Allan: It’s lovely that The Willow Pattern Story is still popular. Here in the UK it is a favourite in elementary schools for World Book day and is well know in schools and libraries. That’s very satisfying. And a first book is a milestone for any author/illustrator. I remember all of the writing and art, and the stages that the project went through as if it was just last week. The most satisfying thing is that The Willow Pattern Story was my idea, my project, and my first exploration of the picture book form. I did The Willow Pattern Story my way, and was lucky enough to have North South books and my then editor Marc Cheshire respect my ideas - even allowing my own lettering for the jacket. Since then I have always designed my own jackets with my own lettering, and I am constantly exploring how picture books work.
Allan: Quentin Blake, my tutor at the RCA was very simply a life-giver. By that I mean he urged me to put life and growth and energy into my drawings. He was (and is now more than ever) an enthusiast for the positive impact that illustration can have on the world. My earlier education in graphic design, and my experiences as a trainee journalist and sub editor gave me a passion for the printed page, for words, and for how they work together. I wrote my degree thesis about the Willow Pattern design.
Allan: The world of children’s books has continued to expand! That’s amazing. And the book as an object that small hands can hold and explore is still treasured despite the digital world! That’s something to celebrate!
I was lucky to work with Francesca Dow, my editor at Orchard Books in London back in the 1990s and she has transformed the idea of children’s books and what they can be, and what they can do. I did just two books with Francesca and then worked with Frances Foster at Farrar Straus and Giroux. With Frances I was able to explore my interest in American history and with her I encountered the magnificent tradition and the level of excellence that still exists in American children’s publishing. UK and European publishers continue to be risk-takers and are often at the forefront of a lot of breakthroughs be they unlikely new characters, settings or the mechanics of how books work. The USA leads the way in inclusivity and in America libraries and librarians are recognised as a powerful force in children’s education. The Junior Library Guild is an example of this engagement.
Allan: Words and pictures come together on my desk as tangible objects. I write words, print them out, cut them up, and stick them down with my early sketches. Words take the lead, then I stop and consider the art. It’s a to-and fro, and the design, layout, rough sketch and writing process takes me a year on and off. I always produce a complete dummy book made of scotch tape and paper!The final art is the fun part, and I need just a few weeks of quiet time to get all the artwork done. I use a light box just as Quentin Blake does. My materials are ink and watercolour. Working on the art is my reward for all the hard work that comes before.
Allan: For my latest Book, Zero Waste (publishing 2023), I intended to travel to Japan, to Kamikatsu where the community tries to recycle everything. Because of the pandemic I was unable to travel and that was not a problem for the artwork or the story because communication is so easy. The pandemic gave me long periods of peaceful studio time, and I enjoyed learning how to use Zoom creatively with collaborators such as editors and art directors. It was positive for me. I have just completed the art and signed off the proofs.
e: That would be an interesting trip! I hope you're still able to go at some point. What project(s) are you most passionate about these days?
Allan: I have just finished Zero Waste, my fifth title in my Green Power series for Farrar Straus and Giroux. That is very exciting because I think Zero Waste is as good as or might be even better that the first book, Energy Island, which has done so well. That for me is rewarding and encourages me to keep going. The books continue to sell well and have been published as school texts in many countries That is very gratifying as the audience I am aiming for is the curious youngster I was last ages 5 to 8 years. I am currently working with my wife, Gaye, on a new series of books about gardening - no publisher as yet. I am deep in the write, cut and stick stage!
e: Can't wait to see Zero Waste - it sounds like an important book. Thanks so much for stopping by!