Friday, 8 June 2018

The ReadItDaddy Interview - We catch up with Rebecca Cobb, illustrator of "The Day the War Came" by Nicola Davies (Walker Books)

We're absolutely thrilled to be joined on the blog today by a hugely talented illustrator who has produced some of our favourite books.

Rebecca Cobb has now provided illustrations for one of our Picture Book of the Week winners for this week. "The Day the War Came" by Nicola Davies is a touching, heartwarming and thought provoking story of the migrant crisis and the terrors of war as seen through the eyes of a child.

Without further ado, let's chat to Rebecca about her amazing work.

1) Hi Rebecca. Thank you for joining us on ReadItDaddy, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Hello, thank you very much for having me! I am a picture book illustrator and author and I live in Cornwall with my husband and two young daughters. As far back as I can remember I have always drawn and made things. When I was little I used to write and illustrate little books and stick them together and I’m very lucky that I still get to do that!

2) We’ve been HUGE fans of your work since the blog began and have always loved your gift for creating the most amazing expressions in your characters. Can you tell us a bit more about your process?

Thank you, that is very kind of you to say! The character design is usually the first stage when I’m illustrating a book and working out not only what they will look like but also how they are feeling and what their personality is like. I have often caught myself subconsciously pulling the expressions that I am drawing on a character’s face! The next step is to storyboard the book, working out the layout and pacing of the whole thing and the compositions of each page. From there I will draw each page up very loosely and roughly in pencil and then when the book feels ready, I will use my light box to trace the rough drawings into final artworks with ink, pencil, coloured pencil and watercolour paints. I love to use this combination of media because of the different types of marks that I can make with them. The whole process, designing, editing, re-drawing, refining and then painting the finished illustrations, usually takes about 6 months.

3) With “The Day War Came” you’re tackling illustrations for a really tough subject. How difficult is it to adapt a style that’s usually full of gorgeous quirky humour to tackle a much darker subject.

When I’m illustrating a book the characters always feel like real people to me and this was particularly the case with this project because it is a story that is sadly relevant to our world today. It is very upsetting to think of anyone being in that situation, let alone thousands of children. I was working on the illustrations during my pregnancy, which was already an emotional time and Nicola’s beautiful, heartbreaking text really affected me. I think that I channelled a lot of my sadness and frustration into my drawings which resulted in them being darker than my previous work but it felt right for this book.

4) We’d love to know how you felt when you first read Nicola’s manuscript. We think this is such a hugely important book, quite different from the expected ‘norm’ of children’s picture books. Was that quite daunting?

I first read The Day War Came when it was published on the Guardian website as Nicola’s response to MPs voting against giving sanctuary to 3000 unaccompanied child refugees. Nicola had heard a story about a refugee child not being allowed to go to a school because they said there was no chair for her, and this little girl became the central character in Nicola’s powerful poem. I was incredibly moved by reading it and immediately drew a chair to add to the social media campaign #3000chairs that Nicola, Jackie Morris and Petr Horáček started, where drawings of chairs became symbolic of refuge and education for the 3000 children who were not going to be accepted into the UK. When I was asked about illustrating the book sometime later and I read it again, it somehow felt even more powerful as a picture book text. In my head I could picture the little girl and the devastating scenes around her and I was overwhelmed. But what I loved about it was the positive message of empathy and hope - things don’t have to be this way, if only we would be kind to each other, and often it is children who remind us of this. I was daunted by the responsibility of producing illustrations that lived up to to Nicola’s wonderful words because it felt like such a serious and important book, but I felt compelled to try!

5) I think our favourite book of yours is “Lunchtime” and I remember it being demanded almost daily when she was a tiny tiddler. How much fun was it to write?

I’m so pleased that you like Lunchtime, that is lovey to hear, thank you! I loved writing that one because it was a semi-autobiographical story about a little girl not wanting to eat - which was a very familiar situation to me as a child! I felt that mealtimes were an annoying interruption to my playing and drawing. I love books that have an ambiguity to them and I enjoyed not explaining the animals that the little girl meets in the book. I dedicated the book to my mum to apologise for all the trouble and worry that I put her through during all those years when I refused to eat!

"Lunchtime" by Rebecca Cobb. Utterly fantastic book!

6) We’ve been writing about children’s books for nearly ten years now (eek!) and one thing we’re always interested in are what authors and artists think might be the next big trends in picture books. What do you think we’ll see more (or less) of in the next few years in PBs?

I’m afraid that I’ve never been very good at realising what is trending or in fashion, perhaps because I am daydreaming a lot of the time! But I think that the picture book world has been getting more and more exciting recently and really celebrating the idea of a book as a beautiful, physical object to treasure. I really hope it continues this way in the future and I think it would also be amazing to see more illustrated books for early readers, YA and adult novels too.

7) You’ve worked with some amazing authors as well as writing and illustrating your own fantastic stories. Is there a ‘dream’ author you’d love to work with (You’ve obviously set the bar pretty high already with the likes of Julia Donaldson and Richard Curtis!)

Yes, you’re right, I’ve been so lucky and it might be greedy for me to wish for any more! Some of my favourite picture books are written by Nicola Davies so it has been amazing to work with her. I enjoyed drawing in pencil for The Day War Came and one day I would really like to do some black and white pencil illustrations, perhaps for an older book. I do love stories with dark humour, terrible villains and ridiculous adults so I think it would be fun to illustrate something like that.

8) What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as an author / artist and how did that advice influence your work?

With hindsight, he may have been just saying it to get me out of his office, but in my early days of trying to get commissions, a publisher once asked me to come back and see him in a year to prove to him that I really wanted to be an illustrator and to see how my work developed. Although I never succeeded in getting an appointment to see him again, his words had a huge impact on me because I realised that I did need to show everyone that I was serious and it gave me the incentive to spend that year really pushing myself and developing my work.

9) Going back to “The Day War Came”, were there any influences you drew on to come up with the illustrations (which are fantastic btw, spine-tinglingly perfect in conjunction with Nicola’s words).

When I pictured the illustrations for this in my head they were very dark and shadowy so I wanted to draw using a lot of pencil and a limited colour palette. I did a lot of research looking at photographs from news websites which were very distressing and a constant reminder that this story is a reality for a lot of children in the world today. I also looked a lot at the work of illustrators that I admire: Jon Klassen, David Roberts, Beatrice Alemagna and Laura Carlin in particular because I love their absolutely beautiful drawing, compositions and use of colour.

10) Finally, Charlotte always loves to hear good advice from artists and authors on becoming a writer or illustrator. Any tips for a budding imagineer?

My main advice is to keep writing and drawing and don’t stop! I believe that if you have a passion for something and enough resilience and persistence then you can achieve it. I have always been so keen to draw pictures that I used to get told off at school for spending too long illustrating all my projects in every lesson. So I think that if it is what you want to do, then don’t give up!

"The Day the War Came" by Nicola Davies and Rebecca Cobb is out now, published by Walker Books