AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

  • Michelle Robinson

    Michelle Robinson

    HOW TO WASH A WOOLLY MAMMOTH

    SIMON & SCHUSTER CHILDREN'S BOOKS

    JULY 2013

    How to Wash a Woolly Mammoth is a warm and entertaining story that is a girl's step-by-step guide to washing her own woolly mammoth. It is written by Michelle Robinson and illustrated by Kate Hindley.


    This is what Michelle Robinson told us about writing How to Wash a Woolly Mammoth:


    Q: Why did you choose a mammoth for this story? Do you have dogs, for example, that might have inspired the story?

    A: We were on holiday in Nova Scotia when I saw a life-sized model mastodon on a ridge by the highway. It barged its way into my brain and - poink! - a woolly mammoth story popped out. I don't have any dogs to bathe; washing my kids is hard enough.


    Q: Why did you introduce a 'step by step' approach for the story?

    A: There's an ancient viral email about how to give a cat a pill. It's a universally funny joke with a simple structure and a brilliant punchline - I won't ruin it for you, go Google it. Perfect inspiration for a picture book.


    Q: Did you write in any notes for the illustrator eg when the mammoth runs away from the scary mask etc?

    A: I wrote: [Child levers mammoth into the bath with a splash, perhaps using a wheelbarrow]. Kate added her trademark comic genius by adding lots of different methods of mammoth persuasion. I'm glad she felt so inspired, it's a particularly strong spread and it cracks kids up every time.


    Q: I love the hair style spread, what inspired that?

    A: Me as a kid. My kids. Everyone's kids. Moulding your bubbly hair into silly shapes takes the sting out of shampooing, right? Again, Kate was Chief Stylist; all I wrote was: [Mammoth happily showing off lots of daft hairstyles - punk, Elvis, etc.].


    Q: Why did you decide to send your woolly mammoth up a tree?

    A: Why not? That's where he wanted to go. Have you ever tried standing in the way of a ten ton prehistoric mammal?


    Q: How disciplined do you need to be in keeping the text so succinct?

    A: Very. At my best, I'm ruthless. Grr.


    Q: Did you have a clear idea of how the finished illustrations might work with the text?

    A: I'd hate to be given a brief that said 'write exactly this', so unless it's essential to the story I never say 'Draw exactly this'. I put in an idea or two, usually with language like 'Maybe...' and 'Perhaps...', so the editor and illustrator know it's just a suggestion.

    When you get to work with brilliant people, you want them to have the freedom to enjoy themselves and do their very best work. That way books get stronger. Collaboration is key.


    Q: What did you think of the illustrations, any surprises? Do you have a favourite spread?

    A: They are ridiculously good. Don't you think? I would happily hang them all on my wall. Kate Hindley is not only a brilliant artist but a wizard when it comes to the art of the picture book. My son's favourite spread is the one with the heavy duty crane. I have a soft spot for 'When all else fails, there is always cake'. That's my mantra.



    We also spoke to KATE HINDLEY about illustrating the picture book.


    Q: Did you ever expect to be drawing a mammoth for a picture book?

    A: I hadn't! But that is one of the funnest parts of my job - you never know what you might get asked to draw next. He was a great character to design, and partly based on my dog Badger (who is a fraction of the size but just as hairy!)


    Q: What was it about the text that appealed to the illustrator in you?

    A: I really liked the simple instructional text. There is hardly any description of the characters or speech, so it gave me lots of freedom to go to town on these in the illustrations.

    I'm also quite a big fan of the design in old instruction manuals, and the look of the Haynes guides. Originally I had drawn up a few ideas inspired by these, but unfortunately they didn't look very appealing for children so we had to tone it down a bit. Maybe its something I can keep thinking about and develop for a future book!


    Q: Is it harder or easier to tackle a picture book with a limited text?

    A: Michelle was really open with her brief and hardly gave me any notes, so it gave me lots of freedom as to where to go with the illustrations. When I first got the text there was lots of brainstorming and doodling. It was great to be given the opportunity to put your own mark on someone else's story.


    Q: Were the spreads that you had to work hard on to visualise?

    A: I found water pretty tricky to draw (which was a bit of a problem as it features quite a lot..) It involved a lot of scanning in shapes I had painted in water colours, and then trying to edit and layer them up so that they looked flat enough that they fitted in with the style of the characters. There was much trial and error, and all those bubbles have been pretty much every colour you can think of before we produced the final artworks.


    Q: You've developed a lovely relationship between the girl and the mammoth through the images, did you always feel that would be a strong part of the story?

    A: I think because the text is so fantastically simple, it is quite nice to introduce another more personal aspect to the story through the character illustrations (which will hopefully make people want to read the story over!) Developing characters is one of my favourite things to do, so it was great to be given such an open brief so that I could design the illustrations with this in mind.


    Q: Is humour important to you, for example the image of the mammoth drinking from a straw (rather than through his trunk) etc?

    A: The great thing about children's books is that they usually take something quite ordinary, like bath time, and then add something really absurd to the mix - like a mammoth! It's very hard not to have fun and be a bit daft with a story like this. What a great excuse to be silly!


    Q: At what point do you run things by the publisher or author to check they are happy with your interpretation of spreads, especially the very undirected ones like, Make a Splash?

    A: The team at Simon and Schuster are fantastic and I work very closely with them so that we can make a book that we are all happy with.

    My designer Nia is brilliant and I'm always eager to hear her opinion and any advice that she has. We probably talk a few times a week about how we feel the project is going, and usually brainstorm together about how spreads should look.

    It is through her I hear what Michelle and Lara (our editor) think, and even the rest of the team at S+S. I always think its best to get a broad range of opinions, and then worry what to do from there.


    Q: Were there any spreads that you found quite difficult to create or interpret? Do you have a favourite spread?

    A: The final double page spread was a bit tricky to draft out in order to fit both characters in the bath (you may notice a little artistic license...)

    I think my favourite part was working on the title pages. I had lots of bottles and soaps I had doodled in my sketchbooks especially designed for mammoth grooming and hygiene. They were great fun to make up, even though they didn't necessarily fit into the text. I was really pleased when we found a place we could use them.