Room 21 children of Royal Oak Primary School (dressed for Book parade here).
Room 21 is a year 4 class. There are 27 of us not including the teachers (Suzie Gurr and Robyn McConnell). We have 15 boys and 12 girls. This term we are researching native birds and how to attract them into the school grounds by offering foods that they will like to eat.
Meet the illustrator of A Treasury of NZ Poems for Children. See below for Jenny’s biography. She has done such an outstanding job with this book I have two interviews with her to post!
Dear Room 21, thank you for your great questions.
What inspires you and makes you want to illustrate a book? Mainly it is that I like drawing so much. When it is going well, it is a real pleasure, it is very calming and very rewarding, drawing away for hours a day. And I like the mental challenge of making up characters. It takes a lot of practice to be able to imagine a character, and then be able to get that down on paper. When it works, you feel very proud of yourself. When it doesn’t work, it is very frustrating, and that is when I want another job.
When did you first begin drawing? I have drawn all my life, since a baby. We have photos of me as a tiny child drawing away happily. The reason I can draw well as a grown up is because I drew so much as a child, and all through school. All my books were covered in doodles. That is the best training to be an artist or an illustrator…. Start drawing young.
Why is there often a mouse in your illustrations when there is not always one in the story? The answer to this is a little complicated, but it is a very good question, which no-one has ever asked me before. When I illustrate a book, I am working for an editor, and editors have very strict ideas about what is and isn’t allowed in a book. No dangerous running or jumping, no sad children, no climbing big trees, children must always be shown safe and well behaved. But if I add a mouse, or a dog, or a cat, those rules don’t apply, and I can have more fun with them, and they can do silly things. So it is often a way to get a bit of fun into a book, which isn’t in the story.
What was the first book you illustrated? The Birthday Party, a book which went to America. It was really badly drawn, because I was a new illustrator. I still get a little bit of money for it each year. I would like to burn every copy, it is so bad.
Which book or character is your favourite and why? I usually like my latest book, so it changes all the time. I like Harry from Harry’s Hair, that was a really fun book. In fact, I like his sister even more. I like the dog from Do Your ears Hang Low?, I love drawing furry animals. I like the llamas too, in that book, lots of fur. My favourite painting I have ever done is the sad page in Jim’s Letters, in the trenches. I really worked hard on that painting because it was so important.
What gives you the idea of what a character will look like? That is really hard to explain, because they all come out of my head, somehow. I get some hints from the story. For example, is the story funny, is it serious, is it realistic, do the animals talk, is there lots of action?….. this will all affect the character design. For example, funny characters might have bendy legs, large or tiny feet and hands, and huge or tiny eyes, crazy hair etc. Books with lots of humour and action are great for designing crazy, bendy animals and people, and exaggerated shapes. Real books about real children mean I have to come up with realistic people, often using photographs.
I get some ideas from knowing who will read the book. Books for very young children have to be very simple, because they are not really ‘reading’, they are guessing, from the pictures, so the pictures have to look exactly like the text. For older kids, I can have more fun, and add things which aren’t in the story, so the reader gets to discover things themselves, and I can use weird shapes, like the characters in ‘Harry’s hair’. Most of all, when I design a character, it has to be interesting to me, and a challenge. Often I will have seen someone else’s illustration, and be thinking, hmmm, I want to draw like that, and try it in my next book.
Note from Paula: Thanks Room 21 and Jenny for a terrific interview. Jenny has done all the illustrations for A Treasury of NZ Poems for Children and they are simple gorgeous. They are little poems on the page themselves and are full of life and variety. I just love them.
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.”