Helen Oxenbury chats to Shelley Fallows from Lovereading4kids.
I (Shelley) have a nine year old son. Those nine years have flown by in a flash as I was warned they would and yet one of the most endearing memories I have of his younger years is reading We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, over and over. The book had been a gift from a friend who also had wonderful memories of reading it to her by then teenage children. This is the beauty of a great picture book, quiet moments shared with you and the child in your life that become special. So it was an absolute delight for me when I was asked to interview author and Illustrator Helen Oxenbury on behalf of Lovereading4kids to celebrate the publication of Time Now to Dream written by Timothy Knapman which is packed full of Helen’s beautiful, illustrations.
Time Now to Dream is a beautifully atmospheric story about two young children confronting their fears and supporting each other as they explore a mysterious noise in the woods close to where they live. Timothy’s prose is perfect for sharing with young ones as it gently explores the fear of the unknown and inspired the illustrations Helen has created. Her instantly recognisable style fits perfectly with the story. I wanted to gain a better insight into this mother and grandmother who has made such a great contribution to children’s books – she is even the creator of the iconic bear symbol that graces all of Walker’s Books. She has been drawing since she was a child, discovering her love for it when she was forced to often stay home from school due to asthma.
Where did you take your inspiration from as a child?
I remember drawing endless bunches of flowers. We had a lovely garden with a pond which I spent most of my time with my hands in. I had no fear of frogs or toads. That’s what I remember mostly of my childhood. We often had friends over who all fell in but my brother and I never did because we grew up around it and knew not to.
What was you earliest book related memory?
You have to remember it was during the war and you couldn’t get books, you couldn’t buy your own books. My father worked for the East Suffolk County Council and they had a library. There was a shelf full of children’s books. It was just awful but these were the only books I had really. The one I can remember, that I just loved was quite a big book of photographs of Shirley Temple in different outfits, such as red wellies, a yellow raincoat and big yellow hat. The book was in lovely, bright colour. All the other books were just black and white. We were quite starved of books really. We had comics such as the Beano which was printed in black, red and white but if you had one with colour it was just wonderful.
Can you explain a little about your creative process? For example which medium do you like to work with?
It depends on the story, depends on the text. If it is something like ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ or ‘Time Now to Dream’ that involves a rather English landscape then I’ll use watercolour. However when I did the illustrations for ‘So Much’ which is about a West Indian family, well it just didn’t seem right in watercolour because they wear these wonderful, vibrant colours, so I used gouache. It’s usually the text itself that will suggest to one which medium to use.
Do you have a specific routine you follow when working and do you tend to draw every day?
I take a flexible approach depending on what I’m working on. I don’t always draw everyday though. There’s not always enough time.
Do you usually meet the author before you begin work on the illustrations for a project?
No never. I receive just the manuscript to work from and then meet the authors once it is done.
Where did you take your inspiration for the illustrations in Time Now to Dream?
I took a lot of walks on Hampstead Heath but not with a notebook, but I wouldn’t do any drawing at this stage. I would then draw the pictures from memory.
Your drawings are wonderfully expressive, are the children based on anyone in particular?
They are a culmination of children based on the age of those who will be reading it. It helps the children to be able to identify with the characters. I love to try and put over the emotions the text invokes. We have to enhance the text but not slavishly illustrate every word. I also like to add a little something that features throughout the book. In ‘Time Now to Dream’ for example there is a bird who appears all the way through. At times you are unsure what his purpose is. Is he a little sinister or is he watching over them? It’s another element to talk about when you’re reading the book.
How closely do you work with the publisher on the finished book?
I work very closely with the art director on the book itself. For example with ‘Time Now to Dream’ I didn’t want the foliage and text etc. to be on a white background so we chose a softer colour that supported the illustrations better and provided a softer, more comforting feel to the book. I also like to include a mix of coloured illustrations with black and white images to also enhance the visual aspect. Walker Books are particularly good at getting it right. There is definitely a Walker look.
How important do you feel illustrations are to building a child’s love of books and reading?
Terribly important and not only for the reading but looking at things, giving them a sense of colour and form. For example when they see a wolf they’ll recognise it for what it is. I see them also as a stepping stone to reading. Illustrations also make a book so much more interesting.
How vital do you feel the role of Children’s Laureate is to Children’s literature today?
Well, it certainly can’t do any harm especially if it gets more children reading!
Do you have any advice for parents who want to encourage their children to read?
They’re never too young to start. It’s amazing how much they can absorb right away. Holding books, looking at pictures, hearing the words and of course having that precious time with mum and dad. Always make time to read.
What are you reading at the moment?
Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens, it has the most wonderful illustrations!
Are you working on any other projects at the moment?
I am but I’m afraid I can’t say too much about them at the moment. I still love what I do and will keep on doing it until I fall off my perch.