Midsummer is the time for sunshine, swimming, and spending quality time poring over (and falling into) our richest picture books, which is just one reason why we’re so excited to have the UK-based author and illustrator William Grill (Shackleton’s Journey, The Wolves of Currumpaw) as Literati‘s featured illustrator for July.
Both of William’s books pulled us in immediately with their lively colored pencil illustrations and the thrilling true stories they tell, from the frosty tundra of the Antarctic to the sun-baked plains of New Mexico. We asked him about his art, his awards, his research, and what he’s working on next.
Your first book, Shackleton’s Journey, was published just three years ago in 2014 and saw immediate and enthusiastic acclaim. What was that experience like for you as a first-time published author and illustrator?
It was very exciting and felt quite surreal, I had never expected to get a book published soon after graduating, and for it to be well received too was amazing.
In 2015, at age 25, you were the youngest recipient of the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal in 50 years. To what do you credit your success at such a young age and so early in your career?
A lot of it is down to luck, being in the right place at the right time. By that I mean there has been some growth in children’s non-fiction, especially by illustrators who don’t usually specialize in children’s books. Also, my tutor at university encouraged me to enter a dummy book into a graduate design show, if it wasn’t for her persuasion then I might have never have got a book offer!
Do you have any advice you’d like to pass on to young artists who aspire to create books?
Tune in to your interests, keep a sketchbook and use it everyday, also try not to worry what other people are doing.
Your style is unique and striking, as well as consistent in the two books you’ve published so far. What has the process of finding your illustration style been like? How are you seeing it evolve as you continue to work?
Everyone works hard to find their “style” or “voice” at university, you want your work to be recognizable, consistent and unique, however it’s something that you continually work on and try to evolve. For me this came about inadvertently through using sketchbooks… I used to spend some time on paintings and was always frustrated that my colour pencil sketches where freer and livelier than my final artworks. So tried to use coloured pencils for my final artworks and draw as if I was just doing a sketch. Funnily enough now though I have started to play with paints again, hopefully keeping up the energy and confidence that I have when I draw!
You’ve mentioned before that you had the opportunity to teach a weekly art class for kids. What was your favorite part of teaching?
I used to run an art class at a local school, unfortunately I haven’t had the time to keep it up, but I still visit schools and universities on a fairly regular basis running art workshops or giving talks. I think it’s always good to stop what you’re doing for a while and invest your time in other people, it’s very rewarding seeing children or adults find enjoyment and expression through drawing. Young children in particular can be quite inspiring to me as they are often refreshingly impulsive and natural at making images, something which is easily lost while sitting down behind a desk.
What appeals to you about narrative nonfiction? Is there a common thread between the stories you’ve chosen to tell?
Stories that pit man against nature have always had an interest to me, they say that a journey out is a journey in and I think that’s true. I like the vastness and otherworldly stage they’re both set in, the animals they encounter and the struggles they face. Another common thread to them is that they both feel quite mythic to me, there’s something eternal and timeless about them. Neither achieved quite what they set out to do but both were profoundly changed by their experiences. Narrative nonfiction is really a genre I fell into, but it’s become clear to me there out countless incredible lives that existed and tales that took place, the fact that they’re real adds a certain weight to it.
What’s your favorite bit of information you’ve learned in your nonfiction research that didn’t make it in?
Probably the fact that none of Shackleton’s expeditions were successful. It sounds mean but I think it highlights the resilience of the spirit he possessed and the fact that just because you might fail, it doesn’t make you a failure.
What were your favorite picture books as a kid, and why?
Books by Richard Scarry like ‘What do people do all day?’, because it made me think outside myself and really wonder, I also loved the business and playful nature of his artworks. As I was approaching the end of primary school I started to really enjoy Shaun Tan’s books, there’s layers of sophistication to his work and a unique otherworldly universe he creates which I found captivating. Lastly I used to like looking at atlases, art books, information books about animals etc, the words didn’t matter too much, anything full of pretty pictures and information displayed visually I found interesting.
What do you have coming out next?
I’m currently working on new ideas for my own book, however I collaborated on a book with Candlewick Press which should be out this year.
If you could join any historical expedition, which would it be?
It would have to be the Apollo 11 moon landing.