Thursday, October 21, 2010


Emily Gravett
TAN MAY LEE interviews EMILY GRAVETT, a children’s book author who is endlessly fascinated by the possibilities that putting words and images together can create

EMILY GRAVETT creates playgrounds and worlds with her children’s books, where young readers are invited to touch postcards, photographs, even library cards, and squeal at the fun pop-ups. She won the Kate Greenaway Medal twice, for Wolves in 2005 and Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears in 2008. She says she is “endlessly fascinated by the possibilities that putting words and images together can create.” In 2010, Gravett teamed up with writer Julia Donaldson to produce Cave Baby, a wonderful picture book about a cave baby who discovers the joy of creating worlds with a paintbrush.

You were quite independent in most of your books. What was it like to work with author Julia Donaldson for Cave Baby?
It was a radically different process for me to illustrate somebody else’s text. Contrary to what you may think, there was very little contact between Julia and me when we were brought together on this project. Julia gave the text to our editor Suzanne who passed it on to me. Suzanne showed Julia the illustrations as they progressed and gave Julia’s feedback back to me. It sounds odd, but actually it’s very sensible and common to keep authors and illustrators apart. Author-illustrator teams are put together because the publishers feel that both the author and illustrator’s contributions will add up to a sum greater than the individual’s parts. They did not want us to influence each other.

What were the ideas behind Cave Baby, the symbolism of the paintings?
For most of the book I tried to stay with fairly natural colours—red-ochre’s, browns and warm yellows. I wanted to give the reader a sense of moving through the book on a journey. The text talked a lot about the landscape so I had to make this an important part of my illustrations. If you lay the pages of the book side by side, they would form a panorama of the landscape that the mammoth and Cave Baby are moving through. There are only a few pages with no backgrounds, and these symbolise the times when Cave Baby has become so absorbed in his own joy of painting that everything else has vanished for him. At the end of the book I use brighter colours to give an exuberant feel to Cave Baby’s painting.

The inaugural Asian Festival of Children’s Content was held in May 2010 to bring quality Asian content to children to make them more aware of Asia’s unique environment and culture values. Were you exposed to books about other cultures at all when you were growing up?
I’ve been wracking my brains trying to think of the books I had when I was growing up, and trying to remember if many of them were about people from other cultures, but sadly I don’t think they were. I of course had many American books, and a few European ones, but I can’t think of a single book I had from Asia. That’s terrible, isn’t it? I think that in the UK, although in some ways we are very lucky because we have such a strong tradition of children’s literature, it has the downside that we don’t import as much from other countries.

In picture books, what would you say would be the best way to engage the imagination and help children to construct the story for themselves?
Probably the best way to engage a child’s imagination is just to share the book with them. Show them the bits that you like and try and get a dialogue going with the child. It also helps to let the child pick a few of their own books, even if you normally choose most of them yourself. You may not have the same tastes! By far the most important factor though, whether it’s in relation to engaging imagination or improving literacy is to make books fun.

I love the touch and feel of your interactive books, especially The Rabbit Problem, Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears and Wolves. How did you go about conceptualising them? Was it very important to give children a real sense of the world?
Thank you! When I’m making a book with a lot of different elements, I’m afraid it’s a bit of a mishmash. I normally have drawings in my sketchbook of roughly how I want the pages to look, but it’s not until I start the finished artwork that my ideas firm up. I love using found or realistic objects in my book. I don’t know if it’s important to give children a real sense of the world, I just know that when I was a child the more realistic things were the more I liked them, and replicas of things that adults used were even better.

Now that more and more e-readers, and the overlord iPad, are here, the format of book publishing has evolved. What are your thoughts on this?
Nothing can compare to flipping pages and touching pop-ups! The physicality of a book, the smell, the feel of the paper, the control the reader has of the pace just can’t be replicated, but that doesn’t mean I’m anti-technology. I believe that over the next few years people will develop a different way of using these devices that isn’t copying or replicating paper books. Something unique that will hopefully add topublishing rather then detract from it.

What inspires you most in your art and your writing? Are you inspired by the same thing for both aspects, or do you draw different influences for each?
I think my writing and my illustration are so closely woven together that what inspires one will inspire the other. Inspiration is a difficult area for me. I never know quite where the next idea will come from (or when) and when (if) it does it’s normally from somewhere quite unexpected.

Do you challenge stereotypes and clichés in your work?
I’m really not sure. I find stereotypes quite fascinating. I think that when we analyse something visually, whether that’s on paper or in real life, we are relying on our own set of stereotypes and clichés to process the information we see before us.

Outside writing, what are your other interests?
Over the past 10 years I have moved four times, and it’s almost felt like a hobby (but without the fun)! I’ve been in my current house for three years now, and have just about finished decorating. I’m starting on the garden now, so I could say I like gardening, even if I’m not very green-fingered. I also have two dogs, which take up an extraordinary amount of time, but I adore them. When I’m at home I like to cook, especially cakes.

What are your plans for the rest of 2010? Are you already working on your next book?
Sadly I’m not. I’m in the ‘waiting for inspiration’ part of my life which although I hate and hope doesn’t last much longer, it does mean that the plants will be watered, the cakes will be baked, and the dogs will get extra long walks!

Reproduced from the July-September 2010 issue of Quill magazine


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