Ellie writes and illustrates children's picture books and Booktrust recently chose her book "Everybunny Dance" to help them celebrate National Bookstart week. Ellie also runs children's art classes from her beautiful little studio in Lincolnshire. We were delighted when Ellie kindly agreed to be interviewed by us so that we could find out lots more about her and her wonderful work.
How did you feel when you found out Booktrust would be using “Everybunny Dance” for National Booktrust Week?
It was really exciting! I was at Hodder for a meeting about the next book in the Everybunny series, and my editor told me the news. I was smiling for the rest of the day! Bookstart is a great initiative for engaging young readers with books and it was an honour to be a part of it. I’ve enjoyed seeing photos from all the events around the country- it’s been amazing to think that so many children have now seen my book. I had a lovely day at the launch event at Spitalfields City Farm too, working with a wonderful bunch of nursery children!
Who or what inspired you to become a children’s author and illustrator?
I loved drawing from a very early age, and enjoyed making up stories too. I wrote and illustrated my first book at the age of five- it was about a teddy bear that got lost at a market! I had a lot of books, too, some of my favourites being The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, and The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me by Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake. I also enjoyed poring over the illustrations in The First 1000 Words in English by Heather Amery and Stephen Cartwright, and spotting the duck on each page. I always knew I wanted to do something creative (apart from a brief stint of wanting to be a vet) but I wasn’t sure what.
When it came to choosing a university course I was considering animation (I wanted to work for Aardman), but in the end I chose Graphic Design, specialising in illustration. I remember we had a lecture by the Association of Illustrators, after which I started to really consider illustration as a career. I really enjoyed the picture book module of my course and so I decided to go on to do an MA in Children’s Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art. After that I was hooked!
What do you love most about creating books for children?
I really love the very early stages, when a character or a story starts to appear in my sketchbook. I enjoy starting to map a story out in tiny thumbnail sketches- little squiggles that probably wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else but that help me to start to put a story together. Once I have a rough idea for a character in mind, I then start writing the story in pictures- I would find it really hard to just write words, as I like to know how the words will work with the drawings right from the beginning. I find it really satisfying when I get to that moment where these tiny thumbnail sketches suddenly work- it’s often quite a struggle to get there so it’s really satisfying when it clicks!
At the other end of the process, it’s lovely to see children reading and enjoying my books. I love visiting schools and libraries to work with children- seeing their own writing and drawing based on one of my books is a wonderful feeling.
Why do you think it is important to encourage children to read and have fun with books?
I feel like children are increasingly surrounded by electronic stimulation- tv, computer games, tablets- books are an enjoyable way of taking time out from this, to slow down and spend time enjoying a story at their own pace. Children are used to a lot of visual input from their various gadgets and so it’s nice for them to listen to a story and have the opportunity to form their own images in their minds. Illustrations can be thoroughly explored through discussion and creating artwork inspired by the book. I think it’s really important for the development of a child’s imagination to engage with stories and to invent their own.
Do you have any “top tips” for parents and carers who want to help children develop a love of reading?
Read with them! Children love to share a story, and if they see adults and other siblings enjoying a book, that will reinforce the idea that books are wonderful and a worthwhile activity. Even before they can read for themselves, children are able to read the pictures from a young age, and often notice details in the illustrations that someone who is largely reading the text might miss. They love to discuss the pictures, and they’re a great way to engage with the story.
I also think it’s important for a child to choose their own books (libraries are fantastic for this!) Even if a child has chosen a book that’s above or below their reading ability, there was something about that book that appealed to them- if they’re then told they shouldn’t read that book, the appeal is lost, and reading a book they didn’t want to read becomes a chore. It’s great if children have access to a range of formats and genres, including non-fiction, graphic novels, comics and magazines, as it enables them to develop their own reading interests.
What advice do you have for children who dream of becoming an author or illustrator?
Keep drawing and writing! The more you draw, and the more you write, the better your stories will be. Keep a sketchbook to draw any ideas for characters and settings that you might have. Sketch from real life- draw your house, your street, your family- then write a story and put them in it. Draw an animal, give them a job, then write about their day at work. Draw a picture of you and your friend, then write about the time you solved a mystery. Make little books and fill them with your stories. Then you will already be an author and illustrator!
Do you ever get writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome this without becoming disheartened?
I often do in the very early stages of a new project, when I’m wrestling with the thumbnail sketches of the story. It was easy to get disheartened early on in my career as it was a little scarier- now though, I accept that it happens sometimes, and I don’t tend to fight it. I find it really hard to work if I’m not in the right frame of mind, and I wouldn’t be very productive if I tried, so now I take myself off and do something completely different. I sometimes take my dog for a walk and take my sketchbook to draw some scenery, or I’ll do some gardening or housework. Eventually I’ll go back to my desk and get going again! I listen to audiobooks in my studio which helps when I’m doing the final illustrations- it’s a long process but it’s very enjoyable when I have a good book on the go.
What is your favourite children’s book?
My childhood favourite was The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. I couldn’t possibly choose a favourite now though- there are too many wonderful books around! I have a big collection of picture books going back to when I was small. A fairly recent addition is Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise by Sean Taylor and Jean Jullien. That book gave me the giggles when I first read it!
The children’s art classes that you run from your studio sound fantastic, please tell us more about them.
I love working with young artists- after I graduated from Cambridge School of Art I taught art part time in a primary school for seven years alongside working on my books. I decided to go fully freelance last year, but I still wanted to keep up my work with children, so I set up a little art school based in my studio. It’s called Art Stars- we have six after school classes each week aimed at primary age groups, and one for ages 11-14 who work towards their Arts Awards.
We also run workshops during the holidays, which are great fun- we ran a picture book workshop as part of my hometown’s first Literary Festival, and it was lovely to see so many young authors hard at work! There are lots of photos of the art we’ve been creating on the Art Stars website. We are getting ready for an exhibition as part of Peterborough Artists Open Studios, which will be a lovely way to round off our first year, and a great way to celebrate our students’ hard work!
If you could spend a day with one of the PrenderPals who would it be and why?
I think it would have to be Clara the Chinchilla - we both love The Very Hungry Caterpillar so we could enjoy reading it together, plus we both like playing with water - I live right next to the river so we could go for a trip in my boat!
We'd like to say a huge thank you to Ellie for giving up her time to do this interview. We hope you've enjoyed reading her answers and that you love them as much as we do. She is a true inspiration for young children and we definitely recommend her books for their bookshelves.