If you loved The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson’s The Go-Away Bird will make a welcome addition to your bookshelf. We had the opportunity to interview both Julia as well as illustrator Catherine Rayner, the creators of the latest children’s fiction masterpiece.
How do you get your ideas for writing great children’s books like The Gruffalo and now The Go-Away Bird?
Julia: It’s different for every book. For The Go-Away Bird, I got the idea when I was in South Africa on safari. We saw a Go-Away bird (grey loerie) and we were told that its cries sounded like “go away, go away!” I just thought to myself “wouldn’t it be funny if there was a come-back bird?” You often get the idea quite quickly, the difficult part is actually developing it and so I didn’t do that until I got back from South Africa.
Catherine: For illustration, it’s quite lovely to be given guidance on what to draw. It was really good fun to be able to look at the photos and see what other colours could be added to it. In grey there is every colour, so the way that her feathers catch the light The Go-Away Bird has hints of blue and purple and nice mustard yellows. Doing the character of The Go-Away Bird is all in the eyebrows. She has to look quite grumpy and also really happy. Birds don’t actually have eyebrows, but we thought they were needed to create expression.
How important was reading to you in your own childhood?
Julia: Very important. I was lucky enough to grow up in a household with my parents and sister, where my granny lived on the top floor and my aunt and uncle lived on the middle floor, so I had different adults read to me. I used to love going to the library, too. They never had the proper pictures on the covers and I really loved that. They would have really plain covers and you knew all the treasure was inside.
“Picture books in particular encourage parents to read to the children, which I think helps with adults reading more too; it gives them confidence.”
Catherine: I was very lucky to grow up in a house full of books, as well. My mum loves children’s books and I was the youngest of three, so I had all the books my brother and sister had read as well as those I’d been given. As much as the words and the pictures, I just loved the actual object of a book and turning the pages. I can’t remember a time without books, reading and illustration. I completely agree. It is like there’s treasure in every book and I get very excited about that.
Where did your passion for writing/illustrating children’s fiction come from?
Catherine: It’s a magical thing to do because you’re inspiring young minds.
Julia: In my case, I was a songwriter, so for me, it’s the sound of the words and the musical quality.
Catherine: I like the idea as well that picture books, in particular, encourage parents to read to the children, which I think helps with adults reading more too, it gives them confidence.
How many children’s books have you written (or illustrated) and which one/s is/are your favourite/s at this stage? Why?
Julia: It’s such a difficult question! Let’s say The Go-Away Bird is our favourite!
Children are our greatest critics. Do you have children and/or grandchildren – if so, what do they think of your books?
Julia: I’m a bit shy about reading my books to my grandchildren because I’m afraid that they might start wriggling and looking bored, so I tend to read them other things. I sometimes get them up on the stage when I perform my shows and they seem to like that.
Catherine: I feel the same. I rarely read my books to my children but now my oldest is seven he’s quite pleased that he knows exactly what I do.
What does it take to make an artistic collaboration such as yours successful?
Julia: Sometimes when I’m writing the story, I have in mind who might illustrate, but sometimes I write something which might not work for an illustrator I’ve worked with before and that can be quite nerve-racking. Different illustrators have different talents and different strengths. The illustrator is closer to the text for longer than it takes me to write, so it’s really important to get the right illustrator for the book. I knew Catherine’s work and we both felt we worked well together quite quickly.
Catherine: It was amazing. I read the text and went “yes!” and pictures started appearing in my mind. I just loved it, and I loved the Go-Away Bird as a character too.
Please explain your artistic process in putting a book together.
Catherine: I knew the Go-Away bird was a real thing, so I drew a character for Julia. The other birds weren’t as straightforward, but we got there!
Julia: We went back and forth with the editor to make sure it was right.
Is it important that your books contain a lesson, or do you enjoy a mix of entertainment and teaching?
Julia: I don’t start with a lesson in mind so much, but once I start writing I know how it’s going to end up.
Catherine: For me, books grow their own arms and legs. I have an idea of what I’d like to happen, but often they go off in their own direction.