At the age of just 25, William Grill was last week announced as the winner of the 2015 CILIP Kate Greenaway for Shackleton’s Journey. Ferelith Hordon interviews him for Books for Keeps.
If your parents are both geography teachers, it is perhaps not surprising that you yourself have an interest in exploration and the stories that come from the lives of men and women who are part of that history. Certainly this was an important influence for William Grill, the latest - and youngest - winner of the CILIP Kate Greenaway Award. Travel and stories of exploration had always attracted him; perhaps being an ‘outdoor person’ helped too. But why Shackleton, I asked him? ‘I have always had a soft spot for Shackleton as a character. I thought he deserved as much attention as Scott if not more.’
And it was seeing the photographs by Frank Hurley OBE (1885-1962) who was the official photographer for Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Exhibition that fired William’s imagination: ‘I wanted to draw and retell that story, and it kind of evolved. It was my tutor at university who encouraged me to make a book out of it. It wasn't a long term plan to make this book; it happened naturally.’
Indeed it was the illustration course at Falmouth University that allowed William to develop his graphic style. He had always enjoyed drawing at school, but it had not be greatly encouraged ‘It was not seen as a legitimate career’, and in any case the emphasis had been on painting - an area William admitted was not his strength. In Shackleton's Journey, he uses oil based colouring pencils as his medium. The are very immediate, allowing him to replicate his sketchbook approach. Indeed it sometimes looks as if the work is unfinished but this is an aesthetic he likes. This immediacy is a striking feature of the book as the reader is faced with the icy landscape of the South Pole.
As a dyslexic, William admitted he has always struggled academically. He was keen to create something that would be accessible to readers like him who respond to the visual approach though he agrees the words are still important. He likes to be the author of both elements, to control how the two elements work together so that the pictures do not just echo the text: ‘I had to work out ways to eliminate text and tell the story through pictures. I had to figure out my own storytelling voice; Shackleton was a really great story for that.’
From the start it was the pictures that shaped the book, and this remains the way he works; there is never text at the beginning of the process, this comes later. So who were his illustrative heroes, the artists who have informed his vision? Looking back to his childhood, William cites Raymond Briggs - especially for The Snowman, adding too Shaun Tan and graphic novel artists, Frank Santoro and Chris Ware. His interest in the pictures drew him to books designed for older readers such as Stephen Biesty's Cross-sections and books of scientific illustrations; Dore's illustrations for Dante's Inferno also made a great impression.
He draws all the time and loves the opportunities for meeting young people that winning the Greenaway presents, looking forward to encouraging them to see drawing as important. Indeed if he hadn’t found success as an illustrator he would have pursued teaching as a career. He runs a weekly art club in a local primary school in Islington where he aims to teach the children new skills - drawing, print making - and would like more schools to encourage help in this area rather than seeing art and the development of visual literacy as peripheral. ‘Art is rarely promoted as a route to a fulfilling career despite the many creative opportunities it can offer’. While picture books are usually seen as only appropriate for the very young, William has always been interested in books aimed at an older or adult audience. Should books like Shackleton's Journey be seen as graphic novels? ‘There is definitely a huge audience of people who enjoy reading pictures as much as words’. He feels that the world of the picture book and indeed the graphic novel is changing and Shackleton's Journey is symptomatic of this change. ‘There is so much you can do - it doesn't have to be tiny postage stamp illustrations’.
He is now very involved in the next book which will be based in New Mexico set in the dying days of the Wild West. Though it will also involve the wilderness and a journey, he feels it will be less of a documentary than Shackleton's Journey, having a more personal element. It will still be based on history but one day he would like to explore something from his own imagination. We look forward to it.
Ferelith Hordon is a former children’s librarian and Chair of the Youth Libraries Group, and editor of Books for Keeps.
Shackleton's Journey is published by Flying Eye Books, £14.99 hbk.