Sarah Garland is one of Playing by the book’s very favourite author / illustrators. In a career spanning more than 40 years she’s published over 50 books for children, including the delightful Eddie’s Garden, Eddie’s Kitchen and Eddie’s Toolbox, as well as her perfect series for preschoolers which includes Going to Playschool, Doing the Garden and Doing the Washing. Earlier this year she won the inaugural Little Rebels Children’s Book Award, for her latest book (which I reviewed yesterday), Azzi in Between.
I recently caught up with Sarah and asked her about Azzi in Between, about her need to write, and about how time has changed her style (and allowed her to go back and alter previously published illustrations). Here’s how our conversation flowed:
Playing by the book: Azzi in Between is told in comic strip/graphic novel format and I wondered if you could share a little about your experience of writing and illustrating in this format.
Sarah Garland: I first thought of telling the story of Azzi in a graphic picture book format when I visited a local technical college in New Zealand, where my husband and I were working for four months.
I had already spent some time in the local primary school, drawing, watching and talking to children from refugee families. Now here I was among their parents, who were taking classes to learn English. I thought how I would like these parents to be able to read my book to their children, and it seemed to me that a story told in a graphic novel style would be the best way to communicate with someone who was struggling with a foreign language.
I soon realised that this format would broaden the age range among children too, as the book would not appear too childish for a twelve year old, while still being accessible to a seven year old. And finally I discovered that I loved telling a story in this way, and had much pleasure in working in a bolder style, with brighter colours, felt tip pens, and concentrated inks and watercolours.
Playing by the book: How different was it for you as compared to working on a picture book?
Sarah Garland: How does this graphic picture book format compare with working on a standard picture book? Well, for one thing I discovered that I could quicken the action and slow it down more easily than with full page illustrations, by using smaller or larger frames on each page. It also feels easier to skip through time. And I could pack in far more information without the book feeling overloaded.
Playing by the book: You use very few speech bubbles in Azzi. Instead, you’ve chosen to include nearly all speech in short passages of text under each illustration – what was your thinking behind this?
Sarah Garland: I used few speech bubbles, as I personally find that they distract attention from the illustration. Another reason was that I wanted the pictures and text separate for a child who had trouble reading.
Playing by the book: I haven’t been able to get hold of a copy of Tex the Cowboy, but I understand that this too is in comic strip format so Azzi isn’t a complete departure for you… and I’ve read that you were a fan of comics as a child, and indeed your father illustrated comic strips. What comics did you enjoy as a child?
Sarah Garland: Ah, Tex the Cowboy. Actually this was originally four little books, not a comic strip at all! I put the books together years later, and they fell easily into a comic book format.
My father did write comic strips – it was my mother who was an illustrator – and we were given comics as children. But I most liked American comic strips, especially Al Capp’s L’il Abner.
Playing by the book: Do you still read comics/ graphic novels? Have you read anything in this format recently that you think is especially good (for children or adults)?
When I began working this way myself, I looked at other adult graphic novels to give me ideas about design, and the movement between frames. I did find many of these books quite bleak and depressing, and I wouldn’t go to them for a pleasurable read. I prefer children’s graphic novels – especially those of Raymond Briggs and Posy Simmonds. Ah, I’ve just remembered Rupert Bear. I did love him, prim and dated though he is.
Playing by the book: When thinking about how Azzi felt in a new and strange environment I wondered if you drew on your experiences of being sent to boarding school when you were 11. I’ve read that this was a very unhappy time for you and the issues surrounding family separation, having to learn a new way of life seem to me to be very much what Azzi goes through too.
Sarah Garland: It’s true that I was acutely homesick for long periods in my childhood, but actually I think that any child who has had to move to a new school would recognise Azzi’s feelings of isolation and anxiety.
Playing by the book: Although Azzi’s experience is partly heartbreaking, it is also full of hope and optimism. She and her family meet many kind people, and I finished the book feeling reassured that the world is full of good people too. This warmth, kindness, love, affirmation appears in all of your books I’ve read – and so I was struck by a comment in a Books for Keeps interview with you about your “desire to share pleasures“; why is this important to you, where do you think it stems from?
Sarah Garland: One of my concerns when writing about the experiences of a refugee child was to make the story realistic but not horrific in any way – a delicate balance to strike. Azzi’s journey had to end on a hopeful note, and that is how I feel most children’s books should end.
Playing by the book: You’ve been surrounded by books, writing and illustration all your life. Your father was a writer, your mother an illustrator, your sister is a writer. I get the impression that writing and drawing are almost as essential to your wellbeing as breathing; you’re driven to do them, you couldn’t not draw, not write. If I’m right with this inference, where do you think your drive comes from? Why is it that ‘Once you’ve got the idea it’s unbearable not to communicate it,‘ as you once said?
Sarah Garland: I think I was being rather extreme in that Books for Keeps interview, to say I find it “unbearable not to communicate” an idea. I have a tendency to exaggerate! But I do find, as so many people do, who write a diary, a song or a poem, and who paint or draw, that making any sort of record of one’s life can sometimes help to create some sense and meaning out of what often seems completely incomprehensible. As the central experiences and pleasures of my life have sprung from being a child, and then a mother, and from family relationships in general, this has been the area I have been most interested in writing and drawing about.
Playing by the book: Your illustrations always seem so fresh, and your books often have a modern take on family life, so I find it hard to believe you’ve been writing and illustrating books for 43 years (!) – how has your style changed over this time? What has remained constant (a love of life drawing?) What new materials have you used and enjoyed exploring?
Sarah Garland: Hmm. How has my style changed? I started off in 1966 with a rather stiff style, dictated by the complicated reproduction methods of that time. When full colour printing became commonplace, I went wild, using sticks and quills dipped in ink, and mixing chalks, oil crayons and watercolour.
Later, I calmed down and began to draw more realistically and with more detail, using black ink or pencil, and watercolour. As I said at the beginning of this interview, I was excited by the graphic opportunities of the strip format in my latest book.
Yes, you are right, the constant for me has been my absorbing interest in observing and drawing people – there is no end to that.
Playing by the book: Many of your books feature a single mum, where Dads aren’t very much in the picture (this intrigues me as from what I’ve read, in your own childhood, it was your mum who was more absent, and your father was around with your grandmother.) Is this positive portrayal of single parent Mums a conscious decision?
Sarah Garland: Why do I write so often about single mums? Well, two adults crowd a page, for a start, leaving less space for children. And the one adult in my books is usually a mum (with the exception of the dad in Dad on the Run) as I find it easier and more enjoyable to draw women than men. So that is a simple answer!
Playing by the book: I was fascinated to read that when new editions of some of your picture books came out you changed a few details from the original illustrations. I’ve never heard of an illustrator doing this so I’m very interested in what you feel about this, and your thoughts on the integrity of an author’s or illustrator’s work (Is it ever finished? is it something that “shouldn’t” be changed? – my question is partly informed by the debates surrounding texts which are changed after authors’ deaths, e.g. modernising the Famous Five, or removing words which are now offensive, such as in Pruessler’s The Little Witch).
Sarah Garland: There are often some drawings or phrases one would like to change in a published book, and if there is the opportunity to make a change – I take it! But, to make a jump here, I feel strongly, even violently, that no one should tinker with other people’s work, and ESPECIALLY with the wonderful illustrations and texts of Beatrix Potter’s books, let alone “re-work” these with grotesque copies.
Playing by the book: And now a couple of more light-hearted questions… I believe you enjoy growing herbs, and indeed have written books for grown-ups about gardening with herbs. What are your favourite herbs and why?
Sarah Garland: My favourite herb? The common spearmint. Even the thought of that scent and flavour makes me hungry!
Playing by the book: What are you working on at the moment?
Sarah Garland: I am working on Eddie’s Tent and how to go Camping, which I am enjoying. Then I shall go on to work on another graphic novel.
Playing by the book: What are you reading for pleasure at the moment?
Sarah Garland: Reading for pleasure? At the moment it is The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. (Lately I seem to have lost some of my pleasure in adult fiction, and am enjoying biographies in particular.) This book is a wonderful combination of biographies of the great scientists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, all woven with the poetry and fiction of the period. I also like reading what my granddaughters are reading – at the moment that is Jacqueline Wilson and Sally Gardner.
Playing by the book: Thank you Sarah, it’s be an a delight and an honour to interview you.
If you enjoyed this interview today you might like to explore the following links: