Picture books are a very visual medium by nature but there is something about the artwork in Benji Davies’s stories that feels especially central to the story.
From the remote Nordic fishing community in The Storm Whale to the Victorian mystery of The Grotlyn – via a tropical Darwin-esque world in Grandad’s Island – each book has a sort-of cinematic quality to it. Probably not suprising given Benji is also an animation director.
He had been illustrating other people’s words for a while before hitting on turning an earlier film about a boy called Noi, who lives with his dad and six cats on an island, into a book.
This atmospheric tale of friendship between human and animal was a huge hit, winning the inaugural Oscar’s Book Prize, and selling around the world. He also won the Sainsbury’s Book Award for Grandad’s Island, a moving family story that teaches children about loss.
Noi’s reunion with the whale made for a snowy follow-up in The Storm Whale in Winter and now a third instalment is published this week – Grandma Bird. This time, the boy goes to stay with his eccentric grandmother and discovers she is not what she seems.
We talked to Benji about how the latest story came about…
Grandma Bird is the third book in The Storm Whale series. What was the inspiration for it?
It started when I wrote The Storm Whale about six years ago. It was based on a film I made when I was studying animation at university called A Bowl of Soup. Then I wrote The Storm Whale in Winter because I had all these ideas about what would happen if I returned to that world in snow and ice.
Those first two books were like one story in a way. It was a circle from one to the other – boy saves whale, whale saves boy. While I was working on that I had a couple of thoughts about another book with Noi in it and him having a grandma. I was really keen to have her as a hero. These things exist in children’s books but I wanted to see it in a picture book.
I’m always interested in the relationships between characters. With this one I wanted to think there was perhaps a bit of a disconnect between the two characters and then they find each other. That was the core of it. But these ideas come from little bits and pieces dotted around, that come together over time. I’d seen a photo diary online of a guy who lives on an island in Canada where all these migrating birds fall from the sky if there is bad weather. That already sounded like it was in Noi’s world so I wanted to use that in a story and the two things merged together.
Your books have a cinematic feel to them, presumably because of your animation background. Do you see them as films as you plan them out?
Definitely, although I have tried different methods of writing and illustrating for the five picture books I’ve created. When I wrote The Storm Whale, I did a storyboard first, almost like a film, and turned that into book, adding the words gradually. But there’s one I’m working on now that is the absolute opposite and I’ve written the story as text, adding images afterwards.
It has evolved as I’ve gone along, but I think most people, even writers who don’t illustrate, don’t see just words in their head. There must be a visual sequence playing that they writing from. Ideas gradually build in that way and you can add to them, daydreaming and inhabiting the story. Often, if you have a problem and the story isn’t quite working out, you can leave it for a couple of months and your subconscious brain will to be tinkering with it somewhere.
You had been illustrating children’s books for a while before The Storm Whale. Had you always thought you’d like to write one?
I’d always liked the idea of writing children’s books. I’d made a few attempts but often in those days, I was trying to wear the hat of someone doing it rather than finding my own way of writing. I was probably looking at what was already out there in children’s publishing rather than taking what I was already doing with making stories for films.
Then I realised I could take those stories and turn them into a picture book, rather than specifically writing a picture book. Somehow this hadn’t occurred to me before that point. It was a bit of a breakthrough.
The Storm Whale had such a great reaction, winning the Oscar’s Book Prize. Now you are on the third book with those characters. Did you ever imagine it would become a series?
Not at all. I made the film it was based on at university in 2001 – a long time ago. When I turned it into a book, the idea was just to make sure it worked as book and get it published. I went to Spain recently, to Madrid Book Fair, and we were in the park one evening signing Spanish versions of the books. It struck me that you start this journey and have no idea where you are going to end up or that you are going to be reaching so many children. It is quite amazing.
I love to see authors sharing the foreign language covers on Instagram because it shows how the stories translate. They are universal.
It is! The Storm Whale is in 35 languages or territories now.
Do you ever have to alter the illustrations for the different editions?
I’ve not had to. There was talk to doing it on one – which will remain nameless – but I refused. I am fiercely protective over what I have created because I feel like rather than pandering to a certain market, it is important to keep the voice of what it is.
Very rarely, they will want to change the cover and use an image from the inside or make the title a non-direct translation. I’ll make suggestions in those cases as that is the packaging and the marketing, but when it comes to the actual story and pictures, I stick to my guns.
The father and son relationship in Storm Whale, with mum not around, makes it quite unusual and modern. Were you consciously wanting to do a father-son book or did it just happen?
Because I came up with that one as a film a long time ago, it is almost too far back for me to know what my though process was. But I’ve tended not to think of any of my stories in that way, as a guide to assist the reader. Certainly not in the first few. I have probably become more conscious of it since being asked about it actually. Sometimes things just feel that they work for a story and it is just about human experience.
You have become a dad in the last year – is that influencing your work and how you approach stories?
I don’t think it is yet. But I can feel the beginnings of it changing how I think about it. Once she is talking and I can see her reactions, as that develops, it will undoubtedly have some kind of effect.
Grandma Bird is out now. What are you doing next?
I’m working on another book with HarperCollins Children’s, my second with them. I’m not sure what I can say! It’s a completely new story, a bit different again as it is an animal fable. When I did The Grotlyn for them, that was quite a departure from the other books, in that it was rhyming and set in a Victorian world. This is different again but carry some of the same messages and tone I like to put into my books.
Grandma Bird by Benji Davies is out now. £6.99 (paperback), Simon & Schuster
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