Today it’s a real pleasure to bring you an interview with British author and illustrator Hannah Shaw. Award-winning Hannah has already published 14 books in just 7 years since graduating from the illustration course at Brighton University. Her books, a mixture of picture books and chapter books, some written by herself, some written by others, include The Great Hamster Massacre (written by Kate Davies, and winner of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2010), Erroll, and her most recent book, School for Bandits.
Recently I exchanged emails with her about her favourite books and in particular her eight “Desert Island” books, her route to becoming an illustrator and what else she might have been if pen and paper had not cast such a strong spell over her.
Playing by the book: Hi Hannah, Thanks for paying a virtual visit to Playing by the book My kids are very excited that I’m interviewing you today so I’ll start with the question my eldest asked me to ask: What were your favourite books when you were a child?
I was quite obsessed Dick King-Smith books. I read all of them and especially liked George Speaks and The Queens Nose. I also loved Charlotte’s Web, another great animal story. Who doesn’t love Charlotte’s Web? – I see it has recently been voted the most popular children’s book in the US!
I was also a big fan of Janet and Allan Ahlberg; Peepo was published the year before I was born and was one of the books I had as a baby. I still love looking at it today, the ‘spot the..’ detail is something I try and put in my own illustrations.
Playing by the book: That’s lovely to read that Peepo, a book you’ve grown up with, has an influence on how you draw now – which other authors and illustrators have given you particular inspiration in your career?
At university I was heavily influenced by the illustrator Edward Gorey and the animations of Tim Burton; their quirky characters and their unique yet believable ‘worlds’ were something that I aspired to create myself.
I admire many children’s illustrators and authors working today, some I’ve met and some I’d love to meet including Neal Layton, David Roberts, Mini Grey, Jeanne Willis, Andy Stanton, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean.
Playing by the book: At what point did you really decide you wanted to be an author and illustrator?
Although throughout my degree I was making a lot of narrative based work and artists books, I only decided I wanted to become an author and illustrator after I graduated. When Emily Gravett, who was on the same course as me at Brighton, won the Macmillan children’s book prize I was inspired to do some research and have a go at making a picture book myself. I made the original Evil Weasel to sell at the London Artists Book Fair (now defunct) – it looked very different to the one that was eventually published!
Book choice 1
Playing by the book: Given the number of books you’ve written about animals, I wasn’t surprised to read that at one point you thought about running a safari park. Do you visit lots of zoos for life drawings? You seem to be particularly drawn to rodents / rodent like animals, slightly unusual animals to feature in children’s books – does this stem from having gerbils or mice as pets as a kid?
I am a big animal lover – I’m the kind of person who will drive 15 miles to the nearest animal rescue vets if I find an injured pigeon. And yes, that happened to me recently! I hate to see cruelty to animals and I give to animal charities when I can – I’ve sponsored a dog even though I have my very own big, smelly rescue dog at home.
I remember as a child, drawing plans for a ‘Happy Animals Park’ with my best friend and sister. We would argue over what sort of animals we’d have and what sort of food we’d give them. There was even going to be a swimming pool for the pigs!
I like drawing rodent type animals because of their pointy noses and little limbs. I did own hamsters and guinea pigs as a child, although they always seemed to die a little too easily!
Certain types of animal appeal to me over others – I’d rather draw a rat than a tiger. I’m working on badger and fox stories at the moment. They are good animals to draw, although there are not many places you can go see them close up.
I visit Bristol Zoo and Longleat when I can but I don’t always get the chance to sit and draw. It sounds terrible but I am a bit allergic to sketchbooks so often I prefer to do a little scribble on a piece of paper and take lots of photos for reference instead. You wouldn’t believe the trouble I had finding somewhere I could see live raccoons! My animal characters are often hugely modified versions of the real thing anyway.
Book choice 2
The Enormous Crocodile written by Roald Dahl and illustrated Quentin Blake. My favourite page is the one of where he’s on the fairground ride.
Playing by the book: Am I right in understanding you are a vegetarian? Books for children about vegetables and eating their greens seem to be very popular with publishers – have you ever thought about writing a book with vegetable characters, or illustrating a cookery book?
Hannah Shaw: The vegetarian thing follows on from being an animal lover. All of my family were vegetarian so I was brought up vegetarian from birth, I’ve never eaten meat. When I was younger it was quite unusual to be vegetarian but now everyone knows someone who is. I’m not a very healthy vegetarian – I love chips too much!
There’s a book called Vegetable Glue by Susan Chandler and Elena Odriozola which is very funny and is supposed to encourage healthy eating – I wouldn’t mind doing a book like that. I’m not sure about vegetable characters as I’m not that keen on giving inanimate objects eyes and limbs; I’m always paranoid about making my work look too cartoony!
It’s interesting you should mention cookery books because I’m going to be illustrating part of a book written by poets and children for the Ministry of Stories about monsters. I’ve been assigned the section on monster food and recipes! I love drawing slightly gruesome stuff so it’s right up my street. I’ve got a Mrs Beeton book at home with some wonderful colour plates of towering jellies that I’m going to use for inspiration.
Book choice 3
Talking of gruesome, my next choice is Fungus the Bogeyman by Raymond Briggs. I would spend hours looking at this book; I still see something new every time! It’s quite depressing though – you don’t really realise until you look at it again as an adult that it’s a children’s book not really for children!
Playing by the book: At one point in your life you considered training as an Olympic gymnast – have you got tickets for the Olympics next year?
Hannah Shaw: (Laughs) Oh dear me! This was even more of an unobtainable dream than the safari park ! I really enjoyed doing gymnastics as a child and spent a large proportion of my childhood standing on my head! I got all of my BAGA awards and suchlike, I even got a silver medal at some championships but as soon as I started thinking about doing it seriously, I turned into a teenager. There is nothing worse than being a body conscious 15 year old in a leotard!
Sadly I don’t have tickets for the Olympics, the gymnastics would have been a good event to sit and sketch at.
Book choice 4
Charlotte’s Web written by E.B White and illustrated by Garth Williams. I still cry at the bit when Charlotte dies.
Playing by the book: You’re appearing at The Big Chill this year. What sort of role does music play in your life? Do you like to illustrate and write to music? If so, what sort of music? Also, I imagine your appearance at The Big Chill will draw on your work with schools – it seems like you do quite a lot of work with schools – what do you enjoy about these workshops? What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever been asked or which has ever happened to you at a school workshop?
Hannah Shaw: I’m really looking forward to The Big Chill. My husband used to be fanatic record collector and we have records stacked up in various places all over the house. Since he discovered itunes, the vinyl has been neglected. I must admit I only own about 12 CD’s but we have similar tastes so I play his music a lot. I’m a big fan of Johnny Cash and I really like folk music but I wouldn’t say music is a massive part of my life. When I’m working I’d rather listen to Radio 4, unless I’m writing of course!
I seem to do an awful lot of school visits! I love doing local schools as I don’t have to drag myself out of bed early, to this day I find the most stressful part of the visit is getting to the school for 9:00! My usual sessions involve reading, drawing a Q&A session and then I get the children to draw. I like to get them drawing hero and villain characters usually based on animals or combinations of different animals. The results are fantastical and hilarious, children have such great imaginations. The naughty boys always draw rather scarily aggressive characters with weapons or laser eyes!
I find I naturally like and get on with children (apparently many authors don’t!) so I don’t mind a bit of silliness, in fact I encourage it! I regularly get asked things like ‘How much do you earn?’ and once did a workshop where I was asked to ‘draw a poo’. Needless to say, I chuckled and asked for a less messy suggestion!
Book choice 5
The Mousehole Cat written by Antonia Barber and illustrated by Nicola Bayley. I adore Nicola Bayley‘s attention to detail and this book reminds me of childhood holidays in Cornwall. Another favourite of mine illustrated by Nicola Bayley is The Tyger Voyage.
Playing by the book: Are any of your books available as e-books or apps? What do you feel about books going digital? What opportunities and what threats do you see for authors and illustrators in a digital book age?
Hannah Shaw: I’d love to have my books as apps or e-books. Unfortunately I don’t think any of them are available in digital format yet, but I hope in the future they will be. The way I work is really suited to creating animated/ interactive scenes. I scan my images into Photoshop and my characters are on separate movable layers to the backgrounds, so I’m surprised it hasn’t been suggested to me yet.
I can see that more traditional illustrators could find themselves restricted by the way they work but not every e-book has to have animated elements. It’s very difficult to make reading a book seem attractive in an era where children are bombarded with moving images, sound and even 3D visuals all the time. If reading becomes a similar experience to playing a computer game or watching TV it might encourage children to read more often. However, I hope that there will always be paper books for children – picture books are such wonderful physical objects, bedtime stories just wouldn’t be the same with a Kindle.
I think that until someone designs an affordable, robust and waterproof child friendly e-reader with a very large screen, young children’s e-books are not going to take off in the way adult books have. No one wants their 4 year old burying their iPhone in the sandpit or dropping it in the bath! There will probably be a gentle shift towards digital as time goes on and I think it would be wrong not to embrace it.
Book choice 6
The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier This is a book I read at primary school and it stuck with me. I’ve read many books about the second world war and occupied Poland since but none of them comes close to this one. There is something really absorbing about it, I was instantly transported to Warsaw and caught up in the plight of the family. It was the first fiction book I read about ‘real’ issues like war, fear and family separation.
Playing by the book: Of all the books you’ve created, which is the one you’re most proud of and why? What books by other authors and illustrators do you wish you had created (if any)?
Hannah Shaw: I’m always most happy with the book I’m working on, once it’s published you always look at it and think- I should have done this or that but it’s too late to change things. I’m proud of all my books but I guess Evil Weasel as my first picture book will always have a special place in my heart. I’m really hoping School for Bandits will be as popular.
I would have loved to have created The Jolly Postman by the Ahlbergs. Opening those letters is always exciting and the book was an instant hit with me.
Book choice 7
The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey. Gorey is a genius although most of his books are really quite unsuitable for children! They have a sinister black humour that I just can’t get enough of. His crosshatching is sublime.
Playing by the book: What is your next book to be published? What are you working on next? If you could create any sort of book (ie have the resources, the support of the publishing scene, and know it would sell) what sort of book would you like to create? What do you think about the health (or otherwise) of picture book publishing in the UK?
Hannah Shaw: My next picture book will be another Sean Taylor story called Who ate Auntie Iris? It’s got chinchillas as the main characters and it’s set in a more urban environment – you’ll have to wait to find out if they get eaten or not!
I’m working on a number of new books at the moment. I illustrate a lot of young fiction so I have a few of those on the go right now. One is about farts and it’s very funny! Earlier I mentioned I’m illustrating a badger story. I’m also trying to get a fox based /secret agent idea published but it’s a bit of a waiting game with the US publishers at the moment. My agent Penny Holroyde at Caroline Sheldon is fab; she always keeps my spirits up.
I think the problem with picture books (and the picture book market) is the long wait for publication (usually a year once finished, and then another year for the paperback version to be published, and of course the wait for the US market to publish too). It takes a very long time to become established and get sales figures to see how well you are doing. You can easily get forgotten about by your readers if you don’t keep on the ball. That’s one reason why I do as much self-publicity as possible – why my school visits and events are so important.
I’d really like to have a go at doing a series of picture books based on one character when the market is more buoyant, I think my fox story has the potential so lets hope that is someday soon.
Playing by the book: Thanks Hannah! It’s be a lot of fun interviewing you. My girls love your latest book, School for Bandits; I’m sure it’s going to be a big success!
Have you got any questions you’d like to put to Hannah?