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Q&A with Steve Antony

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Inspired by Tim Minchin’s hit song from Matilda the Musical, When I Grow Up is a funny and endearing story about adulthood imagined through the perspective of children. It is also a very exciting collaboration between Tim Minchin and the award-winning author-illustrator of The Queen’s Hat, Please Mr. Panda and UnpluggedSteve Antony.

Steve had a passion for illustration and storytelling from a young age but after many years spent working in a variety of jobs, he decided to do an MA in Children’s Book Illustration in 2010. His first book, The Queen’s Hat, was a university project inspired by a picture of the queen he saw in the news. It went on to win the Oscar’s First Book Prize and was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Since then, Steve has had enormous success in the industry, creating beautiful books on a range of topics from P’s and Q’s to lizards and rectangles. Here, he talks with great enthusiasm about illustrating When I Grow Up, a special and compelling book.

Can you tell us a bit about the book?
Sure! For me, When I Grow Up is about remembering that eagerness, that sense of anything-is-possible, hope and imagination I had as a child before getting bogged down with all my grown-up responsibilities. For children, it’s an imaginative exploration of all the things you can do as a grown-up. Anything was possible! For adults, it’s a window into what it was like to be a carefree and inquisitive child.

What were you trying to achieve when you started illustrating the book?
I wanted to capture the essence of Tim’s song. At the beginning, Tim sent me a list of words for inspiration. Words including wistfulness and joy. The book really is a kaleidoscope of emotions. A roller-coaster ride of wild imaginings and a few thoughtful pauses.

Do you have a favourite page or illustration?
I have two favourite pages: the page with the giant statue of the man and woman lifting the world, and the colourful library page. In fact, every page could be a favourite, but the reason I like those two pages is because they’re quite symbolic. The library, at first glance, is a wall of colourful books. But if you look closely you’ll find a key, a lightbulb, a dragon, an apple, a melting snowman and a heart. One child is handing down a book to a friend. Another is physically overwhelmed. And another looks determined to borrow as many books as possible. I think this library scene is one of the best scenes I’ve ever drawn.

How clearly can you remember what it was like to be a child?
The summers lasted forever. Nowadays they fly by. I can remember running through the desert with no shoes on. The cracked ground was hot. My brothers and I would dig holes and make forts surrounded by tumbleweeds. This was when we lived in New Mexico. In England, I remember the gap in the hedge of my Great Aunt’s garden that led to an open field of flowers and hills. I remember the forever-ness of being a kid. Adulthood was lightyears away.

Do some of your childhood memories make it into the book?
When I was a child I often fantasised about what it would be like to go on a big shopping spree in a giant supermarket. If I had £1000.00 to spend, I’d fill my trolley with toys and sweets and books and comics and all sorts of fun things. This childhood fantasy made it into the book. There’s a spread where the three main characters are racing trolleys, each one filled with treats. Some of the treats resemble my childhood favourites. I threw in a few doughnuts for good measure, too.

You’ve had some rather unusual jobs in the past from working in a chicken factory to wrapping presents. How did you eventually find your way to become an illustrator?
Haha, yes I have had many jobs. I’ve been a cleaner, a cashier, a filer, a shelf stacker, and the list could go on.

I ended up working in a call centre for almost ten years before taking voluntary redundancy. I had always wanted to be an illustrator, I just couldn’t find the work. To be honest, I don’t think I was entirely sure where to channel my creativity and passion for storytelling. Redundancy spurred me on to follow my childhood dream of becoming an artist, more specially, a picture book maker. Redundancy was a blessing in disguise really. In 2013 I graduated from Anglia Ruskin University with an MA in Children’s Book Illustration and didn’t look back.

We understand that you’re red-green colour blind. How does that affect your work or do you see it as an advantage?
I’ve written several articles about this and it’s always something I’m happy to talk about. The truth is I’m still learning how to deal with it. But one thing’s for sure: I don’t let it hold me back. In many ways it’s influenced the way I work. Because of my colourblindness I tend to use colour in a more conceptual and abstract way. Grass doesn’t have to be green. The sky doesn’t have to be blue. In When I Grow Up all of the children are drawn in greyscale.

Do you have to work differently because of it?
I found a way that works for me, that’s all I know. Of course there are times when I wish I didn’t need a second opinion, but I’m positive my colourblindness has helped me find my own unique illustrator’s voice.

What’s your favourite part of being an illustrator?
That’s an easy one to answer. My favourite part is visiting bookstores, libraries and schools. Yes, illustrating is fun and I love it, but it can be quite lonely. It can be tiring, stressful and intense, too, especially when there’s a deadline just around the corner.

Getting out and about and seeing the ‘other side’ can also be exhausting, but it’s always nice to get some fresh air and have the opportunity to physically share my work with other people. I meet so many interesting people on the road. Each and every event is unique in its own way. Last weekend I was in Leicester Square Theatre live drawing while Tim Minchin played and sang. Two weeks ago I was at Wokingham Library attempting to sing When I Grow Up to a small group of families. This time last year, I was probably at some school somewhere with great big bags under my eyes.

Who are your inspirations?
My parents. My mum is a painter. She is super talented. She encouraged me to enter all the art contests. My dad is a retired blacksmith, but he recently took up painting. Every week he paints something new. My step-dad collects trains and puzzles. I am determined one day to write a book about a train. I have featured an actual real-life locomotive in one of my books.

Oh, I have suddenly just realised that you were probably expecting me to reel off a list of illustrators. Of course I find many illustrators inspiring. I wouldn’t even know where to start though. And there are so many new and exciting creatives popping up at the moment. But the truth is I get most of my inspiration from my family and friends and in everyday moments. Inspiration is everywhere and can be found in the most unexpected places.

The Queen’s Hat was inspired by a newspaper article. Green Lizards Vs Red Rectangles was inspired by a painting. Unplugged was inspired by almost bumping into a lamppost while reading tweets. The illustrations in When I Grow Up were inspired by my own childhood imaginings. Maybe one day I will go on that shopping spree, after all.

When I Grow Up by Tim Minchin and illustrated by Steve Antony is published by Scholastic. Follow Steve Antony @MrSteveAntony