Charlotte Voake talks about her new book of Nursery Rhymes
When Walker Books suggested this Nursery Rhyme project to me I could scarcely believe my luck – it seemed the nicest possible thing to do! My editor gave me a whole selection of rhymes which Selina Hastings had made and I used this as a starting point. I had instructions to start with Hoddley Poddley Puddle and Fogs; that was a good idea because I’d never come across that one before. Later I added some of my own choice – like A Apple Pie – and decided that we could do without Taffy was a Welshman and What are Little Girls made of?. I’ve always loved nursery rhymes but I hadn’t realised until I started looking closely at them how really weird and funny they are. I was tempted to do more slapstick but I resisted it – I think too much funniness palls. I’ve aimed for a balance by trying to respect the poetry as well as bring out the fun and humour.
With hindsight, I think the main problem that faced me, and ‘I imagine that faces anyone doing a Nursery Rhyme book, was my deeply ingrained notions about how they should be treated; a result of over-familiarity with a lot of the verse and the pictures which accompany them. It was for this reason that I made a conscious effort not to look at other people’s work while I was involved with this book, in an attempt to keep my own approach to the verses as fresh as possible. It is a modern book so I didn’t want it to be too traditional. I think modernish looking things fit some of the rhymes very well; but Little Bo-Peep has got to be traditional. I’ve always been interested in costume design; I collect books about fashion. It’s not a question of getting things accurate, more of getting a feel for the look. And of course Humpy Dumpty has to look like Humpty Dumpty – you can’t go too far in cutting across people’s expectations!
Over the Moon was originally designed to have 96 pages and to be in full colour throughout, but this was changed early on in the project to a 128 page book, in order to include more rhymes, and was now to be in both black and white and colour. When one person is doing a book of this length, a possible pitfall is lack of variety in the drawing, overall, and the black and white pictures help overcome this, I think. I worked in pen and ink and, for the colour, with water colour inks and crayons. I’d not done a lot of illustration in full colour before; I find it very difficult to work in bright colours.
For those lovely epic rhymes like Mother Goose and The House that Jack Built I had to get a lot of help with the design of the pages because the words fit so closely with the tiny illustrations; but they were very enjoyable to do and lent themselves to’ being treated absolutely straight, with the minimum of interpretation on my part. In all I worked with three designers each at different times. I had meetings with my editor every two or three weeks to look at roughs and consider design. The support from Walker was marvellous. There was help and advice when I needed it (lots at first) but in the end it was up to me to decide what I wanted and how I wanted it. They took so much time, trouble and effort with little aspects of the design – like deciding to change the type size (even though it had been set) because they thought it was too small and larger type would integrate better with the pictures; and they designed the end papers too, using my drawings. I like those very much. I was given a year in which to finish the book – it seemed a long time to me, but in fact it took slightly over that, in the end.
I was surprised by which illustrations seemed to come out relatively easily and others for which I had to do masses of preliminary drawings before I came up with something I thought did anything like justice to the verse. Almost invariably, though, it was the very well-known ones which caused me the most problems.
I could recite Little Bo-Peep almost without thinking, and that is why I had never really taken in that there are some very odd and amusing things about it which had to be taken into account. I emphasised the role the sheep play in the proceedings to try and highlight some of these – for example, in the last verse, they’re looking very worried, and dashing off as fast as they can, as well they might, since Bo-Peep apparently has plans to tack the tails, which she has just found hanging on a tree, back onto them again!
Little Boy Blue started off as a tiny vignette at the bottom of a page closely covered with other nursery rhymes. It struck me then that the drawing wasn’t big enough for such an important rhyme, and it immediately improved when I turned it into a whole double page spread with a landscape full of cows and sheep, and people and dogs having a picnic in the fields. This meant that we either had to regroup the other rhymes destined for that page, or dispense with some of them altogether. Right up to the last minute there had to be this constant process of elimination and addition.
It’s been pointed out to me that in most of the drawings I have a character looking out of the page at the readers, drawing them in and involving them in what’s going on. I must have been doing it subconsciously because I felt it needed to be done. I can see it’s there; I really like the idea of making a bridge between me and the reader.
I haven’t any children of my own and I didn’t try out any of the drawings. If what I have produced is child-centred that’s just how it came out. I think that the process we went through of compromise between the discipline of the original selection and the ideas which presented themselves as we progressed has given rise to a comprehensive book with what I hope is a fresh approach to this well-worn path.
Charlotte Voake always wanted to be an illustrator. When she was still at school she did her first published drawings for School Bookshop News the first magazine of the SBA – and as a result of that was commissioned to do the illustrations for a Heinemann series while at London University studying the History of Art. After university and a spell at Penguin she went to work for an art gallery in Liverpool and was persuaded to take freelance illustrating seriously. `The fact that I hadn’t had any formal training didn’t seem to put publishers off,’ she says.
At 28 she is now married and lives in London. Over the Moon is her second book for Walker.