For Literati‘s upcoming June experience, we are thrilled to have had the chance to work with London-based author and illustrator Jenni Desmond! You’ve seen her mixed media illustrations in The Polar Bear, Red Cat Blue Cat, The First Sludge, and more.
Her ability to both write and illustrate, to move seamlessly from fiction to nonfiction, and to capture the imaginations of her readers with creatures real and imaginary enchanted us. We took the opportunity to ask her a few more questions about her books and her inspiration.
Jenni, your mixed media illustrations span from whimsical to realistic, and you’ve written both fiction and nonfiction. How does the process differ between these types of projects?
I try to experiment and try different things in my work, to keep it looking fresh and to keep me excited, interested and engaged. If I’m not feeling excited by the work then it’s unlikely that the reader will be. I like doing fiction and nonfiction equally. In nonfiction, you keep the animals accurate but can explore artistic techniques. In fiction, you have more freedom with how the animal looks and the most important thing is to make sure that the characters are animated and loveable.
What surprised you the most in the research for your nonfiction books?
When I am doing lots of reading about the animal I am surprised and full of wonder most of the time, and if you meet me during this period of research I will probably talk on and on about a polar bear’s foot or a blue whale’s ear. What is difficult is condensing all of this information into only a few sentences, and deciding what to leave out.
What was your favorite book as a child?
Dogger by Shirley Hughes, it still makes me cry every time I read it. In a good way.
Which artists are your visual art inspirations?
Illustrators such as William Steig, Maurice Sendak, Beatrice Alemagna and Anne Herbauts. Fine artists such as Matisse, Hockney, Picasso, Schiele. I love the Japanese and French aesthetic. And my partner is an architect who has introduced me to some very inspiring buildings, textures and materials. Oh, and I also love ceramics and interior design. And films. So, lots of different types of artists!!
You’ve published several books with one of our very favorite small publishers, Enchanted Lion Books. Two of those books—The Polar Bear and The Blue Whale—you authored and illustrated. What has your experience been as an author/illustrator versus those where you were partnered with an author?
Enchanted Lion Books are one of my favourite publishers too, and we are now starting work on the next book in our series, The Elephant. It’s great both writing and illustrating something because you have full control of the book and it’s your baby. It’s much harder though, and getting the balance between the writing and illustrating takes a lot of time and a LOT of redrafts. It’s pretty nice to be given a story that is already written. An illustrator’s job is not to just draw a few pretty characters, but to continue the story. In picture books, a lot can happen that is not said in the words, and that’s for me to think up. I never get told how to draw characters or what the author wants me to do, I am given total freedom to make decisions. It always gets shown to the author though to make sure that they are happy with what I’ve done.
When writing and illustrating, do the images come to you first or the narrative?
They normally come around the same time, often in one of the many scruffy little sketchbooks that I have lying around.
Do you have any advice you’d like to pass on to young artists who aspire to create books?
Draw and draw and draw and read and write lots, and don’t worry at all about making mistakes, the mistakes can often be the best bits. When I was little I used to make books and scrolls as presents for my grandma. That was very good practice to become a picture book maker.
What will be your next book to hit the shelves?
On The Night Of The Shooting Star, written by Amy Hest and illustrated by me will be out this September (Candlewick Press USA, Walker Books UK). It’s about a dog and a bunny who want to be friends but are a little bit shy.
If you lived in the ocean, which aquatic animal would you be?
I think being a humpback whale would be pretty cool, they seem to have a lot of fun. I once had a dream that I was a killer whale, it was an amazing dream.
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