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Q&A with Jackie Morris

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Meet Jackie Morris, winner of the CILIP Kate Greenaway Award for illustration who created the magical artwork for The Lost Words, written by Robert Macfarlane.

Jackie has written and illustrated over forty children’s books including beloved classics such as Song of the Golden Hare, Tell Me A Dragon, and The Wild Swans. She lives in a cottage on the cliffs of Pembrokeshire.

Congratulations on winning the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal. How did it feel when they announced your name?
It’s hard to describe. There’s an excitement. A moment of doubt when you wonder if you are hearing things. Then standing up to go and collect the award and trying to get your head around how this happened, while trying not to trip over your feet or cry. Because it’s an amazing award to win, and you want to be able to remember to thank everyone involved. You can’t make a picture book on your own, and any piece taken away diminishes the whole, so without the words there’s no pictures, without the publishers there’s no pages, without the designer, editor, there’s no clarity, and really the award is for the book, the team. And from such an amazing group of people. The moment overwhelms, there’s little time to ‘feel’.

Now, from a distance of a few days I feel utterly privileged to have been given the awards, both of which I will try and honour by making something that takes forward all the learning that went into this book onto the next.

Overwhelmed. Yes. I think that’s how it is.

The Lost Words has been described as a ‘cultural phenomenon’ – tell us why its message is so important right now.
The ‘message’ of The Lost Words isn’t a single thing. It’s multi layered. It’s about language and image working together to invite readers in. It’s about the disconnect of humans to the eco-system. It’s about finding, speaking, seeing in new ways. It’s about finding your voice, raising it. It’s a different way to engage in protest, using creativity, beauty, to engage, enchant. 

Now more than ever as we stand on a tipping point it is important to be aware and be creative, to find new ways to live, new ways to move through the world, and ways to respect not only other human cultures, but the cultures and languages of the lives of other beings we share this planet with. If only we could realise that as humans we are all in a minority, compared to the rich and amazing abundance of life on earth, and we’ve no right to damage the fragile environment, to exploit it in the way we do. 

When you first read The Lost Words, did you immediately picture how you were going to illustrate it?
It took a while for Robert and I working together, to find the way to both write and illustrate the book. We had always known we wanted the book to be a big, theatrical space. And talking together we decided upon the three spreads per word, and the absence, spell then habitat. But how to paint an otter that isn’t there? How to paint an absence, a suggestion of wren. That was the challenge. Books like this are all about questions and answers. You try things. You make mistakes. You learn, and you grow.

Do you have a favourite spread or image from the book that you’re particularly proud of?
This changes all the time. The heron triptych has always been a favourite. The feather is painted from a heron’s feather I had in my house. The gold leaf image was the second attempt. I think the heron on its hurly burley wings also was second attempt.

I also love putting in details that are sometimes found much later than first reading. There’s a heron on the willow spread, a stoat on the raven one. And birds where ever I could put them.

When you were illustrating The Lost Words, what feeling did you most want to evoke?
I wanted to enchant, in the purest sense of the word. To spell-bind.

What one piece of advice do you have for any budding young illustrators out there?
If you expect to get rich (earn a lot of money)  illustrating then find another job. It’s hard work. But if you wish to lead a rich and interesting life then this is the work for you, especially if you like making images. Your main job will be to look and to think. To think for yourself. To question, challenge, see things in different ways, communicate ideas. And if you love to paint, printmake, draw, use digital art pathways, whatever then you will spend your time, our life, doing something you love. Because you can always work for money, doing a job, and always earn more. But once you have spent your time, it’s gone and you can’t get it back, no matter how rich you are. So, look, learn, keep your mind as open as possible, question, and think, and spend your time well.

Are you allowed to say what you’re working on next or is it top secret?
I’ve two books coming out in the autumn, called The House Without Windows, written by Barbara Newhall Follett as a 12 year old child ( Hamish Hamilton), and The Secret of the Tattered Shoes, written by me and illustrated by Ehsan Abdoullahi (Tiny Owl).

I’m working on the Book of Birds with Robert Macfarlane, which is going to be, maybe, the closest thing to a soul song. I’m trying to paint birds as poetry, and he is writing beauty.

And I am working on a book called The Unwinding, with a publisher called Unbound, which will be a curious catalyst for dreamers, written and illustrated by me.

And something else. Which is secret.