-telling. Even the very youngest people are expert readers of pictures. Pictures can convey complex and subtle messages, and more information than pages of words could describe. When you open a picture book you get to enter a whole different world – but there are still things your own imagination has to fill in as you turn the pages, so the reader is a vital collaborator in telling the story.
Where do you get inspiration for your illustrations and how have you developed your personal style? You might notice from some of my books that I absolutely LOVE drawing food. A lot of inspiration comes from looking at ordinary things around me and imagining them coming to life, or looking at everyday things from a different point of view. Also from seeing the ways things look a bit like other things - for example sausages that look a bit like fingers, spaghetti that looks rather like serpents – the secret identity of things! My very first influences were probably the TV programmes of the Clangers and Mr Benn, which both had a very home-made (even knitted) quality. I love old recipe books and children’s encyclopedias.
What comes first: the words or the illustrations? It can be either or both! Some of my stories (e.g. The Adventures of the Dish and The Spoon) started by drawing lots of little pictures of my characters in different situations (car chases, tied to railway lines, etc). Others I’ve written down first. But then I get out scissors and glue and chop up the words and doodle pictures with them to see if any thing interesting starts happening. The magical bit is putting the words and pictures together.
How long does it take you to illustrate a book such as 'Three By the Sea'?
To actually just make all the pictures seems to take about 6 months. For Three By The Sea each double page took me about a week. I spent a lot of time painting pebbles! My pictures are usually made on very heavy watercolour paper. I use liquid watercolours, Quink ink, bleach and pencil scribbling. It’s good to let some accidents happen – I like a bit of splattering.
Does illustrating always come easily to you, or do you ever suffer from 'illustrator's block?!I am always daunted by the prospect of trying to draw something on a clean page. I find drawing people particularly difficult. If I’m stuck I draw a tiny scruffy sketch on a scrap of paper or in my sketchbook, then scan it and enlarge it and draw over the top of it. I have a light box and I’m always using it to trace things. Cutting and sticking is another way out - make bits & pieces and cut them out and move around. Also – nothing beats drawing a real thing - drawing a real thing tells you unexpected things about it that you wouldn’t necessarily have imagined.
Which children's books illustrators do you admire the most? My first children’s book influences were Dr Seuss, Edmund Dulac, Heath Robinson and I loved Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice through the Looking Glass and Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll. The illustrator who really inspired me to want to make my own books was Lane Smith (The Stinky Cheese Man, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs) who pictures are edgy and a bit dangerous but also almost edible-looking. Shaun Tan’s books, e.g. The Arrival and The Lost Thing, give you the feeling of being adrift in extraordinary worlds. There’s a whole load of exciting author-illustrators making picture books right now, both new and established - the list would be a long one!
I previously reviewed the fantastic 'Jim' which Mini illustrated, and we also borrowed 'The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon' recently from the library - a book which was selected by The Guardian earlier this year as one of the best children's books for 5-7 year olds. Suffice to say, we love them all. Me and my children and very big 'Mini' fans - I cannot recommend her books highly enough.