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The intriguing world of children's picture books, with Andrew Joyner



25 May 2014

The Sydney Writers' Festival has exciting programs running for children, from storytelling workshops to colouring-in and activity sessions.

I interviewed Andrew Joyner, author and illustrator of the children's book The Terrible Plop, Boris Gets a Lizard and Ready, Set, BORIS. The Terrible Plop has received an award from Speech Pathology Australia, and has also received an award for the Best Children's Cover from the APA Book Design Awards.

Today you're a successful children's book illustrator and author. You also contribute illustrations to The Sydney Morning Herald. What were some of your personal childhood dreams?

I think I always wanted to be a comic artist. I really loved cartoons in the newspapers, even the political cartoons at a young age. I probably learnt quite a lot of Australian history like the Whitlam dismissal in the 80's, when I was about ten or eleven years old. I had a weird, limited understanding of political history because it was only through comics and cartoons that I followed it.

How did you come to initially discover a passion for illustrating? Was drawing pictures a part of your life during your childhood?

I always remember drawing. I just remember being told often, when I was younger, "kid, you're good at drawing". At school it was useful because I wasn't a 'cool' kid or anything. Everyone responded to drawing. It was a good way to fit in. I was always involved in drawing, even at university for university newspapers.

Lots of people recognise your illustrations for their bold lines, bright colours and the 'liveliness' embodied in your artworks. Were there any significant artists or authors who influenced you that helped forge the development of your unique, artistic style?

It probably comes from my love of comics as a kid. I really loved Punch, a UK comic magazine like The New Yorker; but it's more humorous and less sophisticated. I also loved Steinberg and Dr. Seuss.

Your illustrations are also renowned for their incredible wit and humour. They are extremely clever and they reminded me a lot of Dr Seuss.

What I liked about his stuff - and I'd like to have more of it in my work - is that his images have simple compositions, but they are very adventurous. He sort of bends a landscape and the figures to suit a page and what he wants the drawings to say. The way he positions things on a page, I think, is very striking. I admire his simple use of colour. I respond much better to his works with black and white, and maybe one or two other colours. That could do with the printing techniques, but I still think it has a real impact.

You have a very diverse audience, but in particular, a lot of your readers are children around the ages of 8 to 12 years. One thing that your books particularly do for children is that they make learning to read fun. How important is the element of 'fun' when children read your stories?

That is important. I do try and make something feel like it has got a happy, joyful energy to it. I feel happiest about a drawing when it has a 'fun' energy to it.

What's special to you about illustrating for children, as opposed to adults?

I thought about it a bit. Nearly all of my illustrations are for children now. In terms of drawing for adults, especially when selling yourself as an illustrator, you have to have a style that's recognisable. Almost like a 'hip' or 'cool' style - something that will have an impact on say, advertising. For children, you're focused more on the content of an image, rather than a particular style. You're trying to draw for an audience - and you know the audience. It's like giving them a gift. It has a nicer feel to it. Visiting schools helps as well. As an illustrator, it's not really a public job. You're drawing in a studio, then you go out and suddenly you're drawing in front of them. It's different from drawing at home. You can't be too fussy when you're drawing in front of kids - there's more freedom.

Do you think there's an exciting future for the children's book industry as we move to more digital platforms?

I think so. Although, a lot of illustrators and authors say: 'It's hard to beat the book'. There are lots of things you can do with a book, like turning the page. You begin a joke on one page and it ends on the next, and that has a real impact.

It is very hard to beat a picture book in this way, unless you can get an app to emulate this quality of a book. In an app, you would probably have to 'scroll', which is just not the same.