When I Grow Up is the first book you’ve illustrated but not written. What was the process of working with Tim, and do you think illustrating someone else’s words changed your approach to the illustrations?
I’m a really picky illustrator, but I knew that When I Grow Up was the kind of unique collaboration I’d been waiting for. It’s an evocative and wistful song, but visually interpreting Tim’s lyrics into a picture book was a harder than I thought it would be. It took around six months to complete.
To begin with, Tim and the team at Scholastic gave me free rein to draw whatever I wanted. I listened to the song over and over, and came up with several visual narratives. At one point I considered animal characters: a koala bear, giraffe, crocodile and elephant. Other possibilities included a dream sequence, a city jaunt and adult characters.
In the end I decided to illustrate an imaginative trio simply fantasising about all the wonderful and amazing things they can do as grown-ups. Shopping sprees, splashing in water fountains, epic pillow fights and so on.
My drawings were regularly passed to Tim, Scholastic USA and Scholastic Australia. They would then come back to me with thoughts and suggestions. At one point Tim sent me a list of emotions to explore. I didn’t start chatting with Tim face to face until the book was almost complete. My main point of contact was Strawberrie, the books designer and an absolute godsend. Now Tim and I just contact each other directly. Just the other day we Skyped each other to chat about our joint event at Leicester Square Theatre.
You say you listened to Tim’s song while working on the book. How did that affect your illustrations?
It was all about trying to capture an emotion. Not an easy task, I have to say. I was hoping my hands would magically respond to the song. If only.
I paid attention to how the song made me feel. The highs and the lows. For example, when Tim sings, ‘And when I grow up I will eat sweets every day’, I felt lifted, which is why I drew a character literally riding her bike into the sky (a bit like Eliot did in the movie ET). And when Tim sings about being strong to carry grown-up things, I felt the a little sad, but hopeful. This is why I drew a grey statue of a man and a woman lifting the weight of the world in a sea of pedestrians.
How important were your own memories of being a child in the creation of the book?
It wasn’t until the half-way point that my mind began meandering down memory lane. When I was a child I dreamt about going on shopping sprees. I was so jealous of my friends who seemed to have it all. Wouldn’t it be amazing to just be able to buy whatever you wanted from the supermarket instead of milk, bread and baked beans? This is something I did put in the book.
I remember the foreverness of being a child. Adulthood was light years away. I wanted to capture that carefree feeling of anything is possible.
The children in the book are lively and vivid. How did you go about creating these three characters?
It took a while. Once I had decided that animals weren’t quite working, I drew one main character: the girl with the yellow shoes and frizzy hair. But I felt like there needed to be more children, so I gave her two friends. Matilda, as we all know her, is not in the book even though I had the option to include her. I felt it would be better to create something new: a direct response to the song.
I wanted every child and guardian to see themselves in this book. The incidental inclusion was absolutely intentional.
Drawing children can be quite difficult. For me, it didn’t come naturally. Really, this is my first book that prominently features children. One thing for sure is that I’m much better at it now. I could draw these kids with my eyes closed.
Do you have a favourite spread or image in the book? If so, which one and why?
To me, a library is the perfect place to become ‘smart enough to answer all the questions that you to know the answers to before you’re grown up.’ This is my favourite spread. I have always wanted to draw a big library scene. An illustration that truly recognises and celebrates libraries. There are lots of fun little details to look out for on this page. Look closely and you’ll find a key, a lightbulb, a heart, a melting snowman and even a sleepy dragon. I like how one of the main characters wants to borrow as many books as possible and how one child is physically overwhelmed by a heap of books. It’s quite a symbolic image. Several other illustrations in the book have different layers of meaning, too.
You’ve thanked your designer Strawberrie Donnelly for her help. Can you say something about Strawberrie’s contribution to your work and how you work together?
At one point we were emailing each other five or so times a day! Many illustrators will agree that it’s sometimes hard to know if something is genius or a pile of pants, especially when you’re burning the midnight oil. I was lucky to have such a supportive, honest and encouraging designer by my side.
I would send her my roughs and she would make suggestions. Colours were a bit tricky to get right. Most of the colours on the Candy spread, one of my favourites, were suggested by Strawberrie.
Will this be the first collaboration between you and Tim Minchin?
I’d be happy to work with Tim again. But this is such a unique project, it feels like a one-off. I think Tim would agree that, if we were to collaborate again, it would absolutely have to be something we can both believe in. In the meantime I’m happy to continue working on my solo projects. Maybe another unique collaboration will present itself, who knows?
Is there another song you’d really like to illustrate?
That’s a good question. A festive song would be fun. I really don’t know, but I’m open to ideas!