interview with freya blackwood, kate greenaway medal winner
The Kate Greenaway Medal is possibly the most prestigious picture book prize in Britain, so I was thrilled when Nikki asked me to interview the winner before the big announcement ceremony, so I could find out what all the fuss was about.
Freya Blackwood won the prize for her book with Margaret Wise, Harry & Hopper, a moving story about a boy whose dog dies, and how he comes to terms with it. I met Freya Blackwood, visiting from Australia, at the Scholastic offices, by Euston Station. I’d been given a very comprehensive press release about Freya and the book, which cited Armin Greder as a key influence on her work, so I brought in my copy of The Island (which I’d reviewed previously for Write Away) and we chatted a bit about his work, then switched on the voice recorder.
Me: How did you start preparing for the book when you got the text?
Freya: I got the text shortly after we’d lost a cat, a very nice one, so it was a bit of a sore point. And I did immediately know that it was a book I wanted to do. But it was SO gutting. The publishers when they sent it to me said, ‘Oh, it’s so sad!’ and they all cried as well. But I actually didn’t work on it for another year. Sometimes you read something and it just sticks in the back of your mind and moulders for a bit. And then when I started working on it, it’s the first book that’s come together without too much to-ing and fro-ing. I did a storyboard, I did a set of roughs, but I don’t think it changed much from the roughs to the final work. I think I probably designed the characters first, but I knew what they were going to look like. And I knew the sort of dog.
Freya Blackwood accepting the Kate Greenaway Medal at the BAFTA theatre in London
Did you do life drawing of dogs?
I do get references, but it’s just so that, in my mind, I know what something looks like. I don’t actually copy the reference or anything. I think I used the internet a bit, and found the sort of dog I was looking for. But I wanted him to be black and white spots, because visually it stands out well. But also, I love those ‘bits of dogs’, a little bit of all sorts of dogs… they’re just so lovely!
Illustration from Harry & Hopper. See more illustrations over in a Guardian article here.
Many of your books have such a sense of loss and longing. Is that something you like to do, or something the editors thought you’d be good at doing?
I love books that present some sort of challenge for me to illustrate. And I guess it just turned out that I was suited to a certain type of book. The first picture book I illustrated was about drought in Australia, it had some fairly horrendous… no, difficult, elements in it; like, there’s some dead animals, and things like that. And I guess, I could do it. There have been a few books since then that have had some fairly difficult issues in them. There have been books that are completely happy, but I don’t find them quite as challenging. But I am trying to do a range of books as well. And often I’ll try to intersperse something that’s REALLY heart-wrenching with something that’s lighter. I know that working on Harry and Hopper, it was a really hard book to do. If you were feeling a bit sad one day, it was just really hard to work on it.
I was wondering, what kind of drawings do you like to do when you’re not illustrating a book? Do you keep a sketchbook?
I don’t, because I work all the time! Well, at the moment, I work three days a week. But three days a week of drawing. And because I’m a mother, and she’s young, I don’t have any other time to myself. So all the time I have to myself, I work. And my daughter’s not even remotely interested in drawing! I’ve tried, but I think either she’s noticed that I draw, and if I’ve ever encouraged it, I think she’s backed away from it. So I think we’re going to leave it for awhile. Because sometimes she’ll come out and do some amazing things. But if I ever suggest we sit down and draw something, she just scribbles. You’ve got to find a way of introducing it, where she doesn’t think I’m going to get her to draw something. But that’s all right, I’ve come to terms with that! She loves other things, you always think your child’s going to like what you like. She’ll just find something completely different or she’ll come round to doing that sort of thing later on.
In your book, there’s so much sketchy work in charcoal, like on this first page with the boy and the dog. I know you drew it out in charcoal, got it scanned and printed out onto watercolour paper, then painted on the printed- out version. But I was wondering, how many times did you have to draw the first page with the boy and the dog to get it right?
I only did it once.
Yeah, most of the book was drawn once, and that was it. I think that drawing was actually quite small. It was probably the first drawing I did for the book, to show the two characters together. In fact, it was probably a character sketch that I wasn’t even thinking would be for that page. But it worked so well. You’d know, because you’re an illustrator, but so often you try to draw something again, with the same life in it, and it feels really stale. And I didn’t want that. I’ve been trying for years to find a way of keeping the spirit, or the expression from the roughs to the final work. So I just tested this out; what I did was scanned the rough in, then have it printed up a bit bigger on watercolour paper. I also find – you know when you draw on watercolour paper? – the paper’s quite soft. If you’re used to drawing on cartridge paper, and then you draw on watercolour paper, it’s completely different. And I didn’t feel this book suited the way I had worked previously.
I read that one of your main influences was Lisbeth Zwerger…
Yeah, I’d love to meet her one day, wouldn’t that be amazing. I think she was definitely the first illustrator I paid a lot of attention to, just loved her work. But I love the way her work has changed from that early stuff of hers, which is really quite free, with sepia. Now, in her later work, maybe a little bit tighter and bright, but it works so well.
How do you get your colour palettes? I notice your use of red is very selective…
Oh, I like red anyway.
You can tell the saddest pages because there’s no red on that page, like it’s missing something.
I think from the first book I did, I wanted to have colour schemes within it. So I actually chose a series of artworks to use as colour inspiration, a series by Brett Whiteley, a book about Australian landscapes. Since then, I’ve found that once I start working, a colour scheme eventually just sort of happens by itself. Sometimes I’ll do tests beforehand, if I’ve got an idea in mind, otherwise it just kind of happens.
So the pages with the big washes, you were able to do that right over the printed stuff?
Yes. But what I wanted with this book, I actually printed this page onto grey paper. So all the night-time scenes were on grey – this beautiful grey watercolour paper I found – I was desperate to use it, I actually had to get it from New Zealand! So I was living in Australia and I had to get it sent over from New Zealand ’cause I couldn’t find it anywhere. But I tried to make all the paintwork… I’m trying to work with more freedom, I think, with this book, I managed that.
I noticed that you really like grids and boxes, and I was wondering if that had to do with your dad, because he was an architect…
Yeah, it might be!
Like here, there’s a grid-like picture on the wall that looks like Paul Klee…
Yes, I was trying to think of something to put on the wall… I think that was something by Paul Klee, except maybe I’ve changed the colour of it. But I do like buildings, and that’s probably my dad’s influence.
It was interesting how the picture on the wall kind of comes down and almost becomes the quilt, sort of embracing the boy.
Oh wow, I hadn’t thought of that! That’s a nice thought, it’s so funny when other people find things in your work.
I thought it was really cool! And this sofa with the slats at the back, it could be like a kind of prison, or remind us of his crib, sheltering him, when he was a baby…
And it’s interesting how you picked out the orange on the chair here, highlighting the dad’s comforting presence even though he’s not there. Was that a compositional thing, or…
No, it was just a compositional element, I think. Oh wow, so you think of all these things that I would have never thought of! I mean, just to balance the page. But also, what I did with this book, I wasn’t sure how much colour I was going to put on pages, so I worked them up to a certain stage. Then I sat back and left them, and had a look at everything all together, to decide how much further I should go. But that’s funny, that’s fantastic that you find all these other symbols in it! [laughs]
You can do! I wonder if, say, Shaun Tan always realises what he’s doing with his symbolic elements.
Aw, he would. For sure. Me, I just draw pictures!
This thing on the couch, it looks like it could be the skull of an animal, and that bag looks like a monkey, and the washing line looks like mast of a ship about to sail, reflecting how the dog has died, or left, and is going on a voyage… [laughs]
Well, no, that’s a cushion, a bag and a washing line! [both laugh wildly] What a wonderful interpretation!
You see the house from above, it’s almost like the dog is hovering above, like it’s the dog’s last view of the boy…
He’s left… yeah! Well, I guess, that’s a really nice intepretation! [Both laugh]
Oh no, I’m reading in a lot!
No, no, that’s fine! This was one page that I had played with, because I was thinking of showing him from the back, at the gate, so that you saw all the houses down the street. But then I realised that didn’t show the empty yard, so that was the way I ended up showing it.
There’s a kind of tumult in the background with the dark sketchy lines, with that wheelie bin standing behind him as a sort of sentry; it’s like it’s all pressing in on him from the street. It’s a bit like Shaun Tan, those scenes where suburbia is almost pressing in…
Isn’t Shaun Tan’s work amazing?
Yes, when he came to London…
Did you meet him?
Yeah, and I was a bit gob-smacked…
I met him once! And I was with my mum, and I loved his work so much, and I met him, and he said ‘Hello’. And I said ‘Hello’. and I couldn’t say anything else. That was all, I just couldn’t do it. I was so in awe!
I just said… ‘Here’s a copy of my comic… For you!’ And he went, ‘Aw, thank you!’ And we looked at each other and had a moment, where I’m thinking, it’s a heart-to-heart look, but of course he’s thinking, this is some random chick giving me her comic. It was so funny!
Next time I meet Shaun Tan, I want to TRY to have a conversation! [Both burst out laughing]. My mum gave me a copy of The Lost Thing, and I hadn’t started working as an illustrator, I didn’t even really know what I wanted to do at the time. And I saw that book and thought – it was the first book I’d seen that showed just how much he could do with kids books, so it was really inspiring. And his work ever since has been very inspiring. I think it’s the imagination in it. He’s technically brilliant, but it’s the intelligence behind it that sets it aside from everything else. Really unique.
It’s interesting, you both come from Australian suburbs, and you said you didn’t quite feel at home when you grew up in the suburb…
…Yeah a little bit alternative and bohemian for the country. My dad was an architect, my mum was a painter; they lived in Africa. They were, you know, alternative, and the things we did on the weekend weren’t the same sort of things that other kids did on the weekend. We’d go away camping, whereas my friends would stay at home and, I don’t know, play with friends. We’d go away to these desolate beaches for weeks on end…. I mean, it was fantastic! But as a kid, you just want to do what everyone else does. I remember going to these houses that my friends had, and they were so normal…
Fridges with ice machines?
Well, they hadn’t come out yet, I don’t think. But I distinctly remember one friend’s bathroom had shag pile carpet around the bottom of the toilet. Aw, that was just the pinnacle of suburban successful life!
We weren’t like that at all. We had a big house that was always partly renovated. My dad would go away and my mum would rip out the carpet in one room. Another time, my dad went away and my mum took out a wall… [laughs] and the chimney. Yeah, smashed it out, she was sick of that. So she smashed out the wall between the kitchen and the laundry.
And we didn’t have toys like everyone else had, we made our own toys. It was a brilliant, creative childhood.
You always had material around to make stuff?
Ah yes. My mum still does, she just drops everything to help you.
Cool. Did she make a lot of stuff with you?
She made me the most amazing toys, I’ve never seen anything like it. When I was a baby – and I’ve still got it – she turned, out of this beautiful dark cedar or something, a horse, with a beautiful saddle. It was turned, with the saddle in it, and it had legs and – it’s all beautifully designed, she’s got a beautiful design sense, it was just perfect. I’ll send you a photo! And it has a cart, it’s the most amazing toy I ever had. And I remember, all my childhood, using this beautiful horse and cart, with horse hair on the mane, and a tail of horse hair. It had a figure to sit on it… And then we made our own toys later, and she made a board for my brother with roads and buildings on it, just fantastic.
Did you like horses from that? I know you illustrated The Man from Snowy River…
No, I don’t like drawing horses. I’d never drawn any horses, that was really hard. But no, we had a cool childhood, absolutely. And I guess we didn’t really fit in, but I live back in Orange now, and I love it.
You’re close to your family…
Yeah, and it’s a really nice place to bring up children as well, and it’s very supportive. And we have a very good library and I know all of the librarians. We go there all the time. …Yeah, and I’m always late, I have SUCH enormous fines… yes, I know [laughs guiltily].
On this page of Harry and Hopper, in the back garden, I was looking at your panels, they’re a lot like comic panels…
I was trying to work out how to show the passing of time and all these different activities, all in the one page. I’d set up a sort of grid for the book, so it was using this sort of section of the book, which maybe isn’t apparent any more…
Yeah, in the back you can see there’s another long horizontal panel across the pages… it’s almost kind of film-like…. Usually the landscape format gives you a lot of expanse anyway, and you’re emphasising its stretch even more.
Yes, just like a film screen, isn’t it. I found that solution worked quite well. … And I love this page [looking at the first page with Harry and Hopper in bed].
It almost takes a sort of God-view, ’cause you’re looking from even higher than a parent could look down; it’s almost like they’re meant to be together, Harry and Hopper…
Well, that was from the beginning, I think they were always meant to be together. See, there’s this bit here where the little puppy’s set apart from the others anyway [on the first title page], then he chooses Harry.
Aw. Every kid likes to feel like they’re the one who’s been chosen, that the dog wouldn’t have loved anyone else quite as much…
It’s interesting, on the pages where you just have just the characters, and it’s focusing on the inner emotion, you get rid of all the background. Were you just trying to break up the format, or was it a deliberate…
I guess, in this instance [the page with Harry and his father sitting together], all that was necessary were the two characters. And the fact that the father’s not even touching him, and you can tell immediately what both of them are feeling, even though you don’t even see their faces. I guess there wouldn’t have been as much strength in it if there had’ve been a background because your eyes would have gone all over the place.
Why is the dad a fireman? Did they tell you he was going to be a fireman?
No, I don’t know! I did hum and haw about what sort of job he had. In Australia, they have a lot of reserve firefighters, and I thought, well, maybe he’s just a reserve firefighter. … I don’t know why else I made him a firefighter!
I like it, he’s got this macho job where he saves lives, but then he can’t actually save his son’s dog. It’s kind of poignant that way, it’s lovely.
Aw, you’ve looked, you’d done very well at this book… [laughs]
I like this page [the boys lined up on a bench, having lunch at school], it’s almost like an American Depression-era photo, washed out, Norman Rockwell or something. And there’s no red on this page at all…
… No. Apart from his hair. I think that picture was a rough, too. It was really small… yeah. So often, those really quick sketches to start with, are just so lovely. I don’t even KNOW what boys are like…
Yeah, you do. [laughs]
Yeah, I think it captured it fairly well.
Poor guy. He has no expression, but you know exactly what he’s feeling.
He’s completely lost. I mean, it’s so much to do with body language, and space around him.
Again, there’s no background, you’re really focused on him. [Turns page] It’s funny, how this page is a bit different from the cover… [page with Harry and Hopper embracing]
Yeah, they took the tongue off.
Ha, why did they do that? [both laugh]
I’m not sure, I think, maybe, yeah…
And they got rid of a lot of the action lines.
Although, they didn’t get rid of this one here [points at some pencil streaks]. And I was thinking, if you’d get rid of anything, you’d get rid of THAT. But anyway… I’m very happy with the cover. It stands out, but also the lettering doesn’t stand out too much, and often I find that they need to work well together. And hopefully the image is enough to attract attention.
It’s got a nice sweep to it, with the tail…
I don’t think I even did that drawing for the cover, it just worked so well for it.
This [the spread with the night-time romp in the garden] is a bit like Where the Wild Things Are, quite heavy cross hatching, and it has that ‘wild rumpus’ feel…
This is one of my favourite pages. I also love how dark it is. But it’s fun as well, and it’s lively, even though they’re in darkness.
But it’s a heavy liveliness, like there’s a sense that they know this isn’t really going to last.
Yeah, with this image, too, with the two of them looking up at the stars.
With this page [the following page where Harry and Hopper play ball], you’ve chosen a long format, almost like he’s in a long tunnel – like, ‘ walk toward the light!’ [both laugh] – and also it kind of emphasises how far away they are from each other…
Yeah, I wonder if I do this stuff intuitively and I’ve never thought about it before.
What would you think about on this page, how would you go about it? Would you just start sketching or would you think, okay, this is what I want to convey and this is how I’m going to do it?
I think because this page had been wide, and you’d seen lots of activity, I wanted to go closer in on them. I wanted to be able to see that the dog was disappearing. And the distance between them was probably necessary as well. I probably wouldn’t have thought about it much more, I would’ve just drawn it until it felt right.
That’s a lovely scene with the washline. And these empty clothes hanging, it’s sort of foreshadowing in a way…
Yeah, it was just nice to show a domestic scene as well, with the father and son, which you don’t often see.
He’s a lovely father…
He is, isn’t he! What a wonderful dad.
Again, there’s no red on this page [Harry staring forlornly toward the window], it’s like there’s something missing. And even this little plant looks really hopeful!
And yeah, Harry’s right down in the corner, the emptiness so overshadows him. He’s sort of hoping, isn’t he?
Poor little guy. I gave this book to my husband and even though he doesn’t really look at picture books much, he got all teary and started talking about his dog.
Yeah, other people, especially a few other men I’ve known, have cried. I mean, most people have had this experience, lost a pet, so they’d understand immediately.
This page is interesting [Harry looking out to a fading Hopper on the porch], this is way wider than a porch would ever be in real life, but it emphasises the distance between them, and shows how small they are…
This is our porch at home, the house is the same layout as the house where I grew up, and we had a similar… my mum pulled down the wall here [laughs], between the kitchen and the laundry. I didn’t have any reference for it, but I knew it was the porch I wanted, that was exactly what I wanted; I think I did find one photo of it, but I didn’t really need it, I remembered it all anyway.
It’s interesting how the window almost forms a sort of tombstone shape above the dog, like he’s buried right under it.
Really?! Oh my goodness! I didn’t even realise that!
It must have been subconscious, because it seems so clear…
Don’t you think?
Yeah! Now that you look at it… wow. I hope, maybe all the librarians who judged this thought of all of this!
You’re like, ‘Hee hee! Tricked you!’ [both fall about laughing]
[Whispers] Oh no, they’re probably going to think I’m really bright!
[Laughing] Oh no! Don’t let them think that!
I’m worried, they’re going to be so disappointed when they meet me!
Just keep it up, say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what I meant to do!” …That’s really funny. [Both at last contain their giggling]
I love the echo on this page [Harry and a shadowy Hopper in bed], ’cause Hopper’s dying and disappearing, but it’s the same kind of shadow you use in the beginning, where he’s jumping, but here he’s fading away; it’s kind of like bookends at the beginning and end.
Hmm, don’t know if this page works quite as well as I wanted it to… it was a hard page to do. I don’t normally like drawing things in quite so much close-up. And the way I did it, I did them in different layers, so they were put together in Photoshop, and that was really hard to work out on watercolour paper, when you were doing it from little drawings… it was too complicated for me. But I wanted to see them really close. I do wonder… it was very hard, it says, ‘Hopper’s eyes glimmered with mischief and delight’. The text is so beautiful, and sometimes, in that instance, it’s very hard to convey. That was a hard page. It’s a tricky scene to do without it seeming cloying or clichéd.
It’s interesting how you go from a page where nothing’s quite orderly, back to boxes and red [the last page], and it’s very much a return to order.
Yeah, that moment at the beginning of acceptance.
It takes ages to find his little grave but finally you’re like, there, it’s Hopper!
My parents’ house had these two bits out the back, like this, and a veranda here. But they did have this big pipe that came up into the sky here [points].
What was that?
I think it had something to do with the sewage system [laughs]. They still live in the same house, but this is all changed.
Did you go to their house and do drawings?
No, it was only the back and I just imagined it, I just made stuff up. And the front of their house was different, just because I wanted a bit of variation on the front. Someone else I spoke to the other day said that it was interesting that this book was all filled with boxes, and fenced-in interiors, and all very closed. I hadn’t thought about that either.
You get aerial views…
But they’re still fenced in… there’s not a huge amount of sky or freedom. It’s about emotions, and what’s going on inside.
I was wondering, it said in the press release that you were working hard on something when you got the award, what were you working on?
It’s a story called The Last Hug by Nick Bland, and it’s published by Scholastic. It’s about a little girl who asks her mum if she can have a hug before bed. And her mum says, ‘oh, that’s fine, but I only got one. So you have to give it back.’ So the little girl gets a hug, and then she goes off and finds her dad, and she gives her dad a hug, and her dad gives it back. And every time she goes to her dad, her twin brothers, her baby sister, Lilly, and then the dog, Annie. Each time she gets to them, there’s some little dilemma in their life; she gives them a hug and they hug her back, and everything’s sort of resolved for them. It’s a nice little passageway through family life. And then she gives a hug to the dog, and the dog takes off! So she’s really worried that she’s not going to be able to give the hug back to her mum…. that’s her mum [shows painted image from phone]…
Oh! Little pants, and her white legs! Haha, I love the suntan lines!
I know… [laughs]
Have you seen David Robert’s pirate in The Troll? His pirate has this complete farmer’s tan, in the shape of a string vest, it’s hilarious. This is great…
Here’s the one with where the mother’s been down on her hands and knees, trying to find something to wear in the dirty laundry pile, and she gives this hug to the daughter and she finds a skirt to wear… it’s just simple little things like that.
So that’s what I’m working on at the moment. And I also finished in April another book called Maudie and Bear, which is written by Jan Ormerod.
She’s an illustrator as well!
I know! That was a strange one! But I do know that’s she’s written other things that other people have illustrated as well. But it did seem… I sort of thought, well, she’s an amazing illustrator!
Your work actually does have a lot in common in certain ways.
Well yes, maybe! Well, she’s incredible. I’ve done that book, and it’s a 48-page book with five stories in it, about a little girl named Maudie, who’s very particular, and a big brown bear, who’s just beautiful, the loveliest character. I guess he represents the parent who endures all her tantrums. So, that will come out here [in the UK] as well.
Do you think Australian books have a certain kind of sensibility that marks them out?
I don’t know what it is about Australian books, but I guess we’re a different culture. And I think the outback of Australia, and the rural settings, are often quite strong.
I remember that Jan Ormerod book…
…The Water Witcher?
… Is that the one with the mother who lives with the daughter in the outback? [Lizzie Nonsense] And the father only comes back once a week or something. … I think or this poor woman out there…
I know, and she’s done another one as well, called The Water Witchers, which is also set in the outback. I think she grew up in Western Australia, so that setting’s probably quite familiar. Where I think the settings that I enjoy are small country towns, like where I grew up. I mean, I love Australian architecture. As we were coming into London on Sunday night, looking at all the terraced houses, there’s such a difference, just because of the sun and the heat. There’s always verandas, and they’re much darker, just to keep the heat out. Yeah, I’ve grown up with that look and I really like it.
Do you get out into the outback very often?
I’ve never been outback. I lived four hours west of Sydney and I’ve only moved back there two and a half years ago. Before that I was in New Zealand…
…Oh yeah, you were working on the Lord of the Rings set…
Yeah, I was there nearly nine years. So I haven’t been back there for all that long, but it feels like home.
Actually, do you know Heather Kilgour from the Lord of the Rings [who made foam sculptures for the set]? She’s in my illustrator critique group.
Yes! I saw her last night! And I saw Virginia Lee last night, because I worked with her on Lord of the Rings, she’s Alan Lee‘s daughter. So you know Heather! …We used to sing … we always had a choir at her place at night-time, once a week… We’d go to her place and she’d cook dinner, her and Perraine, And we’d sing!
Wow! That’s so cool! Did someone play piano, or have a guitar…
No, we’d just sing …madrigals.
As you do!
Yeah! [Both laugh] I’ve got to tell her, that’s hilarious.
Heather Kilgour and Freya Blackwood at the Greenaway award reception
So it must have been such a creative group, I bet all of those people didn’t just make chain mail for a living…
Yeah, some pretty amazing people. It was a lot of interesting talent that ended up working… you met some fantastic people. And the work, it was all really good experience.
It sounded like a lot of fiddly work, like the three guys who made chain mail…
Oh, it was played up quite a bit, that sort of stuff. But I think, quite literally, I spent a year painting thousands of hobbit feet.
Did you have to put in all the little hairs as well?
No, what would happen is you’d sit there and paint on a base coat, then paint layers and layers of different colours and textures, and put veins on them, and paint their toenails… and then send them up to have hair punched into them. And that just went on and on and on.
And so they were disposable feet, they had to get new feet each time?
Yup, every day.
They didn’t want them getting, like, trench foot or something… [both dissolve into laughter] Why couldn’t they just wear their old feet? They’re very demanding these actors!
Foot rot. Hobbit foot rot! Nice. [Helpless laughter from both].