Posts tagged November 2013 Star Author

Illustrating the great Margaret Mahy

Over the years I’ve had many manuscripts offered to me, from short School Journal stories to picture books and a few novels too. It is always the most exciting (and often scary) part of my work – imagining for the first time all the different ways this manuscript could be illustrated. But there are manuscripts and then there are MANUSCRIPTS. Earlier this year I illustrated Margaret Mahy’s Dashing Dog. I’d never been offered a picture book manuscript like it. Being my final blog post for the Star Author programme, I thought I’d discuss why I think Dashing Dog is so unique – and also why I made some of the decisions I made and what I was trying to achieve as an illustrator.

It’s a very subtle art that Margaret Mahy practiced – one that seems deceptively simple to outsiders – and it can be a bit difficult to decribe exactly how she does what she does. Well here’s my perspective from an illustrators point of view … sometimes, when I’m given a manuscript, I feel like the author is telling me what to do. The words can seem like they’re giving me a list of instructions, like … “Kevin sat over there, in a red chair, with orange hair, with his teddy bear, did we care?” (that’s not from an actual book by the way). However, in Dashing Dog we hardly get a sense that much is going on at all – there IS a lot going on, perhaps more than in some other books, but it’s going on in a different way.

When I first read the manuscript for Dashing Dog I couldn’t figure out just why I liked it so much, or what made it so different. The only thing I could come up with was that this was real poetry – not just some rhyming words. Dashing Dog was like a list of ingredients as opposed to the aforementioned list of instructions. Like all great writers, Margaret uses lovely evocative words that are great to roll around in your mouth, and like my friend Kyle Mewburn, Margaret’s words are very sparse. She was keenly aware of the fine relationship between author and illustrator, and like all great picture book authors, she leaves lots of gaps for me to fill in.


Possible Dashing Dogs?

For example …

Most obviously, Margaret doesn’t prescribe what kind of dog Dashing Dog is, or what colour or what size for that matter. Margaret only gives one clue as to what dog I might choose to illustrate – the word “curlicued”. I did lots of character sketches of all kinds of curly, long haired dogs, trying to find one that would be just right for the story. Eventually I settled on a large blue/grey poodle – why? because Margaret takes our hero on a journey from la-de-da dashing to heroic dashing savior. I thought that a poodle would be the perfect dog because you could have a lot of fun visually with the contrast between a manicured poodle and the disheveled heroic dog at the end of the story. Also, Margaret’s stories always have a wonderful streak of crazy ridiculousness, and I thought that the poodle matched her fun story-telling.

So I had my poodle, why make hime roan blue? I had decided early on that I didn’t want to illustrate yet another New Zealand story where I had to do page upon page of blue skies (and yet another blue sky cover to sit on the bookshelves) – instead, the tone of Dashing Dog was going to be a summery yellow. I envisioned the cover on my first reading of the manuscript – and leaping across this yellow sky would be a roan blue dog (at that stage, of undetermined breed).


the cover for Dashing Dog was the first vivid picture that lodged in my brain.

So here’s the funny part … after I had completed Dashing Dog I got a phone call from the mother of a boy I went to school with. She told me that her son, now living in Christchuch, owned the brother of Margaret Mahy’s dog – and this dog was … a large poodle. Black to tell the truth, but a large poodle none-the-less. So Margaret also had poodles in mind when she wrote this story. It just goes to show what a great writer she was, because she writes a story that is so obviously about a poodle without ever once mentioned the breed of the dog. I related this story to someone and they replied “Didn’t you know it was supposed to be a poodle?” – which completely misses the point – which is, the author (contrary to popular public belief) does not tell the illustrator what to do.

While I was working on Dashing Dog I was also working on a book about Shakespeare. Actors love to play Hamlet because during the course of the play he portrays almost every possible human emotion. In a fun and simple way, I decided to make my Dashing Dog the canine children’s version of Hamlet. Aside from a fun story and the simple pun on ‘dashing’, Margaret takes our Dashing Dog on an emotional and character-developing journey with a subtle secondary message of not judging by appearances. As an illustrator, it was fun to try and convey all the different doggy emotions and it became my mission to make ‘dogginess’ the focus of the story.


Some of the many moods of Dashing Dog

It’s no surprise then that Margaret also doesn’t describe the environment of Dashing Dog. It’s simply a beach somewhere. The mission I give myself is to expand and fill in the spaces she leaves for me. I know there will be people out there who think that is the wrong approach – that my pictures are overdone and perhaps I should just have pictures on blank backgrounds and leave something to the reader’s imagination (someone said words to that effect somewhere). There is always a place for ‘white space’ – but here’s what I’m trying to achieve… Usually, somewhere near the start and again at the end of the book, I like to set the scene – pop in a big double page of colour and excitement that sets the tone of the story and describes the environment and the world that this book inhabits. In Dashing Dog I blended all my favourite beaches: it is part Devonport boardwalk; part Napier waterfront; part Mount Maunganui; and part Whangamata (what’s the point in being an illustrator if you can’t be self-indulgent every once in a while?). My other aim with these big spreads is to expand the story beyond the pages. I want the readers to feel that this world continues outside the edges of my illustrations – that it could be a REAL fantasy world and is full of life.

I have a very vivid imagination, and as a child these were the type of illustrations I liked – especially books like Graham Oakley’s Church Mice series, which are jam packed with amazing detail. Even as an adult I can pore over them for hours. So – counter-intuitively it seems – for me, more detail, not less, lets the reader’s imagination run wild.


I want readers to imagine the world carries on beyond the edges of the page.

Detail CAN be problematic though. I can understand the reader, or publisher, who finds detailed illustrations are a distraction from the story flow (especially in rhyming books). This is quite a fashion in American books. It’s a fine line to choose what, and how much, detail to put into a picture. Sometimes I pick up a book and feel like I’m assulted by an illustrator who has stuck in all manner of unrelated rubbish. Sometimes the detail becomes the main focus of the image may be totally distracting rather than a nice little background aside. In Dashing Dog there are all sorts of things going on in the background, but hopefully they all relate to the story – either characters and items that will appear later on, or funny in-jokes (if you look closely you might find a certain young boy wandering to the seaside with a shark fin attached to his back). In the spread above is an array of ugly dogs – which simply stand to contrast our heroic poodle.

All this detail is a common trait in my work. Kids are like little sponges and if you don’t give them stuff to discover within a book, then there’s not much reason for them to go back to that book over and over (let alone the parents who might have to read it night after night). I find an entire book full of simplistic illustrations boring, and they miss out on opportunities for kids to latch on to weird little background items. In one of our Dinosaur Rescue books, author Kyle Mewburn wrote a tiny aside about Roman fire brigades. It was a great pleasure to get an email from a boy on the other side of the world who read that aside and became fascinated with Roman history. This is the type of thing I did as a kid (and still do as an adult).

At the end of the day, I can’t second guess what everyone else in the world will like, I just try to do books that I would like. I have taken to heart Elizabeth Taylor’s quote “if you do it for yourself, at least ONE person will be happy”. It seems like a lot of hoohah when you write it all down, but these are all things I do instinctively. Really I’m just trying to emulate my heroes. I pick out parts of their work that I like the most and slowly form some ideas about what I’m trying to achieve. I try not to over think what I do. I know what I like. And I know what I don’t like. As Brian Eno said – “you have to be opinionated, that gives you a basis for your artistic choices”.

Picture books are often children’s first experience of the written and painted arts, and in the best books, words and pictures each complement the other with what they do best. I’ve had the pleasure of illustrating some of New Zealand’s finest writers and it’s my greatest joy to be able to make a full time career out of something that I am so passionate about. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading some of my Star Author blogs about my thoughts and processes. Even if you DIDN’T – that’s great – go and form your own opinions and do something different!

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Win The Weather Machine by Donovan Bixley

It’s nearly time for us to say goodbye to our November Star Author, Donovan Bixley, but before we do we’re giving you the chance to win a copy of his latest book, The Weather Machine.  Donovan talked about The Weather Machine in his last post, telling us it  ‘deals with the issues of climate change when our hero decides to build a machine to control the weather. On a grander scale it deals more generally with man (it’s usually man) meddling with nature and trying to play God, like Frankenstein.’

The Weather Machine is an absolutely fantastic book and it’s wordless! Every time you read it you find something new that you hadn’t noticed before.  We love it and we’re sure you will too.

To get in the draw, all you have to do is enter your name and email address in the form below, and tell us one of the authors who influenced Donovan (HINT: read Donovan’s last Star Author post).  Competition closes Friday 29 November.

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Influence and inspiration

One of my all time favourite picture books is The Lorax by Dr Seuss. It’s partly the reason why I’m a children’s book author and illustrator. So I thought I’d write about why I think it’s so great and how it has influenced my work – in particular on my wordless book The Weather Machine.


The Lorax by Dr Seuss (1971), The Weather Machine by Donovan Bixley (2013)

As a kid, Dr Seuss was unlike any other author around. Whenever I discovered a new book of his I would naturally assume that it had only just been released. Years later I discovered that a lot of his great works like The Cat in the Hat, The Sleep Book and Green Eggs and Ham etc were published way back in the 50’s and early 60’s (which makes them even more amazing in their ‘newness’). Years after I discovered that The Lorax was from a later Seuss period. It actually came out in the year I was born and perhaps there is something about his message and that era which has some subcounscious connection to me?

Of all Seuss’ books, The Lorax seemed to stand out for me. For one, it has Truffula Trees! Being a New Zealander meant that every cabbage tree I saw was proof that the Lorax might just be hiding around the corner. Of course Truffula trees are soft and fluffy, and cabbage trees are hard and spiky – but that doesn’t matter to a child’s imagination. The things I loved about The Lorax as a kid were the same things I love now – it’s still as vibrant and energetic and magical in pictures and words and imagination as it was more than 40 years ago when it was first published. AND it’s hugely successful (no point having a great book if nobody reads it). No one is infallibly great, and quite often Seuss irritates me with his made up rhyming words, but in The Lorax they’re perfect – “Your machinery chugs on day and night without stop, making gluppity glupp. Also scholppity schopp” – and “You’re glumping the pond where the humming fish hummed. No more can they hum for their gills are all gummed”. That environmental message is the real icing on the cake. It’s even more relevant now than when it came out. The funny thing was, it’s such a strong message but as a kid I was barely aware of it. Not unaware in a bad way – I was just so caught up in the magical world of The Lorax that the message of “let’s not use up every last resource and screw the planet” just kinda sunk in.

After I left university, I worked in the film industry – I didn’t like it. I mucked around at some of the big advertising agencies – I didn’t like that either. Then in my mid twenties I had a very specific thought involving The Lorax. I was sick of wasting my time and talents churning out cliche advertising and pretending to be creative, and I thought: “Imagine if you could do just one thing – just one book like The Lorax – a book that had not lost any of its impact after so many years … that would be something worthwhile”. From that moment I decided to focus my creative talents on the world of children’s books.

So for a long time I have been wanting to create my Lorax. I’d also been hugely influenced by the wordless books of Mordillo and Jean Jacques Loup and I had wanted to do one of those . But every time I tried to come up with something that combined the influence of these books it just seemed like I was trying too hard. Eventually, many years later, after illustrating more than 70 books, when I’d forgotten all about trying to create my homage to The Lorax, the influences came together all by themselves. In a lightning bolt moment, several ideas that had been lurking around in the back of my mind all fused together – which turned out to be my wordless book The Weather Machine.


The magical world of Seuss’ Lorax had a huge influence on my Weather Machine.

The Weather Machine is hugely influenced by Dr Suess, though I didn’t specifically look at any of his work or even think about him while I was creating it. It would be hard for anyone of my generation not to be influenced by Seuss’ magical worlds. The Weather Machine deals with the issues of climate change when our hero decides to build a machine to control the weather. On a grander scale it deals more generally with man (it’s usually man) meddling with nature and trying to play God, like Frankenstein. Pretty heavy stuff? But I had always hoped that the format of a wordless book would make it less daunting – less preachy. Readers would be able to make up their own minds about what it all meant, rather than feel like they were getting a lecture on the environment. The influence of Suess is in that environmental message and the colourful, magical world and the fun of storytelling. On the surface The Weather Machine is just a fantasy story, with some slapstick silent movie fun. But hopefully readers will discover new layers of meaning hidden in the pictures as they got older.

One of the strangest things that relates to the influence of The Lorax was the creation of my main protagonist. I realized only after the book was published that he has a striking resemblance to Seuss’ Once ler, the unwitting villain from The Lorax. We only get to see The Once ler’s gloved arms and hands and feet though. In The Weather Machine, my protagonist is also an unwitting villain, like the Once ler he’s just looking out for number one. He also wears a onesie baby suit and a top hat – which is supposed to represent that he thinks he knows better than everyone else, but he’s actually just a big baby. But perhaps he was also my subconscious version of what The Once ler looks like in the full?


Seuss’ gloved Once ler and my unwitting protagonist from The Weather Machine

I don’t know if The Weather Machine (or any other book I might create) will ever achieve the influential level of The Lorax – but it’s a great ambition to aim for and I love the idea that maybe, just one person out there might be affected by what you’ve created and it might make them want to do something too.

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Meet our November Star Author Donovan Bixley

Our fantastic November Star Author is New Zealand author and illustrator, Donovan Bixley.  Donovan has illustrated heaps of books, including his own Kiwi versions of The Wheels on the Bus and Old MacDonald’s Farm, Brian Falkner’s Northwood and Maddy West and the Tongue Taker, the Dinosaur Rescue series with Kyle Mewburn, and his latest book, The Weather Machine.  He has illustrated more than 100 stories and book covers as well as over 70 books.  He has also written and illustrated a book all about the life of Mozart, called Faithfully Mozart.

Thanks for joining us Donovan!  We look forward to hearing all about your writing and illustrating.


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“What do you do all day?”

ImageIt’s fantastic to be invited to be the Star Author for November. I don’t get to blog much, so this will be a fun excuse to talk about some of the things going on in my brain… ummm … actually, that’s a bit like trying to pull some coherent strands out of a bird nest.

So where to start?

I had two books come out on the same day last month – “Dashing Dog” and “The Weather Machine” – and whenever I have a new book released, that’s when I get a sudden rush of emails or phone calls from people all over the country who want me to illustrate their book. This would be great if it were a call from one of my favourite authors like Neil Gaiman, Charlie Higgson, Kyle Mewburn or Brian Falkner (among others …), but, more often than not, it’s a call from someone who has never written a children’s book before, and they usually say something like “I’ve written a book and you can illustrate it for me.” – wow lucky me! I get this comment so often, so there is obviously some misapprehension that I am sitting about all day waiting for people to give me things to do.

So then … what DO I do all day long?

Kids often ask me “do you get to draw pictures all day long?” and yep – as a full time author and illustrator that’s pretty much true. It can very very hard work even torturous at times, but the kind of torturous work that’s enjoyable – ha ha. Books are such long term projects, which means that I’m locked into them for months, even years, in advance. At any time of year I am usually working on several books at once (at the moment I am working on five). I am concepting and writing two. I’m am doing research and roughs for another two, and I am doing final illustrations as well as working on design and layup for yet another. This staggered way of working keeps me going all year round and I’m always working on books at different stages of completion. A normal picture book can take between six months to a year to complete, and in between I also illustrate little jobs like covers and one off stories for school journals.

It can be a pretty intense job and I often get sucked into the world of the book I am working on. I often have to remind myself to take a break. I have a lovely studio with my guitar and piano nearby so I usually get up and play for a few minutes (if I remember) – then crack the whip and back to it (deadlines wait for no man). For the last few months I have been working on a comic novel and I have to complete two pages every day. If I don’t then it will completely screw up my schedule – like I said, all this drawing fun can be pretty hard work.



Most nights I take my work home with me too, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Luckily I have the ability to be able to chat and talk while I’m drawing and I usually like to be surrounded by a bit of noise and conversation while I’m working. I also talk with my family about what I’m doing and sometimes we come up with cool ideas for books over dinner or while we’re driving somewhere. My kids are also really good models for my illustrations (I don’t know what I’ll do when they get too big to model as children). Everyone in my family has been trained up really well to give me good honest feedback. They are all really well-read and have strong opinions about books (and movies and music too). It’s really useful to have them all to help me get perspective on my work and tell me if it isn’t up to scratch.

I do most of my writing freehand in bed at night. I usually work out things completely in my head (while I am drawing all day) and at the end of the day I can just sit down let the writing ideas flow (of course there is ALWAYS a lot of editing to do with any form of writing). During the year I get offered manuscripts from publishers. It’s always exciting to see that simple text for the first time and imagine what you could do with it. It’s also really exciting to have a chance to work on something I’d never think of on my own (like “Dinosaur Rescue” with Kyle Mewburn and “Northwood” with Brian Falkner). On the other hand, I also spend a lot of time writing new books. That’s the only way I can get to draw or write about things that nobody else will offer me (like “Faithfully Mozart” or “The Weather Machine”). During some parts of the year I am doing a lot of writing and concept drawings for those future projects. These projects can take many years to finally be finished (usually because I’m too busy with so many other projects). At the moment I have around seven projects either with publishers or in the process of getting down on paper from picture books to illustrated novels and short stories to a large sophisticated picture book for adults. You can see that I really like to do lots of different formats and genres. All these projects are at different stages of completion, so they’ll all hopefully come to fruition over successive years (depending on whether publishers like them or not), and I’m either going to have nothing to do, or I’m going to be totally flat out!

So, in short, there’s never enough hours in the week to do all the books I want to work on. I’m very strict about having my weekends off though. So it’s lucky that I adore writing and illustrating children’s books, because it’s what I’d be doing anyway.

Over the next month I’m hoping to talk about what I try to do when I’m illustrating a manuscript, my inspiration, the comic novel I am currently working on and how I got to be an author and illustrator in the first place. I don’t really have anything specific planned – so leave a comment if there’s anything you’d like to know and I’ll do my best to answer it.

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