It’s often said that grandparents get the best gig when it comes to raising a child.
They can enjoy that close bond that comes with sharing many of your genes, they have plenty of time and attention to lavish, they have the wisdom that comes from life experience – and they can hand them back at the end of the day!
Baby Bookworm is lucky to have four doting grandparents in his life who each bring him something unique, along with my two grandmothers who are still going strong at 88 and 94 respectively.
Now he has another one – Grandma Z, a loving, eccentric and adventurous creation by Australian debut author-illustrator Daniel Gray-Barnett.
This matriarch turns up on grandson Albert’s birthday, a vision with orange hair and a blue coat, and whisks him away from his unhappy home for an out of this world adventure, complete with his perfect chocolate cherry ripple cake.
We loved it from the first read. The story is quirky and magical, while the artwork is knockout – stunning colours and with a distinctive style that makes it stand out.
So it goes without saying that we were thrilled to be asked to join the Grandma Z blog tour this week, to mark the book’s release. Read on for our interview with Daniel and click here to find out about his favourite picture books.
Where did the inspiration from Grandma Z came from?
“I was working on some illustrations to enter an illustration competition with the condition that the pieces that are connected by some sort of narrative. In trying to come up with a pair of characters, Grandma Z and Albert popped into my head as some sort of odd-couple. I wanted to tread the line of magical realism with them and I imagined the illustrations to be scenes from some sort of adventure they might go on (and I would love to go on). In some ways, Grandma Z and Albert also represent aspects of myself.”
You studied medical science originally – how did you make the leap into illustration and children’s books?
“I did! The original plan was to become a doctor, but I realised during my studies it wasn’t for me. I ended up working in the pharmaceutical industry and found it all so incredibly boring. I knew I wanted to do something creative so I quit my job and signed up to study Music Business. My favourite part of the course was the assignment where I got to create the artwork for an imaginary gig poster. I loved it so much I started playing around with it on the side, then started doing gig artwork for the pub I was working at. Somewhere along the way I discovered this thing called ‘illustration’ and had the ‘Aha!’ moment.
“Since then, it’s been an obsession. I’m a self-taught illustrator so I’ve watched a lot of online videos, read lots of books and spent many hours noodling around with pencils, ink and Photoshop to figure out a way that I like of doing things. I’ve had some great mentors who have helped show me the ropes about what it means to be an illustrator too. Eventually, the hobby turned into jobs on the side which turned into a full-time freelance career. I love it.
“As for the children’s books, I posted those illustrations I worked on originally on social media and my publisher saw them and contacted me. She wanted to know whether I had any plans with them, was there a story behind it? I didn’t have any plans, but she convinced me that I should consider it – the characters had a story to tell. The rest is history, I said YES and we turned it into a book! I’m very lucky that my publisher had the foresight to see a potential story where there were only pictures. Things don’t normally happen that way, but I’m glad they did. I did a lot of creative writing in my childhood – it was my dream to be a writer. I’m glad I got to fulfil that dream in this way.”
Your book has a very warm view of grandmothers – is this based on your own childhood?
“Yes, I was lucky to grow up knowing three wonderful grandmothers. They all have been very positive influences on my life in different ways. None of them ride a motorbike, but I think Grandma Z gets little bits of her character from each of them.”
Tell us how you create your books. Do the words come first or the pictures?
“The words generally, though in Grandma Z’s case, it was some pictures, then the words, then the final pictures. I recreated several of the original illustrations in the finished book.
“I try and treat the words and pictures like separate jobs. I think the words are slightly more important in setting the structure and arc of the story. The illustrations fill in the gaps and add extra meanings to the words. In saying that though, I am such a visual person, being an illustrator, that often an image will pop into my head and I know it’s the start of an idea or a story. It’s hard to think of one without thinking of the other.”
The colour palette for Grandma Z is very distinctive, all in blue and orange – how did you choose that?
“I screenprinted the original illustrations and used those two colours because they’re complementary colours that really pop. They also happen to be my favourites. They worked so well with the originals, we had to keep them for the book.”
Grandma Z is your debut picture book – what do you have planned next?
“I’m working on ideas for my second book – there’s a lot floating around at the moment but I’m hoping to lock down a couple very soon. I can also say that I have definite plans that Albert and Grandma Z will have more adventures! It’s always in the back of my mind so I’m trying to work out what the next part of their story will be.”
What have your enjoyed most about the reaction of children to your book?
“It’s very humbling and touching that children have responded so well to my book and that they love these characters so much! Knowing that there are some children out there (including some of my nephews and nieces) who are hassling their parents for another reading of Grandma Z is making my day. It feels very rewarding to know that I might be contributing in some small way to help create future readers, writers and illustrators.”