Sarah Davis – Interview with CKT

Sarah Davis

What five words best describe you?

Furry, greedy, lazy, cuddly, demanding…oh no, wait… I just described the cat by mistake. I’m hopeless at summing myself up so I delegated this question and asked my 12 year old. She said “Hardworking, determined, happy, loving and gorgeous.” So I guess that’s an OK review. Unless she was describing the cat too….

How did you get started illustrating?

A combination of luck and perseverance. My first job was in 2005, storyboarding for a feature film – a friend of mine was managing the pre-production side of things, and their storyboard artist walked off the job, and disappeared with the fee. So they had to find someone who could finish the storyboarding quickly and cheaply! He knew I liked to draw and at the time I was taking a break from teaching because I was at home with a baby and a toddler, so I fit the bill. I had 2 weeks to draw more than 400 movie shots. It was intense, but I loved it – and it made me realise that I could perhaps make a living with illustration. I started off with commercial projects – advertising, concept art, logo design, that kind of thing, and taught myself to use graphic and layout software and how to handle the technical requirements of print, etc. I was a living example of the principle of Fake It Till You Make It!! I gradually built up my portfolio, and got my first picture book contract at the end of 2008 – Mending Lucille. Then I won the Crichton Award for it in 2009, which really helped boost my career. Joining the Society of Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators was really invaluable – a fantastic, supportive and informative community offering lots of opportunities to those just starting out.

Do you prefer to work with notes from the author or do you like to work with your own ideas for the illustrations?

I actually find it really hard to work with notes from anyone… it’s not that I’m overly precious or uncooperative (I hope!). It’s more that when I read a text it has a certain rhythm to it, and the images and story unfurl a certain way. Trying to make that process fit someone else’s interpretation of where the page turns should be, or how the action develops is like trying to cram my feet into someone else’s shoes. That said, occasionally a note will be really vital to the book, and I don’t ignore those ones!

Is there any part of the creative process you don’t like?

Actually, there is! I’ve talked to a lot of other illustrators and writers and musicians about this too, so it’s definitely not something that’s unique to me, which is reassuring. There’s this weird see-saw effect that happens where one day you’re excited about what you’re doing, and you think it’s going pretty well, and the next day you think it’s the worst, most misguided piece of junk that anyone has ever produced, and you question your whole existence. Then you look at it again, and go, “Actually, it’s not THAT bad! It’s pretty good!” Then, when you send it off to be printed you want to call the publisher and say “Stop the press! It’s awful! It’s lousy! destroy all copies! It must never see the light of day!” and when you get your advance copies of the book you can’t even look at it. Then a year down the track, you can see that it’s actually a perfectly fine book, and all the flaws you saw in it are still there but are nowhere near as terribly, glaringly obvious as you thought. And then you can finally say to people, “Oh, yeah, I illustrated this book” without cringing and wincing.

What advice would you give to someone who is trying to catch the eye of a publisher?

Be open and responsive to feedback, and be willing to take on board advice and suggestions. Do your research – know how picture books work, read LOTS of picture books, make sure your work is suitable for the genre. Develop a portfolio of 10-12 strong images that best represent what you do. Make sure you demonstrate that your work has a narrative element – it needs to be more than just pleasing pictures – you need to tell stories and develop expressive characters. Be professional – approach it like a business, be polite, efficient, SANE, and present your work as cleanly and clearly as you can. Definitely have a website, even if it’s just a simple gallery page of your best work. Network, attend conferences, and don’t be afraid to approach publishers, bearing in mind the previous point… that you should be polite, sane and professional!

What excites you about the future of children’s books?

I love the wry ironic humour and metatextual nature of a lot of recent picture books, and I’m hoping we’ll see publishers pushing the genre further to produce more picture books for adults!

What’s the funniest thing a child has ever said to you during an illustration session?

Oooh, that’s a tough one. I once had two little kindergarten boys having a big standup fight over whether Michael Jackson or One Direction were more famous than me. One reckoned MJ, and the other one was barracking for 1D. (The correct answer of course, is neither!) ;-D.

My other favourite was when two little girls came up to me looking very shy, pushing each other and saying “You ask her!” “No, you ask her!”.

Me: “Do you have a question for me?”

Little girl: “We were wondering if you were in a movie because you look like a famous actress.”

Me (preening): “Oh, really??”

Little girl: “yes… were you Ms Trunchbull in Matilda?”

My ego: *deflating balloon sound effect*….

What’s next from Sarah Davis?

I’m really excited about this year because for the last few years I’ve been on a treadmill of sequels – all my books seem to have turned into series! Not that I’m complaining about that, it’s brilliant – but it does mean that you get stuck matching a style that you might quite like to move on from. This year is the first time I’m going to have a chance to write my own books, and I have a couple of those on the go. I’d also like to start working on a graphic novel for adults that I have churning around in the back of my mind.

That said, I am also working on the 4th (!) Marmaduke Duck  book for Scholastic, Marmaduke Duck and the Christmas Catastrophe,  and Hachette have just commissioned a sequel to “Be Brave, Pink Piglet”  entitled “Look Out, Pink Piglet!“. so I suppose I’m not quite free from sequels yet.

Also, I’m doing lots of sketching, life drawing, and some serious painting – I’m doing a series of portraits with a twist, working towards perhaps having an exhibition towards the end of the year.

Sarah’s website: sarah-davis.org

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