One to watch: An interview with David Barrow

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Let me introduce to you a debut children’s book creator who I think is most definitely one to watch.

David Barrow selfie 2Earlier this year David Barrow (@DaveBarrow3) won The Sebastian Walker Award – given to the most promising new talent to be found in what is arguably one of the UK’s finest nurturing grounds for creators of art in children’s books, the Masters in Children’s Book Illustration at the Cambridge School of Art.

To be only a few months post graduation, and in receipt of several publishing deals with a variety of publishers says something about how lots and lots of people think there is something special about Barrow. This month has seen the publication of his brilliant and beautiful Have You Seen Elephant? (with Gecko Press), and a two book deal with Hodder has also been announced.

In the joyously absurd and richly expressed Have You Seen Elephant? we watch a young boy and an elephant play hide and seek. Despite what you might think, the elephant is exceptionally good at hiding, creating lots of opportunity for laughter and delight. Brilliant comic timing with just a few finely honed words suggests that Barrow is as good at writing as he is at illustrating.

And his illustrations? His gorgeously textured artwork feels truly alive. His ability to capture light in his muted palette is especially effective. His restrained use of colour works as a powerful juxtaposition to the wonderful outrageousness of the story.

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Two aspects of Have You Seen Elephant? really fill my heart with delight. First, the playfulness of the book – the willingness of the reader to suspend reality, and play the game (“not seeing” what we can all see). A sort of self delusion of the most enjoyable type – something which reminded me of some of Hervé Tullet’s work eg Press Here – where readers joyously suspend belief to enter into the spirit of the book. I asked Barrow why he thought we (both adults and children) enjoy pretending so much?

“I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you say that you have to enter a state of self-delusion when reading Have You Seen Elephant? I tried to make it as ambiguous as possible. Can the boy really see the Elephant and is just playing along to spare the Elephant’s feelings? Can the adults see the Elephant? Is the boy really that bad or the Elephant really that good at Hide and Seek? I don’t know the answer! I’m hoping that the ambiguity gives the audience the option to read the book in any way they deem fit to. I think the enjoyment comes from the ability to recognise the absurdity of the situation. It’s fun to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride!”

A second aspect that made me truly happy was how Barrow chose to depict the little boy who looks for Elephant. Books with non-white characters, where the story isn’t about diversity, are sadly still quite unusual. I wondered what sort of debates (if any) Barrow had with himself and /or his publisher for this book, Gecko Press, about this.

“The little boy’s depiction actually came about fairly unconsciously. I was looking for a protagonist for the story and therefore experimenting (doodling) in my sketchbook. I only had two prerequisites for the character. One, it had to be a boy. Two, as he was never going to actually be formally introduced in the text, he had to have instant “personality”. I looked over the studies I had drawn and he was an instant winner!

It was a bit like casting for an acting role. With fewer parameters set, it meant the potential field was wider open. When he walked through the door I felt he had enough character to take the starring role! And Julia at Gecko agreed. To flesh him out a bit, I created a whole back story with his family. Considering we never actually find out his name he has a fairly comprehensive family tree!

I am a huge fan of Ezra Jack Keats’ picture book character, Peter, so perhaps that was a subconscious influence. I think a worthwhile picture book should be a reflection of the world we live in. And the world we live in is pretty diverse! “

I was so impressed with Barrow’s début that I wanted to find out much more about his path to becoming an illustrator. I asked him to share 8 books (children’s or otherwise) that reflected key points in the path that led him to where he is now. His selection of books is varied and really interesting – I can guarantee there will be at least one that you want to go and find out more about!

So over to David:

The first book I have any recollection of is The Runaway Roller Skate by John Vernon Lord. According to my parents I was mildly obsessed with every detail (and there is a lot of detail). I would read it to them rather than the other way around which I’m sure they were thrilled about every night. It’s probably where my fixation with poring manically over illustrations comes from.

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I remember the first book where the images made me think “Wow”, was The Hare and the Tortoise illustrated by Brian Wildsmith. Again, I can recall obsessing over every image. The animal characterisations, the intense patterns, the vibrant colours! I can even remember the smell of the pages.

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I was an avid collector of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy series when I was at school. I never was particularly interested in the gaming element of the books. I would rarely use a die to “test my luck”. What I really loved were the brash covers especially those of Ian Miller, but even more so the black and white line drawings inside.

I was an overtly harsh critic of the illustrations and remember being disappointed if I thought certain books weren’t up to standard. How precocious of me! This was probably the first time when I considered illustration to be a fairly cool job. Drawing dragons and orcs all day? I could do that. But then I was lured in by the bright lights and excitement of becoming a graphic designer…

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Straight after University, resolute in the fact that I definitely didn’t want to be a graphic designer despite spending 3 years studying it, I got a job working for an education library service. The job entailed logging all the books that came off the mobile library. Basically, it meant I and my colleague spent all day reading picture books. I’ve had worse jobs.

It was a brilliant opportunity to revisit and reconnect with books and authors from my childhood. One such author was David McKee. Humour is a massively important thing generally in life, but in picture books the master of funny for me is McKee. The quiet tragi-comedy of Not Now Bernard is classic, but my favourite of his books has to be The Sad Story of Veronica Who Played the Violin: Being an Explanation of Why the Streets Are Not Full of Happy Dancing People. It’s basically a shaggy-dog story but with the most brilliantly downbeat punch line ever. I remember doing a full-on belly laugh when I read it in the library. Luckily nobody shushed me.

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When I worked as a production manager in commercial print I was involved in the manufacture of many books. It was here I developed a greater understanding of their anatomy, but more importantly a massive appreciation for their actual physicality. There is nothing quite like the feel (and smell) of a beautifully constructed book. For me, the best books utilise their tangible nature; they use the whole experience of holding a book, the physical action of turning a page, to enhance the content.

An amazing example of how the construct of a book is intrinsic to its story-telling is Leon and Bob by Simon James. It is large and tall in format and as a result makes the young protagonist Leon appear tiny on the page in this exaggerated adult environment. It is a tale of a boy’s loneliness and through the design and layout which expand upon James’ wonderfully understated illustrations; the reader can recognise Leon’s solitude. Even the endpapers are used to emphasise the themes of the story. It starts with an empty urban park, really setting the scene before the story has even begun, and ends with a joyous game of football between the two new friends Leon and Bob. This understanding of the physical quality of books and how this can augment story-telling has now become vitally important to me.

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I was introduced to the work of Jean-Jacques Sempé during a presentation by the fantastic illustrator, Helen Stephens. She was showing some of Sempé’s New Yorker covers as something that had inspired her work and I was fascinated by his charming, lively, infinitely detailed vistas. I immediately went out and bought A Little Bit of France (although any of collections are equally brilliant).

Sempé is amazing at creating a sense of place in his illustrations. They are always gentle, domestic, quiet reflections. He can convey beauty in everyday life and is another master of quiet humour. His work has become a big influence on the way I attempt to portray ordinary situations in a hopefully unordinary way.

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I am a recent convert to world of graphic novels, and like everything else in my life, I am now mildly obsessed with this form of storytelling. Through my compulsive research I have discovered artists such as Brecht Evens and Jorgé Gonzalez who are producing some of the most visually stunning and exciting works around in my opinion.

A particular favourite at present is King Kong illustrated by Christophe Blain. A mixture between a graphic novel and a picture book, it has some atmospherically stunning artwork. It uses muted colours and strikingly simple compositions that really enhance the dramatic sense of scale. It has made an impact on how I compose a page through simple shapes. Unfortunately, it’s out of print and on the rare occasion it does come up for sale it costs a small fortune. So you’ll have to take my word for its magnificence!

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When I was making Have You Seen Elephant? I remember seeing The Storm Whale by Benji Davies. I was positively blown away by its quality. It was everything I admired in picture book making. Charming characterisation, flashes of quiet humour, tender domesticity drawn wonderfully with a beautifully muted palette. It became an inspiration and an aspiration to create something as subtly enchanting as that.

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David’s book choice and biography are both so interesting, don’t you think? Even though he had already been so generous I had to ask him a couple of final questions – about whether as a child he ever “lived” (or “played”) any books that he had read, and what was the last book he had read which inspired him to go and do something as a result of the words and/or images it contained.

As I mentioned before I used to collect the Fighting Fantasy series by Jackson and Livingstone. I have a memory from about 8 years old, of being in the garden and making my Mum read out Forest of Doom whilst I acted out the turn of events. If I was attacked by a Barbarian, I would physically fight the imaginary foe. If I fell down a trap door, I would mime the falling and inevitable bone-crunching landing. I think my Mum was quite embarrassed by my RADA-esque improvisational skills so we didn’t do it for very long. Which was a shame. But it is my most defined recollection of being totally engrossed in my own imagination. I’ve tried to retain that ability to fully surrender myself to my imagination. Only now I do it in my sketchbook. And perhaps when no-one is watching I’ll have a go at that Barbarian.

I recently bought a massive compendium of Myths and Legends by Anne Terry White which makes for great bedtime reading and has really fired up the old creative juices. When I get a spare minute I intend to do some personal illustration work, perhaps even printmaking, and try and depict a few of the classics. The illustrations in this particular tome are by Alice and Martin Provensen so I’ve set myself a real challenge rivalling any of their masterpieces!

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My huge thanks go to David Barrow for taking the time to generously answer all my questions today. I can only urge you all to find a copy of Have You Seen Elephant? without delay! I really think Barrow is destined for even more great things.

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