For our final interview this year we spoke to children's author Jenni Desmond. Jenni's work has won widespread acclaim and has been translated into several languages. She told us a little about what she's working on at the moment, why she loves working with animals, and how she got started as an illustrator.
LTP: I was going to ask you a little bit about how you got into illustration. I know you did your MA with the Cambridge School of Art – was it at that time you thought you could make a go of illustration full time?
JD: I started about a year before that, when I was trying to work out what to do with my life! One summer I did a week’s children’s book illustration course in London and it was like a light turned on in my head. It was like one of those clichés when you suddenly find ‘the one’ which you never thought existed. I then worked really, really hard to get my portfolio to a point where I could get onto the MA.
I spent a year going to the Putney School of Art where I did a children’s illustration course half a day per week. I worked pretty much eighteen hours a day whilst doing bar jobs and things, I was completely obsessed, I didn’t do much else other than illustration. I then got onto the MA and worked just as obsessively during that time too.
LTP: And then from there you started with your first publications?
JD: After the graduate show I got an agent and they got me my first book deal, and from there it slowly and gradually built up. That was four or five years ago.
LTP: Your style is quite distinctive, particularly in the way you use colours, how expressive and funny your characters are yet how ‘animal-like’ they remain; when did your ‘style’ emerge?
JD: When I was on the MA we were told never to talk about ‘style’, because you should only be thinking about improving your artwork. But I think my style started developing after the course. It was quite difficult, I was told by professionals that I had about three different styles after I graduated, but I just kept working and tried not to look at too many other illustrators, I looked at lots of other different forms of artwork, I tried to be true to myself.
I think the only way you can get an individual style that isn’t the same as someone else’s is by not looking at or worrying about other people’s work too much and being true to your own personality. Hopefully you get more secure in who you are and how you want to say things and then that should trickle through into your work, becoming recognisably you. It’s also about understanding which mediums you use better; (I use mostly watercolour, acrylic and pencil crayons) – you start developing habits and they become your ‘style’..
LTP: Do you deliberately avoid looking at other illustrators’ work, then?
JD: I think it’s important to see what kind of other books are out there, and I love reading picture books and will always go to the children’s section when I’m in a bookshop. But in terms of inspiration I’ll try not to look illustrators particularly, I’ll look at exhibitions, photography, looking around me and at things from nature.
LTP: Your work deals with animals first and foremost – was it a love of animals that led you to do books on endangered animals and the environment?
JD: I think animals are a good way of creating characters because you don’t have to worry about race or sex. Also animals are really cute! So yeah, creating animals takes a lot of the issues away; you also don’t have to create parents and it doesn’t matter if they get into a dangerous situation.
With my endangered series it happened naturally and I’ve become very passionate about the series – I started with the Blue Whale book and it was bought as part of a four-book deal.
LTP: Do you think that’s why animals are so appealing to kids, then? Because of the simplicity of them and because they can be so characterful without being too complicated?
JD: I very much doubt that a child has ever said ‘it’s better being an animal because they don’t have a race or a sex,’ I think children just like a good story that’s funny, I don’t think they consciously pick it apart particularly. I think they generally like animals and if they see a book with their favourite animal in it they’ll be more inclined to read it. They tend to like furry things with big eyes!
LTP: What’s inspiring you at the moment?
JD: I really love interior design; I’m obsessed with interior design magazines and I love textiles and fabric designs. I can’t help myself but look at that kind of stuff all the time, so if I’m online I’m more often than not looking at it. I think it probably goes into my work, the love of texture. In the last book I did there are a couple of interior scenes, and I loved creating lots of tables and chairs for that. My partner is an architect so we spend a lot of time looking at buildings and evaluating them, and I think being in nature as well is a big inspiration. We just did the West Highland Way in Scotland - that was very inspiring – the mountains and the skies.
LTP: Would you ever consider doing a tactile book of any kind?
JD: I’d love to, but I don’t think 3D is my strength!
LTP: Maybe one day. I know you can’t give too much away, but is there anything on the horizon we can look forward to?
JD: I just finished a book about saving the tiger with WWF that’s just come out. If you sponsor a tiger over Christmas you get a book by Jeanne Willis and illustrated by me. And then I’m working on the next of my non-fiction series called ‘The Elephant’ which I’m doing a lot of research for at the moment. Then I’m illustrating the text for my next book with Jeanne Willis. So lots of things!
LTP: Ok, that’s just about everything, thanks very much!