Last week I reviewed a beautiful new picture book, Daisy plays Hide-and-Seek by Ellie Sandall. In August I’ll be getting to meet her face to face, at the Just So Festival, but over the last few days I’ve managed to spend some “virtual” time with her, finding out more about her work and inspiration.
Playing by the book: First up, perhaps you could give us a bit of background – what roads have brought you here, to being an author and illustrator? Did you always want to create books?
Ellie Sandall: I was always drawing as a child, and I loved to write stories too. I remember making a little book about a teddy bear that got lost at a market when I was maybe five or six- I really wish I still had it! My mum is very creative and we often had some sort of project going at home. In secondary school my love of art continued, and I was lucky that my form room was in the Art block, so that I was always surrounded by paint and clay. I used to spend the majority of my breaks at school doodling, and even doodled during lessons, where I would reserve the back page of my exercise book for drawing. My teachers never seemed to mind, as I always got my work done!
After a brief stint of wanting to be a vet (to indulge my love of animals), I pursued my artistic ambitions and completed a foundation course in art and design, followed by a degree in graphic design at Bath Spa University. I really enjoyed the sequential illustration module of my degree course, and particularly the children’s book project I had worked on, and so I wanted to take this aspect further. This led me to the MA Children’s Book Illustration course at Cambridge School of Art, and from there to getting my first book deal with Egmont!
Playing by the book: What books were important to you as a child? Can you remember any picture books you loved? What books were read to you that you really enjoyed?
Ellie Sandall:I remember when I was very young I had a Mother Goose nursery rhyme book which I used to get my mum to read to me a lot- I could recite most of the rhymes from an early age, from looking at the pictures. I actually have a recording on cassette of me reciting this book, aged two! Another of my absolute favourites was (and still is) Eric Carle’s ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’. Other favourites included ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ by John Prater and ‘I Want My Potty’ by Tony Ross. When I was a little older I really enjoyed ‘The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me’ by Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake (in fact, anything by Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake).
Playing by the book: You did an MA in Children’s Book Illustration. What was the course like? What sort of subjects do you take on an MA in Children’s Book Illustration? If you want to publish children’s books, how important/useful is such an academic qualification?
Ellie Sandall: I really enjoyed the course. It was great to be with a group of people who had the same ambitions as me- to be published! I found it really helpful to have the opportunity for regular meet ups, where we would discuss our work and exchange feedback. It also helped to keep me on track with my work, as I knew that people would be expecting me to have done some in between meetings! It can sometimes be hard keeping up the motivation by yourself, especially when you have hit a tricky patch. It’s something that I miss about being on the course, and I am glad of such things as facebook and twitter which are great for keeping in touch with fellow authors and illustrators. I had a fantastic tutor in James Mayhew, himself a talented and prolific author and illustrator, who remains a source of guidance and encouragement.
In terms of subjects, we firstly completed a period of observation and experimentation, during which we went out and filled sketchbooks with drawings from life. I chose to theme my drawings around children, and so spent a lot of time in nurseries and primary schools observing how children played together. The aim of this was to pursue our own individual visual language and develop possible themes for later work. This then led to a sequential image project, which in my case took the form of a short, wordless story about a little boy playing with a toy car. After this came a diploma project, for which I developed a story about a little girl who loved to eat cake (this project was highly commended in the Macmillan Prize 2006). Throughout the course we also attended lectures about various aspects of illustration, and were visited by authors and illustrators who talked about their own work and experiences. Finally came the masters project for which we developed a children’s book idea through to completion. My story featured a small boy and his rocking horse, and it was this which caught the eye of a few people at our graduation show and ultimately led to me being invited for meetings with some publishers! I would say that this is one of the biggest benefits of the course- it isn’t imperative that you have an academic qualification if you want to be an illustrator, but it does put you in touch with the right people and get you noticed, as well as giving you a great portfolio of work. Egmont, the publishers that gave me my first book deal, have close links to the course so that was a real bonus.
Playing by the book: I love your use of colour and when I read that you love the illustrations of Brian Wildsmith I nodded, believing I can see his influence in your style. How did you develop your use of colour and multiple techniques/materials in your illustrations? How did you develop your illustrative “voice”?
Ellie Sandall: This is something that is always ongoing! It was really helpful to go through the period of observation and experimentation at the beginning of the MA. The emphasis was very much on drawing instinctively and finding your own voice naturally, rather than trying too hard to develop a ‘style’ (this word was banned by our course leader, Martin Salisbury!) Initially I found this quite hard, and occasionally I found myself looking at other illustrators that I admired and wanting my drawings to be like theirs. But I think to maintain your integrity as an artist it’s important to be yourself, and approach a drawing in your own way. I experimented with various materials, and enjoyed combining media to create contrast in my pictures. I really like putting little bits of collage in my work as I enjoy collecting patterned papers, and more recently I have been creating my own using lino and block printing, which is good fun! I would say I am still developing my ‘voice’, and always will be.
Playing by the book: What was your inspiration behind Daisy Plays Hide-and-Seek?
Ellie Sandall: I had drawn a cow in the background of a picture for a different book proposal that I showed to my publishers. They picked up on it as a nice, friendly-looking character and suggested I develop an idea ‘about cows in unusual places’. I went away to think, and this book was (eventually) the result! Initially the book was called ‘Daisy Cowmeleon’ as I imagine Daisy to be part cow, part chameleon, and therefore very good at playing hide-and-seek- I really liked this concept, though sadly it was felt that children wouldn’t get the pun!
Playing by the book: You’re taking part in the Just So Festival in August – can you tell us a bit about what you’ll be doing at the Festival?
Ellie Sandall: I will be reading and drawing from ‘Daisy Plays Hide-and-Seek’ and doing some crafty activities with the children based on the theme of hiding and camouflage. There might even be some Just So style hide and seek games thrown in!
Playing by the book: Are you a regular festival goer (I see you’re also going to the Hay Festival later this week)? Do you illustrate to music? If so, what music do you like to have on when working?
Ellie Sandall: This will be my first festival season! I am going to the Hay Festival in June, and am involved in the new Pop Up Festival which happens in London, also in June. In August, as well as the Just So Festival, I am visiting the Edinburgh Book Festival. I’m very excited about it all (and a little nervous too!)
I often have the radio on while I illustrate, and sing along- it’s a good job I have the studio to myself! When I’m working on the text I like to have quiet as it helps me concentrate. At the moment, I am enjoying listening to Harry Potter on CD while I draw!
Playing by the book: I’m always on the lookout for new recommendations when it comes to great picture books. What are your favourite picture books you’ve discovered this year?
Ellie Sandall: I am loving Katie Cleminson’s books, and looking forward to ‘Otto the Book Bear’. I also like ‘Foxly’s Feast’ by Owen Davey, ‘Magpie’s Treasure’ by Kate Slater and Nicola Killen’s ‘Not Me!’ (Nicola is a fellow MA Graduate). Other favourite illustrators include Catherine Rayner, Oliver Jeffers, Polly Dunbar, Eric Carle and John Burningham.
Playing by the book: What are you working on at the moment? What’s your next book about?
Ellie Sandall: I have recently finished working on a new book with Hodder, exploring the theme of friendship and understanding. It’s called ‘Copycat Bear’ and is about a little bird that is frustrated by her best friend, who is a bear, and who always tries to copy what she does. It is due to be published next spring. I am currently working on some new ideas, which are in very early stages and so currently top secret!
Playing by the book: Both your books so far have been written and illustrated by yourself. Is there an author with whom you’d like to collaborate on a picture book?
Ellie Sandall: I would be open to suggestions, though I really enjoy writing my own stories as it means I get to draw the things I like to draw! It would depend on the story, I think, rather than the author. If I really liked the story then I would love to illustrate another author’s work.
Playing by the book: Thank you Ellie, for your lovely interview, and for your super books – my kids and I are really looking forward to meeting you in August at the Just So Festival!