The much-loved farmyard antics of Lanky Len and Hefty Hugh in What the Ladybird Heard celebrate their tenth anniversary this year, and The Girl, The Bear and the Magic Shoes, Lydia Monks’ latest book with Julia Donaldson, goes into paperback this month. Illustrator Lydia Monks is probably best known for her work with Julia Donaldson; they’ve created more than a dozen books together including the Princess Mirrorbelle series, Sugarlump and the Unicorn and The Singing Mermaid, but her own work has also won her many awards and accolades. Lydia’s first book with Julia Donaldson, Sharing a Shell, was published 15 years ago, and is still amongst our best-selling and most loved books – and many others have become household favourites and been adapted into stage and puppet shows. She has also illustrated books for Carol Ann Duffy and Roger McGough, as well as being hugely prolific with her own work – her Twit Twoo School series is a joy! We sent bookseller, and collector of illustration, Tamsin Rosewell, to find out more about how one of our most loved illustrators works.
Tamsin: As a bookseller I get a great number of press releases, emails and blurbs sent to me that are written by publishing companies – but I’m always more interested in how writers and illustrators talk about their own work. How would you describe yourself and your work as an illustrator?
Lydia: It’s a question I always cringe at. I find it difficult to describe my work. I tend to try to make things funny, whether that’s in words or pictures. I used to get told off at school by my English teacher, for always making jokes in my essays. Making people laugh can be a bit addictive. So I draw funny looking people and animals in the hope of making them smile!
Tamsin: I often lament the absence of picture books in secondary school and sixth form art rooms; did you have wide access to illustration at home and at school?
Lydia: I wouldn’t say I had a wide access to books when I was young. My mum read all the time and took me to the library every weekend, but we didn’t have a lot of books at home. I listened to audiobooks – records on my record player, and I have really strong memories of those stories like Alice in Wonderland, Beatrix Potter, Swallows and Amazons and Black Beauty.
Tamsin: Do you have a special place for illustrating, or will you set up anywhere?
Lydia: I have two studios at moment. One in the city centre, and one in my garden. I tend to mostly work from home as it’s easier for school pick-ups and dog walking. My working days are frustratingly short, as I tend to work during school hours. I have a good view of the bird feeder. It can be a bit isolating though, working from home. At least I can talk to the dog!
Tamsin: I’m really interested in that element of mixed media in much of your work, the little touches of photographic illustration and patterns from nature and fabrics. How do you think about the balance of paint to photograph? How far would you be willing to go with mixed media?
Lydia: I actually find the collage a bit of a faff, and slightly wish I’d never started it. The paintings tend to be finished before I then add the collage to the gaps I’ve left. I drive myself mad, as ideally, I’d like to be adding the collage as I go along, but that never seems to happen.
I have to be careful not to choose any recognisable fabric or patterns, as there is always a worry that someone will sue me! Hasn’t happened so far…!
Tamsin: I have a great passion for ink, and a collection of ink from all over the world, so I’m keen to hear from illustrators about their favourite media. You use acrylic paint a lot – why acrylic and not ink, or watercolour for example?
Lydia: Acrylics offer me more control I suppose. My paintings are small and detailed. I use the tiniest of brushes, so I need paint that’s not too runny.
Tamsin: Can we talk about colour? I love colour and your colour palette is very distinctive and vibrant but without being saccharine. Do you plan your colour for each page, and for a whole book?
Lydia: I do plan my colour palette, believe it or not! I try to limit the colours I use, but I tend to get carried away once I get painting! Sometimes I look at Mary Blair’s work to give ideas about which colours to put together when I get stuck.
Tamsin: Let’s talk about paper – paper is so important to the book industry; it sounds really obvious but we don’t really talk about it; you don’t read reviews that say ‘and the publisher’s choice of paper is perfect…’ although I’m sure it’s a very careful consideration on their part. When you illustrate a book, do you think and talk about the final finish – especially as many end up with tactile touches of glitter.
Lydia: We don’t have any discussions about paper stock usually. I suppose the books I work on have a formula now. They tend to be part of a series, so there isn’t much debate about the stock. Well, not with me anyway! I don’t discuss glitter either! I’m happy to leave the placing of the glitter to the designer.
They decided to use glitter for the first Julia Donaldson title I worked on, ‘Sharing a Shell’, as it suited the seaside theme. It proved to be so popular that we’ve used it for every title since, even though that wasn’t the original plan! Children often say that the glitter is their favourite bit of the book. When I’m asked who puts the glitter on, I always say that Julia does it!
I’m developing a new book, which is a stand-alone title, and a little bit different for me. We have had discussions about paper for that book, and the finish. It will help distinguish it from everything else I’ve done.
Tamsin: I’m interested in illustrators’ and writers’ relationships with music. I have met people who need to work in total silence, and others who need music on all the time. Is music your thing?
Lydia: I don’t listen to music at all when I’m working. I tend to have an audiobook on the go, or sometimes I listen to the radio. I like listening to really long books, as I get through them quite quickly. I often listen to the same stories over and over again, as I find I’m not really listening half the time. I love anything from Jane Austen to Stephen King, and I’m particularly partial to Philippa Gregory. I think I would choose her Tudor novels for my Mastermind specialist subject!
Tamsin: How do you feel about technology? I hear all kinds of opinions from writers and illustrators; some feel strongly that you should use the tools of your time, and others can only write or illustrate by connecting their hand to paper. Are the original pieces for your books careful patchworks of paint and paper, or do you prefer to use technology?
Lydia: I don’t really use technology at all. The best I can manage is scanning fabrics and printing them out so I can cut them out and stick them on my pictures. I’m quite old fashioned really. I never have the time to try anything new. I enjoy my painstaking process too much!
Tamsin: I spend a lot of time talking about the importance of the role of editors and art directors in the creation of a book. How does the process of editing work for an illustrator? We hear about authors edits but never about how this works in illustration.
Lydia: The books are definitely a team effort. I’m lucky to have been working with the Macmillan team for many years now, and we all seem to get on well. In fact I’ve known the Art Director, Chris Inns for even longer – pretty much since my first book at Puffin twenty five years ago. He’s very good at just letting me get on with it. I am very spoiled!
My editor, Hannah Ray is lovely to work with. I never feel that confident about my writing. I feel like bit of a fraud. So it’s nice to have Hannah’s help when I need it! Sometimes there are no edits, and sometimes there are lots! What’s nice is, that I feel she cares and actually likes what I do.
It’s important to have trust between all of us.
But then, I know that a book’s success also relies on the marketing and PR team, and the sales and international sales teams, and the co-editions team. I’m lucky enough to be involved with all of them, which is really helpful. I think sometimes, as authors and illustrators are not working in house, we can be a bit forgotten. So, it’s really nice to be kept in the loop. We like hearing news about our books.
I feel really lucky to have such support from a publisher.
Tamsin: Tell me about a few illustrators or artists (past or present!) whose work you particular admire.
Lydia: I’ve mentioned Mary Blair already. I’m just looking over at my bookshelf and I can see…
Emma Chichester Clark
All illustrators are brilliant! I’m not fussy – I love them all!
Tamsin: Is there a story that you’ve always longed to illustrate?
Lydia: I’d love to illustrate a classic, but they’ve all been done so well before.I’d love to find a great story that has been forgotten. If you think of any, let me know…