Interview with Jim Kay, illustrator.

You may remember (unless you’re like me and a night’s sleep is a reset button) that on Monday I wrote a post called ‘Illustrated Britain’ that covered artists that illustrated the books that I grew up with and loved.
Now we’ve come to end of the Illustrated Book Week, I thought it would be a great opportunity to focus on a new British artist who has, in my opinion, truly raised the stakes in illustration.

Still not sure who I’m talking about yet?
I’ll give you a clue.

This picture never fails to give me goosebumps.

Unless you have been purposefully ignoring every book website and blog across the world over the past few months you will, of course, know that the above picture is taken from A Monster Calls, a book written by Patrick Ness based on the original idea by Siobhan Dowd and illustrated by Jim Kay.

Still not with it?

Some words on Jim Kay’s illustrations for ‘A Monster Calls’. 

“There are images in these pages so wild and ragged that they feel dragged by their roots from the deepest realms of myth.” – The Wall Street Journal. 

“Kay’s menacing, energetic illustrations and the way they interact with the text, together with the lavish production values, make it a joy just to hold in your hand.” – The Guardian. 

“i will say this: it is a beautiful book. and i mean that both in the book-as-object sense and in its contents. don’t ever read this book on a device – you are missing half its power”- karen

“The art in this is downright creepy, if brilliant; still, I originally started it late at night and set it aside after a few pages out of fear that it would give me nightmares.”-Anila.

“Truly great illustrations do not distract the reader from the story rather they expand and add depth to the reader’s experience.The illustrations in A Monster Calls are crafted with such thought and beauty that they add another level to an already amazing tale”- Trinity.

“The illustrations just fit so perfectly with the story. It gives you a whole other reading experience.”- Aly (@ Fantasyeva)

“The eerie artwork paired perfectly with Conor’s story. The whole book felt like he was stuck in an in-between place, which I suppose he was. Those aren’t places I like to spend a lot of time but every once in a while…”- Flannery (@ The Readventurer)

“And the artwork! I mean, I had to stop everyone and make them flip through it because it was so visually stunning. Mr. Ness & Mr. Kay, if you’re out there and read this review, you’d make a boat load putting that artwork into prints and selling it.” – Wendy F.  (I agree wholeheartedly)

“I held off on reading the e-book until I got my hands on the real book. Let me tell you… the illustrations are truly amazing and brings something wonderful to this story. “- Bonnie (@ Sweet Tidbits.)
I reviewed “A Monster Calls” a couple of weeks back and I declared that I would like to crawl into Mr Kay’s mind and live there forever.
Perhaps not surprisingly, he didn’t agree to that.
But he was nice enough to answer some of the questions I’ve been dying to ask him since I closed the book and wiped away the tears….

When did you first realise that you wanted to be an artist?
The odd thing is I’ve always loved drawing but never really thought you could make a living out of it. When I was young I wanted to be an entomologist, or a zoologist, anything involving natural history…or ending in ‘gist’. I didn’t draw for pretty much ten years after leaving University, as I needed a job and so took anything I could find. This resulted in me working in Museums and Art galleries, which at least got me working around art. Ultimately you can’t hide from what your heart tells you to do, and so despite having a lovely job, I decided to try illustrating full time. It’s very difficult making ends meet, but I can’t deny that I feel lucky to be doing it.

Your work has been used in connection with a lot of children and young adult books. Is this something you expected or had in mind when you first started drawing? And why do you think your work, which is quite dark, is so well suited to this genre?
Working on Patrick’s book felt like an explosion of relief; FINALLY I got to put some of the darker grittier elements I love illustrating into a published piece. I’ve been plagued by art directors telling me my work is ‘too dark’ for children, but I know, from speaking to children, that they are interested in challenging, sometimes frightening, even macabre stories – it’s convincing adults that they are ready for this that appears to be the problem. I’m quite new to children’s publishing, but I know already how rare an opportunity A Monster Calls was in allowing me to ‘let rip’ with something a little darker. Thank goodness for people like Patrick and Walker Books.

How did you end up being asked to illustrate ‘A Monster Calls’? Were you just given the manuscript and left to it, or were you told specific scenes to recreate?
Well, as I recall I was offered one illustration to produce as a test piece, and was presumably competing with other artists at that point. I had read the manuscript, (sobbed my heart out), and knew that I REALLY wanted it. Due to other commitments I had a weekend to produce the illustration of the monster leaning up against the house. I was in a state of mild panic, which I think comes across in the image. Working on the book itself, Ben Norland (Art Director of Walker Books) had a very clear idea of how it would look, much more so than I did. He was instrumental in getting the illustrations to flow, and chose the scenes he thought would best work. He put a LOT of work into this book, and Patrick helped too. It was great dealing with Ben, he’s wonderfully calm and focused, even when I’m sending 50 versions of a tiny scribbled tree that has no significance in the book! (I get a little obsessed over detail). I think if I’d have been left to illustrate the book on my own, it would a) never have been finished! and b) would have shown scenes not listed in the book, (I’d love to go off exploring in Patrick’s ‘world’) – so I don’t think it would have been very good.

My favourite picture in the book… I think.

I tried (and failed miserably) to come up with my favourite illustration from the book (I think it could be the one where the monster visits him in his grandmother’s house and Conor is a white silhouette) Which one did you enjoy creating the most? Could you tell us more about the actual process of creating one of illustrations? 
It’s difficult looking back through your illustrations once they’ve been published. Patrick’s writing was so good I never felt I could do it justice, I wanted to redraw everything again and again, but we were very limited on time. It’s also like looking back through a diary, as you remember exactly how you were feeling while working on each image. For that reason I like the illustration of the Monster walking downhill through the graveyard at night. I was freezing cold when I did that illustration (the entire book was done in a very cold flat in Scotland, frequently below freezing) my hands ached from it, and I was exceptionally tired (I’d worked 39 hours straight), but it didn’t matter because I’d finished the illustration and it felt right. The image was based on the view from Harrow-on-the-Hill too, so it has pleasant memories for me.

Some illustrations I knew immediately what I wanted in terms of composition (like the Monster in the sitting room), but many were inspired by the different splats and marks I’d been collecting for weeks. I would make prints of everything I could find, anything that could hold ink or make an impression. My walls were covered in pieces of paper with black smudges and marks, and as the days went by I’d start to see different patterns in them. Some resembled trees, others a hunched figure; I’d let the images draw themselves to some degree. I’d say 90% of them never got past the ‘sketch’ stage, but usually some element of each failed attempt would creep into the final image. That’s what took up my time, the huge amount of failures!

On the jacket sleeve of A Monster Calls, it says that you used “everything from beetles to breadboards” in your illustrations. It’s obvious that you were greatly inspired by your time working at the Royal Botanical Gardens and nature in general… but beetles?! (You must be the most fascinating person to go on a nature walk with, by the way!)

I had a live mealworm beetle on my desk for a while, and he stumbled through a spot of ink and left some lovely patterns, which ended up in the finished thing. The breadboards are fantastic to print from, the older the better. The texture surrounding the Yew sapling growing from the floorboard is simply a print from a breadboard in reverse. Some you can print from and get an instant landscape, it’s just down to luck really. (I do like nature walks, I’m a bit of a nerd, but my knowledge pales into insignificance compared to that of my friends from Kew).

Apart from rogue beetles, what else would someone find snooping around Jim Kay’s desk?
At the moment, drawings of insects (for a forthcoming pop-up book of insects), chocolate wrappers (I am powered by Milka bars), dog hair (it gets EVERYWHERE!) a sock ball (I was trying to hit a fly) – and the usual mountain of art materials. In summer we befriended a blackbird and a robin who would come in the studio for food, which was a pleasant distraction.

Some of Jim’s early ideas for the monster.

There are more and more children/YA books that seem to be accompanied by illustrations, do you think there is a reason for this and do you think it’s something that will remain popular?
I’m embarrassed to say I’m REALLY out of touch with what’s going on – I’m always face down in work. People tell me we are having a bit of a renaissance in children’s book illustration, and I think that’s down to some wonderful Art Directors in the business (Ben Norland at Walker, Mike Jolley at Templar). Another reason is that printing is becoming better and cheaper. Film has undoubtedly had an impact too, and the quality and quantity of films aimed at young adults and children has certainly opened up the variety of children’s literature. The graphic novel is gradually losing its nerdy image, and there is a pleasant blurring of adult fiction and illustrated books happening, particularly in France. There’s still a long way to go yet though – far too many ‘pink’ books about princesses for young girls in my humble opinion.

And finally, if you could illustrate any book by an author, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Oooh, this answer would change every five minutes. Science fiction has always appealed as it provides the opportunity to design a new world from scratch….erm…I can’t answer it, as today it might be Beowulf, tomorrow Naked Lunch, the next day Orlando by Virginia Woolf, then the diaries of Charles Darwin. If I’m really honest I wish I had a few weeks to sit and illustrate my own doodlings, but I’m always trying to catch up on the next commission..

I would like to take this opportunity to offer a huge thank you to Jim for taking the time to answer my questions and being so friendly, fascinating and generally brilliant in his answers and his e-mails to me.

You can find out more about Jim and his illustrations (along with his upcoming books. Eeeeh.) on his website.

Also, you can vote for A Monster Calls as Galaxy Book of the Year 2011. It already won the Children’s Book of the Year… let’s see if we can take it further! It’s really easy to vote and you could be in with a chance of winning £100 National Book Tokens! (UK Only)

*All pictures used are taken from Mr Kay’s website which is brilliant and there are pictures of his incredibly cute dog, Leroy.


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