It has been a busy year for Rachel Bright.
She won the prestigious Oscar’s Book Prize 2017 with superstar illustrator Jim Field for The Koala That Could, and released its fabulous follow-up, The Squirrels Who Squabbled, last month.
Her latest solo effort, All I Want For Christmas, also came out, taking her children’s publishing tally to 16 – with more in the pipeline.
At the same time, this wonderwoman is running her bestselling typographic stationary and gift range, The Bright Side, a wellness retreat at her Dorset farm and is pregnant with her second child.
Thankfully Rachel is Bright by name and by nature, known for her optimistic outlook on life, which shows in her delightful books.
The Squirrels Who Squabbled – her third collaboration with Jim (the first was The Lion Inside) – is about two polar opposite creatures tussling over the last nut of the season, with dangerous but hilarious consequences.
It has the same magical combination of sharp rhyming text with epic, almost cinematic, illustrations that made the previous efforts such a success.
We spoke to the author-illustrator about her dream team with Jim, what she’s learned from storytime with her daughter and how to teach your child positivity…
Why do you and Jim Field work so well together?
“Sometimes kismet smiles on two creative people and brings them together to create something they never would have on their own. It’s a formula that’s impossible to predict – it just sort of happens or it doesn’t and I feel incredibly lucky to feel this elusive creative chemistry in my book partnership with Jim.
“I enjoy writing stories which often have dynamic, dramatic or illustratively challenging settings and subjects and Jim works utter magic with the ideas every time. I think it partly comes down to a similar sense of humour and fun. A story has to speak to your soul – as do the illustrations – for the whole thing to work and we just seem to resonate with each other’s approach.
“The Lion Inside – my first book with Jim – was actually one of my first ever author-illustrator collaborations. I expected to feel odd about seeing my story illustrated by someone else. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was so exciting to see Jim’s first draft – I just knew right away that something special was happening.”
How does the process work for you two?
“The Lion Inside was already written and our amazing publisher approached Jim with the text to see if it appealed to him. From there, the new stories become much more organic and as you get to glimpse inside the mind (and sketchbook) of each other’s worlds. You start to bounce ideas around a lot more before the story is conceived and created.
“Often looking at Jim’s animal character sketches will inspire a lead protagonist or I’ll suggest a landscape our next story could be set in and work up a synopsis for us to look at together. Again, you just know when it’s right and the rest falls into place. It can be a 6-12 month, sometimes longer, process.”
How do you find working with another illustrator compared to your solo efforts?
“It’s completely different. It’s almost like enjoying a parallel life! I am a prolific writer and I love that some of the stories I write can go and live and breathe through collaboration as well as through my own author-illustratoring. When I am working on a solo project it’s a completely different dynamic.
“I have always enjoyed variety in general and I truly believe that one discipline breathes life into the other. If any project has hit a pause point, it doesn’t take long for the wheels to start turning again if you turn your attention to another idea for a while. It’s a bit like how amazing ideas often come in the bath or at five ‘o clock in the morning. This is what working in these two ways does for me.”
Where do you draw inspiration for stories?
“Anywhere and everywhere! I think part of being creative is being acutely awake to the world around you – soaking up the sounds of daily life. I have always felt the ripple of reality on my skin and it just flows through my pen into my notebook. Sometimes the ideas make sense and sometimes they don’t, but as anyone who has ever lived with me will attest, you can’t leave a piece of paper still very long without scribbles and doodles and all sorts of overcrowded imagination sprawled all over it!
“In more recent times, since becoming a mum [Rachel’s daughter River is 3 and she has another one on the way], I am constantly inspired by things that happen in day-to-day life and this has definitely influenced my writing. I just try to lean into the pull of ideas when they come, because often the most compelling stories are ones that come directly from your own experience.”
You also have your Bright Side cards and gifts company, which has distinctive typography. Does that influence how you see the text on the pages on your books?
“Definitely. I never really set out to create a signature font or typographic look, but my discovery of printmaking and letterpress sort of laid out the journey for me. I often use wooden and lead type from the pre-digital era of typesetting and I love that all these old alphabets have had stories themselves. To my eye, it’s the imperfections that make it perfect. I always want to evolve though so who knows what the future will bring. I’m a type nerd at heart so I am always interested in letterform and how it communicates.”
A study recently suggested that moral stories starring animals do not impact on children like ones featuring humans. Does this surprise you?
“I did read about it. My overall feeling was that it was a rather narrow interpretation. I think the best stories have impact whether they feature human characters or animal characters – or both! And anyone who has read powerful stories understands that.
“It puts me in mind of a similar question I am often asked about whether books are better in rhyme or not. The kink in the thinking is in the question. If there is true soul and magic flowing through a story, you feel it when you write it and when you read it. People of all ages connect with it and are changed a little bit because of it. Whether it rhymes or not – or has animals or not – is sort of immaterial. It’s the soul of the story that matters.”
What do you love about creating picture books?
“There is a special magic in picture books. I can’t quite articulate it but the joy of seeing an idea – just an idea that was floating around minding its own business in your brain – become a real, hold-able story in a little person’s hands. The idea of parents and loved ones snuggled up sharing a story that you helped create… it’s all just utter magic. I have to pinch myself that I get to call it my job.”
Other than Jim, who would be your dream collaboration, either as a writer or illustrator?
“Now there’s a question! There are loads of illustrators I’d love to work with and too many to list here, but I’d have to mention Quentin Blake. Maybe one day! To be honest the stories often find their home with the illustrator who is meant to be working with them and I’m quite open-minded about where that takes me.”
Has reading bedtime stories to your own daughter influenced your work?
“Definitely! It is so interesting to see the stories which speak to her and she asks for over and over again. When she was a tiny baby she would sit rapt through Hairy McLary and Slinky Malinky by Lynley Dodd, and it really brought home the power of rhythm, rhyme and humour to me. I very rarely read her my own books but my partner does it all the time – I overhear him saying ‘By Mummy Bright’! I get to have an audience test with some of my new work quite early on. You soon know if it’s hitting the spot or not!”
You are known for your positive outlook on life – are there any books you’d recommend to help small children look on the bright side?
“Optimism has been a defining factor in my life and my work and I hope to pass that perspective onto my own children. It has helped me so many times to be able to shift my perspective to see the same situation in a new and improved light.
“One of my favourite books that brings this thought to life is Oh The Places You’ll Go by Dr Seuss – a huge idea deftly delivered. Also The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson, and Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson – absolute poetry and so simple, for small people and grown-ups alike. They are all about forging your own destiny though the power of ideas. I often think kids actually inherently look at the world like that anyway – it’s often us grown-ups that need a little reminder!”
The Squirrels Who Squabbled by Rachel Bright, illustrated by Jim Field, and All I Want For Christmas by Rachel Bright are both out now. £12.99 each (hardback), Orchard Books. Find out more about Rachel’s work at rachelbrightbooks.co.uk