AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

  • Louise Yates

    Louise Yates

    DOG LOVES COUNTING

    JONATHAN CAPE

    MARCH 2013


    Dog Loves Counting is the third picture book in the series about Dog, a character who loves books and reading, created by author and illustrator Louise Yates. In his latest story, Dog can't get to sleep and counting sheep doesn't help, so he joins some characters from his book and they head off on a counting expedition.


    Louise Yates says that the inspiration for Dog came from a real dog that belongs to her parents. She says, "I hadn't grown up with dogs and wasn't necessarily that fond of them but this particular dog changed my mind. He was thoughtful and quiet and very attentive to everyone.

    "I started working with the idea of dogs being man's best friend as are books - you get a companionship from books and reading. Reading is like going for a walk, it's a step along each way and you don't know where it's leading next."

    Dog is very loosely based on a Jack Russell, then, with floppy ears. "The ears have been very useful in illustration terms because you can use them to express his mind and it helps readers to read him as a character and to develop a bond or interest in him," Yates explains. "Jack Russells also have this lovely barrel-shaped body and a little tummy. Once I turned that into a standing figure a toddler shape emerged with the narrow shoulders and pot belly. So he looked child-like but also ageless, he was wise and also appealed to adults."

    Yates is often asked why Dog's character is fairly undefined - he hasn't been coloured in, he seems ageless, and does not have a name. Yates says it's because she wanted children, or anyone reading the books, to make Dog their own. "He's sort of a blank canvas," she explains. "I almost want him to be the spirit of reading a spirit guide."

    Yates is currently working with her publisher to develop Dog for television. They have created a team of friends for Dog in his bookshop, all of whom come from books. She says, "It's another opportunity to for children to see books as an adventure, not as something inaccessible."

    Her aim is to create picture books that "work on lots of different levels", she says. "I want to write things that children can grow into and also that they can revisit when they are eight or over and not reject it because it's patronising or young or low brow.

    "I try to work with books that have quite a complex idea but it is so condensed or whittled down that it's easily digested but can also be developed, so that people who are teaching children can bring more from it."

    Yates admits that she wasn't particularly drawn to writing and illustrating a counting book, having not particularly enjoyed studying maths at school, but when her publisher suggested it, she decided to give it some thought. "I thought there was a reason to do something about counting and numbers that's not flat and cold; a kind of handbook but something that opens up the magic and mystery and wonder of numbers," she says. "I wanted a chance to suggest that there are so many possibilities in maths."

    As an adult, she realised how "exciting and awesome" maths can be, in the way it is present in nature and in conceptual formulas. "If I was going to do a counting book I wanted to take that approach, so I have built it around counting up animals and then taking the numbers up into the stars, so it gives a hint at the profound possibilities of maths."

    She used a desert setting to suggest that idea, that we cannot count everything and that one cannot master 'counting'. "It's important for children to know early one how infinite and open-ended the world is and numbers are; to make children feel that maths is something you master takes away the magic of it and they feel defeated by numbers rather than understanding their wonder."

    But she also had to find animals for the one to ten counting in the picture book. For number one - and zero - she chose the Dodo and its egg. "I wanted to say that zero is a very powerful number, if a creature is extinct and there are none left, that's not a point you come back from which is why the Dodo disappears at the end. I don't want to be too heavy-handed with these messages but it's not a bad thing to hint at."

    Numbers five (the five-lined skink) and nine (the nine-banded armadillo) were harder to find and Yates reflects that 'the odds are quite hard in nature'. "I discovered the five-lined skink online and saw images of skinks catching flies online, and I liked the name 'skink'. It might be more familiar to children in the US. So you either look for familiar creatures or new and interesting ones." She chose the spider for eight, for example, as young children would probably know that spiders have eight legs.

    Yates says she rarely start with "any idea of what I am going to write" although for the counting book, she liked the idea of reaching ten and counting back down again.

    She tends to write her drafts roughly in pencil first with rough line drawings and then works to fit it with the pagination to include suspense and resolution. After showing this summary to the publisher, she begins to practice the artwork to check how she is going to draw the figures.

    Once she has her sketches of the characters, she will normally scan the drawings into the computer and then paint over the print-outs on a lightbox; this preserves the original drawings in case anything goes wrong. With the counting book, however, Yates drew everything in a water-soluble sepia pencil, then painted the drawings and added heavy line in pencil.

    She says, "I plan to experiment with lots of media and style because there are so many possibilities when you are trying to find something that suits the story. The Dog books are very dream-like, pastely and soft, built up from layered washes, while other more bold books and characters could suit oils better."

    Yates is currently developing a new series, Toad and I, about a little girl meeting a toad in the garden and the activities they have. "Toad is quite adventurous and self-possessed and the girl is sensible and indulgent of him, so Toad is a very different character and style from Dog, a lot bolder," says Yates.

    The next Dog book will be Dog Loves Fairytales, when Dog discovers a 'Bad Luck Imp' who believes he is unlucky because a witch kissed him. Together, Dog and the 'Bad Luck Imp' travel through various fairy tales to try to find the witch.