Over the Hills and Far Away: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes from Around the World compiled by Elizabeth Hammill and illustrated by 77 different artists is one of those books you might buy as a gift for someone, but then find it impossible to part with. It is one of the most beautiful and interesting books I’ve seen this year, offering doors into children’s lives around the world with rich and varied anthology of nursery rhymes from places as far apart as China and Canada, India and Ireland.
There are illustrations from so many of the very best children’s book illustrators working today, including Ian Beck, Eric Carle, Emma Chichester Clark, Ted Dewan, Polly Dunbar, Michael Foreman, Bob Graham, Mini Grey, Mark Hearld, Pat Hutchins, Shirley Hughes, Satoshi Kitamura, Jon Klassen, John Lawrence, Jerry Pinkney, Shaun Tan, and many more. For anyone who cares at all about children’s book illustration, opening this book is like entering the most heavenly sweet shop you’ve ever dreamed of.
Matching the stunning and highly varied illustrations, the choice of nursery rhymes also reflects an extremely interesting and rich mix of the well known (in the UK and US) and the more unusual; rhymes from Yiddish, First Nation, Caribbean and Latino traditions are included, sometimes alongside more familiar verses, allowing reading and listener to draw parallels and make connections around the world.
As well as featuring stunning art from some of the best known book illustrators around the English-speaking world, there are also illustrations from three artists who are just starting out in the field. Sian Jenkins, Holly Sterling and Pippa Curnick were the winners of The Over the Hills and Faraway / Diverse Voices Illustration competition for unpublished Illustration students and I recently interviewed all three of them about their work. Below you can read how our conversation flowed:
Zoe: What journeys did you take to now arrive here, as a published illustrator?
Sian Jenkins: I have always known that I wanted a career based around art, even from a very early age, but it wasn’t until I joined an art foundation course that I found my love for illustration. My foundation course allowed me to try various different art mediums, and although I enjoyed the majority of them, it made me realise how much I missed simply drawing.
When I started my illustration course in University, I was still full of uncertainty, as although I had chosen my career to be an illustrator, I was unsure down which path I wanted to go. During the first year, we were given a project on picture books and I knew straight away that it was right for me. I started collecting many picture books, finding both new illustrators and rediscovering my love for books such as ‘Winnie the Pooh’ and ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’. But it was really the more contemporary illustrators such as Petr Horacek, Eric Carle and Mark Hearld that inspired me the most. I love their individual way of working, and how each they approach their work using collage.
Holly Sterling: Pictures and books have always been apart of my life. I loved reading as a child and found the pictures even more fascinating.
I remember writing out poems from my books and creating my own illustrations for them from a young age. My mum would staple the pages together like a ‘real’ book for me.
I remember a particular moment in Year 5 when we created our own version of Monet’s ‘Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies’. My head teacher came to examine our work and had picked mine out as being ‘particularly advanced’. Hearing such positive feedback at a young age had such an impact on me. It was from this moment that I started to grow in confidence and showing a increasing passion for art.
My parents and my Grandad had noticed my growing enthusiasm. I started spending time painting with my Grandad who was a keen watercolourist. During these sessions, I started to learn about the technical side to painting. He really was my largest influence and my biggest fan!
When I was eleven, my family moved from London to Kent. I could have chosen to go to a Grammar School for my secondary years, but I wanted nothing more than to attend Astor College for the Arts in Dover, which promoted both visual and performing arts. The teachers from art department were so encouraging and really pushed me to follow my dreams… to follow a career in art/design.
I went to the University of Sunderland to study Illustration and Design. I graduated with first class honours. During my time at Sunderland I developed a strong interest in different printing techniques and creating characters. It was during this course that I realised that a career in picture books is what I really wanted.
After graduating I decided that it was time to work! I got a job at Design Company through Sunderland University’s Internship Scheme. It was here that gained my first industry experience, developed my technical skills, worked directly with clients and became business-minded.
With picture books still being my true passion, I decided that I needed to go back to university to do my Masters. I felt as though I still needed more time to develop as an illustrator and had so much more to discover. I studied at Edinburgh College of Art on a two-year course. This is the place that I really found myself! We were lucky to have amazing tutors, but we also had a lot of external support from other illustrators and authors.
The fabulous author Vivian French was so influential during my time in Edinburgh. She instils such confidence in her students and goes far and beyond to help them on the road to success. I will forever be indebted to her!
Pippa Curnick: When I was little I wanted to be an RAF pilot, but unfortunately I am incredibly short, and my eyesight is pretty terrible! Throughout my school years I aspired to a whole range of careers, from wanting to be a farmer, to an astrophysicist. I always struggled to choose one particular subject as I really did love them all – I enjoyed and, in fact still do enjoy, learning about anything and everything. It wasn’t until I was 17, and desperately rushing to get through my maths and physics homework just so I could have time to draw before I got in bed, that I realised what I loved more than anything else, was drawing. I went on to study for my Foundation at Camberwell College of Art, which not only opened my mind to trying different techniques, but also gave me confidence that I could make a career out of being creative.
I studied Illustration at the University of Derby and graduated with a first in 2012. I chose illustration because I have always enjoyed creating stories and characters. I read continuously as a child and I absolutely loved picture books. The Quangle Wangle’s Hat by Edward Lear (Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury) was read over and over again in our house and I always pestered my parents to show me all the pictures again and again.
A key point in my career was getting a job as a Designer for Alison Green Books, an imprint of Scholastic Children’s Books. I have spent the last two years working with some of the best illustrators and authors of books for children. I have learned so much about the publishing industry and how to make a good portfolio, as well as technical skills like how to lay files out in InDesign- which has been really useful in my own illustration career.
I am now a freelance illustrator and designer. My main inspiration is the natural world – I love drawing animals and scenery and the characters I create are often based on the creatures I see in the garden. I am also inspired by artists such as Meg Hunt, Chuck Groenink and Helen Stephens.
Zoe: How do you prefer to work? What sort of media and techniques are important in the way you make art?
Sian Jenkins: The first time I felt confident in my way of working was when I entered a competition for Penguin Books. It was the first time that I had experimented with digital collage, and although my work wasn’t selected I was very happy with the direction my work had gone. I felt that I had finally found a way of approaching illustration in my own way. I have used this method of working ever since, and continue to develop it further.
My current method of working is to draw out my idea traditionally, and to work digitally from the scanned image. I build up my illustrations using various textures and patterns from both those that I have found, and those I have created myself. I tend to focus on animals as the main subject of my work, and I try to keep my illustrations fairly simplistic, although I would love to experiment with creating busier illustrations in the near future.
Holly Sterling: I love creating texture! I do this with a variety of different mark making processes including painting, mono-print, rubber stamps, rubbings and strong drawn lines. Creating marks like this is so experimental that it encourages me to stay loose, and in turn, create energetic illustrations.
Once I have all of the elements that I need, I scan them in them digitally. Although I do use Photoshop, it is important to me that I maintain the energetic quality and texture in my work that I create whilst making my marks. I use a soft pencil to create the strong drawn lines that are prominent in my work.
Pippa Curnick: I create my artwork digitally, but like to combine traditional techniques to give it more depth and texture. I always begin any project with drawings in my sketchbook. I have to be able to get my ideas on to paper quickly, and sometimes I have flashes of inspiration when I’m out and about, so using a computer isn’t always possible. I carry my sketchbook wherever I go and scribble ideas in it on a daily basis. Some of these ideas never make it off the page, but if I’m taken with an idea or a character I will scan my sketch in and start working on it digitally. I use a lot of hand painted textures and find that using digital techniques allows me to have a greater level of control over the image.
For me, though, the most important part of my process is the initial drawing. There is definitely something about holding pencil over a clean sheet of paper- that mild terror that what you’re going to draw won’t turn to to be as good as it is in your head. I think this process, and overcoming this fear is a vital part in the way I work, as it always challenges the way I think about a character or idea.
Zoe: Can you tell us a little bit about entering the Frances Lincoln/Seven Stories Nursery Rhyme Illustration competition? Why did you choose to illustrate the rhyme(s) you did? How did you set about illustrating the rhyme?
Sian Jenkins:I was in my second year of University when I entered the Seven Stories competition, and was still experimenting with my method of working. I was presented with three choices of rhyme to illustrate, but the one that stood out for me was ‘This Little Pig Went To Market’, as it is a rhyme that I recognise from growing up. I instantly chose this rhyme as the one I wanted to illustrate, as I already had a connection to it. The first thought that I had of this rhyme was as a counting toe rhyme, as this is how it was taught to me. I then played around with the idea of the pigs in the rhyme being the toes themselves, and giving each ‘toe’ a character of its own to match the rhyme.
Getting the phone call to say that my entry had won for that rhyme was such a wonderful feeling. I was aware of Seven Stories being a charity that encourages children to read and enjoy books, and so I felt that I had been chosen to be part of something very special. I have learnt so much during the process of ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’ being published, and it has been a fantastic start to what I hope to be a successful career in picture book illustration.
Holly Sterling: As soon as a saw the brief for the competition, I knew that this was one that I had to enter.
Coming from a mix of English and Jamaican blood, representing diversity in picture book is something that I have been passionate about for a long time. This subject matter was the main focus of my theoretical studies during both my undergraduate and Masters courses.
I think it is important for all children to see themselves represented in the books they read. The ‘Over the Hills’ competition was a perfect chance for me to potentially be apart of a huge celebration of people from all over the world.
The competition brief asked for students to choose one of three double page spreads to illustrate. Initially I wanted to illustrate the one with the Jamaican rhyme (being half Jamaican), but as soon as I read the African American and Maori lullabies, I knew that this was the one I had to illustrate.
The two main points that stood out to me were the strong bond between the father and daughter and the overall dreamlike quality. As both verses gave me a similar feeling, I thought it would be nice to visually weave them together. To suggest the tenderness between the two characters, I visually created a strong embrace. To represent the dreamlike quality I decided to illustrate the weeping tears changing into the galloping horses mentioned in the text.
I think that as an illustrator, you should always try to draw on your own experiences in life to make something really honest and believable. In this instance I was representing my own relationship with my Dad.
Living in the North East, I love to be involved in anything and everything ‘Seven Stories’. The work they do with both adults and children is totally inspiring on so many levels.
It was an absolute honour to have my work chosen for this publication by such talented and influential people in the picture book industry. This has been the perfect start to a career in picture books.
Following on from the success of this competition, Frances Lincoln asked me to illustrate a new picture book for them called ‘15 Thing Not to Do With a Baby’. I’m looking forward to it being published in January 2015.
Pippa Curnick: As soon as I read the rhymes for “Abna Babna…” I knew that I wanted to illustrate that spread in particular. I loved the flow of the rhymes and, a little like The Quangle Wangle’s hat, there was a kind of nonsense to the words that meant I could be really creative and draw a whole range of weird and wonderful things. It was such a wonderful opportunity to be creative and I really loved the ethos behind the project, too.
I’m delighted to have been able to highlight this breathtakingly beautiful and nourishingly diverse book and hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about the three début illustrators. My advice would be to buy two copies of this book straight away (if you want to find out more about it, do read this article by Elizabeth Hammill, which appeared in Books for Keeps). It will avoid any gift-giving dilemmas, and you’ll be doing some good at the same time: All proceeds from the sales of Over the Hills and Far Away will be donated to Seven Stories, the national centre for children’s Books in the United Kingdom, to help them save, celebrate and share the wonderful world of children’s books.
Disclosure: I was sent a review copy of Over the Hills and Far Away by the publisher.