The charm of children’s books
Amy Jackman talks to children’s book illustrator and author Ruth Paul about drawing, the things kids say and Disney World.
Did you always want to be an illustrator?
I was the one in the class who was always drawing, though I was terrible compared to students I’ve seen now. I did a degree in English and history, and then went back and did a diploma in visual communications and design at polytech for three years. When did you start? I started when I had my own kids, because I could work from home and didn’t have deadlines. I started off illustrating other people’s books, but I solely work on stuff I’ve written now.
Is it hard to write a children’s book?
It’s way harder than people imagine. A lot of picture book writers say they don’t write for children; they write for the child that they were. Any publisher will tell you that getting a manuscript for a children’s story accepted is difficult. In a few words you have to have something to hook the kids into the story. For me, writing is the shorter end of the process. Illustrating takes a lot longer. It’s like putting on a little play or making a small video. You have to think through every scene and every action and the combination between the words.
What makes a good picture book?
There are some appalling picture books around. I look at some and go, ‘‘What? Why are people buying them?’’ I just make sure my work gets better and remains at a good quality. It’s hard for parents to know what’s good. Kids are always going to love the books with poo in them, but they’re not necessarily the books kids are going to revisit or remember. If you have children you quickly work out what works for the parent and the child. There are some that kids want you to read again and again, and you’d rather cut your head off and stick it up your bum, but you have to read them. So it’s nice if you can find something that parents and kids can read and not get sick of.
Do you have a favourite book from your childhood?
I loved Dr Seuss and the old Amelia Bedelia stories. Also I loved the illustration style of Leo Lionni and Eric Carle. Not that I do work that is remotely like them, but they were quite influential. There was also this series of stories illustrated by Hilda Boswell. They were that classic old British style of the watercolour pictures. Why picture books? You find you have one thing you love doing. I could never write a young adult novel. I could never write a novel full stop. I don’t have that many words. I love that age group of little kids, up to when they turn into teenagers, and the interaction with them when I go to schools. Also, because I’m an illustrator and the style I draw in is more brightly coloured and simple, it’s aimed at that age group.
Do you enjoy giving talks in schools?
I can’t imagine how people who aren’t illustrators entertain classes. I can always fill up the gaps by doing little drawings. I really admire teachers. The kids ask the most wonderful questions, though. This little kid once asked me if I was more famous than Vincent van Gogh. Another said he thought it was pretty cool that I was an author and an alligator.
You recently had a family holiday to the US.
Yes, we did it on a shoestring and went right up the east coast. The kids were 12 and nine while we were away and it was a good time for them to travel. They’ll remember it for the rest of their lives. The culture was so different for them even though we are in a western country. It was great being able to travel up the east coast and do all the civil war history so they go an idea of what happened there. They’ll probably just say they remember Disney World. How was Disney World? Hideous and fantastic. It was the only day I ended up crying at night and saying I was exhausted. But at the same time the water parks were fantastic because it was so hot. It’s just insane. There was no queue at Space Mountain while we were there, so we said, ‘‘ Oh, we should go on that’’. We got in and got shuffled into this little cart and I thought we were going to do one of those little cruisethrough-the-pictures rides, but we were on this roller coaster inside some big black dome.
We just screamed for seven minutes.
Ruth Paul: ‘‘Kids are always going to love the books with poo in them, but they’re not necessarily the books kids are
going to revisit.’’