AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

  • Rob Biddulph

    Rob Biddulph

    KEVIN

    HARPERCOLLINS CHILDREN'S BOOKS

    JANUARY 2018


    Bestselling picture book creator ROB BIDDULPH has turned to imaginary friends for his latest book, KEVIN - now available in paperback - in which a young boy, Sid Gibbons, discovers that his imaginary friend Kevin is real. Naturally this leads to all sorts of mischief by Sid but, when things go too far, Sid has to find a way to make amends.

    With its colourful imaginary world images alternating with the sepia tones of the real world, and a message of friendship delivered in fun rhyming text, this is a gorgeous picture book to share with a group and provides plenty of discussion points around taking responsibility for our actions.

    We asked ROB BIDDULPH to tell us more about KEVIN:


    Q: What inspired you to create a picture book about imaginary friends?

    A: I actually wrote this picture book text about nine years ago and it was inspired by my middle daughter, Kitty, who had a plethora of invisible friends including one called Demonstrated, who lived on the swing at the end of the garden. She also had imaginary parents, Jim and Polo, who lived about five miles away and who were of course much nicer than her real parents....

    Then there was Cleverin who lived in the loft space above her bed and he was coloured vanilla with pink spots. He would make an appearance whenever little accidents happened like spilled orange juice.

    So Kevin arrived fully formed and I just thought that he would make a good children's book - a child who has an imaginary friend and who then becomes the invisible friend. It was this idea that first set me on the path of creating picture books.


    Q: Why has it taken so long to have this story published?

    A: I didn't realise, when I tried to get my first book published, how hard it would be. I used all my contacts and found an agent very quickly, but actually getting a contract proved to be a lot harder. Publishers are taking a punt with an unknown author and they need to be very convinced that they have got it right.

    It was while trying to get this published that an editor saw the penguin character I had sketched and suggested I wrote a book about it, and two weeks later I had written Blown Away which was subsequently auctioned.

    Recently I showed my publisher, HarperCollins, my idea for Kevin - they really liked it and wanted to publish it. For some reason they hadn't seen it when I first showed it to publishers all those years ago.


    Q: How much has Kevin changed over those nine years?

    Originally the imaginary friend was called Cleverin because I wanted to stay true to Kitty's imagination, but that was problematic. It became much easier once his name was changed to Kevin - although the story as such hasn't changed.

    I have redrawn it four times, though, to get it right. The latest version includes a nod to Where the Wild Things Are because I came to see the similarities to Maurice Sendak's picture book at the beginning of my story, although I wasn't aware of that when I first wrote it.


    Q: In Kevin, you explore how the child Sid develops empathy for his invisible friend. How difficult is it to develop quite subtle messages through you stories?

    A: I arrived at that idea because Kitty would blame these characters for something she had done, perhaps a mess she had made or if something had been broken. So the storyline came very quickly but it's a fine line between being preachy and having a message that is too overt, and simply having a gentle moral in your story, telling children to take responsibility for their actions. I never begin writing a story with a 'lesson' in mind.

    I think the biggest virtue anyone can have is kindness and most of my stories have a character who is very kind at the end. It's not because I think children should be aware of that, it's just how I live my life. I just try to be kind and that comes through my stories.


    Q: This text is longer than your earlier books, why did you feel that would work for this picture book?

    A: Kevin is a slightly older book than my earlier ones, it's for children aged four or five plus, and so it has a slightly longer text. I have shared it at events and you know when children are bored because they will shout 'I'm bored' or just stand up and walk away, but this longer text still hold their attention.

    Normally I write quite a lot of text and then I cut back the number of words as the words do half the job and pictures the other half of telling the story.

    However, I liked the rhythm of the story so I kept in more of my original text than I would normally, and this story also has more detail, like a section describing the imaginary landscape. I wanted to keep those sections because children will look for things like the 'stripy ladybird' or 'spotty bee' once you've pointed them in the right direction.


    Q: Is it also important to have humour in the story?

    A: My favourite children's author of all time is Dr Seuss, his stories are a delight to read but their main strength is their humour. My own feeling is that, as much as a child enjoys hearing a story, there has to be a nod to the parents too and rhyme is great for injecting humour. I've shoe-horned in some very obvious rhymes for the adults, for example, '...Big Red, Little Blue, the one shaped like a kidney / They nodded to Kev, but they looked straight through Sidney.'

    My illustration style also helps, like all the imaginary friends you can see on the final spread - or the 'hidden' images in the spreads for children to find. I always include some toys from my earlier books, and there's a toy 'Kevin' for children to spot.

    Sometimes I find it hard to stop adding little motifs to my stories - I always include the number '72', the year I was born, and an old fashioned telephone, and the logo of the company my dad used to work for.... But children do pick these up and it's a real moment of victory for them. In this story, there's a spread where the mum is telling Kevin that things have to change and some children will spot that headlines across the two pages of his dad's newspaper has the word 'Kevin', which is what gives Sid the idea for his name. I am sure some children will find that clue.


    Q: What about the colour scheme - how difficult was it including an imaginary friend who was 'vanilla with pink spots'?

    A: I wanted to stay true to my daughter's vision of Kevin but those colours were the most problematic thing as it was hard to marry those colours with all the other colours I wanted to use. My earlier books like Blown Away have very limited colour palettes.

    In a way the pink and yellow colours for Kevin informed the whole 'Wizard of Oz' feel of the imaginary world; I decided to use very limited colours in the 'real world' in order to have a full colour palette in the imaginary world.


    Q: How do you create the illustrations for your picture books?

    A: Ultimately the illustrations are created entirely digitally although I begin everything with hand drawn sketches in sketch books, and the pages are sketched out in what we call 'thumbnails', so we can plan how everything will be laid out.

    Once the outline is agreed with the publisher, I draw all the illustrations on something like a giant iPad, which you draw on using a digital pen and brush and you can paint and blend using digital brushes. So it's just like using real paint except that you can undo it when you make a mistake!

    I use Photoshop, too, as it allows you to create lots of layers, so you can have your trees, then your flowers, then add the characters on another separate layer, and then you can do the foreground. Everything can be moved around quite drastically; you can 'flip' characters or change the size of things, so it's great fun although you do need to know when to stop or you can end up with 300 different layers....

    But I'm quite geeky so I enjoy that and for me, the illustration is the easiest part of the creative process and it's the part that I really enjoy. That and getting out and about with the finished book!




    SUNK

    HARPERCOLLINS CHILDREN'S BOOKS

    MARCH 2016


    In SUNK, picture book creator Rob Biddulph revisits his character Penguin Blue - who first appeared in his debut, BLOWN AWAY - in a new piratical adventure!

    When Penguin Blue finds a pirates' costume, he decides it's time to "hit the treasure trail!" and together with his pirate companions, they set off in Clive's rubber boat. There are maps to follow, adventures to be had and wrecks to explore! However, when they find themselves stuck on a desert island, Penguin Blue has to use all his resourcefulness to get them home.

    We asked ROB BIDDULPH to tell us more about his new picture book, SUNK:


    Q: You've been out celebrating World Book Day - how did it go?

    A: It's been really good fun. I was up in Glasgow as part of the Biggest Book Show on Earth at the Glasgow Opera House in front of 2,500 children. It was amazing!


    Q: What made you decide to revisit Blown Away's character, Penguin Blue, for this picture book?

    A: When I first wrote Blown Away, I liked the characters and I always planned to do at least one more story about them, and it was always going to be about pirates.

    But I'd already spent a long time with the characters for Blown Away as it takes me at least six months to write the text for each book, so I decided to spend some time with other characters before I revisited Blown Away.

    You might have noticed that the structure in Sunk is similar to Blown Away, if you look at them side by side - for example, the page where Penguin Blue has his idea for getting them all home is the same page number in Blown Away. And while they were up in the air for Blown Away, in this story they go deep under the water. I liked working with that 'scaffolding' for this story.


    Q: You also have a few motifs in this book that first appeared in Blown Away, like the little monkey. Why do you introduce these?

    A: Actually there are a few things I like to include in every picture book I create, like the number 72 which appears in all four of my picture books (that's the year of my birth), and there is always a pair of underpants although I'm not sure why...

    I also like to bring in images from my earlier picture books. Sharp eyes might notice one of the toys in Sunk from my other book, Grrrr - and the little monkey with the kite.


    Q: There are also lots of details in your images that extend the story, can you tell us what you are doing there?

    A: With picture books, the words tell you part of the story and the pictures tell you the rest of it. I also put lots of extra details into the images.

    In Sunk, for example, children might spot a treasure map in a bottle and an X on the island. The parrot takes the map and at the end, you see him with a big box of treasure.

    There's an extra story going on here and if the reader doesn't spot it, that's fine, but it's really rewarding for those that do. It's also nice for the person reading the book to find something new when they re-read the story!


    Q: There are lots of details in the set scenes in the book, too, how long does it take you to create these spreads?

    A: When I was a child, I loved drawing lots of detail into my pictures, a sort of Richard Scarry style, and I've carried that into my picture books.

    There are a couple of big, set pieces in this story that were an opportunity for this kind of detail, like when they first discover the underwater pirate ship. Because I can zoom in on the images that I'm creating on the computer, I can add all these tiny details even though no one will ever see them! There's one tiny wheel at the front end of the ship that can be turned to extend the plank. No one will ever know it's there, but I do.

    There's another a big spread at the end that has a pirate ship playground and I tried to think of everything I liked as a child to include on it - like the slides and cannons that shoot bubbles - so that page alone took me a week a create.


    Q: Were you also a pirate fan as a child?

    A: I remember going to Disney World when I was ten and loving the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and forcing my parents to go on it over and over again!

    I did a lot of research into pirates for this book to get all the language and styling ideas - I watched Aardman's The Pirates and visited TalkLikeAPirate.com to make sure I got as many pirate things as I could into this book - so look out for 'Avast me hearties!' and 'Yo ho ho'!


    Q: How did you create the colour palette for Sunk?

    A: Like Blown Away, there are lots of shades of blue but the most interesting ones to create were the underwater scenes, where I used a turquoise wash to make the scenes under the water, added lots of bubbles and silhouetted things that were in the distance.

    I also liked having the line of waves at the top of the water to separate the areas that are above and below water.


    Q: How important is it to have a strong, distinctive cover on your picture books?

    A: I think it was something I learned from my magazine days, working on The Observer Magazine. The covers are really important, they are your advert for the entire magazine. You can't over-promise in your cover line; the people writing the piece have to live up to the cover line.

    The titles, and the cover image, have to be memorable, intriguing and dynamic. I have a list of my next five or six possible books, and every one has a title and I know what the cover will look like.


    Q: What is your next picture book, and will there be another 'Blown Away' sequel?

    A: My next book is called Kevin and it's my first book that features humans rather than animals. It's about a boy who has an imaginary friend called Kevin.

    It has a slightly longer text, that still rhymes, and I think it might be my favourite picture book so far.

    And yes, I think I will return to the Blown Away characters for another picture book - although not just yet as I have several other ideas I want to create...


    Q: What other kinds of illustration work do you do?

    A: I've been designing greetings cards for many years and after starting with things like Hello Kitty, I'm now creating my own character cards and do a new range every few months, including a big Odd Dog Out range.

    I've also done some illustrations for books and book covers, including Christian O'Connell's Radio Boy.





    ODD DOG OUT

    HARPERCOLLINS CHILDREN'S BOOKS

    SEPTEMBER 2016


    ODD DOG OUT, the new title from author / illustrator ROB BIDDULPH, follows a colourful, creative dachshund living in a regimented world where she feels she doesn't belong. But when she finds somewhere that she fits right in, another 'odd dog' teaches her a valuable lesson.

    This beautifully-depicted picture book is a warm story with plenty of heart and humour that will help children to value difference. We were delighted to speak to author and illustrator ROB BIDDULPH about his new book and we asked him the following questions:


    Q: You're now working fulltime as an author and illustrator - do you miss the office?!

    A: I left The Observer, where I was art director for the magazine, six months ago and it's been very busy since then - much busier than I thought it would be. I'm now doing two books a year for HarperCollins instead of one and I'm designing book covers, like the new Piers Torday (There May be a Castle, Quercus).

    I've also been doing lots of reading events. Until you share your book with lots of children, you have no idea how successful it's going to be.

    So, my new life is busy and I'm enjoying it - but I do miss my colleagues in the office!


    Q: Why did you want to focus on a character who is different from everyone else in this story?

    A: I have three daughters and we were having a little trouble with one of their peer group where we were hearing a lot of disagreements and I thought I'd write something about not needing to follow the crowd.

    I suddenly had an image of all these sausage dogs and one being a bit different; she has to find herself and to realise that it's okay to be herself. But mainly it was seeing all these dogs in funny outfits that drove it...


    Q: You also make your dachshunds a girl, why did you choose that gender?

    A: I wanted the lead character to be female because there aren't enough female leads in picture books, and I have three girls myself.

    I also decided to give her a rainbow scarf because I wanted to touch, in some way, this whole LGBT debate we're having at the moment and to bring it into the picture book; that it doesn't matter who you are or what your preferences are.

    When I read it to children, there's often an assumption that 'odd dog' is a boy. We never find out the gender of the other 'odd dog' in this story, nor the characters in some of my other books like Blown Away.


    Q: Your Odd Dog Out could have been any kind of dog - why a dachshund?

    A: It's a strange story but I've always been a bit obsessed with dachshunds or sausage dogs, I think because my friend's family had one and we used to play with it.

    Then, when I went to art college, we started playing this game where we'd all be sitting around doodling and then someone would begin singing - to the tune of Windmills in Your Mind. They would sing something about dachshunds - 'like a dachshunds in a tutu in the corner of a room...' - and the next person had to pick it up from there.

    It left me with all these pictures in my head of sausage dogs in bizarre situations and I've used that in the last scene in the book which has an assortment of peculiar-looking dachshunds in a room. I think this game also helped me to develop my skills in writing in rhyming verse.


    Q: How did you decide on the 'look' of your dachshunds?

    A: When I decided to go ahead with the idea I had to work out the best way to draw a sausage dog and I made a page of sketches.

    How I start with an animal character is to draw it properly, then I strip it back - take things out and simplify the shape - so it's still looks like what you intend it to be but it's simpler.

    Then I put the sketch book down for a few days and tick the ones I like when I come back to it, and sketch some more, so the character gradually evolves until you get to where you want it to be.


    Q: There are lots of touches of humour in the story, how important is that in picture books?

    A: I like to add humour especially for the parents who will probably have to read the same book over and over again. In one scene, odd dog is feeling sad because she wants to play her guitar but all the other dogs are playing the violin. All the dogs are looking at their bow except for one who is looking straight to camera, that's a nod to the parents and carers sharing the book.

    I also take odd dog to 'Doggywood', which I thought would make the adults smile, and if you look at the spread of 'odd dog' sausage dogs, there's one on a space hopper! I also try to put in characters from my earlier books somewhere in the story because children will spot those, too.


    Q: Your rhyming text looks effortless - but probably isn't?

    A: I'm pleased you said that because it takes a lot of work to make something look effortless! It took six months to write Odd Dog Out, which often surprises people, but I'm very precise with the text.

    A picture book will live or die by how it reads aloud. If you're reading a text when it doesn't quite scan or a rhyme is crowbarred in, the language doesn't sit naturally. I work and work at the text until it comes right.

    I think the reason I like to write my books in rhyming text is because it gives me a structure to work with and I'm not confident about my writing. There's a safety in the rhyming structure, it's sort of mathematical because you have to have the right number of syllables. Writing in prose, I'd feel a bit exposed.

    I was asked by one publisher if I'd write in prose because it can be hard to sell a rhyming book to foreign publishers - although Odd Dog Out is now published in 12 different languages. In France and Germany, they even managed to make the translation rhyme!


    Q: How do you plan your picture books - through the text or with drawings?

    It begins with the premise and the story arc - how the peril will be resolved - and then I do one or two drawings to find out what kind of style the illustrations will be. I wanted a 'Richard Scary' look for this book because I loved those books as a child.

    Then I forget the drawing and I write the text, like a poem, and plan it out on a sheet of A4; deciding where the text will go and I sketch out how the words will work with the images. I won't let myself start the illustrations until the text is right.


    Q: Each of the pages has a very symmetrical look, how did that develop?

    A: As I said I am a great fan of Richard Scary and loved his cityscapes as a child, but I wanted to make my scenes flatter, regulated and gridded, so it had that suggestion of order and symmetry. The only problem I had was where to put the text so we had to make space on the pages for that.


    Q: What about all the dachshunds - were those created digitally?

    A: Nope, I drew an awful lot of dogs! I didn't want people to think 'this page has been created digitally' so I don't mind the imperfections you can see because that tells you it's been done by hand - but it was a long, drawn-out process...


    Q: You've just had a #PostItNotes exhibition at Waterstones - how did that come about?

    A: My youngest daughter was starting at primary school in reception and she was a bit nervous about having lunch at school so my babysitter suggested doing a little drawing to go in her lunch box for the first day.

    I drew something on a PostIt Note and she loved it, but the next day she asked, 'What are you going to draw for me today?' so I've ended up doing one every day for the last three years... We've got 600 or 700 of them because she's kept them all. I'm still trying to persuade her to have school dinners...


    Q: What will your next picture book be?

    A: I've finished that one already - it's a sequel to Blown Away called Sunk, about pirate penguins, and it'll be published in spring 2017.


    Q: Where do you do your work?

    A: We're lucky to have a little studio at the end of the garden. My wife is a journalist and she started to work fulltime so that I could leave The Observer to write fulltime. She previously worked part time from home so we built the posh shed at the end of the garden.

    I used to work in a corner of the kitchen but I found you do need to have another work space you can go into and the children can't.... It's lovely being warm and cosy inside while watching the weather and nature happening outside!




    BLOWN AWAY

    HARPERCOLLINS CHILDREN'S BOOKS

    NOVEMBER 2014

    Rob Biddulph, art director for The Observer magazine, is also now writing and illustrating books for children and, with penguins taking centre stage, his story about a little penguin that finds itself blown far from home - and back again - has just won the Waterstone's Children's Books Award 2015.


    SYNOPSIS

    Blown Away is a beautifully-presented picture book about a young penguin who, while flying his new kite, finds himself lifted into the air and blown away along with a number of his friends who have tried to help. They eventually land in a leafy jungle which is as far from their icy white home as you can get. Now the little group needs to find a way to get back home.... The rhyming text and bright, stylish illustrations make this a great book to share individually and with groups.


    INTERVIEW

    Rob Biddulph has been working at The Observer for eight years, having worked in magazines since leaving college when he began with Just 17 as a junior designer and moved on to work on music magazine NME.

    Biddulph had an early interest in art and describes himself as the 'art kid' at school. "It was me who did the posters for the school play etc and I went to college to do Fine Art and Graphic Design, thinking I'd become a painter," he says. "That was before I realised I'd need a way to earn some money and decided on graphic design which I pursued towards the end of my degree. I was learning about things like typography and editorial design and so, by the end of my degree, that was the direction I was headed in."

    Biddulph found that working on magazine design also required him to produce the occasional illustration himself, helping him to maintain his drawing skills which came in useful when he decided to turn his hand to illustrating his own material.

    He had a latent interest in picture books, having created some of his own books while still at college and later, he found he enjoyed sharing books with his daughters when they were younger. "I remember reading the Dr Seuss book, The Grinch that Stole Christmas, and thinking that it must be among the best children's texts ever written, the rhyme and the rhythm make it such a great book to read aloud," he says. Another of his favourites is The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers. "I thought it must be such a nice thing to do to have control over that kind of entity. It's like directing a film -- you get to cast the characters, do the lighting, plan the effects etc."

    At some point, he says, he had "a bit of an epiphany that this was something I'd like to do". He began to make up stories for his daughter about her imaginary friend and then tried to find an agent for one of these stories, something he managed to do quite quickly although getting his first book signed up with a publisher proved to be a lot harder. Despite a great deal of interest, a deal did not emerge for the story.

    Eventually Biddulph signed up with a new agent who encouraged him to draw a portfolio specifically for the children's picture book market, including staple images like pirates, dragons and animals. "The animals I drew included a couple of penguins and one of the publishers who saw it suggested I did a story based on the penguins. I had already drafted a story about some children with a kite being blown from London to the Arctic, so I decided to replace the children with the penguin character who would be blown away with a kite. It worked well because penguins can't fly."

    Biddulph wrote the rhyming text in just "two or three weeks", including during lunch hours spent at the British Library, and he drew a couple of the scenes to accompany the text. Interest was virtually immediate, he adds, and he was quickly signed up with HarperCollins

    Biddulph finds the writing process harder than the illustration. While he will happily sit in a studio at the end of a day with a drawing in front of him, he says "Writing is much more challenging although I really enjoy it". What makes picture books especially hard to write is "the efficiency of words" they require, he explains. "I tend to massively over-write especially with picture books."

    Biddulph writes the entire text first to "make sure it makes sense as a poem", he says, "Then I 'thumbnail' it (making roughs of each page) and see where I can drop lines by making the picture tell that part of the story instead." He writes his text in rhyme which, he feels, gives more opportunity for humour, and because it works so well when read aloud.

    He loves the "precision" of the Dr Seuss books and has applied that to his own work. "I am strict with the way I write, it has to be the perfect number of syllables and the perfect rhyme," he says and admits that this doesn't make it easy to write. "I can sometimes write for a whole week and only have two lines to show for it at the end of it. There often comes a point where you just can't get a rhyme right and I have to go back quite far and re-write a section to get to a point where the rhyming works."

    While the illustration side of creating a picture book is time-consuming, Biddulph finds he can relax more at this point. When he started to illustrate stories four or five years ago, his style was very different but there's been a slow evolution to reach the style he has today, the result he says of "trying to find a way to draw a lion and tiger and to present them to people". He will do a lot of sketch book work while sitting and watch television, and he describes himself as a "compulsive" phone doodler. "Repetitive drawing and doodling helps you to hone your style and that style will continually evolve," he explains.

    He plans to take a month off in January to do the illustrations for his next book. "Now I'm familiar with my style, it's just an enjoyable process. I picture certain scenes in the book in my head so when it comes to putting it on paper, it's quite a nice thing to do. While I always have doubts about the writing, I know I can deliver the illustration."

    It's surprising to learn that the images for Blown Away have been created entirely digitally, using a canvas 'texture' to give the illustrations the feel of being done by hand, although Biddulph did draw out the whole book by hand a few times in pencil before starting to work on it digitally. "I use a Wacom tablet for my illustration. The pens simulate real painting so you can blend in the colours etc and use customised brushes," he explains, "so you end up with a very accurate digital rendition of a painting but you can go on and scale it up or turn the image around." Working digitally also saves the illustrator the pain of getting three quarters of the way through a painting "and then ruining it!", Biddulph adds. "It's a very easy process and it's easy to tweek an image if, for example, the publisher wants the gorilla in the picture to be bigger in the frame."

    There are plenty of nice touches of humour in the illustrations, from the moment a bear appears in an orange dingy at the start of the story. Biddulph says, "Humour in stories is really important for me but then it is in real life, my wife would tell you that I love messing around with our kids and making them laugh!" When he finishes the first draft of a story, he will go back through it and try to include odd or funny images for children to spot. "It's like creating layers that they can see in their first, second or third reading. I put an icecream van into the jungle scene because I thought children would like to see that and I called it Mr Snappy -- there's an alligator driving it."

    As well as doing all the writing and illustration, Biddulph uses his experience to plans most of the layouts in the book. "My background is in magazine layout, that's what I do, and although planning a book is slightly different, there are things like pacing that I understand so I try to think about how the layout will help the story to flow." He adds, "I'm lucky to work with a team that creates books with people like Oliver Jeffers and Richard Scary."

    Biddulph's next book, about friendship and fitting in, will include different characters, although it will also have a bear in it who loses his growl.

    As much as he loves his day-job, working on The Observer and in magazines, he enjoys the freedom of creating his picture books. "Working in design is great but you have to show every layout to the editor and you need to create four or five front covers and sometimes the one you like will get chosen and sometimes it won't, so it's quite nice to be steering this ship myself."

    He expects to do much more in children's illustration moving forward and his home working area has grown from a Mac in the corner of the kitchen to a full-blown office in the garden which he describes as "nice and peaceful" although bad habits still creep in. "I drink endless cups of tea and eat cake, and I am constantly distracted by social media, Which is why it's so good that I can also still go to the British Library during my work day lunch times to sit with a pen and paper and just write."