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You’ve been a designer for more than 20 years, but this is your debut into the world of children’s picture books. How did you feel about working with such a celebrated author?
I was a little intimidated at first, as many of Libby’s books have been illustrated by very talented people. But Libby is so friendly, modest and easygoing that the worry disappeared quickly. The whole team — Libby and the staff at the Library — were so supportive and passionate, it was easy to jump right in and enjoy the process. It was really a dream project.
How does it feel now that the book is finally out in the world?
Obviously, it’s exciting! It’s also a bit surreal. You work so hard on a project, it envelops you and you’re changed by it in the end; and then your part finishes, and you move on. Now that it’s out there, I’m back in it — reliving it again.
Your illustrations are a beautiful blend of collage, digital artwork and sketching. What is your favourite medium to work with and why?
I do love collage, but mostly it’s about variety. If someone asked me to do another children’s book in collage right now, I’d say there’s no way in hell! But, seriously, sometimes a project just asks for a certain medium — this book was inspired by an amazing combination of objects and stories, and collage seemed a perfect reflection of that.
What do you find captivating about the State Library and why was it the perfect setting for The Best Cat, the Est Cat?
I’ve always loved libraries, to me they are open-minded, safe places, where all sorts of ideas and stories (and people) can exist together. The reader can choose … and keep choosing if they wish. The State Library is one of the great libraries (certainly in Australia) where the collections constantly surprise and interest me. The Best Cat is about sharing some of that collection with children in Australia. I hope that kids realise that these big sometimes scary institutions can be quite fun and friendly, and do hold things for them.
Can you describe your art process for The Best Cat, the Est Cat?
Well, first I story-boarded page ideas (pencil on paper) from the draft text and developed them further with the editorial team and the author. Then I moved onto sketching the backgrounds onto art paper, blocking colour in with watercolour or acrylic, and gathering the bits of images/patterns/texture that I needed to create the objects and characters. I stuck them together onto the background, and used coloured pencils to fill in further details and do some shading. Some digital touch-ups were done once the finished artwork was photographed.
Was there a particular collection item or secret space that you enjoyed bringing to life the most?
My favourite illustration is of the moment when the kids and the cat get out of the lift to see the Library stacks for the first time. I remember getting out of that same lift and being amazed that these spaces exist five levels underground, and seeing floor to ceiling storage of incredible books and objects. Who knew?!
Take us behind-the-scenes and describe your studio or workspace?
Ha! It was a bit slapped together, to be honest. My husband works from home (and has loud conversations and music) so I setup a desk in a sunny, quiet spot away from him and more importantly away from my usual computer (being a graphic designer it’s tempting to resort to digital techniques). When I was working on The Best Cat, I had to make sure I’d packed up by the time the kids came home from school, as their curiosity and comments would make me spin off in usually not very helpful directions.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to illustrate children’s books?
My tip would be that once you’ve planned what you want to do, don’t be too precious, just get into it and do it. Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be perfect — in fact the imperfections might end of being the most charming part. It’s so easy to say that though — I wish I could take my own advice!
I also think you should always try and find the humour in any situation — kids respond to that.
What was your favourite book when you were a child?
There are so many. I loved The Quangle Wangles Hat by Edward Lear. In my copy it really looked like the illustrations had been sketched in with an old biro and then coloured in (printing and publishing has come a long way!). My kids don’t get it at all, though — it was a bit of a bizarre 1970s poem/story. I also read everything by Roald Dahl and loved the illustrator Quentin Blake who often worked on his stories. That combination was pure genius, their work will never age — it seems so effortless.
What are you reading right now that has made you feel inspired?
I do still read children’s books and buy the ones I love. I am a HUGE fan of Beatrice Alemagna, an Italian born author/illustrator who lives and works in Paris. She is so inventive in creating her artworks — paint, pastel, crayon and collage, almost anything. I find her very inspiring and her stories warm, funny and hopeful. We need more of that.
The adult reader in me, during Covid, has embraced the street library across the road from my house. I’m reading a pretty trashy crime novel at the moment, which is a perfect escape. Having a break from art and design is definitely important; otherwise you get really stale.