Illustrator Viviane Schwarz won a Booktrust Best New Illustrators Award in 2011 and in the same year was shortlisted for the Roald Dahl Funny Award. She’s also been shortlisted twice for the CILIP Greenaway award. Surely it can only be a matter of time until she walks away from a big award ceremony as the winner: her books are witty, fresh, engaging, and she writes and draws with a brilliantly child-like yet unpatronising eye. Her books include There are Cats in this Book, There are No Cats in this Book, Cheese Belongs to You, Welcome to your Awesome Robot and The Sleepwalkers.
I’ve spoken with Viviane about books before: You can read about some of her favourite recent(ish) children’s books here. But when Welcome to your Awesome Robot arrived in our home, I knew I had to interview her about this brilliant book, her inspiration for it and more. Here’s how our conversation went….
Playing by the book: Hi Viv! Welcome to your Awesome Robot is a wondrous book. Can you tell us how it came into being? (the specific story about this book, especially as it is for a new imprint, but also more in general – your relationship with craft books as a child, and as an adult)
Viv Schwarz: “Welcome to your Awesome Robot” came from a very specific set of memories that started with the first birthday that I remember. I was very small. My mother explained that this was my special day, and that I would get presents. Then she led me into the bathroom, which was big, with black and white chequered tiles, and there was a large box in the middle of the floor. I walked up to it and tried to work out what it was for… then a small flap opened and a chocolate egg fell out. A beautiful picture of a lion emerged from a slot on another side… it was a surprise dispenser! My big sister had built it for me, and I never forgot it.
This was the beginning of a history of playhouses, robots, photo booths, film sets… all built from cardboard.
I’ve been very fond of sitting in cardboard boxes all my life. I love the smell of corrugated card. In some, I painted panoramas on the inside, or I pasted up pictures and sat in there making up stories. I’ve even had a thinking box to sit in as an adult, at times. It brings back childhood memories like nothing else does.
I wanted to make a book that encourages people to recreate that moment I had as a small child, the magic of a cardboard box becoming a new, alien and amazing thing, your own transformation inside it; the excitement of building and engineering and inventing and experimenting…
Craft books were my favourite kind of book as a child, so I have long been meaning to make one myself.I had great ones as a child, many of them from East Germany where children didn’t have easy access to the latest toys and there was more of a culture of making your own stuff. I learned useful craft skills for life from them.
Playing by the book: I absolutely love the idea of a Surprise Dispenser! What an inspired gift from your sister 🙂
Have you plans for more craft books? Perhaps ones featuring buttons, with inspiration from the button museum in the town where you grew up, or knitting given that you enjoy knitting yourself so much? Have you used any craft books by other authors/illustrators recently? What do YOU look for in a craft book?
Viv Schwarz: I do have a number of plans for more craft books, and it looks like they may actually happen! I’m very excited about this. The robot book was a bit of a gamble, I was worried that people wouldn’t know what to think of it – is it a comic, a story book, a craft book or what? But as it turns out, people love it. They send me photos of whole happy families of cardboard robots.
I actually do have plans for a book that makes use of buttons, but probably not in a way you’d expect… although it would be cool to make a book that teaches basic dressmaking! – I also really want to make a book that lets children design a game themselves… and there is technology to be considered as well, electronics, media, programming… I have a whole bunch of ideas lined up!
As an adult, I’ve often been annoyed with craft books for children because many of them don’t teach useful skills, and neither do they make you think. They are often all about going through the motions of being creative but without any sense of aesthetics – just making a mess, basically. Or they are all about specific objects you can recreate exactly. Those books have their use, they are fun, it’s a rewarding feeling to make an exact replica of something and interpreting patterns and instructions is a very useful skill. But I still prefer books that only give suggestions, tell you what tools to use and inspire you to create something really cool of your own design…
I like when the thing you build isn’t the end result, but the beginning of a new activity. Build a kite, then fly it. Prepare a diary to collect your holiday discoveries. Don’t stop but go on learning and discovering, inventing, and improving. – That’s what the robot book is, really. On the surface it’s about making a toy, but the really important part is that it gives you instructions on how to work with other people and set up a workshop where you can make whatever you like.
Playing by the book: I love that focus – on what you build not being the end result, but the beginning of a new activity. It’s so open ended and full of possibility.
I was struck by a comment you made in another interview where you said “That’s one reason I like drawing — it’s like the part of my brain that imagines things visually is in my hands, and I can only see my thoughts properly if I draw them.” I wondered if your interest in crafts was somehow linked to this – a desire, or importance of making something concrete, tangible, physically manipulable. What do you think?
Viv Schwarz: I think that’s very true of me. I sometimes have such a strong need to make something that I can’t think of anything else. Every so often I suddenly realise that there is a really cool solution to a problem, or something unlikely that I could make work… a few times I’ve woken up on the floor, out of bed, next to something I’ve constructed from scratch. Once it was a cardboard suitcase, once it was a wooden chest full of games, once it was a hand-sewn dress made from a scarf, and every time I was very surprised that it had not been a dream.
When I make books, it’s very similar. I keep notes, watch things, ponder, discuss ideas… and at some point I suddenly know what the book will be, what it will look like and what it will do. I start scribbling and talking and calling meetings and waving my hands about until someone gives me a book contract, and then I make that book. I almost never start from a text or a character or a vague idea, always from a full vision of the book as an object with a specific function.
Playing by the book: And related to this, when you write, do you write long hand? I’ve met authors who say they need to write long hand to really “feel” the words before they can start to create something that pleases them.
Viv Schwarz: I take notes in long hand. I have a bundle of notebooks, all A5, one for every project and one general one. I have a favourite fountain pen that I doodle and write with, and carry the books and the pen with me all the time. When I get into the actual business of writing text, I use my laptop… I have a trusty old mac covered in stickers which sends all my writings straight into the cloud so they’ll be accessible whenever I need them, and I can’t lose them as easily as notes on paper.
When I work out how to put a book together, I use paper, a sharpie, scissors and lots of invisible scotch tape. It’s fast, messy, stubborn work and very hands-on.
Playing by the book: I found an illustration of yours I really like online which you created using “crayons and vegetable oil”. How do you use vegetable oil in illustrating? What materials do you particularly like to use when illustrating? Do you have a favourite tool (either for illustrating, or for making)?
Viv Schwarz: When you put oil on paper, the paper becomes translucent, and if you use pencils on it they give off more pigment (or graphite) than usual because they are oil-soluble. You can oil up a piece of paper (wipe off the excess!) and draw on it, which creates a very nice dark line. Colour it in from the back, and it will show through… you need to experiment with different kinds of paper to find one that works, but printer paper isn’t bad. The image you mention is made that way.
I have a number of favourite tools – A Noodler’s Ahab fountain pen, Blackwing pencils, a bone folder and bookbinding needles that I bought years ago in New York… but the main thing I couldn’t do without is invisible scotch tape.
Playing by the book: You once said: “I think a lot of illustrators see very clear pictures in their mind when they work -– I don’t. I just see movement. So I pick a colour I like and try and capture that movement, and then I work out the line drawing from that.” Does dance as an creative expression / art form appeal to you? Have you ever tried to illustrate dance? Or choreograph a dance (If Carol Ann Duffy or Audrey Niffenegger can – – why not you?)
Viv Schwarz: It’s quite strange how I can’t quite visualise images, because I can imagine objects, move and rotate them in my mind.
I love dance – I used to be a pretty good tap dancer, I learned it from age six and had lessons for a decade or so. I also learned some ballroom dancing; in the small town I grew up in that was an important dating skill. – My proper dancing skills have mostly rusted away, I think, but traces remain. I sometimes break into a small bout of dancing in the street. So yes, maybe I should do something about that one day. – I could never be really serious about dancing, though, because I only enjoy the fun aspect, I couldn’t do sad or angry or attractive dancing.
Playing by the book: Picture books, graphic novels, craft books… when are we going to see a ghost story from you in print? Have you ever seen a ghost? What are your favourite ghost stories by other authors or illustrators?
Viv Schwarz: I’ve never seen a ghost, which is a good thing. I do have a lot of nightmares, though, almost every night. It comes with anxiety disorder, which is very well managed in the daytime but not quite so well when I’m asleep. In my dreams I’m not very good at sensibly telling myself to calm down. Also there are a lot of tsunamis. It’s quite tiring. That’s why I wrote “The Sleepwalkers“, a graphic novel that is meant to help people deal with their own nightmares.
I love the ghost stories by M.R. James, and Kelly Link is one of my favourite authors… her collection “Stranger Things Happen” is amazing: scary, beautiful and full of wonderful imagery. I read many ghost stories as a child – my favourite was one about a Japanese spirit who reads people’s thoughts and a girl who defeats him by hitting him on the nose without thinking. – I remember a couple of minuscule books that were given away in Nutella jars for a while, hidden between the lid and the foil, with a few stories each in tiny print, and some bizarrely frightening stories they had in the back of He-man comics which made the comics seem very wholesome. – I read them out to my friends by torchlight when we were camping out in the back garden, as you’re supposed to, and practised a sudden mad grin which would make my best friend scream and fall over every time. It was brilliant.
I have a small collection of ghost stories I’ve written… I have stretches of insomnia, and I keep notebooks by my bed to write down particularly striking dreams and late night story ideas. Sometimes I turn one of them into a short story. I wrote a novella about a boy who is possessed by the ghost of a cat, and some short stories – one about a woman who falls in love with a haunted house, another about a family plagued by a rabbit poltergeist. I’ll keep collecting them until maybe one day I’ll find some place for them.
I write frightening cabaret song lyrics as well. My friend Matthew Robins put some of them to music and performs them in his shows. I am rather pleased to have that semi-secret outlet for things that aren’t really suitable for children, I absolutely love them all except for one song which is based on a dream where the devil told me the worst story ever written. Matthew put the story to music, and every time I hear it I get annoyed, which kind of is the point – the devil in my dream meant to annoy me with it. But that’s what you get with collaborators, be they friends or your own subconscious.
I’ll eventually do something with all that odd stuff. But I do have a long list of children’s books that I want to make right now, and they are all about finding kindness, fun and happiness, and brilliant things you can make. My main job is to make people genuinely happy, frightening them is just a hobby – the world is frightening enough.
Playing by the book: Hear, hear Viv – your books DO make people so happy – here’s to many more of them!”
All images for this interview were taken from Viv’s website and blog, and used with permission.