Jenny Cooper did the illustrations for A Treasury of NZ Poetry for Children and they are just wonderful. Full of life! Shifting and changing across the book. They are gold nuggets, diamonds and shimmering gems … just what you need in a treasury box of poems. I have two interviews with her (thank you Jenny for being so generous with your time). Here is the first. We even get to see a work in progress!
Room 1 is a class of 5 and 6 year olds in Year 1 at Adventure School in Porirua. They love to do clever thinking and to play with their friends. They try hard to be RIPPER students and have an awesome teacher called Mrs Bennett. They are looking forward to Christmas.
The Sharks are a reading group in Room 1 at Adventure School in Whitby. They love to read and write and listen to stories and poems. They also love to run, swim and go on the classroom iPads.
These are the Sharks who contributed to the questions: They are all around 5 ears old. One loves swimming and running, and going on the computer. When one of them grows up, he wants to be an air rescue firefighter. One has 2 pet cats and some fish. Her favourite game is Monopoly Empire. One is mad about soccer and loves to play xBox. One day he wants to be a professional footballer. Another one loves his iPad. He also enjoys playing in forts and having adventures outside. His favourite author is Roald Dahl. He wants to be a treasure hunter when he is older. One likes to play Wii U, especially The Lego Movie. He also likes playing soccer on his trampoline. He is a great reader and at the moment he is reading a superman book. The final one is mad into cats, poetry and How to Train Your Dragon. He lives with his mum, dad, sister and cats in a house in the bush. He is looking forward to turning six.
Interview of Jenny Cooper
We have lots of books with your pictures at our school!
Dear Room 1, thank you very much for your great questions. They were really interesting and fun to answer. I have stayed in Porirua with my husband, Fuataga Kasimani Lautusi, he became head boy of Porirua College, as maybe one of you will, one day? Your school sounds like a great school, and your teacher, Mrs Bennett, sounds great too.
Were you always good at drawing? Did you doodle in your books at school?
Yes I have drawn pictures right from a little child, and yes my books were COVERED in doodles. My favourite part of every year was doing the title page in my new school books, like ‘Science’ or ‘English’, with a big illustration. I don’t know whether you do title pages any more.
How do you make the pictures? Do you do drafts? Do you have to draw the pictures a lot of times? Do you do the background first?
This is a great question. The hardest part of doing a book is all the stuff the reader never gets to see. I have to do heaps of research, into whatever the book is about, whether that be dinosaurs, donkeys, airplanes, fish, or farming. Then I have to learn to draw each new thing. Then after reading the story many times, I have to design the characters, whether that be cartoons or realistic, funny, serious, active or thoughtful, to match the book. Sometimes I have to take photos — like for Jim’s letters, I hired 6 models, and paid them, and hired all the WW1 uniforms and guns etc, for the photographs. Then I design each page separately, so I know whether people will be close up or far away from the reader, will the action go from left to right, how to get everything in without having people’s hands feet or faces in the gutter or behind the text. THEN I do a complete set of finished roughs, in lead pencil, for my editor to check. These roughs have every single thing there, on the page, but without the colour. I have added a finished rough, and the painting it became, below, so you can compare. (Wow! Thanks Jenny. This fascinating — Paula)
So yes, I draw each picture many many times, and I always do the backgrounds last, because I don’t like drawing backgrounds…. I am more interested in faces, and people, and movement, and showing emotion. I get tired of always drawing rooms behind the people. My favourite books are ones with no backgrounds at all.
Do you colour in every single picture? We usually do our pictures with coloured pencils. What do you use to colour your pictures?
Yes I colour in all the pictures myself. I don’t use a computer, like a lot of illustrators, I use really thick paper, tiny brushes, and water-colour paints. I love painting at the beginning of every book, but I get sick of it by the end.
How do you know what the characters will look like? Do you decide? Or does the writer tell you?
The writer usually doesn’t get to talk to me, strangely enough. I work for an editor, and yes they often say they want a book in a particular style. But I have been doing this for so long, they usually let me decide, and the text itself will tell me a lot about the characters. If the story is for really young children, I need to keep my drawings simple, and really close to the words, because the little kids are using the pictures to ‘guess’ what the words mean. With older readers I can have more fun and introduce extra characters, and funny little extra things that kids can discover. A serious book about a sad thing (like war) needs a more serious style, so I often use photos. A really stylized or cartoon figure will never be taken seriously by the reader, especially if they have exaggerated feet and hands and eyes. But cartoon styles are great for funny stories.
Does the writing or the pictures come first?
The writing always comes first, for me. The story is where all my ideas come from. Someone else writes the story, and I read it many times to figure out what the characters will look and act like.
How does the cover get chosen?
The cover is usually chosen last. When all the book is painted, by then I have a really good idea of what the book ‘feels’ like. Then I use all my ideas from that book, to design one really special image for the cover. Covers are fun because you have to do a really special job with them, and can spend a lot of time on them. For the rest of the book I am in a rush, which is annoying.
Do you get tired of drawing pictures? Do you take a break sometimes?
That is a great question! Yes I get REALLY tired, sometimes, and sometimes my painting hand is so sore from too much work, I can’t hold a paint brush. But when the book is going well, and I am happy with the characters and enjoying it, I am happy to work really long hours, because it is fun.
Are some pictures harder to draw than others? Is it hard to draw small things? What do you find the hardest?
I find backgrounds, cars, straight lines, and buildings hard. I love furry things, animals, people’s faces best. In all my years illustrating (25) I would have drawn the human hand millions of times, but I never get sick of it, it is such an interesting thing to draw. I also like working from photos, for realistic stories. If I get it right, especially the face, there is real pleasure in it.
Is it easier to illustrate a story or a poem?
They are both good, for different reasons. Stories are great because there is a ‘plot’, and things change. But I do get tired of repainting the same characters. Once I did a book about 20 tadpoles, it was 24 pages long, so I had to paint those jolly tadpoles 480 times! Poems are great because they are short, so you never get tired of the characters.
Note from Paula: Thanks Jenny and The Sharks. Thank you! This is a gold mine of an interview — such fascinating questions and such fascinating answers. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to give such generous answers Jenny. Jenny did the marvellous illustrations for A Treasury of NZ Poems for Children so she has two interviews in this series.
A biography of Jenny
Jennifer Cooper, one of New Zealand’s best known illustrators, has been illustrating children’s books here in Christchurch for the last 20 years. She trained as a graphic designer at Christchurch Polytechnic in 1987 and her first book was published while she was still a student.
As with most illustrators in New Zealand, Jenny is largely self taught. Her focus is on books for very young children and, in particular, Pacific Island children. Having lived for three years in Western Samoa, she has continuing ties with the islands, which lend warmth and authenticity to her drawings of these children and their world. She and her children, Kenese and Kalia, maintain ties with their family in Samoa.
Jenny is not limited to one style but is able to choose from a number, ranging from realistic through to cartoon, depending on the theme and genre of the book. She enjoys the variety and contrast this brings to her working day. Each new book is completely different and a new adventure. She loves developing the different characters for each book, and begins each one thinking it will be her best, although illustration is a complicated art and there is always a huge gap between what an illustrator sees in her head, and what she produces on the page. Jenny particularly loves drawing animals of all sorts, although she is in fact wary of almost all animals, which makes her research difficult.
She works from a sunny studio at home and loves the freedom and flexibility this gives her to garden, see friends, spend time with her partner and pursue her many interests – when, strictly speaking, she should be working!
Jenny has also tutored in illustration at Christchurch Polytechnic and taught night classes in illustration at the University of Canterbury. She is the winner of the 1991 New Zealand Post Student Stamp Design award, the 1991 Telecom New Zealand White Pages Art Award and has been short-listed twice for the Russell Clark Illustration Award and shortlisted in 2008 for the New Zealand Post Book Awards.
Jenny has illustrated so many books she has lost count. Some of her better known books are Down in the Forest written by Yvonne Morrison, The Pipi and The Mussels by Dot Meharry, Shut the Gate by Elizabeth Pulford, McGregor by Rachel Hayward, Illustrated Myths and Legends of the Pacific by A.W. Reed., The Littlest Llama, by Jane Buxton, The Reluctant Flower Girl by Melanie Koster and Peter and the Pig by Simon Grant, The Mad Tadpole Adventure by Melanie Drewery, Ria the Wreackell Wrybill by Jane Buxton, There’s a Hole in my Bucket and Do Your Ears Hang Low, She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain and Farmer in the Dell, sung by The Topp Twins, Le Quesnoy, and Jim’s Letter’s by Glyn Harper and Harry’s Hair by Jane Buxton, plus numerous book for Usborne Publishing in the United Kingdom. She has three Storyline Notable Book awards, including Le Quesnoy, 2013 and Ria the Reckless Wrybill in 2011.
“When I work on a book, of course I am thinking about the reader, and what they might want to see. But mostly I illustrate for myself. I hope that the things that interest me will also interest lots of children.”
“I am most interested in my character’s faces, be they human or animal, and in capturing their emotions and the movement of their bodies. I don’t like painting backgrounds, they are too much hard work! As an illustrator, you are creating a whole world inside a book, and that can be a challenge, getting the details right, and keeping things the same all through the book. Sometimes I get lazy and don’t keep the details the same but I always worry about eagle-eyed readers catching me out, and noticing that the character’s socks change colour, or their hair gets shorter and then longer as the book goes on! Being an illustrator means that I have to keep my eyes open, and be interested in everything, because I never know when I may have to put it in a book, anything from rockets to rats to rubbish dumps, and everything in between.”
“Illustrating for children is the most wonderful job to have. I get to stay home all day, and do the thing which I love the best, which is to draw and paint. Every book teaches me something new. When I stop learning, I’ll stop illustrating.”