The trailer for our new picture book — Belinda Blecher (author) and Lisa Allen (illustrator):
Wednesday, 6 May 2020
The trailer for our new picture book — Belinda Blecher (author) and Lisa Allen (illustrator):
An interview with Belinda Blecher, author of Magic Mistakes
Magic Mistakes is your first picture book. What led you to choose this as a medium for addressing some of the key themes in the book?
Since I commonly work with early years educators I observed a lot of anxiety around perfectionism. I felt that a picture book would be a really helpful resource for teachers and parents to have at their disposal to facilitate and reinforce viewing mistakes as a learning opportunity. Before giving words to children, teachers and parents need to find the words for themselves. A big part of school readiness is being interested in what you don’t know instead of being scared by it. Magic Mistakes reinforces these ideas and assists children through the transition to primary school.
As a child and adolescent psychologist, you believe in “early intervention” as a means of promoting positive growth in children. What does this involve?
Early intervention involves taking action at a time of brain development and when learning patterns have not been set. Here, one can engage in preventative work rather than treatment. During the early intervention stage much of children’s difficult behaviour is seen as development opportunities rather than clinical concerns. At this time, the brain is open to learning and instilling positive neuro pathways that promote positive growth in becoming out of the box creative thinkers.
Do you think children these days are more or less prone to risk taking than children, say, 20 years ago?
Obviously due to changes in the modern world there are higher levels of anticipatory anxiety, and incidental risk taking has been reduced, such as riding bikes in the streets or climbing trees. In this way, children today are less prone to risk taking than those 20 years ago. In today’s world, it is really up to us to create a safe forum in which children can be free to explore and take risks.
How can parents provide models of behaviour to their children to strengthen their resilience in everyday life?
Parents can model this behaviour to their children by living and embracing mistakes. As a family they should try new things together, embrace mistakes with no judgment and celebrate failure. When children see their parents making magic mistakes they feel encouraged to make them too. Families should celebrate trying new things rather than simply celebrating conventional achievements.
Now that your first picture book is published, how keen are you to write a second, or a third?
I am committed to building emotional literacy libraries for children. I have a book in the wings.
And with Lisa Allen, illustrator.
Magic Mistakes has important themes it seeks to get across to children, their parents and teachers. Did you find illustrating this type of book more challenging than “entertainment” sorts of books that you’ve previously illustrated?
Actually I have a history of illustrating quite serious picture books that have carried important messages. 'Mangrove' my first picture book was a reflection on mans impact on a fragile coastal ecosystem. That was followed by 'Anzac Day Parade' which centred around a war veteran relaying his traumatic memories of the battle of Crete to a young boy. Probably only a handful of the books I have done have been purely fun and upbeat. I enjoyed working on all of them in different aspects. I'd have to say I like a balance - fun for children, but with some deeper layers that adults can pick up on.
Children need books of all sorts. The challenge with Magic Mistakes was not to make it look serious and so I chose a sillier style of illustration and used plenty of colour. Kids are magpies when it comes to colour. Belinda's use of language is fun, so it gave me lots to work with - there is always a child in the class with dripping snot and you can never get a child to eat bananas with black spots, so there is natural and relatable humour in there pitched at child level. Children love finding things to laugh at.
Your illustrations in Magic Mistakes are bright and vibrant. What media do you prefer to produce these effects? How does this approach enhance the delivery of the serious messages in the book?
My picture books cover a wide range of drawing styles. I admit to taking the long way around with these illustrations. They are first hand-drawn in black ink on zeta paper. I scan, refine and then digitally colour them up in photoshop in a series of layers. It is certainly not the fastest process. I could have used a wacom which would be a lot more efficient, but that means some serious retraining for my drawing hand. Because I've had so many years of just working with a mouse I find that faster than holding a digital pen. However, the best part for me is still hand-drawing the line work in ink on paper - it allows me freedom to add quirky details. Traditional methods are still the most comfortable for me. Each story speaks to me in terms of a style, when I read it for the first time. I knew a funky typeface would work on this and I wanted children to feel the mess of brightly coloured paint splatters. Finger painting was the only activity I wanted to do at pre-school and I was trying to capture that mess. I chose a naive simple style as I knew the characters had to be accessible to kindergarten aged children. For that reason I've kept it clean and uncluttered and used lots of white space around them. Facial expressions are important - I wanted children to be instantly able to recognise emotions on the characters faces.
As a creative, were you able to relate to challenges faced by Frankie? If so, how did this affect your rendering of Frankie and Tallulah’s character?
The myth about creatives is that we are all wild Tallulah's with unbrushed hair, when in fact most often we are uptight, perfectionist Frankie's. I'm certainly a Frankie for a good deal of the process and in most areas of my life. I get unreasonably finickity throughout the creation of a book (as I'm sure you can attest) but that is because if I do something that is incorrect, I literally have a gut reaction that niggles at me until I get something right. I do lots of drafts, obsess over things and often have to walk away and come back to something a few days later to make sure it is working. I have been known to wake at 2am with the solution to a layout problem or character expression. But something extraordinary does happen when I do a book - I start with a very clean workspace with all my ducks in a row and within days it has turned into utter chaos. Like Tallulah there are scribbles and paint tubes and random sketches everywhere. Paper starts to pile up in drifts and I'm tripping over pencils. I completely turn into Tallulah and ideas just flow. Time seems to slow and I'm tuned in completely to another level. It's very hard to describe, but I'd liken it to consciously shifting the part of the brain I use.
Anyone walking into my studio is struck by the mess and destruction, yet I feel very calm and happy and creative at this stage. I love this part of a picture book - simply drawing and idea making. Then I have to snap out of it and tidy up! There are the structural parts of the book to deal with and that's when I'm back to Frankie again. To produce a finished product as a creative, you have to be both Frankie and Tallulah by turns. I can see distinct parts of myself in both characters.
You were intimately involved in the layout of the book, and the relation of your images to the text. Why is that level of involvement important to you? And how did you go about responding creatively to Belinda’s text?
I'm a control freak - seriously! That is a good thing mostly, but does drive everyone around me mad. When I start a book I actually envisage the whole thing in its entirety - I can literally see it on the bookshop shelf. For me, typography is key and there is an entwined relationship between the physical text and the image on the page. I can pick up a book and not want to read it if I hate the font. It is quite a visceral thing. Typefaces have distinct personalities and again I have a gut feeling if I have chosen the right one. Also, the cover makes itself clear to me very early on and is pretty much visualised from the beginning.
Picture books are very delicate constructions in actuality - the images, text, design and layout has to work in a balanced way and each element is dependent on the others. That is why I like to do the whole lot. In addition, my illustrations have to not only mirror the authors words, but also tell other stories and establish relationships between characters that are not implicit in the writing. In 'Magic Mistakes' the animal characters were fun to do as the were not prescribed in any way - so that's my little creative contribution.
Contemporary publishing and printing practices have largely abandoned physical print in the pre-publication stages of a book. Are you comfortable with these processes? Do you see any disadvantages of this way of doing things in the name of efficiency?
I'm comfortable with all aspects of pre-publication. When I started out with my first picture book everything was very different and each stage of book production was contracted out to a different person. I quickly learned that I had the ability to do all those jobs because of my design background. I'm the first to admit my technical knowledge can be patchy at production level and if I rush, I miss things. But it is a matter of me slowing down and taking more care at that end of the process. It is fair to say I made more technical glitches (we'll call them Magic Mistakes!) along the way on this book than I ever have, but everything got sorted in the end. Whew! I've come to enjoy the digital parts of the process much more over time and I do like teaching myself new techniques. The disadvantage with the new processes, is that it is very easy to get something out there - a product can be created very quickly with the new technology. However, a book is a work of art, no matter which format it is delivered in and needs patience and an eye for detail consistently throughout its creation.
Books also need many hands in the process to produce quality - we all miss minor details and the good thing about working with a publishing team is that errors get picked up on and corrected. Also, the first ideas out of the blocks are not always the best and so there is an element of refining that happens along the way which is crucial to a good result. Concepts have to be challenged and disagreed with, or fought for, to achieve quality. Accepting robust critique is vital.