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Q/A with David Litchfield

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We talk to David Litchfield, whose first picture book, The Bear and the Piano, won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize (Illustrated Book Category) and was a bestseller in the UK and US. It was shortlisted for eight other awards in the UK, and has sold in over 20 languages. 

Bear and the Piano CVROkay, let’s just get this out of the way first: can you play the piano?
Unfortunately I can’t play the piano. I have tried to learn it but I can’t get past the ‘plonk’ stage. I play acoustic guitar and I used to be in a band with my friend Rebecca.

Rebecca is actually an excellent pianist and in fact she occasionally comes with me to book signings and dresses up as a Bear and plays her piano whilst I read the book aloud. It’s not quite as rock n’ roll as we first envisioned our musical careers would be all those years ago, but it’s still pretty darn cool.

How did The Bear and The Piano begin for you, then, if it wasn’t the music?
Like most of my ideas, it actually began in my sketchbook. One night I was doodling in my book, not really thinking too much about what I as drawing, and I ended up with a really rough sketch of a big, grizzly bear wearing a tuxedo and playing a grande piano. Something about these two things coming together really interested me, the wild and scary bear playing the harmonious, delicate piano. I thought that it was a really fun clash of two different worlds.

Once I had drawn the bear I really wanted to know his story and what happens to him once he mastered the piano and how he would feel becoming a big star in the city.

Now, the bear. I LOVE the Bear: his facial expressions and his posture. I love him more than the bright cityscapes of New York in the book, and the gorgeous forest scene with the razors of light shining through the trees (which are also stunning). What is it like to have your debut picture book so beloved, so acclaimed?
Thats very lovely indeed. I love the Bear too. To be honest, I still haven’t 100% processed everything yet. Its been such a busy year and a half with so much going on I haven’t had a proper chance to reflect on it all. It blows my mind a little bit to think the book that I drew in our cramped little spare room in our cramped little flat has now gone all around the world and there are children reading it in America, China and Spain and all of these different places.

Bear and the Piano 3
Did you feel the dreaded follow-up-book pressure for book 2?
I did. And I still do. I’m looking forward to hearing what people think to it (gulp).

Your new picture book, Grandad’s Secret Giant, is out this month. What is it about? Grandads Secret Giant CVR
It’s about a boy called Billy who’s Grandad has a secret friend who happens to be Giant. The Giant is very nice and does lots of good deeds for the town like fixing the broken clock tower or rescuing pets who are trapped on high roofs. The problem is no one in the town knows about him because he is so good at hiding (even though he is gigantic). Nobody, that is, bar Billy’s Grandad. Soon enough, Billy also finds out about the Giant and, well . . . I don’t want to give too much away.

This was actually a story I pitched to Frances Lincoln Children’s Books at the same time as The Bear & The Piano. I had drawn all these pages and character designs. The story was very different and the characters were also very different, too. The Giant in that version looked super scary. At the time the publisher thought it wasn’t quite ready to be developed into a book, but luckily they liked my idea for The Bear & The Piano.

Since then, with all of the knowledge I picked up from making The Bear & The Piano both as a storyteller and as an illustrator, I was able to re-develop the story for Grandad’s Secret Giant. I’m super happy I was able to make it as my second author/illustrator book.

Grandads Secret Giant 1

Who is your favourite giant?
The BFG will always have a special place in my heart. It was one of the first chapter books I remember reading by myself. I love the story and obviously Quentin Blake’s totally inspiring illustrations. I also do really love the Iron Giant the film based on the Ted Hughes book. He is one of the sweetest.

Grandads Secret Giant 3

Tell us about your daily routine, if there is such a thing.
Oh, it used to be very awful indeed working in my bedroom when I first started. Clients used to come around and sit on my bed and see all my laundry piled up in the corner. Luckily, now we have moved and I now have a lovely ‘office’ in the attic in our house. Its a very nice attic with windows and heating and everything.

My routine is probably pretty ordinary most days. I am woken up by my 4 year old son and we make breakfast. Then there’s the mad rush to get everyone cleaned and dressed. And then at around 8:30, I will go up to the attic and start drawing bears and giants and all kinds of things. I try to go out for a bike ride or a walk at least once a day otherwise I do just sit in my attic all day. Which is not the healthiest thing to do. And I like to listen to music when I work. Current faves are the new Ryan Adams album and Leon Bridges ‘Coming Home’ album.

And how do you progress text and artwork? Does one come before the other, or are they now more intertwined as an author/illustrator, a storyteller, rather than riffing off someone else’s words?
With my own stories, they manifest visually before I think about the text. I storyboard the story and try to be totally happy with the layouts first. I also find this is a good way of structuring the story in that if I can tell it mainly in pictures first, and then add the text at the end.

When illustrating other peoples stories, it’s obviously a bit different as they will send me a finished manuscript and will also have some ideas on how it should all look. But, nevertheless, I will still sketch out each page first until we are all happy with the style of the book.

Chris Riddell’s Laureateship, which is coming to an end this summer, has encouraged everyone to doodle, regardless of age or talent. You did something similar, with A Drawing a Day?
I did the year long Drawing A Day project between 2010 and 2011 because I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could commit to such a project. Also, I saw it as a great way to develop as an illustrator and experiment with techniques and styles. As soon as I finished each drawing, I scanned it in to my computer and put it onto Facebook. I did this because I wanted people to critique the drawing and give me feedback. But people also started sharing the work and the project built up quite a following. I think that at the time it was quite an unusual thing to be doing, so it captured quite a lot of people/s attention. But mainly it was a personal project that really helped me develop as an illustrator.

You, along with a lot of illustrators, use social media to share your work. Do you enjoy the public side of the job – the online persona, the events, interviews like this one?
I do. I like the fact that I can talk to other illustrators about their work. There is a really brilliant Twitter community of illustrators and its really lovely to get involved in that. I also love that I can talk to readers about my books and show people what I’m working on. I owe social media a lot in terms of my career. I used Facebook and Tumblr to share my Drawing A Day project. Also my agent found me on Twitter after I posted a work in progress drawing that got shared around.

In terms of the events, I do love going in to classes and doing readings and workshops. Its such a privilege, and the kids are always so interested in what I do. I also love going to the festivals and we have a few booked in this year, so Rebecca will be dusting off the bear suit again.

I have also really enjoyed the book signing events. I have done a fair few were the shops have asked me to draw on their walls or windows. And that is such a fun thing to do. I’m going to be drawing the Giant on a few windows soon. And excitingly a school has asked me to draw him on a big wall in their playground. So that’s going to be epic.

You were an art and design lecturer for years. Do you have any advice for illustration students?
Yes, I was a full time lecturer until three years ago. I got the job not long after graduating and I thought that I would do it for a year just to pay off some student debts. But then I realised that I really enjoyed teaching and ended up staying for nearly 7 years.

I do still teach actually, but only a few hours a week as a visiting lecturer at Bedford College’s South Bank Art Centre in my hometown. It is something I see myself doing all the way through my illustration career as I do really enjoy passing on what I’m learning to the next generation of artist’s and designers.

The advice I try and instil is just to work hard, love what you do, and really work at developing ideas. There are thousands of students graduating every year and it’s important to make your work stand out and be noticed.

What’s the weirdest illustration job you’ve ever been asked to do?
One of my first professional jobs was to create the drawings for an animated promo for the Daily Telegraph. It was a two week job but they wanted me to come and work ‘in-house’ in their big huge news room in Victoria, London. It was really odd as I had a little desk full of my watercolour paints, pencils and loads of drawing paper, in the middle of this manic news room full of hundreds of journalist’s going crazy over breaking news stories about politics and war and football and stuff. Some of them used to look at me very quizzically. Others used to shout at me because I always made a painty mess of the photocopier.

Now you’re uber successful, what’s the best part of being a children’s book illustrator?
Ha ha . . . I’m not sure about being uber successful, but it sounds very nice indeed. There are so many great things about being a children’s book illustrator. I still can’t quite believe that I get to draw giants and bears every day and get paid to do what I truly love. That is obviously 100% an awesome thing.  One of the most rewarding things though is just talking to kids at events or reading the letters they send me about how much they have enjoyed my book. That is seriously one of the greatest things ever. It really does make me feel very honoured. It’s such a privilege to have my books be a very small part of someones childhood. It blows my mind in fact.

What’s the worst?
Even though I love it so much it does come with it’s own pressures. Sticking to deadlines is quite hard, juggling lot’s of different jobs and projects can also be tricky. But to be honest I do feel guilty about moaning about being a picture book illustrator as it really is the greatest job in the world.

You started drawing at a young age, making comics for your younger siblings. Are you still a comics fan?
Yes. I still love comics. I still read them. I still find the Asterix books a real source of inspiration in terms of Uderzo’s drawing style and I re-read the whole of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira again recently. I first read it all when I was 12 and I try and read it again every few years. It’s such a huge story that took Mr Otomo years to draw. To write and draw something that ginormous and thrilling all by your self is an absolutely great achievement.

What are you currently reading?
There have been so many brilliant picture books published recently. My current favourites are There’s A Tiger In The Garden by Lizzie Stewart and The Storm Whale In Winter by Benji Davies. Both are brilliant visual treats. And I’ve recently completely fallen in love with Thomas Baas’s version of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Again, the artwork is stunning and really inspiring.

I’m also in the middle of reading Katherine Rundell’s chapter book The Wolf Wilder, which is really gripping and is written in such a classic way. I’m sure it’s one of those books that will stay with me and become a lifelong favourite.

Tell us something about you that will us.
When I was 7 years old, I won a breakdancing competition. The prize was a huge Crayola set. It was amazing. I think I did actually want to be a professional break dancer for a while.

What’s next for you?
Well, this year I am working on so many cool projects. I have just finished drawing a book called When Paulie Met Arty. It’s all about the 60’s folk pop duo ‘Simon and Garfunkel’. I absolutely love their music so much so I was completely chuffed to bits to be asked to draw it. I am also working on my second collaboration with Ross Montgomery which is called Space Tortoise, as well as a new book by the author Teressa Heapy.

I’m also incredibly excited to be starting work on The Bear & The Piano 2. I have a new story all planned out and all the sketches have been done. It’s just a case of bringing it all together ands starting the final artwork which should be some time over the summer. There are more exciting Bear & The Piano things coming up, but I don’t think that I can talk about them just yet (sorry).

Grandads Secret Giant 4

Also, I’m going to be travelling around a fair bit this year for a number of Grandad’s Secret Giant and The Bear & The Piano events. Theres include visits to Camp Bestival and The Edinburgh Book Festival amongst other really exciting places.

I really can’t wait. It looks like it’s going to be a really jam packed year and it should be full of lots of frantic little adventures.

Grandad’s Secret Giant is available from 6th April 2017, published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books.