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An Interview with Illustrator Daisy Hirst

Posted By Jacob Hope, 02 October 2020

We are delighted to welcome illustrator Daisy Hirst to the blog for an interview about her work, influences and techniques.  Daisy is the illustrator of numerous picturebooks and has two board books, Monster Clothes and Monster Fun publishing with Walker Books.  Be sure to check through the gallery of images which Daisy has shared with us at the end of this post.


Can you tell us a little about yourself - background, interest in illustration and how you came into this.


Well I grew up in London, and I always loved drawing, stories, writing and making things. For a long time I took my writing more seriously than my drawing: poetry was my main thing as an older child and teenager and I went on to study English and Creative Writing at Warwick. I think perhaps poetry became so serious for me that it stopped being fun, and then I couldn’t do it anymore. All the time I kept doodling – just because, or for birthday cards – and I never saw any reason to stop reading children’s books. Gradually I found out more about people who made picture books, and I became more and more envious of them. I thought I’d probably missed the boat by choosing words over pictures at 18, so I was very excited to discover that the MA in Children’s Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art accepted people with all kinds of backgrounds, and amazed when I got a place. It’s a fantastic course, and I’m one of many people it’s been life-changing for.



Which illustrators works do you admire and why - if possible it would be great to look at examples where you feel there's a really interesting and successful synergy between text and illustration, where you feel admire the illustrator's technique or style etc..  Our readership is librarians and so it's really useful for them to have other ways of looking at books and different perspectives to bring to this!


How to choose?! There are so many illustrators whose work I couldn’t do without. I could go on about John Burningham for days, he’s probably my favourite picture-book-maker for his warmth, humour, honesty and imagination – and he was incredibly inventive in the ways he used words and pictures. And Quentin Blake was a huge influence on me. Of younger illustrators, I was very excited to discover Beatrice Alemagna and Kitty Crowther when I first went to BolognaBookfair: both have some books published in English now, although Crowther less so – which is a shame because she’s a fantastic storyteller. Her illustrations are so atmospheric and alive and her characters are glorious, her books feel timeless to me – original and unpretentious. It’s somehow freeing to know her work, for instance because she seems to make picturebooks for a very wide age-range and some of them have a lot of words, which seems to be very rare in the UK at the moment. Alemagna’s example also feels liberating, both in the unusual kinds of stories she tells and in her uncompromising and beautiful artwork. One more: Alexis Deacon is brilliant at letting his (incredible) illustrations do a lot of the storytelling, and at leaving gaps for the reader. His characters are wonderful and his stories are thoughtful, moving and really funny.



Do you feel your background in creative writing has helped with your picture books and if so in what ways?  There is definitely a tremendously strong sense of voice in your work!


Thank you! Well I think the words are as important as the pictures in picture books, so it certainly helped me to have spent all those years obsessing about words. Writing (and reading) poems is perhaps especially useful in some ways, because poems have a lot in common with picture book texts – the importance of musicality and being economical for instance. Having said that, maybe it’d be just as useful to have written lots of thrillers and be ace at plot?



Your first picture book was The Girl with the Parrot on her Head can you tell us a little about how that came about?


I was in the middle of my MA when I first wrote The Girl with the Parrot on her Head (and drew it – words and pictures developed together in my sketchbook) and although it wasn’t my first picture book idea, it felt more personal and urgent. The process felt very similar to the associative way my poems used to grow, which was a bit frightening (was it a story? Would it ever make sense?) but exciting too. I’m so glad Walker let me make this one first – I was surprised they did because other publishers had seemed befuddled by or dismissive of the book, and I was feeling quite hopeless about it. I suppose it deals with quite difficult feelings and is also the kind of book where it’s not always clear how real/imaginary/metaphorical things are. I think Walker first saw my work at Bologna bookfair, where the MA course had a stand, then I kept badgering them for some months or a year, until in the end we had a meeting just as I was about to graduate.



There's a joyous loose quality to your illustrations, can you tell us about your technique - preferred media, how you set about storyboarding and the stages/processes you go through.


Thank you! It’s very important to me, that looseness, so I’ve spent years finding ways to stop myself tightening up, or tidying up, too much. I do most of my drawing in very black ink, with a (very badly-cared-for) dip-pen, so there’s no possibility of rubbing anything out – I prefer to just draw things very quickly and very small, again and again and again until they’re right. I also draw almost everything in sketchbooks – rather than on beautifully stretched expensive paper for instance – because I need to feel like it doesn’t really matter if it’s pants. My Walker books are all illustrated with screenprints, a process which has been brilliant for me in so many ways: it means I can make my drawings out of lots of little bits stuck together, rather than trying to do one perfect drawing of everything (I used to do this and the pictures were horribly stiff). It also means I can draw at the scale that’s comfortable for me (tiny) and that my inability to draw big things becomes a kind of strength – making tiny thumbnail drawings and enlarging them, rather than working full-size, makes it so much easier, for me at least, to think about page-design and dynamic compositions.


I’ve jumped ahead though, to the artwork-making stage. My process almost always begins with doodling in my sketchbook (which I do first thing, almost every day). When I get interested in a character I keep drawing them, seeing what they do, and I try to get them talking. The words and pictures develop together and eventually, when I feel there’s a story emerging, I start trying to storyboard it. But this is a dangerous step – often I’ll do something less structured first, so as not to scare the story back under the hedge, like scanning the doodles and cutting-and-sticking them into some kind of sequence. Sometimes I’ll show my editor and art director these collages, or sometimes they’ll first see the idea at the storyboard stage. My first storyboards are always very rough, often an impossible length – they’re more about seeing if this thing has the makings of a satisfying story. We work out things like pacing, composition and page-turns through many redraftings. But my roughs stay rough – I learnt from reading about Quentin Blake’s process that it helps to leave things not quite fully-realised, so that when you do the final drawings you’re still finding things out.



I Do Not Like Books Anymore was selected for the 2020 Read for Empathy Collection, what role do you feel picture books can play in helping to promote empathic responses?


I was so pleased about that! I think all good stories probably help develop or reinforce empathy, because it feels as if we experience being someone else as we read or listen. I think picture books, especially when children have an adult who talks with them about what they read, can help children think about how other people feel. I’d guess that for very young children, books can help them to think about and articulate their own experiences, to feel like they are seen and understood and cared for – which are prerequisites for understanding and caring for others.



Natalie and Alphonse feel an incredibly fresh pairing, can you tell us a little about how you created them?  It feels very reassuring that Natalie does not find reading easy.


I’ve been doodling monsters for a very long time: Natalie and Alphonse grew out of some red and blue ones that I drew and screenprinted for the cover of our MA catalogue in 2012, and which Walker then asked me to develop into a picture book. The catalogue monsters were drawing each other and I thought of them as drawing each other into existence. This isn’t what actually happens in the stories, but the idea of children’s creativity being very powerful is there in all the Natalie and Alphonse books. The books are about very small children’s everyday lives and ordinary catastrophes – things like arguing with your little brother or learning to read. I DO NOT LIKE BOOKS ANYMORE! grew out of doodles like my other books, but once I realised there was a story there about Natalie learning to read, and what happens to her love of books and stories when she struggles with reading, I knew I had to be very careful and thoughtful about getting that story right and about how I told it. I didn’t find learning to read easy myself, even though – like Natalie – I already loved books and stories. I’ve also been a primary school TA so I was thinking about some of the children I’ve worked with, too. I hoped it would be reassuring and empowering, for children whose love of stories was being tested, to see that experience represented in a book.


It’s lovely that you say they feel fresh – at first I was worried about making a series (what if I just made the same book again and again? What if I got bored or boring?), but actually it’s been wonderful to get to know these characters so well.



You have some boardbooks Monster Clothes and Monster Food publishing this year, can you introduce us to these please and what differences were there working in the board book format? What are you planning to work on next?


I’m so excited about my monster babies! It’s a bit undignified. The thing is, I’ve been waiting to make these for eight years! Like The Girl with the Parrot on her Head, they began as an MA project, and right from the beginning they were so much fun. As the titles suggest, one is about what little monsters eat (not always food) and the other tells us what they like to wear (not always clothes). It’s lovely to do something where the narrative is very simple and the pictures are graphically spare, but also: these books are just so silly! And musicality seems particularly important in writing for babies, so MONSTER FOOD rhymes and MONSTER CLOTHES is alliterative. The actual books are beautifully produced – luxury board books really, but still highly chewable – and I’m happy to say they’re very true to their original weirdness. The monsters have got a bit sweeter and younger-looking but they still wear tomatoes and pants on their heads and attempt to eat tractors. I can’t wait to see what some actual babies think!


As for what next, I’ve just finished a picture book that is (mostly) about HUMAN BEINGS, which made a change – although now I feel more monsters coming on.



A HUGE thank you to Daisy Hirst for this brilliantly insightful interview and for sharing a wonderful gallery of images with us!  Why not follow Daisy on instagram @Deenface or Twitter @Deenface?

(1) Daisy Laughing at her Desk

(2) First sketchbook doodle of The Girl with the Parrot on her Head

(3) Storyboards, roughs and mini dummy-books for The Girl with the Parrot on her Head

(4) My first book, The Girl with the Parrot on her Head (Walker Books, 2015)

(5) Sketchbook page from when I was developing I DO NOT LIKE BOOKS ANYMORE! (Walker Books, 2018)

(6) I DO NOT LIKE BOOKS ANYMORE! doodles rearranged into a rough sequence before storyboarding

(7) Stages in a screenprint for I DO NOT LIKE BOOKS ANYMORE! 

(8) Natalie gets her first reading book, from I DO NOT LIKE BOOKS ANYMORE! 

(9) Red and blue monsters for MA show catalogue, who grew into Natalie and Alphonse

(10) MONSTER FOOD and MONSTER CLOTHES board books (Walker Books, 2020)

(11) Peaches: From MONSTER FOOD

(12) Chairs: From MONSTER FOOD



 Attached Thumbnails:

Tags:  Board Books  Illustration  Reading  Reading for Pleasure 

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