Browsing Tag

Picture books

Picture book illustration: Dub Leffler

6 April 2020

If you’ve ever wondered what goes into the illustration process of a picture book, this is the post for you. Illustrator Dub Leffler is a descendant of the Bigambul people of South West Queensland and one of Australia’s most sought after children’s book illustrators. He has created 23 books and I’ve been fortunate enough to edit two of them — Sorry Day by Coral Vass (2018) and Strangers on Country by Kirsty Murray and Dave Hartley (out April 2020).

In this interview he takes us behind the scenes on his creative process and gives us an insight into the publishing process, which is particularly invaluable for emerging picture book creators wanting to understand the nuts and bolts of it. I didn’t manage to get him to dish the dirt on working with the illusive Banksy (damn it) but he explains how new books have come to him through psychics and werewolves, how coffee and salt can be a medium for illustration, and what makes him want to illustrate an author’s manuscript.

Irma Gold: You are one of 13 kids, what was life like growing up? And did you spend a lot of time drawing?

Dub Leffler: Yes, it is a big family, however I didn’t grow up with my family due to being adopted at birth. Growing up in my adoptive family — who had five boys including myself — I always had time for drawing and did so quite frequently. I remember drawing a lot — before and after school, usually using spare pages in my school exercise books. I even made my own picture books using spare paper and dodgy staples.

Storyboard for Our Dreaming by Kirli Saunders

IG: What led you to illustrating children’s picture books?

DL: My mother went to a psychic and the psychic told her, ‘Your son, is going to write a book and he will travel overseas.’ A few months later, I moved back to Sydney and the following morning a lady came to the house I was renting to speak with my flatmate about working on children’s books. So it literally came to my doorstep. And the rest, as they say, is history.

IG: What does a typical day or week look like for you?

DL: A typical day for me is — drop daughter off at school, take dog for a jog and then work until 12 pm. Coffee break and then work again until about 2 pm. I often work late into the night/early morning too, because it is the quietest time. Going to bed between 1 am and 2 am is not uncommon.

Continue Reading…

For each book, most of the time working on them comes down to research. I create a huge folder of images for inspiration for each story, as well as creating a soundtrack for each book so I have something to listen to while I work. I create my own mini deadlines for each book — finish the storyboard by this date, and so on. Being an illustrator, you work unconventional hours and often weekends.

IG: You have written and illustrated your own book, Once There Was a Boy, but you have also illustrated other authors’ stories. What is it about a manuscript that makes you want to take it on?

DL: If I connect with the story in some way, I usually illustrate it. It makes no difference to me if the author is established or being published for the first time. If the story is good and I can already see images in my head just from reading the text, then I usually say ‘yes’ to illustrating it.

Cover image of Once There was a Boy

IG: You have collaborated with internationally recognised illustrators like Shaun Tan, Colin Thompson and Banksy. Tell us more!

DL: Years ago, when I had illustrated only a handful of books, I met Colin Thompson at my wife’s cousin’s birthday party. The theme was fur and I went dressed as a werewolf. I had a very interesting conversation with Colin Thompson in the middle of a dance floor surrounded by people dressed in fur. Quite surreal. Colin ended up asking me to collaborate on a book with him. That book also contained work by Quentin Blake, Freya Blackwood, Shaun Tan and Sarah Davis. It was called The Bicycle Book and came out the same time at Once There Was a Boy, in 2011.

As for Banksy, I can’t talk about Banksy — circle of trust and all that.

IG: What mediums do you work in?

DL: I illustrate using an architect’s pencil for roughs, paint and draw with watercolours and use very, very expensive paper. Sometimes I use coffee, paint and salt on wet watercolour paper to build up texture on the paper and then draw back into it.

IG: What was the most challenging book that you’ve worked on, and why?

DL: Sorry Day was the most challenging story to illustrate due to the emotional content involved. Researching for Sorry Day was hard too — there is so much negativity out there in cyberspace in regards to Aboriginal people. I would often come across comments and replies to posts and videos filled with racism. And there was A LOT of it. This spurred me on to make Sorry Day the best damn book I could. It’s the most important book I have and possibly will ever illustrate.

Storyboards for Sorry Day by Coral Vass

IG: Out of all your books and illustrations, do you have a single favourite illustration?

DL: My favourite illustration would have to be in Sorry Day when the children are hiding in the creek among the bullrushes. You can hear the crinkle of the blades of grass and the children holding their breath. It has a quiet intensity.

IG: Sorry Day uses a dual narrative, with one narrative strand set in the past when the children are being stolen, and another in the present at Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations. The two colour schemes that you use for the two threads cleverly demarcates them. How did you come up with this?

DL: I have an old photograph of my mother. It is a faded black and white photo that has yellowed with age. I knew that this is how the ‘past’ section of Sorry Day should look. I worked closely with Amy Cullen, the graphic designer, in deciding how to use sepia tones throughout the book — at one point both full colour and sepia were proposed to be on the same page. It’s a good example of showing two different times using just illustration.

Storyboards for Strangers on Country

IG: Tell me about Strangers on Country by Dave Hartley and Kirsty Murray. How did you go about bringing this real people to life?

DL: The short answer is — research. The longer answer is — after I had done enough research and have collated enough reference images to form a coherent idea, I made sure to illustrate each image as if they were a still from a film — as if they could move at any moment. I try to imbue all of my illustrations with some type of movement — even if it’s the suggestion of someone breathing, this approach can help your images come alive in the viewers’ mind.

IG: What is the best aspect of your job?

DL: Being able to work from anywhere and choose my work hours. It’s great being your own boss. Plus, you get to travel — whether it’s to a conference or a book festival. These things help your career and it’s great connecting with people doing the same job.

IG: What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

DL: Having to work long hours. Although it’s a pretty cool job — I get to draw pictures for a living!

IG: How long does it usually take you to illustrate a book?

DL: I have been known, from time to time, of going WAY past my deadlines — a lot of authors/illustrators do it. I actually had to push back Sorry Day a whole year because of the detail needed in the work. Plus the book was published on the 10th anniversary of when Kevin said ‘Sorry’. But usually I aim to finish one to two books a year.

IG: Can you take us through your illustrative process? How do you work with the publisher and author?

DL: It’s important to not only work with the publisher when illustrating a book, but also to work with the graphic designer if you can. They help hone your illustrations into something beautiful.

The process changes from publisher to publisher. Some are more hands on, some trust your judgment and let you do your thing. Sometimes you get notes suggesting what the illustrations should be. Sometimes you’re given free reign to interpret the text. Generally I work closely with both the publisher and graphic designer if I can, and make it a rule not to consort too closely with the authors. If you do work closely with an author, they have to realise that you have a job to do and that they (the author) are not the illustrator and should not tell you your job. In my experience, I unfortunately have had this happen. I have never come across an illustrator who told a writer how to write. You’re all working on the one book and it should be collaborative.

 

My personal process starts with small sketches of anything that comes to mind in regards to the story. I write notes on the story and underline key words in the text that should be illustrated. I read and re-read the story many times to make sure I illustrate true to the text. From there I begin storyboards. I have a special book just for storyboards and draw many different panels exploring things like colour, technique and composition. Along the way, I may do one or two concept illustrations — they are basically finished illustrations. They give me a good idea of what the tone of the book should be and how the finished artwork will look.

Throughout this process, there is a lot of correspondence between the publisher, graphic designer and myself and once we decide on a final storyboard, I begin the final art. This usually (but not always) is something I do quite quickly — I usually finish the final art in less than a month — but it’s the preparation I under take beforehand that takes a lot of time. The final art is basically the afterthought of all your prep.

Once I finish a piece of final art, I send photos of it to the publisher and graphic designer to make sure I haven’t missed anything, or if anything needs changing. I always draw final art to size — I mark the dimensions on the paper and am always aware of where the text will be on the page — you don’t want anything important in the illustration to be covered up with the story. It’s the illustrators job to support and enhance the story.

Once the final artwork is complete, a courier is organised and the artwork is picked up from my studio and six months or so later — BAM! You get a new book in the mail. And then the whole process starts again.

 

Literary adventures — around Canberra and on to Iceland

20 November 2019

Is anyone else hanging for the end of the year? I’m so madly busy right now and the pace isn’t going to let up until Christmas Day. It helps that I’m editing some incredible books which I’m so excited to see in print, but I’m also hanging out for the Christmas break when I can drink prosecco and eat mince pies and do very little other than laze about and read. Okay, so with three children that is probably going to remain an illusive fantasy, but a girl can dream.

Let’s stick with November for now which has offered up a few highlights of its own. First up was the annual celebration for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge for which I am an ambassador.

Accepting a thank you gift from one of the Reading Challenge participants

It’s such a joy to be a part of this initiative which aims to transform kids into book addicts for life. The challenge asks them to read a minimum of 15 books but there is no set list — they can read whatever sparks their imagination. This is so important because with so many forms of entertainment competing for kids’ attention, we need to help them find the books that sing for them, the books whose worlds they won’t want to leave.

So it’s wonderful to hear about the Reading Challenge’s success stories. This year one of the standouts was a student from Holy Spirit Primary School who set himself the goal to read 1000 books over the six months of the challenge. He wasn’t previously a particularly avid reader but he smashed that 1000! I must say I’m a tad jealous. I manage about 100 novels a year — if only I could somehow claw back those luxury after-school hours of primary school again! I would only need a live-in chef, housekeeper, gardener and taxi driver to achieve this. Ah, there I go into fantasy land again.

Continue Reading…

 

Another standout was two students with vision impairment who completed the challenge, one in braille and one in large print. Neither of them were big readers before. In fact, the student who read in braille (from Caroline Chisholm Primary) had previously avoided reading at all costs. But the challenge saw her reading at both recess and lunch! Hearing these stories makes my heart swell a little. Okay, a lot. Hats off to all the students who completed the challenge this year, and I look forward to going on more reading adventures with the challenge next year.

Picture book workshop participants dreaming up stories

 

This month I also helped a bunch of writers create their own fantasy lands of sorts when I taught a full-day picture book workshop. It was lovely to hear that it was the ACT Writers Centre’s most popular workshop of the year! This meant that it was elbow room only as we got cosy in the glorious upstairs space of Harry Hartog’s bookshop at the ANU. Could there be anything more wonderful than talking about how books work when you are surrounded by them? (No, is the correct answer.) They were a gorgeous and engaged group and I look forward to seeing some of their names on future picture book covers.

November also marks the end of an era for me. Since 2008, I have spent almost a decade teaching editing at the University of Canberra (yes, I realise those numbers don’t add up but I had a brief break in there). It’s been wonderful getting to know the students and seeing them go on to do all sorts of fabulous things in the world, and I’ve learned so much about myself along the way. A massive shout out to all the brilliant postgrad students who made it such a pleasure.

I’m going to briefly dip into October now because I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing literary superstar Charlotte Wood, who also happens to be one of my all-time favourite authors. As I discovered, she is also a generous and generally delightful human. We spoke about her new novel The Weekend, which is a brilliant book that examines old age and friendship. I devoured it, appropriately, over one weekend, and I’d strongly encourage you to do the same.

Harry Hartog events manager extraordinaire, Katarina, pronounced our conversation her favourite event of 2019. It was for me too! It doesn’t get better than chatting with a writer whose work you have admired for years.

Finally, my most exciting November news — drumroll please! I was thrilled to receive a phone call from artsACT a few days ago to say that my grant application was successful. This means I’m travelling to the Iceland Writers Retreat next April where I’ll be working on my second novel. It is one of the world’s most lauded retreats, with a phenomenal line-up of internationally successful authors running masterclasses. Needless to say I am dying of happiness!

Beautiful Iceland — where I’ll be come April!

Well, that’s it from me for now. Excuse me while I go back to dreaming of mince pies and endless (primary-school style) hours in which to read. And maybe an Icelandic adventure or two.

Literary adventures

21 June 2018

This month I thought I’d bring you a newsy post about my latest literary adventures. First up, I had the absolute pleasure of chatting with two brilliant writers, Kate Mildenhall and Katherine Collette, for their new podcast, The First Time, which is launching in August. Katherine has recently signed her novel, The Helpline, and the podcast is part reality show, following Katherine’s journey through the publication process, and part masterclass as the pair interview writers about their experiences of publishing a book for the first time. It’s such a brilliant idea and I had way too much fun recording the podcast. The first ep comes out in August but in the meantime you can follow the podcast on Twitter and Insta.

Later that night we met up again for an event hosted by the ACT Writers Centre in the Canberra Contemporary Art Space (CCAS). It was rainy and stupidly cold (please hurry up, spring) but CCAS was deliciously warm and there was a lovely audience waiting for us. With Jack Heath and Karen Viggers, we chatted about writing and publishing. Jack revealed that with his first advance (as a teenager!) he bought a pair of outrageous boots that he wore to school visits. Sadly, my first advance was swallowed by dull things, like bills. I suppose that’s what happens when you’re all grown up and sensible, but I’ve resolved to buy something indulgently wonderful with my next advance.

Following us were Rosanna Stevens who read a brilliant new essay that had us laughing and wincing, and Jacqueline de-Rose Ahern who spoke about the overwhelming experience of having her first picture book published. There was also a panel of visual artists talking about their processes which I found fascinating. I particularly loved Jodie Cunningham’s ‘Talking to the Tax Man About Poetry’ series which converts eight artists’ lives from stats into sculptures, examining the balance of time for creating art versus doing work that pays the bills. I’m sure all the writers in the room could relate to the struggle to reconcile the two.

Continue Reading…

Our panel continued chatting afterwards over dinner, and can I just say how much I appreciate having such intelligent, thoughtful and just generally lovely writers around me? Well there, I have.

Kate Mildenhall, Jack Heath, Karen Viggers, me, Katherine Collette

The following day I threw a bag into my little car, fuelled up on coffee, and headed down the Monaro to Merimbula to present a workshop on writing picture books for the Writers of the Far South Coast.

The drive there is stunning — yellow baked plains, violet hills, huge blue skies. I listened to podcasts and snacked on chocolate and generally enjoyed not having to entertain three children. I arrived a little early so I ate lunch on the beach, digging bare feet into sand. The one thing that I miss about living in Canberra is the beach, and on this day the ocean was dead flat, completely at peace.

There was an enthusiastic crowd at the workshop and I had a great time chatting all things picture books. I wish I’d taken a piccie of the lovely writers who came  but we were so busy that I completely forgot. Instead here’s me in a quiet moment before everyone arrived, looking longingly out towards the ocean. I mean, if Canberra had a beach it’d be perfect.

After two days of writerly goodness I was smashed, so that evening I crashed in my cute little Airbnb place and ate a takeaway pad thai and drank prosecco and watched bad TV and caught up on emails. Ah, the glamorous life of a writer! In the morning I spent one blissful hour walking an empty beach before heading back home.

I want to now step back in time, by a few weeks, to  mention a particularly special launch of the Sorry Day picture book by Coral Vass and Dub Leffler. It’s always a lovely moment when a book that you’ve edited is released, but the Sorry Day launch was a particularly moving experience. Anita Heiss did the official duties and there were several speeches that left me feeling quite teary. This is such an important book and it was a privilege to be involved as editor. Sorry Day allows us to open up conversations with our young people about a terrible part of our history in an age-appropriate way. I hope it makes its way into every school and home around this country.

Well that’s it for now, but there are more literary adventures ahead. Onward!

Reading memories

6 June 2017
One of the perks of being Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge is visiting schools to talk about my favourite topic—books (duh). This week I headed to Holy Trinity Primary to meet the Year 1s and 2s. Here we all are getting a bit crazy together.

Talking about reading got me thinking about my own special reading memories, and one teacher in particular. Her name was Miss O’D and she was my Grade 6 teacher. She wore blue mascara and shoulder pads and was every kind of eighties cool. She was young, not that long out of university, and she made everything fun. And I mean everything. It was the only year that I enjoyed maths as we played ‘The Footy Game’ to learn our times tables. It involved an actual footy and four teams and much laughter. That year everyone’s understanding of maths skyrocketed.

Continue Reading…

But for a booklover like me it was the literary activities that got me all shiny-eyed. Every week Miss O’D wrote a Poem of the Week on our blackboard and illustrated it with Dr Seuss-style characters. We would copy out the poem (using smelly glitter pens) and create our own illustrations. I still remember the time I got a rare and coveted 10 out of 10 for my work. ‘Perfect!’ she wrote, and my feet did not touch the ground for the rest of the day. She also constructed a haunted house reading corner from a massive crate painted black. It was full of cushions and dangling streamers and clearly sent one message: reading is fun. But best of all, she got us to write, illustrate and ‘publish’ our own picture books. I had been writing stories and making my own books at home for as long as I could remember, so the opportunity to create a shiny hardback (well, more laminated cardboard) had me practically salivating. I still have those two books and I often take them with me on school visits, as I did to Holy Trinity, to encourage kids to make their own.

So as all the Reading Challenge Ambassadors head out for their school visits, I thought I’d ask them about their own special reading memories. Here’s what they had to say.

Jack Heath: At Lyneham Primary School I had a wonderful teacher librarian named Kay Pietsch. When I missed school due to a crippling ear infection, she hand-picked books for me to read during my recovery. Thanks to her I discovered Claire Carmichael, Jackie French, Brian Jacques and many others. When I finally got back to school, I wasn’t behind my classmates. I might even have been ahead.

Harry Laing: There’s a nursery rhyme that’s always stuck in my head with a particularly vivid quality. I think my grandmother read it to me (and I’m sure my mother and maybe a favourite great aunt). I think it was probably just before I was reading properly so the words had that talismanic quality…

Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark
Beggars are coming to town
Some in jags, some in rags
And one in a velvet gown.

Listening to this as a child gave me a delicious shiver. Something to do with the wonderfully tight and expressive sounds and rhymes of hark/bark and jags/rags. It was scary to think of the beggars coming to town, and their power to provoke the dogs with their rags and then the really scary last line ‘and one in a velvet gown’. What did that mean? I’m sure I barely understood what velvet was or even a gown but it was such a smooth and sinister phrase. I still get the same feeling 50-odd years later. I can go back and look at Mother Goose and there’s the nursery rhyme with illustration but it’s the sound of the words that lingers. And how precious that is, to be able to go straight back to being five years old with nothing in-between. Mind you I did have to look up the meaning of ‘jags’ (tatters, rags).

Tracey Hawkins: As a child I owned a boxed set of Golden Press books, Wonderful World of Walt Disney. There were four books in the set, Fantasyland, Worlds of Nature, America and Stories from Other Lands. My favourite was Stories from Other Lands. Turning the pages took me to a world far away from the small coastal town I lived in. Books provided knowledge and escapism, and fascinated me. Reading fed my imagination as I unearthed the mystery, myths, legends and cultural diversity of other countries. I read thousands of books as a child, but I believe it was this book led me on my future path as an adult to explore and travel the world.

Tania McCartney: One of my earliest and most precious reading memories is with my mum, reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. The intriguing thing about this persistent memory is that it’s not the actual story I remember. It’s the warmth of her lap. It’s her arms around my shoulders and the rumble of her voice, resonating from her diaphragm into my back. It’s the smell of her clothes and the smoothness of the book’s pages. I can still feel my little toddler fingers poking through the holes in the page as the caterpillar eats its way through a multitude of delicious treats, and how the paper scratched my skin. I can also feel the rumble in my tummy, wanting to join the caterpillar for cherry pie, watermelon and a lollipop. It’s all those tactile elements, yes, but it’s also the less tactile—that envelope of love, that feeling of belonging, that parental attention and sheer enjoyment of story. And that, my friends, is how children fall in love with books.

Just look at all those hands! Such enthusiastic little readers!

As Ambassadors we all hope that our school visits will inspire kids to explore many more books and develop a lifelong love of reading. So I was so thrilled to receive a stack of letters from Holy Trinity with beautiful words of thanks and equally beautiful illustrations. I wish I could include them all here but since there’s not space here’s my lounge room carpeted in them, and one of my favourites from Lachy. His exclamations (‘Your visit…OH! I loved it. Please come again!’) brought a big grin to my face. Also, I am ‘awsem’. That’s the best bit of being an author right there.

 

On reading and the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge

2 June 2016

One of the coolSouthern Cross things about being Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge is that you get an extra excuse to do school visits. Last week I headed out to Southern Cross Early Childhood School to meet a bunch of Kinder students. Let’s face it, Kinder is the most adorable school age, and these kids were so enthusiastic about books and reading that it made my heart sing.

Chatting to their executive teacher afterwards it was pretty clear why. The school’s approach to teaching their kids to read is to use as much ‘real literature’ as possible (as opposed to just home readers), and to let the kids choose whatever they want. No limits. The teacher shared that one child who is struggling to read, desperately wanted to borrow a chapter book and was then so thrilled with herself when she could correctly identify some of the words. She was reading a chapter book!

There are two things that I love about this. Firstly, mention home readers to any group of parents and teachers and a collective groan will erupt. The home readers most schools have are years old and deathly boring. They have no plot, two-dimensional characters, insipid illustrations and dull subject matter. Nothing to engage a child on any level. They send children the message that reading is boring, or worse, sheer hard work. For the children who have a home life that is rich in exciting reading experiences they will no doubt come out the other side of home readers. But for many children home readers, at that very crucial formative stage, come to define the reading experience.

Continue Reading…

The second thing that I love about Southern Cross’ approach is that they don’t tell the children what they can and can’t read. I am a firm believer that children should be allowed to read whatever interests them. If they only want to read comics or manga or books about zombies, that’s totally fine. As soon as you tell a child that they can’t or shouldn’t be reading what they are interested in, you run the risk of damaging their relationship with books.

Serious readingThere was a time when my daughter obsessively read the Geronimo Stilton series and another series about fairies (the name of which it seems I have deliberately blocked from my memory). This was at a time when I still read to her (now she is 12 and will not be read to, thank you very much), so this meant that I got to share in this never-ending stream of awfulness. But I never let on, because she loved them. She is still a voracious reader (witness the sign she recently posted on her bedroom door during a weekend session, with spelling corrected by her younger brother who clearly has the editor gene). Some of her book choices resonate with me, others don’t. But they are her choices. And that’s important.

When my son was in Year 3 he desperately wanted to borrow books from a shelf that was forbidden because it was for the senior students. The well-meaning school librarian told him that these books were above his comprehension level and tried to direct him to a range of other ‘more appropriate’ books, all of which he thought were ‘boring’. Every week he came home with ‘appropriate’ books that he didn’t read. The forbidden books were by authors like Andy Griffiths and Morris Gleitzman, and we had already read most of them at home. These books were most definitely not outside of his comprehension level, but even if they were that would have been okay. He would have made the choice himself to put that book down and move on to something else. As it was, after several emails he was granted access to these books, though the other children weren’t.

Southern Cross_smlThe worst thing we can do is to censor our children’s choices. When we tell children that they are only permitted to read a certain kind of book that doesn’t appeal to them, we run the risk of turning them off books completely. I liken it to me being prevented from reading anything but Dan Brown novels. Pure torture! If Dan Brown was the only thing on offer, I’d never read again. He is my version of a home reader.

Many schools are adopting the same kind of approach as Southern Cross, but there are still many more that aren’t. We need children to associate books with pleasure. And what we now know is that children who read for pleasure do significantly better at school than their peers who don’t (Melbourne University study, 2013). We also know that the single most important indicator of how well a child will do at school directly correlates to the number of hours that they were read to as a toddler. So books are absolutely fundamental. Thank goodness for initiatives like the Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge which puts a spotlight on books as fun and exciting places to be.

Kids need (good) books. They allow kids to dream big and make new discoveries and go on adventures and grow their imaginations. As adults we need to find ways to get books into kids’ hands as often as possible.