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Interview with Illustrator Rose Robbins

Posted By Jacob Hope, 07 August 2020

We were delighted to interview picture book author and illustrator Rose Robbins for the blog. Rose has written two books for Scallywag Press and is an Inclusion Ambassador with Inclusive Minds.


Please can we ask you to introduce yourself?

I first started making stories and comics when I was very young, it was so early in my life that can’t quite put an exact date on it. When I was sixteen I started printing my own comics out and giving them to friends, I was immensely proud. I grew up in a very arty household so going to study illustration always felt right to me. I did my foundation year at Suffolk college (now University Campus Suffolk) and then went on to study illustration at UWE in Bristol. I spent a lot of my early career in illustration and writing making self published comics, I loved the freedom, and I really enjoyed being part of what was then a growing DIY community. I stopped making comics quite suddenly, for various reasons (time and money being major factors), and after a year or so I applied to do the Masters in Children’s Illustration at the Cambridge School of Art. I was studying part-time and working part-time, it was a very intense two years, but I learned so much about the craftsmanship of picture books. 


During the MA, I was working on an activity picture book about frogs with Proceso in Mexico, which was published towards the end of my course. This book is probably my favourite in terms of art-style, it is very loose and messy! It is currently only available in Spanish. My final piece for the MA was my picture book Elena’s Shells, a story about a Tapir with hoarding tendencies, and a little hermit crab. This was picked up and published by Starfish Bay in Australia. 


It wasn’t until after I graduated and attended the Bologna Book Fair in 2017 that I met my wonderful agent Alice Williams, who has supported me wonderfully through my career since. 


My most well known books were both published by Scallywag Press, who had not yet emerged as a fully formed publisher at the time that I entered negotiations with the founder Sarah Pakenham. Sarah was interested in my concept of a book about siblings, and wanted to develop something. I worked with Sarah, Janice Thompson (my editor) and book designer Sarah Finan to produce Me and My Sister and Talking is Not My Thing!.


Can you tell us a little about the brother and sister in Me and My Sister, the sibling relationship feels a very simple but massively effective way of allowing organic consideration of the differences between the pair?


The brother and sister in the books are largely based on me and my own autistic brother. There are key moments in the book that I have taken directly from my childhood, such as the image of the sister in her bedroom, looking at toys under her duvet, while the brother looks on. At first I wasn’t sure a wider audience would be able to relate to the story, as it is quite specific (not only is the sister autistic, but she is also non verbal). However, I have since met with a number of another siblings, adult and children alike, who feel recognised and validated by the representation. 

Talking is Not My Thing makes sensitively shows non-verbal communication, picture books feel an ideal medium for this, do you feel there is a particular role for illustrations to play as part of this?

Yes, in fact I had toyed with the idea of making the book without words at all! But somewhere in writing “Me and My Sister” I fell in love with the simple language of picture books, which is as much about rhythm as content. I think it is important for the illustrations to be interesting and fun, as well as suiting the story. With non-verbal communication, there are so many visual themes to play with, I might have to write a follow up book to explore more of them!


Can you explain about how you approach creating a picture book?

I always start with the characters. I will sketch and refine characters for weeks before I am happy with them, and along the way a story will usually take form. A lot of my process is trial and error, sometimes I will come up with a concept while drawing, but then find that it doesn’t work when written down as a draft. I also make very messy thumbnails and drafts, then usually a few different versions of the finished product before sending it on to the designer (Sarah Finan in the case of my books with Scallywag, a brilliantly talented illustrator as well as designer). I work mostly in Ink, with watercolor brushes, then I edit and arrange digitally. 


You are an Inclusion Ambassador with Inclusive Minds can you tell us a little bit about your work with them and how this has affected your own creative processes?

I got involved with Inclusive Minds right after I graduated from my MA, I had followed them online for some time, and really wanted to be part of what they were doing. Working with them has taught me the importance of authentic representation in children’s literature, and that there can be a place for everyone in the book world if we start listening. I think I am also a lot more open to criticism now, I used to take it all very personally, but now I realise that making a book is a collaborative process.

You created visual notes to document Inclusive Minds' A Place at the Table this feels a really exciting and dynamic way of capturing discussions and meetings, what do you think the benefits are of visual note-taking and should they be used more?

I have always found it much easier to imagine and recall visual information as opposed to words and sounds, so visual note taking is very natural for me.Visual note taking allows content to make an immediate impression on an audience, which is very helpful for people who do not naturally like to read through long articles. I think that images can provide a doorway into further learning, as well as being good reminders of already held knowledge. I don’t think they work for everyone, as images cannot be read out or converted into audio in the way that text can (making them inaccessible to some), but for visual thinkers like me they are the natural way to record and communicate information. I think that we are seeing a general rise in visual communication (GIF reactions for instance), and I think it would be wonderful if students were able to choose to make visual notes for School assignments.


Which illustrators (and authors if appropriate) did you enjoy as a child and are there any that have helped influence your style or approach?

There are so many! I have a particular love of American picture books from the 60’s and 70’s, as these were the books that we had from when my mum was growing up in California. I love all of Maurice Sendak’s books and illustrations, they are all so beautiful. William Steig had quite a big influence on me stylistically, with his wobbly lines and animal characters. I also love his writing, it is so sweet and life-affirming. Russell Hoban is another writer that I love, both his books for children and adults, although some of his work for children is quite traumatising (see: The Mouse and His Child). Then of course there is Tove Jansson, an absolute legend. I think a similarity between all of the books that I grew up loving is that they do not shy away from the darker subjects. Childhood is not all fun and playtime, and I think it is important that children have books that reflect the complexities of growing up.


You were awarded the Best New Blood at the D&AD graduate fair and were runner-up in the Carmelite prize in 2017, how useful are awards of this kind when starting out your career?

Well, I think prizes can be a great confidence boost, and can certainly look very good on your CV. I really don’t know what effect the awards that I have received have had on my career, perhaps they legitimise my work in some way and that has led to some success. However, I know illustrators who have never won any prizes, and yet are brilliant and successful. Competitions can also have the effect of excluding people who do not have the time or money to enter. I think that making the publishing industry more accessible as a whole would be infinitely more beneficial to authors and illustrators than using prizes as a means to an end.


What is next for you?

I have a new book coming out in March 2021 with Scallywag Press called LOUD! - You can expect new characters, action, adventure, and even a musical number!

I have always been inspired by Judith Kerr, she kept on making children’s books right into her nineties! I hope to do the same.




Thank you to Rose for her time and brilliant answers!



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Tags:  Autism  Illustration  Raising Voices  Reading  Representation  Visual Literacy 

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