For the month of February we worked with the brilliant Emma Dodd, the award-winning British illustrator whose book Forever, an endearing tale of the love a polar bear has for her cub, features in this month’s Club Sprout.
Dodd won a Booktrust Early Years Award for I Love My Mummy, and was nominated for the 2011 Kate Greenaway Medal for I Love Bugs. Inspired by her parents who were both designers, she tells Literati how she can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to be an artist, about the books she loved as a child, and how her (now teenage) children inspired characters that appear throughout her work.
After you graduated from art school you worked in advertising and editorial for various companies and magazines. Was there a single moment you can recall when you decided you wanted to work exclusively writing and illustrating children’s books?
I was very fortunate to be taken on by my brilliant Children’s Literary Agent Eunice McMullen only a couple of years after I graduated from St Martin’s [Central Saint Martins school of art in London]. Initially she suggested we give it six months and see is she could find me any work. That was 24 years and over 100 books ago, so she obviously did! For a few years I worked in editorial, advertising and children’s illustration. It was when I had children of my own that I started to work almost exclusively on children’s books. The short deadlines in editorial work, often involving working late into the night, no longer suited me and I found that longer projects fitted much better with family life. Also, my children gave me so many ideas and were a huge source of inspiration.
Were your own children your first-draft readers? And what prompted you to progress from writing and illustrating board books to books for older children?
They were, and are the inspiration behind everything I’ve ever written. They also appear in many of my books: the curly haired boy of I Love Bugs is my son, Conrad, and the little girl in I Love Dogs is my daughter, Imogen. You will find them in much of my work. If I want to write a book about feelings and unconditional love, I only have to think about them. Both are teenagers now, and still lovely.
Two of your books that we’ve featured — Together, and, this month, Forever — seem to have ‘security’ as a recurring theme. Was that a conscious decision?
Absolutely. I think security and reassurance of a parent’s love is incredibly important. In fact, Forever was written after an specific event in which I felt that my son needed reassurance. The words came so easily and he still treasures that book because he knows it was written for him.
Both of those books incorporate foil into the illustrations which is a remarkable way of conveying the icy or watery world the creatures inhabit. How did you come up with that idea?
The foil element was decided right at the very beginning of the series and enabled me to choose settings and subjects that would be enhanced by the addition of foil. That way, hopefully, the foil is an intrinsic part of the illustration and does not feel like an afterthought.
Who or what inspired you to embark on a career in art initially?
My parents were both designers. In fact they met while studying at The Royal College of Art in London. I grew up surrounded by creativity. I used to do my homework in my dad’s studio and even used to help to hand color their textile designs when I was very young. I cannot remember a time when I did not want to pursue a career in art. It was just the natural direction for me and I now realize how very lucky I am to have found it so early.
What comes first? The idea for the illustrations or the story itself?
Usually the story itself.
What particular picture books inspired you most when you were younger and why?
I loved the books of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin; for example the Noggin The Nog series and Bagpuss. I also loved and still love the work of John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury. My all-time favorite book was one that you may never have heard of: it’s called Old Winkle and The Seagulls and was illustrated by Gerald Rose. I still have my copy, and I treasure it.
What does your regular working day look like?
I have a studio at home. I’m always up very early and before I sit down to work I like to take my Jack Russell / Dachshund cross, Buzz, out for a long walk. I sometimes go out for a very early row if there is enough light; the winters are very frustrating. I’m at my desk by 10am at the latest and I work solidly until 4pm when I go to pick my daughter up from school. I’ll usually do another hour or two in the evening. Buzz sleeps in a basket under my desk and reminds me to move from time to time.
What’s been your favorite interaction with a child about your work?
I once met a little girl who had just come to live with her new adoptive parents. They had used Forever as a way of introducing themselves to her and had sent her a video of them reading it in her soon-to-be bedroom. It clearly meant a huge amount to her and her parents and I was really moved and honored that my book had played such an important role in their story.
Do you have any advice for aspiring artists among our members?
If you love art, go for it. Like anything though, be it playing a musical instrument or playing football, it takes practice. Draw and draw and draw. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. There are no right or wrong answers with art. And most importantly, enjoy it. It is a wonderful way to make a living and I am incredibly lucky.
Do you have a new book project you can tell us about?
I do… it’s about Dachshunds so I don’t have to look too far for inspiration.
Are you aware that your award-winning book I Love My Mummy has an American translation: I Love My Mommy. Did that make you chuckle?
It does make me chuckle. There have been quite a few text changes made to the American editions of my books over the years, though it’s usually words like ‘holiday’ into ‘vacation’. It always seems quite strange when I first read it, but I soon get used to it and I love the fact that my books are so well received in America.