A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Today is the book birthday of DINOSAURS DON’T DRAW, a beautiful rhyming picture book by author, Elli Woollard, and illustrator, Steven Lenton. It’s a wonderful book – a colourful bundle of joy about the power of art, the pleasure of discovering your ‘thing’, and the courage it can take to stand out from the crowd. I absolutely loved it, so I decided to chat to Elli and find out a bit more.
Dinosaurs Don’t Draw is about a little dinosaur called Picassaur who just loves drawing, despite his family telling him that he should be stomping around in the swamp. The main inspiration came from my sons (see next question).
I think there’s a real crisis of masculinity at the moment, brought to the fore by the #MeToo movement. But of course it’s much older than that. For centuries, boys have been told that there is a certain way to behave, and unless we address this feminism can never be successful. Fixed notions of what it means to be male are hugely detrimental to both men and women (a brilliant book on this subject is Grayson Perry’s ‘The Descent of Man’). My sons, or at least my two younger ones, have always been gentle boys who hate sport. Admittedly they bash each other over the head with light sabres, but they’re generally not macho. And my oldest son, while enjoying football, also loves tap-dancing. So the book was largely inspired by them. Having said that, it’s definitely not a book ‘for’ boys. I hope it will be read by children of all genders. And neither, despite my inspiration, is it a book ‘about’ boys. They’re dinosaurs, not people, and the female ones are just as roary and fierce as the male ones, just as there are plenty of roary women in the world! I suppose then it’s a book partly about defying societal expectations, and partly about the value of creativity over violence. Or just a fun book about dinosaurs. Yes, there’s a message if you look for it, but I don’t think picture books need to be didactic.
I’m no teacher, and certainly not an artist, but I don’t think there should be a ‘one size fits every child’ approach. Some might discover art spontaneously, while others might need more guidance. And good teaching can be invaluable for anyone. There’s a brilliant art teacher at my sons’ primary school, and I’m always amazed by the quality of the work she gets the children to produce. But I’m a huge believer in play and experimentation being the foundation of all creativity.
With a lot of hindsight (I actually wrote the book over five years ago!), I do wonder if the ending could leave the reader with the impression that art’s power lies in its functionality. Whereas of course art can be wonderful purely for art’s sake. Maybe the other dinosaurs have to see art as useful before they can free their minds sufficiently to appreciate its intrinsic value though.
Your question actually made me realise how little I know – really know – about art! But yes, I do like Picasso’s work (despite the fact that he was, by all accounts, rather unpleasant and misogynistic). If I had to pick favourites though, I’d probably say his line drawings of animals, in which he draws a camel or a horse with a single pencil stroke. So simplistic, and yet such utter genius. It was actually another artist, Paul Klee, who described drawing as ‘taking a line for a walk’, and I can certainly relate to that in my writing, which often feels like taking words for a walk and seeing where they take me. And then of course there’s Picasso’s Guernica, which is a demonstration of the huge power of pictures.
I’m not sure if there’s an answer to that one! I love looking at art, but as I said, I’m not very knowledgeable about it. I try not to have specific images of illustrations in my mind as I write, as I know that what the illustrator comes up with is bound to be completely different. I follow lots of illustrators on Twitter and Instagram though, and their work constantly brings a smile to my face.
I used to love drawing as a child. My memories of childhood mainly involve drawing hundreds of paper dolls wearing Victorian dress (look, we didn’t have a telly, OK?). I loved it at secondary school too, and my art teacher there really tried to encourage me to do art GCSE, but as a teenager I could be contrary for the sake of it, and because she tried to encourage me I refused. Daft, I know. And after that I stopped drawing. Maybe one day I’ll get back into it, but I feel like I’ve lost any skills that I might have once had.
I think I’ve spent my life as a rather unconventional person who always half hopes that there’s a conventional person somewhere inside trying to get out (just because it might make life easier)! So maybe! I certainly think that difference in all its forms is something to be celebrated. The world would be a very boring place indeed if we were all the same. In my family there are people of different races, sexualities and gender identities, and several people on the autistic spectrum. It’s wonderful!
9.You worked in partnership with an illustrator – Steve Lenton – to create DINOSAURS DON’T DRAW. Can you tell us a bit about that process? Do you prefer working as part of a team? (Is he a bit like Picassaur? :D)
Steven is an absolute dream of an illustrator. He’s so immensely creative, putting in so many little details of his own. He takes the basic story and really runs away with it, which is fantastic. But it’s very much a case of I write the story, he does the pictures, under the direction of the wonderful designer Lorna Scobie at Macmillan. They’re the real team.
Thank you! I grew up with a lot of music – in fact for a long time I wanted to be a classical singer (if you’ve ever heard me sing, you’ll know why I didn’t achieve this!). Not that you necessarily need any formal musical training to have a musical ear, but I do think a musical ear is important when writing in rhyme. It’s interesting to note that some of the best writers in verse, from Edward Lear to Julia Donaldson, have also been very keen musicians. Sometimes I have a tendency to prize euphonious rhythm and language over story though, and need a gentle reminder from my agent or editor that sounding good isn’t enough!
11. I know you have an interest in languages – and have even worked as a Thai to English translator. Do you think exploring other languages gives you a greater insight into the rhythms and patterns of English and helps you pack a powerful story into very few words, as you need to do in a picture book?
Oo, that’s a hard one. I suppose writing in verse is in itself a process of translation. I know some people who write in rhyme first write out the story in prose, and while I don’t do that I do of course have a basic idea of the story in my head before I write, which I then have to translate into verse on the page. Perhaps where it helped the most was when I was adapting Kipling’s Just So Stories (illustrated by the amazing Marta Altés), as rewriting them in verse felt very much like translation from one language to another.
Dinosaurs is the only book I’ve got coming out this year (sob, sob), but next year I’ve got four books coming out, I think, including another picture book with Steven Lenton. I’m not sure that I’m allowed to talk about them yet, but what I will say is that Steven draws the most brilliant donkeys!