2015 Ezra Jack Keats Book Award

New Illustrator Interview

Chris Haughton: Shh! We have a Plan

Interviewed by Margot Abel Associate Director, Ezra Jack Keats Foundation
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You have a career in design and in fair-trade businesses. So how did you come to write and illustrate children’s books?

I worked as a designer for a fair trade group, who then offered me opportunities to make animations for them. This led to other collaborations with non-profits. It was the realisation that I could actually make little narratives that gave me the courage to write. It was always my dream to make a picture book. About six years ago, I took some time off and came up with a few ideas. I emailed 30 publishers. In the end it was a Korean publisher who published my first book, Little Owl Lost, in Korean!

How important are drawing and painting for children in developing literacy?
Drawing and painting are very important in their own right. Drawing is a way of thinking. It brings an understanding of forms and how things work, move and relate. It also leads to literacy. We first learn by seeing, experiencing and doing. We need to learn how to look before we learn how to read.

Shh! We Have a Plan is a book of few words. How do the text and images come together for you? Are images more important than words in telling a story to children?
Images are very important in the way I come up with ideas for the stories and the way that I tell them. Images and words “bounce” off each other; they depend on each other. Without words, my books would be somehow without life. Picture books don’t fit easily into any category. They have art and text but also performance, rhythm, oral culture— something from a lot of different art forms. To communicate to the youngest children engagingly, you need to use absolutely every trick in the book!

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The EJK Book Award goes to illustrators whose books are “in the spirit of Keats.” In what ways do you think Shh! We Have a Plan meets that standard?
I am a huge fan of Keats’s work and would be very honoured if my work could be considered to be in his spirit. As an artist, I am very inspired by his collages and graphic approach, and I think this book shows elements of that. What I admire most about Keats is his forward-thinking spirit, inclusivity and kindness. The themes of Shh! We Have a Plan are the power of kindness, the courage to do things differently and the act of standing up against the status quo. That message I can certainly see all throughout Keats’s life and work. It’s an honour to be associated with him through this award.

How do you decide what method or materials to use in your book illustrations? Does the story determine the technique, or do you make the decision before you begin?
The story determines how everything will look and how I make the images. For Shh! We Have a Plan, I was quite sure from the beginning that the world should be in shadows and in one tone, while the bird would be a bright rainbow of colour. I use the computer quite heavily—there is so much planning and drawing and redrawing and changes that I would find it very difficult to do without it. However, I always base the shapes and lines on drawing or collages that I have done. I created all the artwork for Shh! We Have a Plan in black-and-white collage, which forced me out of using perspective or any image-making devices that were not essential to the story. To tell a story clearly in a way that can be understood by the youngest children, it must be as simple as possible.
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What advice do you have for hopeful young illustrators?
Work hard.
I think it’s good to always put a little pressure on yourself to keep improving. Find ways to give yourself deadlines.
Listen to advice.
Listen to the criticisms and advice that others have of your work. They each have a different perspective on what makes a good illustration and why. My art director, my editor and I don’t always agree, but we have different perspectives and it is always very useful to take on their comments.
Work on your own ideas.
Set aside at least a few hours a week to work on your own ideas. It always feeds back into your work and so is actually very productive. Anyway, it’s fun!
Do what you love.
If you follow your passion rather than doing what is expected, or what pays the bills, it’s always the most fruitful direction, and who knows where it will take you.

Read more about Chris Haughton