The best description I’ve heard of Emily Gravett’s stories is that they “touch the heart and tickle the funny bone”.
From Pete the fastidious litter-picking badger in Tidy to fashion-fad-following Harbet in Old Hat, she creates characters that are complex in their personalities and emotions, while her beautifully drawn artwork is utterly delightful.
After spending eight years living in a green bus, the Brighton-based author took her art degree, before winning both the Macmillan Prize for Illustration and the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal for her first book, Wolves, in 2005.
Three years later, she did it again for Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears, while Tidy picked up the Independent Bookshop Week award for best picture book in 2017.
Apart from Cave Baby, a 2010 collaboration with fellow bestseller Julia Donaldson, Emily writes and illustrates all of her books herself, catering to a very young audience with the Bear and Hare series, through to more grown-up titles like the informative and funny Meerkat Mail.
The latest one is Cyril and Pat, the story of two unlikely friends who live in Lake Park and discover that you don’t have to be the same to get along famously. We caught up with Emily to find out more about the book, her passion for animals and why she just loves a library…
Cyril & Pat tells the story of an unlikely friendship. Where did the idea come from?
I’d been doodling squirrels for a while, but without any kind of story to put them in, when my sister told me that I should be drawing red squirrels, as greys were just ‘rats with tails’. It got me thinking about how similar rats and squirrels are and why we see them so differently.
Pat is a rat, an animal which tends to be portrayed as dirty and sneaky – do you think they have an unfair reputation?
Yes, I do. I had a pet rat when I was a teenager, and my daughter also had two rats called Button and Mr Moo. They make fantastic pets. They’re intelligent, affectionate and have massive personalities. In the wild they are less appealing, but I still admire them. It’s not their fault that we have created such a comfortable world for them to live in by producing so much waste, and sneakiness is just intelligence and resourcefulness. Saying that, I still don’t want the wild variety living in my house!
Your books are almost exclusively about animal characters – why do they appeal so much?
There are a few of reasons why most of my characters are animal rather than human. Drawing animals, I can bypass age, race, and even gender which means that the reader can focus on the personality of the character and the story. Human beings identify with animals in a way they don’t always with other human beings.
Animals often have features which are great to use as emotional emphasis. For example, a rabbit’s ears can easily show joy and sadness just by a quick position change. But lastly, I think the main reason I use animals in my books is that I just really love drawing them.
There also seems to be a strong British element to stories like Cyril and Pat and Tidy – is this a conscious thing?
Tidy and Cyril and Pat are different from most of my books, in that the environment is part of the story so needed to be rooted somewhere. The ‘somewhere’ is quite British because I have grown up in Britain, so all of my cultural and visual references come from what I see around me daily.
I did think about whether this would alienate readers from other countries but thinking back to my own childhood I always loved seeing other places reflected in books. Most of my books (for example the Bear and Hare series, Dogs, and Again) are not set anywhere in particular. I try to do whatever I feel the individual book needs.
What part of the picture book creating process do you find easier – words or images? How does the process usually work?
Both words and images have their challenges. Writing in rhyme doesn’t come naturally to me, but it’s an entertaining challenge. Drawing can be unpredictable. Some days everything I draw works, and other days it all ends up in the recycling bin. I have to tailor what I’m doing to the mood I’m in that day, but really the two processes aren’t that hugely different.
Words and images aren’t the only two elements to juggle in making a picture book. I’m also thinking about the how the book will work as a whole, so am also considering the format and size of the book, where the pages turn, what paper it will be printed on, and what it will be like as an object for the reader to hold.
Did you always know you wanted to create children’s books?
No, I didn’t. Growing up I always loved drawing, but it didn’t seem like the kind of thing that could be a ‘job’. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties and reading picture books to my own daughter that I started to think about becoming an illustrator. I fell in love with her books and applied to study illustration as a direct result of that love. Even then, it wasn’t until my first book (Wolves) was published that I realised I wanted to write as well as illustrate.
Which of your books or characters is your favourite or most important to you – or is that an impossible question to answer?
I get very attached to whichever character I’m working on currently, and have soft spots for all of them. On my website I have a magazine section in which I do a Q&A with each character. It’s my favourite part of the website as it’s when I realise how well I’ve come to know them all.
I don’t really have a favourite, but I most identify with Little Mouse from Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears. He is afraid of pretty much everything, and I have also spent a lot of my life being nervous and anxious about life.
Your website is laid out like a library and you have a library finding tool on there as well. Why do you feel so passionate about them?
Books should be accessible to all children regardless of their backgrounds. Not all kids have parents than can or will sit down and foster that love of books. Teachers do their best, but they are restricted by time and curriculums that concentrate on learning to read rather than learning to love reading. Libraries provide a space where a reader can explore their interests, and a good librarian will know just how to find the right books to light that spark of love.
What are you working on next?
I’m revisiting one of my characters – watch this space!
Cyril & Pat by Emily Gravett is out now. £12.99 (hardback), Two Hoots
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