Monday, 22 January 2018

'Little Red Reading Hood'- a 'Q and A' with illustrator Ben Mantle, by Lucy Rowland.

For the last post of 2017, the Picture Book Den team put together a joint blog titled 'Our picture books, our favourites' where authors and illustrators shared their favourite self-penned or self-drawn picture books.  You can find the link here: 

I chose 'Little Red Reading Hood', mine and Ben Mantle's upcoming picture book with Macmillan.  For me, 'Little Red Reading Hood' is a celebration of libraries, reading, story and the power of imagination.  I believed in the text from the start but it's the illustrations that have really brought it to life with such magic!

The incredibly talented Ben Mantle has a background in animation as well as children's book illustration and he has kindly agreed to take time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions about his work and artistic process.  Thank you, Ben!

1)      You are now a very well established illustrator, with self-penned picture books as well as books that you have collaborated on with other authors. Which projects do you generally prefer to work on?

     This will seem like a cop-out, but it is absolutely true, I really enjoy both to be honest and couldn’t pick between them. Working on your own authored book is special because its your baby, and you get to birth it and see it grow. It’s a lot of hard work figuring it out and writing doesn’t come naturally to me. But, when you get it right, it feels great! However, I love being sent a brilliant story and being able to jump straight in. To read it through and enjoy it like the reader will. Plus, I love adding something new to the story, to my own spin on a book. Both are really team efforts and I really enjoy the variety and the different challenges that come with them. 

2)      If you are collaborating on a book, what is it about a text that makes you want to illustrate it? Was there anything in particular about Little Red Reading Hood that made you want to take it on?

      I guess there are many reasons. I can tell on the first read if it is something I want to work on. Sometimes it’s the characters or the setting that make me want to work on a book or a funny/witty text. It’s also important to me that the text has room to allow me to add something myself, rather than being told exactly what should be on every page.
      With Little Red Reading Hood it was all of those. The Big bad wolf is a character that I’ve always wanted to draw and I really loved the idea of illustrating the woods that Little Red ventures into. The text zipped along at such a pace and made me laugh out loud, which is rare! Any book with line– “What a Barbarian! Wolf had tied up Mrs Jones the Librarian!” is a book that I want to work on.

3)      You used to be an animator, how do you feel that this has influenced your illustration work?

      It has definitely had a big impact. The artists that I really look up to are mostly from the Animation world. Disney artists Mary Blair is so good with colours and mood and Gustaf Tenggren whose work on Pinocchio, I just adore. I would also put Raymond Briggs, Bill Watterson and Hayao Miyazaki in the list too. The skills you pick up working on Animation are invaluable too. Thinking about character, world building, pacing, storyboarding, not to mention the observation skills that really help with posing and composition. I generally can tell an ex-animator in publishing because of these skills.

4)      Could you tell us a bit about your typical working day as an illustrator?

      My working week changes depending on what I’m doing and how busy I am. It’s something close to 9-6 in the studio and then a few hours in the evenings sketching or planning. I’m often working on several things at a time, so you have to be good at managing your time and be able to swap projects easily. My studio in the lovely North Laines of Brighton, surrounded by lots of pubs and cafes. I share the place with a whole bunch of other ‘creatives’. In fact, there’s now 3 of us who all work in Children’s publishing in one way or another, which is very nice. I tried working at home, which I know a lot of illustrators do, but I started to go crazy. I’ll either be working on my Cintiq (think large screen that you can draw directly on to) or at my drawing board, which I use to trace my rough drawings using either paint or pastel.

5)      Fairytales and twists on fairytales have been told and re-imagined many times. Is it difficult to approach a familiar story in a new way or do you see this as an exciting challenge? 

      It is both to be honest. You have a pre-conceived idea of what that world and its characters look like, which is helpful to some degree. It’s like thousands of illustrators have built a nice foundation for you to start. So you need to follow certain conventions so that it has some link to the original, but it often means spending more time finding your own unique take on it.  But that is also the fun! You get to break the rules and surprise people. That’s why I’m known as Ben ‘rule breaker’ Mantle.

6)      If you could illustrate and re-imagine any fairy tale, which would you choose? 

      Oh, now that is tricky! I’d be tempted to go with something dark. You don’t get much chance in picture books to do that. A proper Brothers Grimm, with nothing softened. Maybe, Hansel and Gretel. When I was a kid I had a version of the Beowulf, that I genuinely found the pictures in it terrifying. But, that was what made it so good, it was the anticipation of turning the page to something that creeped me out. I’m not sure if you would class it as a fairy tale, but Alice in  Wonderland would be real fun too. It chock full of brilliant, eccentric characters and already has that gothic darkness that would appeal to me.   

7)      If you were a fairy tale character, who would you be?

  Erm…I’d choose one of them that doesn’t get cooked or murdered. Who does that leave me with?  Maybe a background character. Tim the blacksmith in Hansel and Gretel. Never heard of him? Well, that’s because I made him up, but he lives a very quiet, idyllic life and never meets a witch or wolf or a beast of any kind. Okay, at a push, and if you’ll agree that he’s a fairytale character I’d go for Peter Pan. He never grows up and has to pay bills and he can fly! And looks great in leggings!

8)      What is next on the horizon for you?

      I’m working on some great projects at the moment, but I can’t really say much about them. But I am working on some new text ideas of my own, which I’m hoping to find time to work on next year.  And of course, I’ll be working on our next book together, which is another brilliant rhyming text may I say. I guess you wouldn’t call it a fairytale per se, but it definitely riffs off classic characters and settings. And, actually it’s funny that I said I would like to illustrate something gothic before, because although our next book is light in tone, the setting is darker. But that is what drew me to it, that the characters bring real colour and light to the book and I can’t wait to illustrate that contrast.

Thank you Ben! You can learn more about Ben's beautiful work on his website
And you can keep up with all his news by following him on twitter @BenMMantle or Instagram benmmantle 

Monday, 15 January 2018

Where voice comes from by Jane Clarke

People speak about picture book writer having a 'voice.' It's a tricky thing to pin down. The voice of the writer helps create the tone and the mood of the book - but a huge part of that is down to the illustrator. If the writer's text gets taken for publication, a good editor will match the voice of the writer with an illustrators voice, so that both voices complement one another.

For me, voice is what comes naturally - my writer's voice is a reflection of the way I speak. In my head, my characters talk, I try to make their voices distinct, but they are part of my life experience. I can identify three main  sources of my picture book writing voice:

  • The voice of the child... 

                               in me

I shared everything with my dog
 and my sons' voices when they were small.

  • The parental voice

                         I can still hear my mum and dad's' voices

I was an only child ( my dog was my brother) and had a brilliantly happy childhood.

        and the voices of the parents my late husband and I were to our sons

 Always ready to catch!

  • Then there's the voices of pets,  and there's been a lot of them over the years - from stick insects, snakes, bearded dragons, mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits to cats and dogs.

Bramble was particularly expressive!

Recently, I've found a fourth voice is creeping into my writing - my grandparental voice, acquired with the arrival of 4 granddaughters in 3 years.

And as my granddaughters get older, I'll be excited to add their voices to my voice, too!

On the few occasions when I've tried to modify my voice, for example as follow-up writer on a ghost-written series, I've found it really difficult When I use my voice writing picture books, the texts feel like a part of me. I guess that's what makes it so hard when they get rejected!

Where does your writing or illustrating voice come from?

Jane's most recent picture book, Firefly Home, glimmeringly illustrated by Britta Teckentrup, published in the UK, 11 January 2018 - and all of her voices are in it :-)

Very special to Jane who watched fireflies with her sons and their families when they shared a holiday at Lake Lure, NC.

Monday, 8 January 2018

How would you end this story? • Francesca Sanna (guest blogger)

The Picture Book Den welcomes guest blogger, Francesca Sanna. Her first picture book, The Journey, received wide acclaim and is endorsed by Amnesty International UK for reminding us that we all have the right to a safe place to live. Francesca's many awards include the 2017 Klaus Flugge Prize, which is presented to the year's most promising and exciting newcomer to children’s picture book illustration. 

In this blog post, Francesca talks about the debate surrounding the ending to The Journey.

My first book, The Journey, is the story of a family and of the journey they undertake when they realise their home is not a safe place anymore. As I briefly tried to explain in a note at the end of the book, it was inspired by many stories of many people I spoke with, from many different countries and backgrounds. A part of the research was even focused on historical documents about immigration in the early 1900. I didn’t want The Journey to be a specific story; I wanted it to convey the idea that everyone has to right to have a safe place to live. For this reason, in the book I try to give as little information as possible about where, or when, the story is set. 

The Journey by Francesca Sanna, Flying Eye Books 2016

A few months ago, during a reading with Year Two children in a school in London, a boy asked me, “How do you end a book that is inspired by a real story if that story is still going on?”

Questions are always a challenge, and I love the process of thinking about them and trying to come
up with good answers – though I often fail – but I found this one particularly interesting. 
It made me think about another question I get asked quite often, mostly from adults: “Why does The Journey not have a proper ending?” The story I wrote does in fact have an ending, but it is a quite open one. The journey of the family we follow through the pages is not concluded in the usual way. Instead, the book ends leaving the family on their way to a new home, without showing any arrival, and this element has caused much discussion. Someone during a conference even told me I had cheated as I had gone against one of the main rules in children’s literature: a children’s book needs a happy ending. 

Journeying on the ferry, from The Journey by Francesca Sanna

A couple of years before I finished the book, I decided to do some research around the topic of immigration and in particular of refugees, because of what was happening (and sadly still is happening) in Italy, my home country, and in the rest of Europe.
 I was quite frustrated by having the same discussion over and over with people I knew, and by reading the comment sections of many posts on social media. In Italy the public opinion was – and still is – increasingly becoming more intolerant and turning against newcomers. When I first moved to study and work in other European countries (Germany first and then Switzerland) I saw that the same discussion and attitude was spreading there too. 

Border guard, from The Journey by Francesca Sann
I finished the illustrations for The Journey in May 2015, right before one of the worst moments of the refugee crisis in Europe. After that I was encouraged many times to change the ending of the story and to make the family finally arrive at their new home. I considered the idea and even tried some rough sketches of an ‘arrival’.

Finally, with the help of my publisher Flying Eye, I decided not to. Leaving the story open and the journey unfinished was, in my opinion, the best way to start a discussion on this topic with the children through a proper tool, a book, that gave to this discussion all the time and space needed. In this way I could give an ending to a story that still does not have one, leaving it open. 

Keep moving, from The Journey by Francesca Sanna
After the book was published, The Journey had its own journey. I had the wonderful opportunity to meet an incredible community of librarians, teachers, activists, and most importantly readers. I went around schools in different countries (Spain, Austria, UK, Italy, Germany and Switzerland) and saw the reaction to the book I wrote, discussing it with children and teachers.

Stories of escape, from The Journey by Francesca Sanna

The reactions to my open-and-maybe-not-so-happy ending were varied, as were the general responses to the book in every class and every school.
 Sometimes, when I read the story, I would finish reading the last lines and then I would have to say “and this was the last page of the book”. Normally this moment is followed by surprised gazes and a few whispered “What???”. Some of the children like the idea of different possible ways of ending the story on their own, while some hate the concept of a journey that does not reach the destination.

Migrating birds. Final image from The Journey by Francesca Sanna
Back at the beginning, my idea of a blank ending was more a symbolic idea, to leave to parents or teachers the space for a discussion with their children about what happens next. Later I took it more literally with workshops where children completed the story however they wanted. I'd read the story,  discussing some pages and the choices I made when writing and illustrating the story. Then I'd answer all their question until finally I'd ask them one question: how would you end the story?

“They buy a house and have a beautiful life!” An ending by Saphir, 7 years old

Drawing from a reading at the City Library of Geneva (Switzerland)
with children from Year 1 to Year 4

Further information
Amnesty International useful classroom resources on The Journey pdf 
The Klaus Flugge Prize
Francesca Sanna website