Benji Davies’s bright and energetic illustrations first won us over with The Storm Whale, featured in Club Sprout this month, and we’ve been dedicated fans ever since. We got the opportunity to ask Davies a few questions about swimming between animation and illustration, twist endings, and the power of observation.
How has your background in animation informed the way you approach book illustration?
Working in animation, specifically when I pitched on commercials, I was having to think very broadly about the worlds and the characters that needed be animated. So in that sense the characters have to live and breathe in order to be able to act within the story and they have to inhabit their environment believably.
When I illustrate a story I am thinking about how the characters move, what they are doing in that moment or the pose that best expresses what is being said in the narrative. I think it leads to much more relatable
Did you read much as a child? Are there any books that have really stuck with you into adulthood?
I was a reader, not an incessant one, but an ardent lover of illustrated books and thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in their worlds through the power of words and pictures.
The most memorable picture book for me is The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr, and as I grew into reading by myself, the Frog & Toad books by Arnold Lobel. Later on I fell in love with a book called The Little Grey Men by BB and also The Animals of Farthing Wood by Colin Dann.
The story of Watership Down rests deep within my soul because of the 1970s animated film that I watched on loop when I was young. I came to the book much, much later, which was equally affecting on me.
The Storm Whale is the first of three books about Noi and his family (followed by The Storm Whale in Winter and 2018’s Grandma Bird). How did one story grow to three? Do you see the arc closed or will there be more stories of Noi?
The Storm Whale was my first picture book and based on a short film I made as an animation student.
I had no plans to make a sequel. But then a couple of years passed and I started to imagine Noi’s world filled with snow and ice and a dramatic sequence began to unfold in my head. I felt that I had a story and so I began putting pen to paper.
Whist working on that book, The Storm Whale in Winter, there were other ideas and notions about Noi’s world. Did he have any other relatives, and where did they live, what would it be like if he went to stay with them, how would he feel? All these questions started to produce answers, and the story of Grandma Bird began.
I have no intention to write another picture book about Noi right now, but as time passes perhaps some new ideas will reveal themselves.
What’s been your favorite interaction with a child about your work?
I visited Madrid in the summer of 2018 to sign some books at a book fair held in a beautiful park. My flight had been delayed and so I was late getting there. As the sun was going down, all these little white book stalls lined the pathways through the park. I was worried that the book fair would be finishing for the day and that I would miss the book signing. But when I arrived there was a queue of children and families waiting for me to sign their books. As I saw their eager faces and big eyes peeping over the edge of the table where I was signing the books, it struck me how incredible it was. I started writing picture books not knowing if they would ever be published in one language, but now they are published in almost forty languages. And to have just arrived in Madrid, I don’t speak Spanish, but I was able to sign books for these children who had waited for me to arrive — it was a very special moment.
Your book The Grotlyn (2017), which incredibly well-received and is a favorite thanks in part to its marvelous twist ending, masterfully balances spookiness with light-hearted comedy. What was the spark that started this story for you?
As a child I was afraid of the dark. I wanted to create a story that built up the fear of what lurks in the dark, and then to lift that idea and turn it around into something good that you can smile about.
What, in your opinion, is the work of a picture book?
The work of a picture is to tell a story that sits between words and pictures, that cannot be told through picture or words alone.
What can you share with us about what you’re working on now, or what’s coming next?
I am just beginning a new book and I am at the very early stages of that so its not even clear enough for me to say what its about.
My next book to be published in the US is called Tad, it will arrive next spring, 2020. It’s a book I wrote about a tadpole becoming a frog. It’s about reassurance, about taking your time and letting life unfold as it should.
If you could freely transform into any sea creature, real or imaginary, which would you choose and why?
A humpback whale. It would be fascinating to live in a vast underwater world, to slowly navigate and gently observe life from a perspective so different from human experience.