“A book can never be too young for you, a book can be too old for you but it can never be too young for you … “ David Roberts.
To celebrate the publication of A Beginner’s Guide to Bear Spotting by Michelle Robinson and David Roberts I met David for coffee and to talk about his career in publishing, his books and the joys of illustration. Here is some of what we spoke about …
David went to art school in Manchester where he studied Fashion Design. And whilst he was on the course two visiting lecturers introduced him to his future – a milliner to a passion for hat making and a fashion illustrator opened his eyes to the possibility of earning a living as an illustrator. He found that his tendency to draw characters that look like him made his choice of fashion illustration as a specialism a little tricky “They weren’t the most attractive lets say … so I didn’t really get much work” he tells me.
David went to Hong Kong where he worked as a milliner and while he was there he started to work for local newspapers and magazines doing art for their horoscopes, fashion pieces and articles which started him on his career as an illustrator. One of the pieces he did, about the people in the fashion industry which he based on a hybrid Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous and Ivana Trump, he had made into a postcard through which he met his agent Christine Isteed of Artists Partners with whom he has been every since.
It was Christine who guided him to being a children’s book illustrator. She pointed out to him that he draws characters with a story and she took him on telling him that she would find him work in children’s publishing.
It was exactly what David wanted to do and was the start of his amazing career. “For me at that time Christine was the one that gave me that boost. I wanted to do children’s book illustration but I never believed I was able to do that. So when she said ‘Go away, come back to me when you have reworked your portfolio, take a few nursery rhymes and illustrate them…’ that was the start for me.” David’s first book was with Wayland called ‘Frankie Steins Robot’ by Roy Apps and he has since gone from strength to strength and work by him must be present on almost every child’s bookshelf with a range of titles covering everything from pre-school to YA.
David does not see himself as a writer, rather as someone who is an illustrator of other peoples books. This is despite his wonderful Bertie series of books which cover the escapades of a little boy called Bertie who has some pretty revolting personal habits that appeal hugely to a young readers. David created the character and wrote the first two books and the writing is now done by Alan Macdonald while David continues to illustrator both the picture books and fiction titles that are published around the character.
“I soon realized after doing those books that writing is not for me” David tells me “what gives me the real thrill is someone else’s imagination, and what they come up with can then take me down a road that I never would have been able to think of myself. I need someone to open that door for me.”
David acknowledges that the challenge of illustrating dinosaurs for Julia Donaldson’s Tyrannosaurus Drip meant that he was pushed out of his comfort zone – and had to come up with characters for animals that don’t wear clothes as clothes mean to so much to him when creating character.
He says he enjoys illustrating other peoples books so much more that trying to come up with his own texts and this is also perhaps why David’s work, while being so distinctive, meshes so well with different writers from Chris Priestley to Sally Gardner, Julia Donaldson to Michelle Robinson. There is great mutual respect between the two creative halves and never a feeling that one is trying to impose its will on the other..
David is surprised that his work is often talked of as being gothic as he is not a fan of anything even remotely scary. He says he couldn’t even watch Sleep Hollow with Johnny Depp which is hardly hardcore horror! But he acknowledges that he likes to illustrate darkness “creepy and sinister and the oddities of things, the shadows. What I loved so much about Chris Priestley’s stories is that they allowed me to remove the characters because he didn’t want things revealed. I could literally draw a room with a shadow and that was enough.” And this was a new way of thinking for David who found himself freed of having to create a character and could focus on creating an atmosphere. Which he does brilliantly.
It isn’t too much of a surprise to find out that one of the reasons that David wanted to be an illustrator is because of his love of Edward Gorey’s books. He became captivated by Gorey’s work while a student because “there is something about the way that it is so static. Its just these captured moments that really really appealed to me in the way that I also really loved Victorian photographs where a scene has been set and you are posed. I learnt a lot from looking at Edward Gorey and Gustave Dore and Charles Keeping. I learnt about tone and light and depth and how to leave the white space and how to cross hatch from looking at their work.”
David is the master of leaving the space. He does not over explain or over illustrate and leaves the reader lots of room to use their imagination and fill in the gaps. David is also a wonderfully humourous illustrator and much of this is conveyed through the charm of peoples faces, and ‘wide eyed’ innocence. David admits that he loves to draw people, to think of who each character is, what they would wear and how they would move through the world. He thinks this is at odds with his solitary life as an illustrator who doesn’t get to spend a lot of time with people and it is the humanity he invests in his characters that I think make them so compelling to the reader.
David’s reputation is building around the world and while he is published in many countries and is working directly with American publishers he doesn’t feel he has to adapt his style to suit his projects abroad. Working directly now with Abrams on the books Rosie Revere Engineer and Iggy Peck Architect by Andrea Beaty with a third one on the way.
He notes that his books published in the American market are often noted for their ‘Britishness’ and he knows that in the end it would be a mistake to try and contrive something for a market “always just be yourself, do it how you see it and then let other people take from that.”
David is amused by conversations in which people assume that his ability to create children’s books is because he “has the mind of a child”. He says “I don’t really think about the child when illustrating a book, I only ever respond to the text. I never ever think what would the child want to see.” Like other original and successful creators of children’s books his ambition is to create the best and not to double guess what the audience might want.
Yet at the same time David is conscious of the orthodoxy of a classical training. “I always felt that there was this secret method which I didn’t know about because I hadn’t trained that way. That you had to be so pure about things and if I was doing watercolour I would feel I couldn’t possibly pick up a coloured pencil and add that to it because this is supposed to be watercolour. And then I found a copy of John Burningham’s Mr Gumpy’s Outing and something flicked in my mind. I just looked at it and saw that it was a case of whatever is on the desk he picked up and drew with it so it could be a crayon, or pen and ink or watercolour. It was so free and it instantly made me think whatever I want to make the mark with I should make the mark with. It made me a little less frightened.”
David feels that there is no right and wrong way of doing something and this confidence has meant that he has developed a wonderful distinct style that is always recognizably him. Despite the difference in the audiences from his picture books to his black and white work in YA novels the art is always clearly his. He loves the fact that he can move between black and white and colour work and that the illustrations for each take a different energy from him. The variety he feels keeps him fresh, and interested. He suggest that his most unusual work and the one that will surprise his fans the most is Tinder by Sally Gardner which came about because Sally asked him to work in a different style. He found the opportunity such a freedom and it was he says, rather like having time to draw for himself and experiment.
David does all his work manually and does not use a computer. An artist with immense drawing skills David is also someone who creates a colour scheme for each of his books which is special and personal to each text. For A Beginner’s Guide to Bear Spotting
the colour scheme was his first approach and also his first way into the text and didn’t involve any changes of heart or direction from him as the book developed. He says “I had this idea of orange, and yellows and orches and pale blues – these were the colours that I though the bears would look good against. With this book it was straight away right. “
Publishing in February David loved illustrating Michelle’s text. He says it was an opportunity for him to combine his black and white cross hatched line with watercolour and a perfect opportunity to bring those two creative worlds together.
“I had so much fun with it. The text is so new and so open, it felt like I could take it in so many different ways and it was so refreshing to think ‘how shall I do this’
David also enjoyed the process of working with Bloomsbury on the book as he felt no one was trying to ‘guide his hand’ on the book and that in being left to ‘have a go’ and then to adapt anything he might have got wrong allowed him to get it right.
For a child that is a little bit unsure about reading David realizes that Illustration is a way of making the reading experience easier. He remembers not being a confident reader and how much art helped him build his confidence. That pictures can offer clues to the words as well as a small break in the reading is important to how David structures his illustrations and in the Bolds by Julian Clary David aimed to have an illustration on every page to help young readers with both pace and clues.
The family in the Bolds is a family that David feels the reader wants to be part of and that they are always laughing and finding laughter in their experiences. “Its nice to illustrator laughter” David tells me and “when I am drawing I pull the expression on my face of the expression I am drawing. I found that when I was drawing the characters in the Bolds I have this crazy grin on my face the whole time.”
David doesn’t often get a day off but if he did on his wish list would be a visit to see a Hockney exhibition, an artist that he adores. He says that Hockney’s work from the 1970’s heavily influence Iggy Peck Architect and that he shamlessly stole a garden sprinkler from a Hockney painting for the book. It is clear that David’s influences are wide and his appreciation of the detail in other peoples art is something that is reflected in the painstaking care he puts in to his own work.
He also really likes exhibitions like the Viking exhibition and the Pompeii exhibition as he loves real stories about real people and he would love to do some non-fiction, biography even. He would be interested in people whose lives are interesting, whether or not he agrees with their politics. Margaret Thatcher for example would give him plenty to get his teeth in to … miners strikes and all.
For the coming months however he is unlikely to have time to start the Iron Lady’s life. He has several books in the pipeline, including his first book for Walker Books which he is delighted about as it was the first children’s publisher he was every really aware of. This after a career that spans, if you include all the educational titles, book covers and other projects, over 150 books. We have a lot more to look forward to from David in the future.
A Beginner’s Guide to Bear Spotting is available now in hardback. Visit www.bloomsbury.com and follow them on twitter @kidsbloomsbury and on instagram @bloomsburypublishing.
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