Our guest: Helen Stephens is the author-illustrator of How to Hide A Lion (2013, Henry Holt), How to Hide A Lion from Grandma (2014, Alison Green Books) and The Big Adventure of the Smalls (2012, Egmont) among many others.
The Proust-Esque Questionnaire is based on a set of 36 standardized questions designed by Marcel Proust in the 1890’s to give an overview of the respondent’s personality. Our goals are less lofty, but hopefully will provide some insight into how your favorite authors and illustrators work and what they love.
I have very clear memories of sitting in the bath with my little sister while my dad read us Sixes and Sevens by John Yeoman and Quentin Blake. I loved that book, it’s a rhyming text and I still know it off by heart now. I met Quentin Blake a few years ago, and he signed my very old, dog eared copy!
2. WITH WHICH CHILDREN’S LITERATURE CHARACTER DO YOU MOST IDENTIFY?
Towser. Sadly, the Towser books (written and illustrated by Tony Ross, published by Random House) are out of print now, but they have always been a favourite of mine. Towser is very scruffy mutt, understated, a bit lazy, but he often gets swept along by a bright idea or a scheme. He has a very dry sense of humour which I love. The Towser books often end on a sigh, or a flat dead-pan joke. I love those old Towser books!
3. WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE CHILDREN’S BOOK AUTHOR? ILLUSTRATOR?
My favourite children’s book author or illustrator… Oh, that is hard to choose. I love Tove Janssen, John Burningham, Roger Duvoisin (right), Jon Klassen, Toni Ross and Ludvig Bemelmans. Most of my favourites are people who write and illustrate. I think books written and illustrated by one person have some extra magic, there are no spare words, and everything hangs together and sings.
4. IF YOU WERE THROWING A KINDERLIT PARTY FOR FIVE GUESTS, WHO WOULD YOU INVITE?
Two of my favourite writer/illustrators: Tomi Ungerer and Tove Janssen. Charlie Brown (because I have a feeling he would be as uncomfortable around his heros as I would), Jean Jacques Sempe (left, because I imagine he’s all french and glamorous, and rebellious, like his work) and Moominmamma (she will have some tummy powder in her bag in case anyone gets ill).
5. WHICH QUALITY DO YOU THINK IS MOST IMPORTANT IN GOOD CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
Well, in a picture book, I think re-readability is very important. It’s got to be a story that holds the attention of both the child and the adult, and have lots of scope for discussion. I find I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen and The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer are both great books for re-reading, and having interesting philosophical discussions with my daughter (6) about. ‘Who is good, who is bad?’
We also love The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey. It’s a macabre A to Z of children dying in horrid ways, it starts, ‘A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears. C is for Clara who wasted away. D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh…’
6. IF YOUR OWN WORK HAS A DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC, WHAT WHAT IS IT?
Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think I can answer that… I hope my books are warm-hearted, funny and naughty.
7. IF YOU WERE TO DIE AND COME BACK AS A CHARACTER FROM CHILDREN’S LITERATURE, WHO WOULD YOU LIKE IT TO BE?
8. IF YOU COULD GO BACK AND REDO ONE THING IN YOUR WORK, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
I wouldn’t go back and change anything. I have learned a lot from making each book, and I wouldn’t fix any of the little things that annoy me now. You just have to accept that you did your best on each book, and move on.
9. WHAT IS THE GREATEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU WERE EVER GIVEN?
When I was at Glasgow School of Art we were encouraged to draw from life. There was a very strong drawing ethos and I have always treasured that grounding.
10. DESCRIBE YOUR WORK PROCESS.
I start by drawing from life in a sketchbook. Some of those drawings lead to book ideas. Then I make a little ‘dummy’ book, which I constantly take apart and rearrange until the story works. Next I do some rough drawings, and when the roughs are right, I put them on my light box and draw through using watercolour and ink. I like to stand up while I paint to keep the drawing loose and animated.