Emily Gravett on writing and illustrating children’s picture books, and a mathematical bunny problem.

Emily Gravett, who won the Kate Greenaway medal twice (Wolves, 2005 and Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears, 2008) is known for her picture books. Her father is printmaker and mother an art teacher in a special needs school. Emily always loved to draw and paint but her passion for picture books, writing and reading to children began when she saw her two-month-old daughter respond to picture books(The infant’s eyes lit up when other children in the room were being read out aloud to). After that Emily began to draw and paint, tell her daughter stories via sketches and finally enrolled for a programme in illustration. Her first two books, including Wolves, for which she won her first Kate Greenaway medal, were produced while she was still studying. All her books have been published by Macmillan. Excerpts from an interview conducted during ‘Jumpstart’, organised by the German Book Office.

How do you draw?

I prefer using pencil and watercolours. The images are then scanned and the pages designed.

Do you take an interest in designing and overseeing the production of every picture book?

I do. I hand over the ready-to-print files to my publisher, where the editors then pitch in.

For instance, in the Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears, I scanned pages from old books to create the withered background feel on the pages. The editors began to proofread the pages and discovered that the writing from the scanned pages was still visible! So it had to be scrubbed off.

Or in The Rabbit Problem, the editors had to actually count every single rabbit on every page, including on the last pop-up page.

Why work only with picture books? How long does it take?

I love image and text that are integrated. You can do anything with a picture book even though it has a strict format. Of the books published so far, only the shout-along Monkey and Me is in the big book format. It can take me anywhere from a few hours (Orange Bear Apple Bear) to a few weeks (Wolves) to over a year (The Rabbit Problem).

Tell me more about The Rabbit Problem.

It emerged after I heard a radio programme on the 13th century mathematician Fibonacci.There was an annual competition conducted to figure out ‘the rabbit problem’. The mathematician solved it by creating the Fibonacci series that took into consideration an idealised situation of a pair of rabbits; assuming that no rabbit died, he created the Fibonacci sequence where the rabbits are able to mate at the age of one month and then reproduce again after the second month. (It was known much earlier to Indian mathematicians like Pingala too.)

I do not have a head for mathematics, but this conversation caught my attention and I created The Rabbit Problem. It took me over a year to make the book. Every single rabbit in the book had to be drawn and painted; each page had to be checked for consistency in the drawings (of the generations) and every rabbit had to be counted to confirm if the number of rabbits on each page conformed to the Fibonacci sequence. Even the little pieces pasted on to the pages like The Fibber newspaper, or The Carrot Cookery Book, took some weeks to prepare.

For the sake of authenticity, I rummage through old bookshops, garage sales and second-hand bookstores to discover old clippings, old cookery books. Then I try and imitate the design into my picture books. Since I am not very good at identifying fonts, I collaborate closely with an art director. 

How many books have you published so far? Do you collaborate with anyone?

I have published 15 picture books, all of which I have written, illustrated and designed myself. I have only collaborated once with Julia Donaldson on Cave Baby. I was really pleased with the result, and very glad I did it as it was a great experience and a challenge.

In India, it is difficult for illustrators to make a living off their chosen career. So how do you manage as a full-time illustrator of picture books?

I have been very lucky in all my projects. The first book — Wolves — was published while still at university. It got me a three-book contract with an advance that allowed me to remain afloat for a year. Once it became evident that my books were selling well worldwide, the advance against royalties for a book helped me concentrate on my work. Now the royalties are flattening out but they still allow me the leisure to focus on my ideas and picture books.

Your choice of stories for the picture books seem to be from well-known folk lore and children’s literature — Blue Chameleon (Eric Carle); Wolf Won’t Bite! (Three Little Pigs); Dogs (Seuss); Meerkat Mail (Country Mouse, Town Mouse). Is this a conscious decision?

Wolf Won’t Bite! is a play on a story (‘The Three Little Pigs’) that children are already familiar with. Otherwise I do not actually work with well-known tales consciously. I do love wolves, the actual animals, and they have this storytelling mythology woven around them. It must sound bad, I don’t often think of children, but of what I like when I am working on an idea. Yes, you do get the feeling inside your stomach, a mixture of excitement that fairy tales generate.

How well do picture books translate into other languages? Do you oversee production and design?

It is a challenge translating a picture book. The result varies depending upon the language of destination and the script used. If it is a Romance language like French that uses the Roman script, then the translation is more or less easily done. If it is a pictorial script like Chinese or Thai, then adjusting the script and illustration takes time, but I am not involved in the process. I only receive the finished copies. But the most intriguing translation has been that of Orange Bear Apple Bear  into Catalan. I am unable to read it but the original text is a play of five words, but the translated text consists of a string of words spread across the pages. It definitely has a lot more words! 

Who are the illustrators you admire?

Quentin Blake, Raymond Briggs, Posy Simmonds, Polly Dunbar, Anthony Browne, Alexis Deacon and Edward Ardizzone.

The technical details in your picture books are a delight — end paper, copyright pages, use of a comma etc.

I love the structure of a book. So whether it is designing the copyright page of Blue Chameleon in the shape of the reptile, or working on creating little images and details on the end papers as in the  Odd Egg  and Again!, I love it. It even extends to playing with the use of a comma and five words in Orange Bear Apple Bear. I enjoy making these details.

Emily Gravett was in India at the invitation of the British Council to attend the Ghummakad Narain festival.


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