Today I’m delighted to be bringing you an interview with Mini Grey, a multi-award winning British author and illustrator. Her books include The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon, The Pea and the Princess, Egg Drop (which we reviewed here), Biscuit Bear (which we reviewed here), Jim and the Traction Man stories, the latest instalment of which is published next week.
For today’s interview I was inspired by Desert Island Discs and asked Mini if she could share with us 8 books that reflect pivotal moments in her life so far, with particular reference to her journey towards becoming a published author and illustrator (I have since discovered that We Love This Book uses a similar format for one of its features, but I didn’t know this when I first got in touch with Mini). So now to our conversation…
Playing by the book: Well hello Mini! I’ve been really looking forward to chatting with you on Playing by the book about your work, but before going any further I’m afraid I have to ask the question lots of people have asked me to put to you…
Your name and your birth story are – in the best possible sense – worthy of a comic book super hero – and so I have to ask, were you really born in a Mini?
Mini Grey: Well my mum says so and I do believe her. It all happened in a car park in Wales in January in the mid-1960s. When I was expecting my son I was very relieved to get to the hospital in time – otherwise I’d have to have called him ‘Rover’ (which was our car at the time.)
Book choice 1
The Ladybird Book of Motor Cars – I’ve had this since very small, and the cover is all scribbled over.
I’ve also scribbled on the page featuring the Mini, because it is so exciting. (The one I was born in was racing green, not red as shown.)
Playing by the book: Thanks Mini! The 5 and 6 year olds I read to at school suggested Lamborghini and Jaguar when I told them the author of the books I was reading to them was named after a car, but when I revealed it was Mini they were delighted!
Now, I’ve read that as a child you had a love of horror, that you would spend Friday nights watching Hammer Horror movies. We try to protect kids from lots of horror nowadays, but do you think there is a place for it in children’s books? How can horror be handled in picture books? What value does horror have in picture books?
Mini Grey: Just the lighter, easier questions to start with then!!
Playing by the book: Umm… Yes… sorry about that!
Mini Grey: Some of the first stories for children were grisly fairy tales and cautionary tales with upsetting endings eg Shock-Headed Peter, and let’s not forget all those scary nursery rhymes like Oranges and Lemons and Ring a Ring a Roses where everybody dies.
I think the experience of being scared when you know you’re really safe and sound can be quite exciting. Stories can lead you to quite dangerous places and then lead you safely out again – so you sort of safely experience the thrill and the adventure in an imaginative world that you and the book have created. Having said that, I’m quite easily scared, and a hammy Hammer-type Horror is about all I can handle. (‘Carry On Screaming’ would be my choice!)
Book choice 2
I am choosing Paula Rego – Nursery Rhymes, published by Thames & Hudson
It’s a series of beautiful etchings each inspired by nursery rhymes that I think bring out their full inner bloodiness and menace.
Playing by the book: Oh yes, I saw an exhibition of these when they came to a nearby art gallery, I was fascinated by them.
As well as enjoying scaring yourself as a kid, you were very fond of playing games and imagining things. It seems to me the best books open doors to imagination, whilst TV, computer games don’t foster that – as you’ve said before “a lot of the imagining has been done for you“. Given this, how do you feel about ebooks and picture book apps? Are they something to be embraced?
Mini Grey: I think the picture book is the most brilliant way of telling a story – with words and pictures together, and accessible to everybody. And the picture book is a lovely three-way thing, because you need the collaboration of book, child, and adult to read it (the adult needs to be there too!)
So I’m probably down with flickering screens, and up with paper (and scissors and glue). But we’ll see what develops…
Book choice 3
A fabulous funny book – The Compleet Molesworth, by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle.
Brilliantly illustrated and utterly hilarious.
Playing by the book: Sounds wonderful, Mini! I shall add it to my library reservations list
You came to children’s books via an English degree, theatre design and six years as a primary school teacher in South London. A lot of great illustrators have some link with the theatre (eg James Mayhew, David Lucas). I like this because I see the greatest picture books as being performance pieces – something in which reader and listener both really engage (and your Traction Man books are examples par excellence of this) – but what connections do you see between theatre and picture books?
Mini Grey: Well, both picture books and theatre are a collaboration of story and images/words and pictures. Both contain an invented world, are a performance, are visual story-telling. But the differences are important – especially for the megalomaniac control freak – because the book’s scenery is never dismantled and it lasts for ever. Also in the theatre my job would probably be set designer, but as a picture book maker my job is writer / designer / director / producer / tea-maker etc etc. (Mostly all on my own. Probably talking to myself.)
Book choice 4
The Just So Stories – Rudyard Kipling
I recently read these with my son Herbie and remembered how much I loved them. I particularly like Rudyard Kipling’s illustrations and how he explains each one at length and tells you what colours he would have made it if he had been allowed colours. The Inciting Map of the Turbid Amazon is fantastic. The picture I’ve chosen above is of the beast called Small Porgies.
Playing by the book: After teaching you completed an MA in Sequential Design at Brighton. What is Sequential Design? How did an academic course help you on your path toward becoming an author an illustrator?
Mini Grey: Sequential just mean that it’s more than one item – there’s a series (Even if it is just two). And I suppose sequential also means something happening after something else. Cartoons, films, books are all sequential – but I suppose a three course dinner is too.
It was a very exciting course to do because it was very eclectic – we had visiting lecturers from all fields, and people were doing all sorts of illustration and design, not just for children’s books, so very good in a cross-fertilising lateral-thinking sort of way.
Book choice 5
Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift; illustrated either by Edward Bawden or Rex Whistler (the picture here is by Rex Whistler)
My illustration project at Brighton was this book. I love the way it is (intended to be!) an adult book that feels like a magical children’s story, but is bitterly satirical.
Playing by the book: In several places you’ve written about the importance of taking risks when illustrating, for example “It’s easy to get tighter and tighter when you’re doing the artwork, so you have to fool yourself into feeling spontaneous, trying to keep playful“. Could you talk a little about your drawing process and how you keep the spontaneity and the playfulness going. Also, on the risk taking, I had to wonder if this was linked somehow to your love of horror films – a similar sort of excitement, or thrill of the unexpected. It made me wonder – do you enjoy going on fair ground rides?
Mini Grey: Often the best fun part of making a book is scrawling a story together in my sketchbook, when you don’t care how good the drawings are, you just want to pour out the picture in your head. And often when I’m making the real pictures later, those first crummy sketches are my guide for whatever was the essence of what I was trying to say. I try to make pictures as big as possible now so I can use bigger brushes, and I am a bit addicted to Dr Martins radiant watercolours and the unexpected things that happen when you spatter them around. Suddenly splottering all over a picture that’s nearly finished can be a riskily random business.
I am not mad keen on fairground rides since if you start feeling sick it can be difficult to get off. My cheap thrill is going on one of those nice old-fashioned swings that have a really tall frame and getting the gravity-free rush by going nearly over the top – but those old swings are getting hard to find, they keep disappearing from playgrounds nowadays….
Book choice 6
Finn Family Moomintroll – Tove Jansson
Truly full of adventure – and magical hobgoblins hats – and an unfolding summer in Moominvalley.
Playing by the book: Another wonderful choice Mini! I’m looking forward to trying the Moomin cookbook that’s now available. And talking of cooking, Biscuit Bear is a scrumptious book! I believe you particularly enjoy drawing food – do you also enjoy cooking it? Is there a cookery book you’d like to illustrate? (Tim Hopgood, another super children’s book illustrator has recently illustrated a cookery book – Less Meat More Veg by Rachel de Thample, so there’s already a precedent for such a move!) And maps, am I right in thinking they’re something else you really enjoy? Do you have a favourite real or imagined map?
Mini Grey: I do enjoy drawing food, it is true – the colours and textures and edibility. I guess I’d choose to illustrate Edward Lear’s recipe for Amblongus pie – you end up throwing it all out of the window!
One of my favourite maps, is the Isles of Forgetfulness, from the Atlas of Experience, and it more or less shows my present mental state…
Book choice 7
Well in view of the Amblongus pie, I’ll have to put in the Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear, particularly for those adventurous Jumblies.
Playing by the book: July sees the third adventurous instalment of the brilliant Traction Man, Traction Man and the Beach Odyssey (which I’ll be reviewing here on Playing by the book in the next few days). Will there be a fourth adventure for Traction Man and Scrubbing Brush? What are you working on at the moment? What can we look forward to reading and enjoying from you in the future? I know you’ll be attending the Just So Festival in August, what will you be getting up to at the festival?
Mini Grey: No idea about a fourth adventure. At the moment I am working on…but no – better to tell you after I’ve made it! I am at the Just So Festival but what doing is also veiled in mystery at the moment!
Book choice 8
Cowboy and Octopus – Lane Smith and Jon Scieszka.
Encountering the Stinky Cheese Man was one of the things that made me dream of making my own picture books. Cowboy and Octopus are a strangely matched pair, but they are friends. And they’re fun to read aloud with your friend. To a sympathetic audience if possible.
Playing by the book: Oh, another one to add to my library list – I can’t wait to read this!
Thank you very much Mini for so generously answering my questions today. It’s been as much pleasure interviewing you as reading your books!
If you want to find out more about Mini, there’s a lovely article about here her from the Guardian 2007 and a wonderful interview over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, as well as the articles I’ve linked to in the interview.
Are there any questions you would have put to Mini which I haven’t asked her today?