Q&A with Jane Ray

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?

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Text and art copyright 2017 Jane Ray. Reproduced with permission from Boxer Books.

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!

flamingos
The Flamingoes by Henri Rousseau

 

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.

 

Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland celebrates 150 consecutive years in print, and it seems every where you look, there’s a book, exhibit, or documentary extolling the various virtues of this timeless tale. Even the British Royal Mail Service got into the spirit by commissioning a special series of stamps. The work was completed by none other than Kate Greenaway Medalist Grahame Baker-Smith. Regular readers of this site might recognize the name: In 2013 Baker-Smith illustrated an edition of The Selfish Giant (Folio Society), and we spoke then about his work. (You can read the conversation here.) Once again, the illustrator generously answered a few more of my questions and sent some stunning sketches he prepared  for this most recent assignment. Join me down the rabbit hole with Grahame Baker-Smith as we talk about inspiration, design, and illustrating a legacy.

Who was your design inspiration for Alice and the other characters? (If I may be so bold, there appears to be a family resemblance between you and the Alice character.)

Well spotted Barbara! My ‘muse’ for Alice was my youngest daughter, Lillie. She very patiently and graciously let me take pictures of her doing things like pretending she was falling down a rabbit hole or being squished in the White Rabbit’s house – for which she had to sit scrunched up beneath my table.

Lillie is actually very dark-haired but the Royal Mail wanted a light brown hair color, so in the stamps she looks to me like Lillie but wearing a wig.

How did you choose which scenes to create?

The Royal Mail left the composition to me but had a ‘shopping list’ of scenes they wanted covered. It was a shame there couldn’t have been more than ten designs as characters like the Caterpillar and Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee had to be left out.

After 150 years, there’s been plenty of variations in art for the book. What’s it like tackling such a legacy?

Initially slightly terrifying! But, I reminded myself of the fact that the Royal Mail chose me for the thing that I do, so I tried to blot out everything I’d seen and play my natural game. I thought of the set of stamps as pages in a book. It was fabulous when [publishing house] Walker DID actually make them into a book. [The book is published in the United States by Candlewick Press.]

What was your work medium?

Well, everything begins with drawing, lots of drawing, in pencil, crayon, and pen. I tend to paint faces and other parts in acrylic. These are scanned into Photoshop and the rest of the design is built around it using Photoshop vector tools and brushes. I used crisp, clean shapes in Photoshop and minimal texture because of the size of the finished stamp. I needed something that would be very defined and positive at a small scale.

Did you create the pieces on a small scale, or work large and scale down?

Again this was a specific part of the brief. The printing of stamps needs to be very fine to hold the color, tones and textures at stamp-size. So the original images were 170 mm square, four times the size of the finished article. The DPI or print resolution was 600, usually 300 DPI is standard for print.

Did you read Alice in Wonderland growing up? (Or as an adult?) If so, was there a particular illustrated edition that resonated most with you? (Or not at all?)

I didn’t read Alice growing up. It’s one of those stories that, because of endless adaptations, you feel you know even if you’ve never read the book all the way through. I haven’t read it all the way through even now – I really should!

As for illustrations, Tenniel’s are so much a part of the whole legend of Alice it’s difficult to think of it without seeing his version; I also think they are marvelous illustrations anyway.

How do you perceive this story – I’ve spoken to some illustrators who viewed the tale as a whimsical fantasy, and others who saw nothing but a total nightmare, and illustrated it as such.

When I read the chapters pertaining to the scenes I had to illustrate I was enchanted by Carroll’s imagination, it seemed wild and unhinged. The feeling was of someone so in command of his literary prowess that he could conjure virtually anything into being and somehow make it work. I also felt there was an underlying truth that held it together and gave it – despite the utter madness – a gravity. It has something to say about the contrariness of people, the randomness of life and events. Characters like the Cheshire Cat seem to know so much about other people and the way the world really works while the Queen and King, with all the trappings of power, are unconscious beings who, through being unaware cause chaos and feel quite destructive and dangerous individuals.

Grahame Baker-Smith’s commemorate stamps are available through the British Royal Mail here, and the book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published by Candlewick Press, is available for $8.99.

The Call of the Open Road

Some people are born to ride, and Stephanie Yue (Such a Little Mouse; The  Mousenet Trilogy) has successfully managed to combine her love of scootering with her job of illustrating children’s books. After logging almost 32,000 miles, she’s currently in the last leg of her tour, crossing the continental United States on her electric blue 2009 Vespa GTS 250. During a recent pit stop in Houston, Yue spoke with me about her fascination with mice, martial arts, the siren call of rubber and asphalt, and an enduring admiration of Calvin and Hobbes.

Did your childhood in China influence how you illustrate?

I took Chinese calligraphy classes pretty early on, and that influenced my brushwork. Just understanding how you can express something with a tool like a brush is pretty important.

What kind of illustrators are you drawn to?

I admire Maurice Sendak. I know everyone loves him, but he is pretty great. I’m a fan of Edward Gorey too. He has a house on the Cape that’s now a museum.   It’s one of my favorite summer destinations.

On your website, some of your cartoons’ expressions remind me of the characters in Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. Did his work influence you?

Absolutely, he’s one of my favorite cartoon artists. I admire him for many things, even beyond his impressive body of work.

Did you read his comics growing up?

Yes, before marathoning Netflix was a thing, marathoning Calvin and Hobbes was my thing. I would go into my dad’s study where he had all the anthologies and collections of Calvin & Hobbes cartoons, and I read them dogeared. I don’t even realize it, I suppose his influence is inherent now. Watterson is not just a fantastic artist, he’s so technically skilled! His brushwork is very subtle. He doesn’t let on how much it takes to make everything work. He can have something as simple as a cartoon tiger next to a dinosaur that’s driving a jet. And how does that work? It does.

You draw lots of mice – can you talk about that?

That’s something from my childhood too. My favorite books were those adorable mouse stories by Kevin Henkes. I liked a lot of mouse-centric stories because it’s the same world but a completely different scale – there’s something going on in the background that big people wouldn’t otherwise notice. I think children can relate to that.

That comes through in your art – in some images it looks like nothing’s going on, but upon closer inspection, there’s a whole world wrought miniature.

Yes, another world running parallel to the human world. It worked great for MouseNet and MouseMobile. I love playing with scale and it’s a fun exercise when I can repurpose human objects for mice. I’ve always been a fan of miniatures.

Do you envision writing your own books?

I’d like to, but I’m not sure if it would be in the same field. I’m a big fan of travel. I’ve actually been traveling for 11 months. I’m working on the road.

Where are you?

I’m in Houston. Central Time Zone. I’ve been in all the time zones.

You’re on your scooter?

Yes.

What are you doing?

I’ve been doing a blog, and I post drawings every day that I ride.

Could you talk about scootering and working on the road?

I take notes as I go. I love notes. I blog and upload my sketches every few days, depending on variables like camp lighting and WiFi.  Generally,  I’ll find a coffee shop and set up – and draw the images I’ve noted while on the road and post them.  It’s a big task I set out for myself.

How long to do you plan on continuing your trek?

The trip is like an extreme four corners trip. I planned on visiting the four outermost points of the 48 contiguous United States. I went to Key West, then up to Angle Inlet, then I went west to Cape Flattery, then I took a side trip down to Baja, then to Colorado, now I’m here. I’m aiming for Lubec, Maine in early July, I think. It’d be nice to see some friends for July 4th.

Are you on your own?

Yes.

What’s that like?

It can be lonely, but it gives me a lot of freedom. A lot of things aligned for this trip to happen. I’m already very used to working by myself – for all of my books, I work from home, I had a second bedroom in Providence converted into a studio and I work by myself and realized that I think I can take this on the road.  I managed to pack my whole studio in a little box. If  you look on my blog you’ll see photos of the scooter, and on the back there’s a big black box. It’s a Pelican case, shatterproof and waterproof. It works out great. My artwork and my laptop and tablet are in there. That’s my studio. And a thin box, pens and paper. All that goes into a Velcro bag, and then it all goes into that bag.

Is there anything you didn’t bring that you wish you did?

I was really involved in my martial arts group back home, and it’s really hard to do that from the road. I can’t really justify packing that stuff because it takes so much space. I can’t put my boxing gloves on my scooter.

How long have you been practicing martial arts?

About 10 years, all different styles – kung-fu, muay-thai, jiu jitsu. I love that stuff. If you look on my website, that’s how I started getting the mouse work, I made a poster of a mouse demonstrating the 24 steps of tai-chi. It was just a really popular poster.

Have you met people on the road? What’s the scooter/biker community like?

I know a lot of scooterists – I’m familiar with that community, and some of the bikers too. We’re all riders. It’s been a crazy trip.