British author-illustrator Jane Ray has over seventy children’s books to her credit, filled with plucky mermaids, fairies, and ghosts, while clever illustrations have earned her a spot on the shortlist for the Kate Greenaway Award five times. Ray was recently nominated for the 2018 Hans Christian Andersen award, an international prize often referred to as the “Little Nobel Prize.” Ray’s stories hail from all the corners of the world and are receptive to diverse creative influences. Her most recent book, The Elephant’s Garden (Boxer Books, $14.95), deals with hunger, greed, and temptation, but there’s no fire and brimstone here; Ray’s jewel-toned illustrations masterfully weave a beguiling tale set in a fantastical corner of India.
And that’s how it is with most of Ray’s books, wherein a deft master dazzles with lyric prose and illustrations to the point where the reader almost forgets that there’s a moral in there somewhere. Ray credits understanding parents and a lifelong love of reading and drawing for fueling her career. Ray kindly spoke with us via e-mail on March 22, 2017 about her early influences and artistic process, and extolled the virtues of toting sketchpads everywhere, because you never know when inspiration may strike.
You’ve written and illustrated over seventy children’s books, many of which focus on folk tales and fairy tales—your illustrations for Berlie Doherty’s Classic Fairy Tales put you on the shortlist for the Kate Greenaway Medal—what draws you to these stories?
RAY: I think it is the shape of traditional stories that I am attracted to. They are so familiar to us – you just start with “Once upon a time….” and we all know where we are! The archetypal scenarios of kings and princesses, three brothers or sisters, towers and palaces, poverty and wealth seem universal. I guess these stories relate to human concerns the world over – health, wealth, happiness, life and death.
What books did you read growing up? I understand yours was “a house full of books and music” and that you found school a distraction from your true calling. Did your parents encourage you to become an artist?
RAY: I was very lucky to have very encouraging parents – not to be underestimated. Important books were Alice in Wonderland, the Little House on the Prairie books, the Green Knowe Books by Lucy Boston, Tom’s Midnight Garden. I loved the illustrations of Beatrix Potter and Brian Wildsmith, Arthur Rackham and Jan Pienkowski.
What pulled you to the story of The Elephant’s Garden? Where did you first encounter this story?
RAY: I found the story when I was researching an anthology that I put together for Boxer Books, called The Lion and the Unicorn and other Hairy Tales. It came from a collection of Indian folk tales in my local library. The original story was about an ox and a monk, but I felt an elephant had more appeal, and I wanted a child protagonist. That is the beauty of such stories – they belong to everyone and can be retold in any way, to fit your audience. Nothing is written in stone.
The illustrations for The Elephant’s Garden remind me of various jungle scenes by Henri Rousseau—what influences did you draw upon for this book?
RAY: I had been experimenting with cut paper as a medium – there is a freshness and brightness to the technique which felt right for this story aimed at the very young. It is also a technique common to several different cultural traditions – Polish and Mexican to name but two….and Matisse of course!
What is your philosophy when it comes to creating a well-crafted children’s book? How do you know when the text and art are in perfect pitch?
RAY: When I’m illustrating my own text, it’s a constant backwards and forwards process of balancing text and image. I always find that the story can be pared down considerably once I start on the pictures – visual action reducing the need for explanation in the text. But you also don’t want to sacrifice the poetry and balance and rhythm of the words – hence the to-ing and fro-ing, trying to find the right balance.
What’s your creative process? Does it vary whether you’re collaborating with an author or working on your own project?
RAY: Yes, very much. When I’m working on someone else’s text I have a ready-made frame work which, by and large, I will adhere to. There can be, hopefully, some give and take between author and illustrator, the author willing to be flexible about issues that arise in the illustration of the text, but ultimately I am always very conscious that I am entrusted with someone’s “baby,” their precious story, and I want them to be happy with my interpretation.
When I am working on my own text, it is a much less defined process, a more organic process, with text and picture developing alongside each other, constantly responsive to each other.
What kind of research do you conduct for your projects?
I’ll do some basic research into historical or national costume, though I’m never too hidebound by this. Similarly, I’ll look at cultural and national ideas to provide background and some sense of the story I’m illustrating and/or writing about. Ideas for books come from so many different places – current events, dreams, ancient stories, poems, conversations with children, my work as Artist-in-Residence at a London center for refugees – and these circumstances all bring their own references and backgrounds which serve as source material for each projects.
How do you create your artwork? What kind of materials do you use? I understand you used collage for The Elephant’s Garden.
RAY: Yes – I use a lot of collage. I love the variety of texture and pattern that it brings, and also the references – fragments of newsprint for example. I also use watercolor, water color pencils, inks, gouache, and I’ve done a series of books using scratchboard, which looks a bit like engraving. My work is multi-layered – I always have a struggle with providing roughs because so much goes into the actual making process that can’t be shown “in brief.”
I don’t use the computer at all – I just don’t have those skills. I also rather like the physical processes of putting paint on paper.
Could you talk about your work with the Foundling Museum? I read that you were recently working on a picture book for them.
This was a while ago now and was a part of another project, In The Picture, which aimed to get images of disability into children’s books. But the experiences I had at the Foundling Museum fed directly into the novel Heartsong, written by Kevin Crossley Holland, which I illustrated recently. It is set in 18th-century Venice and is about the foundling children at the Ospidale de la Pieta, where Vivaldi was priest and composer and taught promising young girls to sing and play music to astonishing standards.
Do you have any advice for budding artists? So many children enjoy art, then reach seven or eight years old and either love it or decide they’re no good and give it up.
My advice is to get the sketchbook habit – to get into the habit of looking and drawing, to note things down, to collect images and ideas, snippets and fragments that intrigue and delight, or even scare you…In a sketch book you can make mistakes and change your mind, you can turn the page and do it differently – it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. There is room to discover who you are as an artist and what you like and what makes you tick.
Have there been any projects that didn’t turn out as planned? (For better or worse?)
I always have a vision of how a book is going to be – and it never turns out like that! But that’s half the fun!
How has your work changed over the years?
I have got much more disciplined about producing the art work. I used to let things go that, looking at them later, I regretted. I have got technically more dexterous I think, simply through experience and practice. I am always wary though, of losing freshness and spontaneity – one needs to keep a childlike, open quality in one’s work.
Do you visit schools? What is that like? What kind of questions do children ask?
I often visit schools and find it both stimulating and exhausting! Children ask all sorts of things – from, “How old are you?” to, “How do you think of stories?”
What are you working on now?
A story about a unicorn – a Scottish folk tale.