Interview with Emily Haworth Booth
Emily Haworth Booth is an author-illustrator and educator with a passion for dogs and direct action! You will find both of these things in her debut picture book, The King Who Banned the Dark, which was a Guardian Children’s Book of the Month, a Sunday Times Book to Watch Out For, and nominated for nine awards including the Kate Greenaway, Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and Little Rebels Award.
Her second picture book, The Last Tree, was published by Pavilion Children’s in February 2020 and she is now working on a non-fiction children’s book alongside a long-form graphic memoir about climate change and romantic comedies. Emily teaches courses on comics, graphic novels, drawing and illustration at the Royal Drawing School in London, and does civil disobedience with Extinction Rebellion.
We were thrilled to catch up with Emily and find out all about her creative process, her influences, her passions and more...
Head to the bottom of this article to download free learning resources from the Pavilion Books Website, and a story-planning resource!
Interview: Matilda Barratt in conversation with Emily Haworth Booth.
Hi Emily. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us - it’s great to have you here! Could you start by telling us a bit about yourself?
Thanks for having me! I’m an author and illustrator from London, England. I have written and drawn two picture books for children, called The King Who Banned the Dark and The Last Tree, both published by Pavilion Books. When I’m not drawing and writing I love to teach, which I do mainly at the Royal Drawing School on my courses Drawing Graphic Novel and Where Drawing Meets Words - but I also mentor aspiring writers and illustrators and run one-off workshops at places like schools, literary festivals, and even hospitals.
What books, writers, artists and illustrators would you say have had the strongest influence on your own work?
I was very fortunate to have had parents who read to me a lot as a child, and I’m sure all those books had a huge influence. The ones that have remained most vivid for me are probably Beatrix Potter, Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl, for the voice, the humour, the magic, the elegant sentences and the way the weird meets the mundane. There’s also a strong influence from folk tales and Andrew Lang’s fairy books. I have never stopped being enchanted by the words ‘Once upon a time”. The feeling they create, of a spell about to be cast, has never gone away for me. As far as writing for adults goes, Jane Austen is one of my heroes. Her writing is so subtle - it’s wicked and hilarious in the most sly and underhand way, as well as being unbelievably elegant and clever. I’ve mentioned Roald Dahl as an influence on my writing, so the inevitable companion influence on my drawing has to be Quentin Blake. I grew up staring at and loving those illustrations so much that I’m sure they became a part of me.
[Excerpt from The King Who Banned the Dark]
What are your favourite and least favourite things to draw?
Favourite: people, especially faces, and most especially noses! I love drawing people when they’re tiny on the page, seen from far away (drawing people small makes it easier to get the proportions right, I find, and they seem to have more energy than when I try to draw big), dogs, horses, trees.
Least favourite: I tend to find inanimate things like fabric and food quite tricky, as it’s harder for me to engage emotionally, or give them personality. I also find certain body parts like feet can be challenging (I just had to draw a whole page of feet for my new book and it was a bit of a learning curve - I watched lots of videos of people walking along beaches with bare feet to see how they move!). Water is a classic “hard thing to draw” and I have been told some of my drawings of water look more like blue grass, so I think I need to do some work there… I also find buildings quite challenging - getting the amount of detail right - though some of my favourite illustrations by other people have big complicated buildings in them.
And what do you do when you’re not writing or drawing?
I love spending time in nature and with animals - especially horses, donkeys and dogs. During lockdown I haven’t been able to have much contact with animals but sometimes on the weekend I cycle out to a park in Eltham where there is a field full of rescue donkeys and just stare at them! Something about being in their presence, the way they smell and the sound of them slowly munching the grass is very soothing. I also love gardening, cycling, yoga, playing the ukulele, reading novels and poetry and watching bad rom coms. There’s something relaxing about knowing how a story will turn out, and I can always pretend I’m doing research into story structure...
[Excerpt from The Last Tree]
Could you tell us a bit about your creative process? Does the story always come first, or does an illustration sometimes dictate the storyline?
When I’m planning a children’s book, I tend to start with the storyline first, although the idea might be sparked by something I observed while out drawing. Drawing on location is a great way to take in the world and tune in to what’s going on around you, as well as helping you find out what themes and ideas you’re interested in. If trees keep showing up in your sketchbook for example, that might be a sign that you should do a story about trees! Generally though, once I have the spark of an idea, I’ll spend some time checking whether it works as a three act structure - does it have enough tension, enough ups and downs in the right places? It might be that the initial idea is simply a bit thin, in which case, I might stare at it for a bit longer and try to make it work by exaggerating elements or increasing the jeopardy, making the stakes higher, seeing what it would be like if the same story happened to a different kind of character or in a different context. I might do more research, like reading non-fiction books or going out drawing or to a museum. Or I might put it in a drawer and wait a while until it meets a second idea that will fill it out and give it the dramatic tension it needs.
On the other hand, if I’m making a graphic short story or comic, I will tend to start with a single illustration on a small torn up piece of paper, and build out from there on other small individual pieces of paper. That way I can jump around between the beginning, end and middle of a sequence and let it emerge slowly, rather than having to know the whole thing at the start. This works well for more experimental forms like memoir or poem-comics, but can also be helpful in planning picturebooks. Sometimes once I’ve worked out a picturebook plot, I’ll then move to this torn up paper method and quickly jot down in images the key moments in the plot. That way I can move them around until they work, expand and contract sections, and so on. With my longer graphic novel, I have carefully structured the whole book in chapters on a macro level, but once I start drawing each individual chapter on a micro level I also work this way, as it gives me the freedom to improvise within a structure and get the rhythm and pace just right. I also write the captions on individual strips of paper, cut them up and move them around so I can experiment until the right words are with the right picture, in the best order. When I’ve got everything in the right place I stick it down with blu tack - one of my most essential supplies!
[Excerpt from The King Who Banned the Dark]
What were some of the challenges you faced in illustrating your book The King Who Banned the Dark?
One of the hardest things was getting the transition from dark to light to dark again right. I wanted to make sure the darkest pages were on either end of the book, with the very brightest, white page in the middle. That meant everything in between had to be gradually changing from dark to light - which sounds easy, but it wasn’t - I think partly because of the other variables such as changes in location and time of day. I definitely didn’t give myself an easy first book to illustrate! I also found it quite hard keeping the character of the King consistent, but I think that readers tend to give illustrations the benefit of the doubt in this respect, and if you keep the clothes, hair, nose and basic silhouette as similar as possible, it won’t matter too much if the character is slightly rounder-faced or taller from one page to another, for example. The reader will (hopefully) be engrossed in the story and want to keep turning the pages, and won’t be thinking, “who is this character’s identical twin who’s just appeared in the story and has exactly the same clothes but a slightly more bulbous nose?” They’ll figure out that it’s the same person (unless of course your story is actually about identical twins).
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on a new non-fiction children’s book about protest, which will be published in 2021. It’s a collaboration with my sister Alice, and it has been so much more fun working on something with her than trundling along on my own. She’s designing it, I’m illustrating, and we’re co-writing and researching. I’m learning so much. I’ve also been working on a graphic novel for adults that’s about climate anxiety (in a fun way). This project has been in the pipeline for several years, and I hope it will see the light of day eventually! In the meantime it’s a useful form of therapy for me, to help me think through my feelings about the climate crisis and draw together other related ideas that I’m interested in, like activism, feminism, psychology, health and storytelling.
[Excerpt from The King Who Banned the Dark]
What would you say are the biggest differences between writing for children and for adults?
This is such an interesting question, and I’m not sure I know the answer yet, but it’s certainly something I think about. Katherine Rundell’s brilliant book “Why You Should Read Children’s Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise” is a great place to start. She quotes WH Auden, who said in an essay on Lewis Carroll, that “there are good books which are only for adults, because their comprehension presupposes adult experiences, but there are no good books which are only for children.” Rundell talks about how children’s books are simply books for an audience that does not exclude children, and she describes children’s books as powerful and distilled, like “literary vodka”.
I think my first (unpublished) attempts at writing for children were really writing down to them, and they were a bit thin and boring. I thought children were only interested in silly and jolly stories full of bright colours and simple plotlines. Ironically it was only when I started following my nose, and writing about things that were genuinely interesting to me, using ideas from my own quite serious “adult” reading and research - when I stopped worrying about whether children would “get it” - that I made my first successful children’s book. As Maurice Sendak said, “you cannot write for children. They're much too complicated. You can only write books that are of interest to them. ”
Of course, it’s important to use language that children will, by and large, be able to follow - although it doesn’t hurt to put in the odd tricky word, as that’s how readers of all ages expand their vocabulary - and it’s good to avoid cliches, which mean nothing to children. An unexpected side effect is that the practice of using plain language and being as direct and clear as possible in my writing for children has made me a better writer when writing for adults, too. It’s a great exercise to have to think about what you are really trying to say, and say it, rather than complicating things by using words that you think will make you sound clever. There’s no room for that sort of ego when you are writing for children, and that’s a great thing. I have George Orwell’s ‘6 Writing Rules’ taped up over my desk and I think they give amazingly helpful guidance for writing for children, as well as adults.
Having said all that, I do enjoy having a separate practice where I write specifically for adults, just as I enjoy teaching both children and adults. When writing for or teaching adults, I can reference more abstract intellectual ideas if I want to, and can sometimes be more subtle with humour, as well as being able to explore different subject matter, for example sex and death (although there are some great kids’ books about death - they’re usually not published in England though!) I think it’s also the case that with books for adults you can be more experimental with structure and be a bit more non-linear - it’s acceptable to leave gaps in the narrative or leave things unresolved if you want to. It’s a great discipline to have to tell a compelling story for children in 32 pages but sometimes it’s nice to be able to meander and get off the track a bit...
[Excerpt from The Last Tree]
Our Big Draw Festival theme this year is ‘The Big Green Draw: A Climate of Change’, focusing on the relationship between people and our living environments and ecosystems, encouraging drawing as a means of positive activism from people wanting to make change. I understand that you are an activist with Extinction Rebellion, and was interested to hear your opinion on the role of drawing in activism...
I guess there are lots of different ways in which drawing can be a part of activism. On a very practical level if you are good at drawing you will design beautiful posters, banners and graphics. Just look at Sylvia Pankhurst for evidence of this! Personally, I use drawing as a kind of activism through illustrating stories, and then using those stories as a way of starting a conversation with children (and teachers, and parents) about the ideas they contain. It’s been really inspiring for me to see how teachers have used both my books in this way, but particularly how The Last Tree has been a tool to stimulate discussion and action about the climate crisis.
It’s also enabled me to go into schools and be part of these conversations. In school workshops I’ve used sequential drawing to invite pupils to move through a range of emotions and ideas, from the initial problem (for example deforestation or plastic pollution), to the rage or sadness they might feel when encountering this problem, to ways to address or fix this problem, and from there ways to amplify individual action through messaging, community outreach or mass mobilisation, for example, ending in protest or direct action. Of course this can be done with writing as well, but there’s something about literally being able to see things coming to life in a picture, that can create hope in a particular and unique way.
The climate crisis is in so many ways a crisis of imagination. We so often go straight from denial to despair, and back again, perhaps because we lack the skills or practice to envision what positive change might actually look like. To draw a picture of this change might be a first step in imagining it, and imagining something is surely the first stage in making it happen. In a broader sense, too, imaginative drawing of any sort helps nourish the imagination, and nourished, robust imaginations are what humanity needs right now. This is one of the many reasons arts education is essential, and why our government should treat it as such. Rob Hopkins is brilliant on this in his book ‘From What Is to What If’.
Observational drawing has a huge role to play as well. When we draw nature, we often connect to it in a much deeper way than we might normally. From this connection comes respect, admiration and love, and it’s these emotions, perhaps even more than fear, that make us want to protect nature, and sustain us in our activism long term. At the Royal Drawing School I once gave a speech called “Drawing Is The Greenest Art” - it was during the wave of protests against Heathrow expansion around ten years ago. In it I imagined a group of pro-third-runway MPs going on a drawing outing to Simpson village, which was due to be bulldozed to make way for the monstrous third runway. If they spent a day drawing the flora and fauna around the village, the old trees, the moss on the church roof, I reasoned, surely it would be much harder to send in the bulldozers. Perhaps a bit naive, but maybe there’s something in it!
Do you ever experience creative block? If so, what do you find helps you to overcome it?
See below - walking and conversations with friends are so often my best fix. And if all else fails you will have had a nice time! Sometimes you just need to take a break. Sometimes you need a different angle. I spend a lot of time tricking myself into keeping going - often it’s good to have more than one project on the go, so that if one thing isn’t working, you can spend some time on a different thing, and vice versa. I also find chopping things up with scissors and moving them around, in a physical, tangible way rather than on a computer, often re-energises a sequence and gives me clarity about how to make it work.
[Excerpt from The Last Tree]
What is one piece of advice you would like to give to aspiring authors and illustrators?
Make friends who are interested in writing and drawing and nurture these friendships - I couldn’t have made either of my books without my community of fellow artists and writers, who have been so generous with their time, spending hours helping me solve story blocks or simply commiserating about deadlines and drawing problems! At the same time helping others with their projects will teach you invaluable editing skills. And I would never have spent so much time doing observational drawing if it weren’t for my friend Rachel Stubbs, whose beautiful book “My Red Hat” has just been published by Walker. We kept each other going with conversation and cups of tea on so many cold winter days when we’d rather have been at home on the sofa in front of the TV than sitting in the park on plastic bags drawing trees! If it weren’t for her I’d never have put the hours in, that eventually made me confident enough to draw a whole book about trees (which were once my drawing nemeses!)
Which leads me to my second piece of advice: draw as much as you can from the world around you. By doing this you will develop a personal visual language that is more individual and sustainable than a style that comes simply from copying other illustrators’ work. It will give you a chance to experiment with materials, learn about and be inspired by the real world, find out what you’re interested in, and build a visual vocabulary that you can (literally) draw on when you come to making your stories. It’s also a meditation, and a way to spend time outdoors, good for mind, body and spirit. For both writers and illustrators I’d advise reading as much as you can, not just from children’s authors but also adult fiction and non-fiction, as well as taking in other kinds of culture - music, comedy, film and theatre.
Lastly, walking is great - as a way to observe the world and find ideas but also as one of the best ways to solve a story problem. There’s something about the pace of walking that keeps the brain in a place that’s both alert and relaxed enough to unlock the answers that have been eluding you. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is brilliant on this in his book “Rest”
Sorry, that was more like four pieces of advice! That’s the teacher in me...
Thank you Emily!
[Left: The King Who Banned the Dark cover. Right: The Last Tree cover.]
If you were inspired by this interview with Emily and would like to find out more about her work, head to her website here.
Check out this story-planning resource designed by Emily here!