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Q&A with Guy Parker-Rees

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Guy Parker-Rees is one of the UK’s best-loved children’s illustrators.  His books have sold over 2 million copies worldwide, been translated into 15 languages and won numerous awards. His many successes include Giraffes Can’t Dance and Spookyrumpus for Orchard and Never Ask A Dinosaur To Dinner and Fabulous Pie written by Gareth Edwards and published by Scholastic.

We caught up with Guy as he prepares to publish Dylan The Teacherthe third picture book in a series featuring an exuberant stripy dog who loves to play. Dylan uses playing and fun to help toddlers explore and understand their world and the book is perfect for children who are just about to start their school journey.

1) How did you first come up with the character of Dylan the dog? Did he bound into your mind tail wagging or was it a gradual process?
He just popped out fully formed! When my youngest son was born, one of his brothers gave him a stripy sausage dog cuddly toy. I loved the way the coloured stripes made hoops around the body and defined the shape so I sketched my own stripy dog.

As soon as I did it I knew there was something interesting about him and that he had a tale to tell. I liked the name so much that two of my children are called Dylan. (OK, our first son did just have it as his middle name).

2) Creating a brand new pre-school character must come with its fair share of joys, trials and tribulations. After all, toddlers are a tough audience! We’d love to hear about them.
It certainly hasn’t been a steady path but it’s been very exciting. I first wrote a story about Dylan in which he was the proud owner of a pet boy. One publisher liked the pictures but wanted someone else to write it. I just couldn’t let go of him.

I knew just what I wanted stories to be about: the drama of being a small child, coping with emotions and dealing with other people. There is something very raw, honest and funny about how toddlers interact. It’s not always sunshine and light but, with the help of his friends, Dylan always finds a way through. For example, Dylan the Teacher is based on my experience of nursery and school visits when children shoot their hands up to answer a question without a clue of what they want to say. There’s something very funny (yes, and probably familiar) about that longing for attention without working out what you’re going to do when you get it.

When I took my original Dylan story to the brilliant Alison Green (Alison Green Books) she got the idea right away. She suggested thinking of the character beyond the one book – in terms of a series. I was delighted. So now I had to think of a whole world that could sustain several stories. And he needed a gang of friends to interact with. In order to focus on their interactions, his world doesn’t escape into fantasy beyond the play world of a toddler. So they could only get in a space ship if they first made it out of cardboard boxes. I also wanted lots of elements to join in with. So there’s a little character called Dotty Bug who encourages the child and the adult reader to get involved by asking questions along the way.

3) There has clearly been a lot of thought behind getting the look of the books right as well as the characters and the world they live in. How long did it take you from initial sketches to finished books? Can you tell us about the process?
It’s been 10 years since I did that first sketch of Dylan. My drawing style was changing from the one I used for books like Giraffes Can’t Dance. For that book I used a dip pen and Indian ink to create the bouncing black line. But I found that with my personal work I was moving more towards a coloured pencil and oil pastel line: I liked its crunchiness. The new style evolved with a lot of help and invaluable feedback from Zoe Tucker, my wonderful art director at Alison Green Books.

One of the problems was getting this line to work against a coloured background. I solved this by drawing and painting the characters on separate backgrounds and then putting them together in Photoshop with a white cut-out border around the characters.


4) What comes first; the words or the pictures?
The process is very symbiotic: they have to evolve together. I will sketch out ideas around a theme – often focusing on a situation or feeling and see what emerges. I then write this up, take it to Alison Green and, usually over tea, cake and strawberries while sitting on her sofa, we craft it into a story. Getting the pacing right is crucial. I then produce mountains of rough drawings like these as I adjust the text and illustrations to get them to work together. And again I get lots of invaluable feedback from Zoe as I work them up into the finished paintings.

5) Congratulations on Dylan being optioned for television by Brown Bag Films. How excited were you when you found out?
I first heard the news when I was at a pavement during the Bologna book fair. I was incredibly excited and found it hard to believe that it was really going to happen.

It can be hard handing over a character to someone else’s creative vision but I love ‘Octonauts’ which is made by Brown Bag . After I had seen a short film they made, called “Granny O’Grimm” all my fears were laid to rest. Have a look – it’s very good.   I thought it was so funny and had such a wonderful range of emotion that I knew that they would make a fantastic job of Dylan.

6) You’re already a hugely successful author and illustrator. Do you still have some ambitions left?
There are lots of things I want to do. I long to have time to do more of my own painting. I want to do some black and white illustrations for older children. There are some other picture book characters demanding my attention. I want to go to Australia. I could go on…!

7) How did you first get into writing and illustrating?
I studied Literature and Philosophy at university but I’ve never stopped painting. I used to paint murals on housing estates in East London, I taught arts and craft to people with learning difficulties, and I trained as an art therapist. It was when I was selling my watercolour paintings from market stalls like Camden Lock in London that I met someone who wrote children’s books. Bizarrely, before that I never really knew that the job of children’s book illustrator existed. Suddenly, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I was lucky that the first book I wrote and illustrated was accepted. Then it was a hard slog to work out how to make a living from it. I was painting and decorating to make ends meet (I painted Anthony Gormley’s house !). I joined a studio with other illustrators and picked it up along the way.

8) What’s your favourite part of the job?
It’s probably those times when I get an expression, gesture or combination of colours just right and the process is flowing freely. It feels so exciting and exhilarating. I feel so lucky to be able to spend my time doing what I do.

9) Are there any parts of your job that you’re not so keen on?
The flip side of that feeling is that there’s always a stage in the process when I’m convinced I’ve run out of ideas and that I will never work again. You just have to persevere through it. That, and tidying up my studio – it’s a mess!

10) Where is your favourite place to draw and write?
I love working in my studio. I’ve shared many studios with lovely illustrator friends but I like having my own space now. It’s in a big building with lots of other studios and interesting things going on.

My walk to the studios is through a big park. I have found that sitting between the branches and the roots of a big tree is the very best place to come up with ideas. Science will explain this one day (or maybe I’m just a hippie).

11) Who are your inspirations? Have they changed over the years?
There are too many artists and illustrators to name them all. I love the clarity of vision of Matisse and the sheer exuberance of Dr Seuss.

There was one primary school teacher I found very inspirational. In her lessons we just painted and made things, it was just what I needed and I loved it. It’s probably why I’m painting now. I was delighted to meet up with her again recently.  She told me that she felt she didn’t know what she was doing as a teacher and was always being told off by her Headmaster for doing creative things and not sticking to the curriculum. So, to all you teachers out there, – maybe you’re having a bigger effect on children’s lives than you realise! Her name is Ann Jungman and she went on to write some great children’s books. I dedicated Dylan the Teacher to her.

12) What is Dylan going to be up to next?
A very special, sparkly edition of Dylan the Baker comes out next year. It’s for everyone who loves cake as much as I do!

Dylan The Teacher by Guy Parker-Rees is available from 3rd August, published by Scholastic. Follow Guy @Guyguyyug