Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Someone Else's Story by Sarah Davis

It’s a hard life, illustrating other people’s stories.

Toucan Can! (written by Juliette MacIver, Gecko Press, 2013)

My work begins when the publisher sends me an email with an innocent-seeming Word document attached - it’s only 2 pages of black and white text, but there’s a whole world of crazy characters and strange adventures locked inside it, and it’s up to me to set them free.

My first task is to select just the right delicious biscuits, make a lovely cup of steaming hot tea, find the comfiest chair in the house, and then sit down and read the story. (It’s a tough job, but someone's got to do it, right?)

But when I read, I have to disappear inside the story for a while.

I have to see the characters in my head, moving, breathing, coming to life. I have to see the story unfolding into three dimensions. I have to be awake to how the words make me feel - I don’t just think about what happens in the story, but also about the way it echoes inside me.

Does it feel light and crazy and make me laugh, or is it moody, solemn, aching with loneliness? Where does the story move along quickly? Where should we slow down and linger?

Usually, at this point, my tea gets cold.

I sometimes feel that illustrating someone else’s story is taking the easy way out, because I never have to come up with that difficult first idea - but there are still lots of puzzles to solve.

When I get sent a story, I don’t get a set of instructions with it. Nobody tells me what the characters should look like, or what’s should happen on each page - that’s up to me. So I look for clues in the words and set my imagination to overdrive to try and work out how to tell the story in pictures.

An illustrator usually tries to think of ways to expand the story, and add new layers to it - we don’t just illustrate what’s in the text.

I especially love getting to know the characters. I have to play around in the beginning to figure out who they are...but once I’ve worked on a book for a while, they seem like old friends.

Each story feels unique.

To illustrate a particular story properly I have to work out what sort of pictures it needs. I keep getting told that I should settle down and work out a style I like and stick to it, so that publishers will know what they’re getting when they hire me, but to me it seems impossible to illustrate two different books with identical techniques, because no two stories are alike.

The first book I ever illustrated, Mending Lucille, is a tender, aching story of loss and grief and healing. In this book, a little girl’s mother leaves on a plane and never comes back, and the little girl is left broken by her loss. But gradually, she finds people who can help her and life regains its colour, although she never forgets her mother.

Mending Lucille (written by J.R. Poulter, Lothian/Hachette, 2008)
“A raging and roaring and rolling in the sky like a storm.

It was my mummy... going.

I watch till the big grey bird disappears.

Sometimes I still wake to the sound and cry, hoping she will come, but she doesn’t.

All I have is Lucille, and Lucille is broken.”
It’s so sad and lovely that every time I read it I’d end up all teary and pathetic - and I made the mistake of showing it to my daughter’s Year 3 teacher, who ended up sobbing in front of the whole class! All those poor perplexed 8 year olds wondering why I made their teacher cry…

Anyway, a book like this needed a serious style that could capture the emotional depth of the story, so I settled on realistic oil paintings. I tried to choose colours that would make people feel the way the story made me feel when I read it - sombre moody colours to express the little girl’s sadness, brightening to warm, jewel-like colours as she started to find joy in life again.

Mending Lucille (written by J.R. Poulter, Lothian/Hachette, 2008)

My latest book, Toucan Can is the complete opposite of Mending Lucille. It’s completely bonkers, madcap and kooky, and the first time I read it, I snorted tea out of my nose I was laughing so hard. It’s also populated with some truly crazy characters.

Toucan Can (written by Juliette MacIver, Gecko Press, 2013)
“Yes, you can dance, but Ewan’s aunts

Cannot, cannot, cannot dance.

Auntie Shanti can’t at all, and Aunty Tanya’s much too tall,

But Aunty Anne and Candy can, and Aunty Candy’s panda can…”

A book that makes tea come out of my nose clearly needs pictures that are bright, fun and a little bit wild. So I did these illustrations by ripping and sticking huge chunks of handpainted tissue paper, and scribbling linework on top.

Two completely different styles, for two completely different stories.

That way, I never get bored, and I feel like I’m trying my best to do justice to unique stories that have been slaved over and handed to me by wide-eyed, innocent trusting authors. (Mwah ha haaa! The fools!)

It’s endlessly fun, challenging and entertaining, and I think I’ll try to keep going till I’m ninety. Or until I run out of tea and biscuits… whichever comes first.

Toucan Can (written by Juliette MacIver, Gecko Press, 2013)

About the Author

Sarah Davis used to get into trouble for scribbling in class, but now she can draw all day long and call it “work”. She actually enjoys watching paint dry. She has illustrated 18 books, including the very popular Fearless and the Violet Mackerel series, and her books have won numerous awards. Her latest (and craziest) book is Toucan Can!

Sarah is also the current Illustration Coordinator for the Australian Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and frequently speak at schools, universities, festivals and conferences.

"My favourite childhood books were the Moomintroll series by Tove Jansson, The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren,  And two contemporary picture books I love are The Arrival by Shaun Tan, and Battle Bunny by Jon Sciescka and Matt Barnett (which is HILARIOUS)."

See Sarah's website for more information, including a full list of books Sarah has illustrated: 


1 comment:

  1. What a great introduction to the process of illustrating someone else’s story, Sarah. Thank you!

    I’d never thought about it before but realized, when you said that publishers prefer illustrators to have a signature style, that each of my favourite illustrators – from Arthur Rackham to Eric Carle, Maurice Sendak, Quentin Blake, Dr Seuss (Theodore Geisel), Julie Vivas, Anna Walker, Alison Lester, Graeme Base, Bruce Whatley, Pamela Allen and so many more – has a very definite (and wonderful) style which mesh seamlessly with the literary works they illustrate.

    On the other hand, as you so clearly explain, using the examples of “Mending Lucille” and “Toucan Can!", there must be great satisfaction in letting your emotional response to the story determine the appropriate artistic styles and techniques for that work - which also enhance and add layers to the work. Very interesting!