Can you tell us a little bit about your life as a cartoonist for newspapers? How did that start and do you get a brief or can you chose whatever you would like to draw about? I became a cartoonist in my mid-20s, when I realised I wanted to have my say about what I thought about the world, and also that I could make people laugh, which is a wonderful thing. I have done a lot of cartoon work for books, magazines, community groups and causes over the years. I have also had a variety of weekly gigs on different newspapers (currently Mondays in the Melbourne Age). What I draw about is left completely up to me, which is both a blessing and a curse.
How much contact do you have with an author when you illustrate your books? Mem Fox is the only picture book author I work with, and we don’t have that much contact in the making of a book. Mem will send me a manuscript via her agent, who is also conveniently my agent, then if I think it is something I can do, I work on a mock-up to show her. If Mem likes it (she always has), our agent, Jenny Darling, then sends it to the publishers and if they like it (they always have), the book is on its way. The mock-up is generally the last Mem sees of it until months later, when all the final artwork is done and the layout and design is nearly finalised. Once the book is actually published, we have a quite a lot of contact as we go on a publicity tour together – talking at bookshops and libraries, and doing signings, but there’s not much time for chitchat. I also write picture books myself, which I then illustrate. In that case, there is a lot of contact between author and illustrator, there’s no getting away from each other.
What inspired you to start illustrating? As a child, I loved drawing and writing, and I actually had the ambition back then to make children’s books when I grew up. I got to it eventually, but along the way I established myself as a cartoonist, making a living as a freelancer. In fact cartooning and picture book illustrations have a lot in common – in both cases, the drawings should be as clear as possible, things need to be instantly recognisable, simple is best, and you want as few words as possible. The actual catalyst of me becoming a children’s book illustrator, was Mem Fox falling in love with a small etching of a green sheep that I’d done and put on my website, and us deciding to make a book together.
Were the characters in your book based on anyone? Good Night Sleep Tight is about Bonnie and Ben and their babysitter Skinny Doug. Mem based Skinny Doug on a babysitter that her daughter had had. Apparently the character I drew looks quite a bit like the real Skinny Doug did, which is hilarious as I’ve never met him. Skinny Doug tells the children nursery rhymes, which came about because Mem learned that research showed that children who know nursery rhymes off by heart before school, learn to read and write more easily so she wanted to put them into a book.
Which illustration did you start with when you were working on this book? I don’t remember which illustration I did first, but the key for me in working on any book is the initial mock-up that I do of the whole thing. For Good Night Sleep Tight it was particularly important – I wanted to get the balance right between the scenes that take place in Bonnie and Ben’s house, where they are being babysat by Skinny Doug, and the scenes that take place within the nursery rhymes themselves. I really wanted there to be a narrative in the pictures, to create a story around the words Mem had written. It’s a circle that starts with the children in their beds, and then loops to the children being back in their beds at the end of the book. And, at last, asleep.
Which are your favourite images in this book? It’s hard to pick favourites – I loved thinking of how Bonnie and Ben and Doug would appear inside each of the nursery rhymes, alongside the traditional characters, and then what they would be doing at home in between. The planning stage is absolutely my favourite part. If I really had to pick favourites, two pages that often come into my head when I think about this book are ‘round and round the garden’ where Bonnie and Ben playing chasie with the teddy bear, and the page with all the horses from ‘this is the way the ladies ride’. I love the way the detail works on these pages (and the fact that my horses turned out okay – horses are hard to draw, ask any illustrator). But then I also love the old man snoring, and the page where Skinny Doug and the kids are looking out the window at the night sky, and well, all of them really.
When you go into a bookshop, which department do you head straight to? I tend to go straight to the Specials table, partly because it’s usually near the front, but also because I often find an incredible book there on a subject I didn’t even know I was interested in, a book I wouldn’t otherwise know existed. With the added attraction of being reduced.
Do you collect anything? I love succulents. I have them growing in lots of different pots with them. They are very easy to propagate and I collect as many different kinds as I can, and divide up them up to make dozens of new plants. There’s a bit of the mad scientist about it. Succulents are very hardy, so they survive the way my obsession with them alternates with completely neglect.
What is something that most people might be surprised to know about you? I can write with both hands at the same time. But as I have to write the same words, with one side in mirror writing, it isn’t a talent I’ve found a lot of use for.
What are you working on next? My third book with Mem Fox, This & That, has just been released, it’s wonderful watching it find its feet in the world. I’m now working on our fourth collaboration, about ducks, that will be released October 2016. Alongside that, I’m keeping up with my regular cartooning gigs, and engaging in the never-ending quest to keep my website up-to-date.
Read my review of ‘Good Night, Sleep Tight’ here.