AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

  • Benji Davies

    Benji Davies

    TAD

    HARPERCOLLINS PICTURE BOOKS

    MARCH 2019


    TAD, the new picture book from creator BENJI DAVIES takes a fresh look at metamorphosis, growing up and being brave.

    In the story we meet Tad, the smallest of small tadpoles, and see the changes he goes through, all told from Tad's perspective as his tadbrothers and tadsisters grow, change - and one by one, disappear. Could their disappearance have anything to do with the monster fish Big Blub who lives at the bottom of the pond?

    We asked illustrator and author BENJI DAVIES to tell us more about storytelling and illustration, and what inspired TAD:


    Q: What drew you to creating a picture book featuring a tadpole becoming a frog, and how did you set out to make this story distinctive?

    A: I remember being fascinated by the transformation of tadpoles into frogs when I was young. There is something so appealing about these tiny creatures that appear to grow from a small black dot inside the frogspawn underwater, and step by step become a jumping, kicking, air-breathing frog.

    There seemed to be already be a story in that process, a story of growing up and becoming more able, more alive - leaving behind a vulnerable and contained world and entering a much bigger one. It seemed to me a parable for growing up. I also remember when I was young the desire to grow up, to be an adult and not be constrained by childhood. Of course, now I've grown up, I often feel the opposite!

    The storytelling voice is what drove this story. I made a drawing a few years ago of a tadpole breaking the surface of the water to peep out into the world. I posted it on instagram and when I thought about what words to put with the image, they seemed to write themselves. "Tad was a frog. Well that's not quite true - he was almost a frog."

    That got the ball rolling and a few days later these two short sentences were rolling around in my head again. The rest just seemed to flow and so I put down whenever I was doing and quickly wrote this story out on the notes app on my phone. The final story is edited down from that longer version.


    Q: Tad is the smallest of lots of very small tadpoles - and the story follows how they all grow and change, but it's quite a perplexing process for Tad. Do you think that children find the idea of change quite a scary prospect?

    A: I know that I did. I was always one of the smallest in my class, the smallest boy, until I went to secondary school. I was always aware of the next steps, growing up through school, new classes and moving up to 'bigger school' - and that I somehow needed adapt to that, so I guess I projected that into this story. You always put elements of autobiography into your writing even if you aren't aware of it.


    Q: The story tackles our hidden fears - in this case, in the shape of a fish Big Blub, who lives in the murky depths of the pond. Why did you decide to show Big Blub rather than keeping him hidden?

    A: If I had kept Big Blub completely hidden then he would have been scarier because you could mould him into any shape in your head and maybe that would be too much. By showing him I was able to soften his appearance, even make him a little bit cute or funny to look at. I think it's easier for children to relate to something they can see, and maybe helps them put this fear in a box they can deal with.


    Q: How did you approach drawing the tadpoles and frogs - did it involve lots of staring into ponds...?

    A: Internet searches are very handy and I collected together a few images that way, but overall I wanted the frogs to be a little bit fantastical, I was't trying to make them super realistic.

    I tried to follow the true process of becoming a frog from a tadpole, but I didn't want it to be so scientific that I had no licence to play and experiment for dramatic effect. By making an imaginary species of frog, I had the freedom to dictate the world they live in.


    Q: And how do you get the reader to focus on Tad when he / she is one of hundreds of tadpoles / frogs?

    A: Using colour I was able to make Tad's eye a unique colour to make her stand out from the other frogs. I create the colours digitally - to be geeky about it, I selected a 100% yellow ink for Tad's eye because its the brightest colour you can make. I knew this would look really pure against all the other colours in the book as it would be the only place that 100% yellow was seen.

    Big Blub's eye is also a close yellow to Tad's, slightly paler and a very slight touch of green - I wanted there to be a kind of connection between them using colour.


    Q: Can you talk about the colour palette you've used, especially as most of the book takes place underwater? And then there's that final, gorgeous spread..

    A: My concept for the colour felt pretty clear from the outset of writing the story. It should start in fairly monotone, to represent her contained sub-aqua world, and gradually build so that by the end we are confronted with a world of colour up above the water - as if all this stuff she has been missing under the water now fills her eyes with wonder and colour at the end.

    It's important to remember your character's perceptive when illustrating a story, what do they see, and how do they see it. As I worked on the book I realised that I wanted to make the colours more interesting and vibrant from the start but without ruining this pay off at the end which was really important.

    I chose rich turquoise and greens to represent the starting point under the water, heavily silhouetting Tad's black body and bright yellow eye. Big Blub's part of the pond is an inversion of this, being mainly black and dark background and Big Blub a sludgy green shape within.


    Q: How have you created the images for this picture book, and is the illustration the hardest or longest part of the process?

    A: For this book the easiest part was writing the story. It's the easiest book I have written, by which I mean the words flowed very quickly, which is unusual for my process.

    The images I created on the computer. I use a graphic tablet and stylus and paint digitally in Photoshop. It's not vastly different from traditional drawing, except that I have more control over the final image and can edit the colour very easily.

    It was a challenge for me in this book, in that all the other books I have both written and illustrated have been set in human worlds where the images represent everyday places, rooms, houses and landscapes with people in them, where I am able to dress the environment with props and objects - plant pots perhaps, or fireplaces, everyday detail. Whereas in this book I had to zoom in very close and blow things up.

    It meant I was relying more on texture and light and colour than have I have done before - I couldn't just break things up with a vase or a picture on a wall - it's very elemental in that sense and the storytelling focus was very different. It perhaps makes it feels as if the style is different from my other books, but for me it is just a change in subject while the nature of the story has dictated the look of the work.


    Q: What is your favourite item on your studio desk top? Closely followed by..?

    A: Currently the mug of coffee that is fuelling this interview!

    Also a wooden key fob I bought at The Ghibli Museum in Japan. It's a little character from the film My Neighbour Totoro - which is a great film if you've not seen it!


    Q: Do you have any tactics for getting children drawing who think that they can't draw?

    A: Working together on step-by-step drawings together is a great way to get children drawing. I often do this when I talk to children in schools or at book festivals.

    It can give them the confidence to see that drawing is a process of gradually creating something by building controlled lines - there is no magic wand involved, even though it sometimes looks like it. It's taken me thousands and thousands of hours practice to become good at drawing, much like learning a language or playing a musical instrument.

    The difference is that I absolutely loved to draw from early on and built on that bit by bit over many years.

    So often adults will say to me "Oh but I can't draw- you can because you're talented". It's a myth we like to tell ourselves. Even though I tell them this they don't believe me! I strongly believe that anyone can draw.

    Drawing is like any other learnt skill and is developed and nurtured with practice. It's important to tell children this and set that seed form a young age. It's actually applicable to so many aspects of life. Find something that you love and be passionate about it.

    Even just witnessing a grown-up doing some drawing can have a dramatic effect on children. Teachers and parents should lead by example and get involved because children are great mimics.


    Q: What are the best and worst things for you about working as an author / illustrator?

    A: The best thing is getting to create an entire world and story, the characters within it - that is the most seductive thing about writing.

    The worst thing is probably not being able to switch off. My head is on 24 hours a day! Even when - in fact especially when - I'm on a holiday, that's when my imagination seems to be most active with new ideas. I guess they need the breathing space, away for the every day graft of the work, to have the chance to bubble up.


    Q: You were a film animator previously, are any of your projects coming to television?

    A: I very much hope so. We have been talking with film people a lot over the past year or so and maybe, just maybe getting somewhere! But these things take a lot of time.

    It's a huge ambition of mine to get my stories onto the screen and I'd love to be involved in that process.


    Q: What are you working on now and how long does it take you to create a picture book from start to finish?

    A: I'm just about to start the process of creating a new picture book which is in its very early stages. It will probably take me about a year from now for the full process.

    In reality the ideas that I'm working on have been brewing in one form or another for several years before they become something that feels like "my next book". Developing that idea into a pencil dummy (a test version of the book in black and white drawing) then refining it and editing the text, and finally once that is all working, creating the artwork.

    The artwork stage will take about four months or so towards the production deadline - that's when it goes off to the printers. All being well the book will then publish about six months after that.

    On which note, I'd better get on with it!




    THE GROTLYN

    HARPERCOLLINS CHILDREN'S BOOKS

    SEPTEMBER 2017


    BENJI DAVIES's picture books put children at the centre of appealing, natural landscapes - hunting a whale in The Storm Whale or exploring boxes in On Sudden Hill.

    His latest picture book, THE GROTLYN, however, takes us to a dark, urban landscape where a child - and the reader - set out to discover what is the Grotlyn of the title? Is it as frightening as it first seems?

    We asked BENJI DAVIES to tell us more about THE GROTLYN:


    Q: Why did you want to explore children's night time fears in your new picture book, The Grotlyn?

    A: I guess my major childhood fear was my inspiration for the book - I was afraid of creepy things in the dark! I read a story in the paper when I was quite young ( old enough to read though...) about this little creature who went around stealing things from around the house such as the washing, biscuits, doing naughty things that upset people - sound familiar? It terrified me.

    That memory was my inspiration for the story. In The Grotlyn, I aim to dispel the myth that those bumps in the night are always something awful and show that not everything we imagine is as bad as we think. In fact perhaps its something quite wonderful, and certainly not something to be scared about.


    Q: Did the picture book evolve much as you created it?

    A: For The Grotlyn, which was also a short animated film I had made, I revisited the process I used for The Storm Whale. It was tricky to get the right balance at first.

    I wanted to make the book less sinister than the film, to create a tone that was humorous and light whilst playing with this Victorian setting, a Dickensian vibe. The story is essentially about flipping the darkness on its head, the characters finding out that these mysterious goings on are not what they seem, that they have a playful, hopeful outcome.

    I tried out several versions of the text before I got it just right. I even wrote a version without rhyme, the whole thing in prose. It didn't have the exciting, bouncing rhythm that the story needed to drive it along, although it did throw up some interesting words and ways of telling the story which I could weave back into the rhyme.

    For the characters I channelled my inner Dickens and a smattering of film references from Disney's Mary Poppins to David Lynch's The Elephant Man, to get a flavour of characters inhabiting turn-of-the-century London.


    Q: How did you come up with its name, Grotlyn?

    A: The name just popped into my head one day when I was thinking about this creature who slipped in and out of the shadows in a grimy Victorian setting. 'The Grotlyn' just seemed to fit. I suppose, deconstructed, it is a kind of portmanteau of GROTTY or GROTESQUE and GREMLIN or GOBLIN. It borrows the sounds from these words and mixes up their meanings to create something new.


    Q: The early spreads don't give any clue about what the Grotlyn might be - why did you decide to keep the reader waiting for so long?

    A: If I showed what the Grotlyn was then there wouldn't be a mystery to unravel! Its essential that we don't find out till later so that your expectations are turned on their head when you do - I like the theatre of a reveal - it draws you into the story.


    Q: There is darkness, and shadow, in the early part of the picture book, and the text touches on something that many children are afraid of. Do you think children like to be a little scared by stories?

    A: There is quite a bit of shadow and darkness but you need that for the contrast - no spoilers! - at the end. I think we all like a scary story. It takes us to the edge of ourselves and enables us to peep into the unknown from the safety of a book which we can close shut. It's up to us to keep reading and so we are in control. That can be very empowering, especially when you are small.

    I also think reading about characters who have the same fears as us tells us we are not alone and, perhaps by reading the story, we can learn through that character how to deal with our own fears.


    Q: How do you bring humour into the picture book?

    A: I use some of the characters to add humour to the story, especially Policeman Vickers who is putting out his washing one evening in his long johns. I think its really important that you can smile while reading this story because I wanted this book to be about easing your night time fears. Maybe a laugh can dispel your fear. When you are afraid, you tend to hold your breath and you feel tense. Perhaps a laugh can release that tension.


    Q: What was it like as an illustrator to switch to a town scene, when your previous books have been more open and rural?

    A: There's really no difference in my approach although it was interesting to have new subject matter to deal with. The compositions become more complicated, as there's a lot more detail, and you have to balance all the extra elements required to create a scene that has more buildings in it.

    But the objective is the same, to create a pleasing image that advances the story and leads you to turn the page and find out what happens next.


    Q: What medium do you use to create the images?

    A: I work all my roughs in ink or pencil on paper. I then scan this into the computer and work over the images using Photoshop, painting digitally using a tablet and stylus, to give the effect of flat colour. I sometimes employ hand-painted textures to create a bit of texture and bite, that I make on paper and scan in. For The Grotlyn I used a paint roller and thick paint to generate some of the inky shadows.


    Q: How did you select your colour palette for this picture book?

    A: The colour palette for the book evolved as I created the artwork. I always want to retain a consistency throughout a story, but equally I think colour is an important storytelling tool. I pay a lot of attention to how the colour behaves from spread to spread.

    If you study the use of red through out, I like the rhythm it creates from page to page, especially as it builds towards the end. My aim is to lead you through the story visually and emotionally using the colour.


    Q: What was the most challenging spread to create?

    A: The end and the beginning were very clear to me from early on so they flowed relatively easily. I'd say the larger townscapes were the hardest because I had to create the feeling of a dense and labyrinthine place, whist not making it too darkly coloured or overly scary. It still needed to feel like an intriguing place that you might want to visit and that was hard given the slightly gothic subject matter.


    Q: Do you sketch and write the text at the same time, or does one or the other come first?

    A: I get asked this question a lot - I think all ideas are essentially visual when they start in that they are pictures playing in my mind's eye. But for them to be part of a story thy need to have intentions, and they need a situation for their story to play out against. So it's a question of whether I chose to make a sketch or jot down a few words. There are no rules and I do whatever feels right.

    More and more I make notes that I can return to later. They are written reminders of what I was thinking. These are more important than sketches in some ways because while a drawing might be important for how a character specifically looks, a written note can describe the story and the intention of the characters.


    Q: Where do you work and what are you working on now?

    A: I work at home in my studio. Currently I am just making the first few steps into storyboarding my next book.


    Q: Your background is in animation, do you have any new animation projects coming up - particularly with your own books?

    A: I don't direct or animate any more, as I'm working full time at my writing and illustrating now. But I have a good working relationship with Moth, the studio who made the trailer for The Grotlyn and also The Storm Whale In Winter, so it would be fun to carry on that collaboration for future books - or even to get the opportunity to turn my books into longer form animated pieces for television. There have been a lot of serious talk about this - so watch this space.




    THE STORM WHALE IN WINTER

    SEPTEMBER 2016

    SIMON & SCHUSTER CHILDREN'S BOOKS


    THE STORM WHALE IN WINTER is the follow-up to Benji Davies's award-winning The Storm Whale and the new book takes us back to the small seascape that the young boy Noi inhabits with his father. The original picture book is a story about friendship and loneliness, in which Noi discovers the small whale and helps to save it. In The Storm Whale in Winter, the whale pod returns the friendship and kindness shown by Noi and his father in an atmospheric and dramatic story.

    We were able to put the following questions to Benji Davies:


    Q: What was it about The Storm Whale that made you want to revisit it in a new picture book?

    A: Before I wrote The Storm Whale I worked in animation and it has always been an ambition of mine to have an animated feature on television at Christmas. When The Storm Whale won the Oscar's First Book Prize, there was a lot of interest in it but when I spoke to the animation producers, they wanted to have a story that was a bit more Christmasy.

    That got me thinking, how would it work, with ice and winter in Noi's world? The first book had been very much been about spring and summer. I had some ideas that I had not included in the first book and I felt I could bring them back in here - but it is an unashamedly snowy book. Each of the picture books is fully self-contained, but they also work as a pair.

    I also remember as a child wanting to revisit books I had enjoyed and especially if there was a series. I think there was a lovely bond created between Noi and the whale in the first book and having met a lot of children who had read and enjoyed it, it also got me thinking about revisiting it although I hadn't planned to write a sequel.


    Q: Was it harder to write a fresh story that includes the same characters and setting?

    A: In some ways it was easier. The original Storm Whale story was based on an animation I had created about ten years previously, and I had already turned that into a picture book. So I had established the voice and tone and the world in which it was set, so in some ways writing the second book was easier, but getting the text right was hard. I re-wrote it four times.

    There's also a lot of exposition in the first page or two of The Storm Whale in Winter because you need to explain what happened in book one, or there's no story.


    Q: One of the things that made The Storm Whale so appealing was its muted colour palette and the tone of the story. How did you decide on the colours and tone for the new book?

    A: Although the first book is set in the spring and summer, I wanted to make sure that there was a similar tone between the two books. The Storm Whale in Winter is mainly blues, greys and purples; you can still bring colour into black and white, there are lots of tricks to make the book look more colourful even if the colours are still muted. I also played with light and shadow a lot more and that helps bring more tension into the story, too.

    The first book has a gentler tone that still comes through in The Storm Whale in Winter because I didn't want to take it too far beyond the characters but at the same time, we did need to feel we had moved on so that is where there is more of an idea of an adventure and it being more perilous.

    The first book rolls some things out and the second brings them back; without giving anything away, the whales are returning favours in book two.


    Q: Do you have a favourite spread from the book?

    A: It's probably where the whales are under the fisherman's boat and you see their shapes in the water. These were the pages I did first when I was still trying to work out how the colour palette would go and I thought it would be one of the most challenging spreads in the book because it has such a strong emotional tug.


    Q: Given your background in animation, did you make the animated book trailer we can see at www.thestormwhale.com?

    A: It would have taken me about six weeks to do something like that so we asked someone I know who works in animation and who I trusted with the visuals. I chatted it through what I thought should happen with them, did the approvals and handed them the artwork. It's really great to hand over a piece of your work and to see how they have interpreted it.


    Q: Is The Storm Whale in Winter likely to be animated for television?

    A: We're not sure at this stage but there are conversations happening and there is interest in filming it.

    If it does happen, the book would have come full circle because I originally created it as an animated film, before making it into a picture book. In fact a gallery will be showing the original film later this month during the Wigtown Book Festival in Scotland, along with an exhibition of some of my material.


    Q: Are we likely to see any more picture books from your earlier animation work?

    A: Actually I'm working on something at the moment that is based on an animation I did several years ago. There are other things I've written as animations or scripts or early story boards that never made it as film but which might now emerge as picture books.


    Q: Do you have any tips for children who want to become an illustrator?

    A: I think it has to come through as a passion. When I was a child I remember I was just always drawing, in all my spare time, so I think my main advice would be to keep doing it, keep drawing. After school I did a Foundation course in art which is really helpful because it helps you decide what area you want to go into, it opens you up creatively to all the possibilities, rather than focusing too early on one thing.

    I did Fine Art as my specialist area because I knew that at some point I'd probably end up sat in front of a computer so I wanted to splash around as much paint as I could! I was also really into modelling and the early Aardman animations. But I had known since the age of about ten that I wanted to illustrate children's books, and I ended up doing all of these which has been great!




    THE STORM WHALE

    SIMON & SCHUSTER CHILDREN'S BOOKS

    SEPTEMBER 2013


    The Storm Whale is an evocative portrayal of a child's need for friendship, told through the sparest of text and imagery in this beautiful picture book.

    A small boy, Noi, lives by the sea with his father and their six cats but his father is a fisherman and so Noi is often on his own. When he finds a small whale washed up onto the beach, Noi adopts it and brings it home, cherishing it as a new friend. Noi's father helps him understand that the whale needs to be returned to the sea - but Noi's attachment to the whale also helps the father realise that his son needs his company more.

    Author and illustrator Benji Davies talked to ReadingZone about the creation of The Storm Whale, his first solo picture book.


    Q: Could you tell us a little about how this idea developed?

    A: I actually made it as a short film as a student about 10 years ago. I had a few themes that I was interested in making into a story - the sea, friendship between a child and an animal... and this was the result.

    The film is virtually the same in terms of narrative, with a few bits left out - such as chopping off fish heads to make soup, which we felt didn't work visually for this picture book!

    We (the editor and I) also pumped up some of the emotional aspects to drive the story home more, and the final two spreads weren't in the film at all... It needed a conclusion to deliver its message.


    Q: We often see mums and small children in picture books for this age - why did you want a boy and his dad?

    A: I don't think it was a conscious choice. I just pictured this boy being lonely because he was left at home all day. It felt true to the setting that his dad would be a fisherman... and so the relationship evolved.

    It's quite a timeless place, perhaps a distant uncomplicated land where an honest living is the focus of their lives. I thought it would be interesting to have the dad needing to keep the 'family' going, but not seeing how this might affect the boy - he's kind of doing his best to look after his son but he doesn't really know that the boy just needs a friend.


    Q: Your text is very pared down, how long did it take you to shape the story?

    A: The film was wordless, dialogue free, so really it couldn't be loaded with words or descriptions, it needed to rely mainly on its visual narrative.

    Because I had already written the story visually in the student film, I always knew what was happening next. But shaping that from a film format into a book was actually quite hard and time consuming and took lots of prodding and poking to get it right.

    The words evolved with this transition, and I laid the images out like a large storyboard, with text that I thought helped progress the story without saying the same thing as the images. I think you can still read it without the words, and get a lot of the same feeling. The words guide you and create pace on which to hang the imagery.

    I then tweaked and poked at it till it started to work, cutting and pasting, swapping bits round, changing the words. When I had something I thought was working, I turned it into a small dummy book. I worked a lot on the text with my editor to make sure it was all flowing correctly and saying what I wanted it to.

    I had to develop it whilst working on other projects so it took a couple of years on and off before I worked it into something that would be recognisable as the final book. Which sounds like ages! But I was very busy during this time so it didn't feel that long.


    Q: Have you much experience in drawing seascapes or did you need to spend a lot of time by the sea to develop these illustrations?

    A: I love the sea... I spend a lot of time in Norfolk and had a lot of British beach holidays as a child. My grandparents lived in Cornwall and we would stay near them on the coast. I can't resist being by the sea if I get the chance.

    In 2009 I was walking along the sea front in Whitstable, Kent and I spotted these lovely fisherman's huts. It sparked up thoughts of the film I made years before, so when I got home I did some sketches from my photographs. The sketches became a new piece of artwork, and from there I showed my art director Nia Roberts at Simon & Schuster, which led us to developing the book.


    Q: Do you have a favourite spread?

    A: I like the beach house image, where the story text begins, as that is the image I made that sparked off the project. But also the evening spread, where Noi's dad is coming home. I like it because it's the most subtle palette and atmospheric piece I have had the opportunity to create for a picture book.


    Q: What media did you use to create the images?

    A: I sketch my roughs in pencil or ink, keeping things quite loose. Then I scan them in and work up the colour digitally. I like to use flat areas of colour then add texture with digital brushwork to add line and interest to the image.


    Q: As an illustrator, what is the difference between illustrating your own work and that of other people?

    A: It's a totally different process. When working on someone else's text, you have a relatively strict path to follow. When it's your own words, you have to be careful as you can easily go off on tangents - there are no limits and you have to discipline yourself to tell the story you want to tell, and not let it become something else.


    Q: Where do you do your work?

    A: I work at home in my studio. I rarely sketch outside but it's something I keep trying to do more of!


    Q: How does your working day go? Any bad habits to get you through the day?

    A: Social networking is a major and terrible distraction!

    I like to think I have quite a freestyle working day - this basically means I'm not very disciplined! I have to encourage myself to have more structure - which is always better, but harder to achieve. Tea-making is a constant fixture....