AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

  • Kristyna Litten

    Kristyna Litten

    BLUE AND BERTIE

    SIMON & SCHUSTER CHILDREN'S BOOKS

    JANUARY 2016

    In this gentle and gorgeously-illustrated book about friendship by upcoming picture book creator Kristyna Litten, we explore how finding new friends and doing things a little differently can help make our lives much more exciting.

    Bertie the giraffe's life is predictable and safe. He has the same breakfast, visits the same places and naps under the same tree - until the day he oversleeps, is left behind by the herd, and makes a new friend who shows him that different can be fun.

    We asked author and illustrator Kristyna Litten to tell us more about how her latest picture book was created.

    Q: Can you tell us a bit about why you wanted to go into children's picture books and illustration?

    A: I think the way I have always enjoyed working has been heavily design-orientated, and the way I tend to draw characters lends itself quite naturally to picture books. I'm not sure I realised until half way through my Illustration course that I really wanted to be involved in the world of picture book illustration.

    During my course we worked on a mixture of projects so we could explore all areas of illustration, so there were opportunities to work on picture book illustration at times and with the help of some very talented creatives in the field, such as Vivian French, Holly Surplice and Polly Dunbar, who were all a real inspiration for me. I enjoyed illustrating any sort of text in the briefs I was given but I was also slowly becoming comfortable writing for my own characters, and I wrote my first full picture book in my second year at Edinburgh college of Art.


    Q: How did the story of Blue and Bertie come about - did you want to write something looking at friendship, or did you have the giraffe characters and wanted to use them?

    A: Most of my stories do begin with a sketch of a character. Blue himself changed quite a lot over the years I've been sketching him but his core personality was always constant. He is recognisable but he is also obviously different. Blue has a real heart of gold, and a personality anyone would want to get to know. So he made friendship as one of the main themes in this book develop quite organically.


    Q: How did Bertie and Blue's tentative (at first) friendship develop as you wrote the text?

    A: We naturally think that Bertie would be shocked to see a blue giraffe, which of course he is, but when they interact it becomes clear that Blue is as cautious as Bertie as Bertie is of Blue. They are in essence as vulnerable as each other, so their similarities begin there and they bond over a shared cautiousness and inquisitiveness; very similar to two children meeting for the first time in the playground.

    Their friendship then blossoms as Blue offers help to lost Bertie and along the way discovers he has someone to share all the beautiful parts of his world with.


    Q: How much practice did you do to get the giraffes' 'look' right?

    A: When I start drawing out characters, sometimes I tend to draw them at a small scale, so the features are very simplified. It just so happened that I think the giraffes works like this on a larger scale too. I don't really draw any of my characters true to life; they are distilled yet recognisable, but I think thats probably part of their charm.


    Q: Bertie and Blue's faces are very expressive, how hard is it to get the expressions you want on your characters?

    A: I usually use two dots for eyes, a mouth, and only add in eyebrows if there is a real change in the characters emotion, so its really down to the positioning of these three elements, and with the giraffes it became their ossicones that really helped me illustrate their emotions.


    Q: Why are there so often animal characters in picture book stories - and are there any animals you dread having to draw...?

    A: It sounds odd but I think we can connect and find similarities between ourselves and animal characters quite firmly, they carry the message of a story beautifully and are globally relatable. I love drawing people but I feel much more comfortable drawing animals in my picture books.

    I think most people dread drawing horses, but after Blue and Bertie and the many Zebras I have drawn in the last couple of years, I think I could be half way there. In fact I do find frogs a real challenge to draw. I did a new cover for Wind In The Willows last year and decided to draw Mr toad... it took me a very long time to get him right but I think I got there in the end.


    Q: There are a number of humourous touches in the story, do you feel it's important to include things that are funny and to cover a range of emotions in your stories?

    A: I do like to have a bit of humour in my drawings. I do usually rely on that much more but I toned it back a little with this particular book so that the other emotions could come to the forefront.


    Q: You also introduce a lot of onomatopoeia in the story, do you enjoy playing with language?

    A: I think playing with language like this is really important, and makes the reading experience much more engaging. When developing the story I often play around with rhyme and alliteration to aid my writing so its nice that I can bring elements of this into my picture books.


    Q: Do you see yourself as a writer or illustrator first? Do you tend to write text before illustration or does it come together for you?

    A: I think I'm definitely an illustrator first. Even if I do start with any writing I need to draw to fuel and develop the writing and make it work coherently with the images. But more often than not I do start with character sketches, it helps me to visualise the personality of the character and what role they might play in the story.


    Q: Can you talk us through your illustration techniques and the media you used to create your images?

    A: I have two ways of working which achieve very similar effects. One is that I draw all my line work with ink and pencil crayon and then colour and add in my own textures digitally. The other is that I collage or paint flat colour on to which i draw with pencil crayon. Its kind of a matter of what the project I am working on asks of me. Blue and Bertie happened to be all collaged artwork.


    Q: Do you have a favourite spread from Blue and Bertie?

    A: I think my favourite spread is when Blue and Bertie are looking up at the birds, just before they reach home. They both look very content. You almost forget that Bertie is lost.


    Q: What would you say to children who enjoy drawing but who need tips to improve their work or in how to develop their own style?

    A: I think a good mixture of observation and imagination is a perfect combination and can lead to interesting characters and stories. I sometimes like to cut pieces of paper up and try to make characters from them, I think it's a great way to get ideas flowing if you feel a little stuck.

    I think with regards to developing a style it comes down to finding a way of drawing that you feel comfortable with, rather than trying to force style in a particular way.


    Q: How important is it to illustrators to have a distinctive style?

    A: It definitely makes your work identifiable; I can identify most people's work without reading a name. I still worry that my work isn't distinctive enough, although at the same time I think it's really important that I continue exploring my work and experimenting. I try hard not to let an desire to conform to a style prevent me from developing and improving my work.


    Q: Where do you work and what does your studio look like?

    A: I work in a small studio in my house. I have a messy corner of my desk where I do some of my drawing, most of the time I tend to do my work on the floor and spread out all my papers, because this is what I did when I was growing up. I also have a 'clean' corner where I scan/print and work on my artwork digitally.


    Q: What sort of hours do you work and what do you do to escape?

    A: This changes quite a lot, on a normal day I now seem to be able to keep my hours between 9-5. But when I am busy I work longer from about 7-11 for a while. I'd rather do that than stay up all night on a project.

    When I'm not working I like to cook - I find it really relaxing.


    Q: What are you working on now?

    A: I'm currently working on the last few spreads of my next picture for Simon and Schuster. I'm really excited about it. It is about a robot-like character called Norton, so something quite different from my animals.