Anna Walker; master creator of picture books encompassing emotion, wisdom, sensitivity, adventure, charm and humour. And equally as gentle, creative, genuine and profound as her delightful stories and pictures is the author / illustrator herself, with which I had the utmost pleasure in meeting recently at her Mr Huff Exhibition. I am honoured that the amazingly talented Anna Walker has agreed to shed some light on her enchanting book-creating world and her newest masterpiece, Mr Huff (review here).
Your trademark style of illustrating is always infallibly charming with its whimsical and multi-textured features. How did you develop this style and how did you come to illustrate books for children?
Ever since I was child I had wanted to illustrate children’s books. I developed my work with wanting to create an illustration that was hand crafted – a small piece of art. Perhaps this has contributed to my work looking textured as I use cut paper, watercolours, etching and woodblock. I look for different mediums to bring to life the picture I have in mind. Sometimes it reminds me of playing with my doll’s house as a child, making tiny cut flowers, blankets, and paintings to hang on the wall of the miniature rooms! The whimsy I don’t seem to be able to help, no matter what I try it is part of who I am, it seems my love of fairy tales and enchanted worlds pervades my world.
Your long-standing partnership with the masterful author, Jane Godwin, has been hugely successful with titles including ‘Today We Have No Plans’, ‘Little Cat and the Big Red Bus’, ‘Starting School’, and ‘All Through the Year’. How did the pairing come about, and what aspects of working with her do you enjoy most?
In 2007, Penguin said they were going to send me a manuscript of a story to see if I was interested in illustrating it. I remember the yellow A4 envelope arriving in the mail and sitting on the corner of the couch to open the package. In the afternoon sun I read Little Cat and the Big Red Bus, written by Jane Godwin. By the time I finished I had tears in my eyes, it was so beautiful. I could hardly believe I had been asked to illustrate a true picture book that was so special. This was the beginning a wonderful partnership. I love collaborating with Janie, she is a wonderful writer and an inspiring person.
Many of your books were penned and illustrated independently. Do you find working independently or in collaboration more challenging, and why?
I enjoy collaborating as much as working independently. In some ways every book is a collaboration because you are chatting about the ideas and what the story is communicating early on with the editor, your family, friends and the designer.
Your writing style is equally as gentle, thoughtful and enchanting as your pictures. How do you get this harmony so aligned? Do you prefer one aspect of the book creation over the other?
Thank you for your kind words! I prefer the drawing and painting over the writing. At times I find the writing very difficult but I persist as I have a vision of a story to tell. My stories usually are sparked by images and I bring the words in later to partner them.
Congratulations on the launch of your latest picture book release, ‘Mr Huff’! Your recent exhibition beautifully showcased your work, including the book’s storyboard process, from inception to completion, original artworks, as well as your adorable models used in your stop-motion trailer. Can you tell us a bit about the response you’ve received so far. Any stand out moments? What was your most rewarding part of the process?
I couldn’t be happier with the way the Mr Huff exhibition went. In the lead up to the exhibition I wondered why I was having it. I felt like cancelling the whole thing. But on the opening night everyone was so lovely and said such kind things about the story. During the exhibition it was particularly rewarding for me to see tiny children fascinated with the puppet I made of Mr Huff for the stop motion. A highlight for me was an email from a mum with two boys one of whom experienced Anxiety. The mum said the book was now part of their lives and that some days they described as ‘Huff Days’. When I read these words they made every bit of the work that went into the story worth it.
‘Mr Huff’ is a stunningly poignant yet uplifting and sweet story of a young boy who overcomes this growing sense of melancholy around him. Where did the inspiration for this story come from, and how did it develop?
The inspiration came from scribbling in my visual diary when I was feeling worried about things. There was no real reason for this anxiety it’s just something that visits me sometimes. I was drawing how that feels when it occurred to me perhaps I could translate that idea into a picture book. And so Mr Huff was born.
The message of embracing challenges and being positive is one that stands out in ‘Mr Huff’. What would you like readers to gain from this book? Do you have a motto or life philosophy?
I find it fascinating how different people respond to the book. When a book ventures out into the world you hope that some families will relate to the story but I am never really sure whether that will happen. I have been overwhelmed with the lovely responses to Mr Huff.
What do you love most about writing and illustrating for children?
I think the thing I love most is traipsing in the world of the imagination. It is very exciting to take a character that you can see in your mind and create a reality for them, to bring them to life so to speak. To tell a story in 32 pages means your thoughts and ideas need to be distilled so that the result of the few words partnered with pictures speak volumes. I believe in the picture book being a true art form and think children deserve the time and consideration put into the books they are reading.
Which authors and/or artists have been your greatest influences in becoming the successful writer and illustrator you are now?
Growing up, I was surrounded by wonderful authors such as A.A.Milne, Beatrix Potter and William Steig. I had open access to books with my mum being a librarian. A stand out though was Maurice Sendak who had a huge impact on me. When I was in Grade 3, I was mesmerised by Where the Wild Things Are and thrilled that our class made cardboard monsters of the Wild Things! I remember reading Aranea by Jenny Wagner and being struck by how a picture book could be about something so simple, so quiet and gentle.
The Australian authors and illustrators also played a big role in forming the illustrator I am today. Ron Brooks, Alison Lester, Ann James and Bob Graham are such pivotal figures in Australian literature and each inspiring in how they continue to create amazing children’s books.
You’ve been winning numerous literary awards around Australia since 2009. What do these honours mean to you? Are there any that stand out as most significant to you?
The Crichton award in 2009 was one of the most special as when I was in the audience I sat in between Bob Graham and Pamela Allen! Bob chatted to me, and it is a memory I will treasure. I must admit I also loved Peggy being shortlisted in 2013 as my children were very impressed with the gold sticker!
What projects are you currently working on? What can all of your fans look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
I am working on two special stories. One of them is about a little girl and it is set in Paris. I can’t wait to begin the paintings!
What advice would you give to aspiring writers and illustrators wanting to publish their own picture books?
Be brave. Draw, write and explore ideas. Explore history, colour, mediums, reference, typography, design, experiences and anything else you are passionate about. Make books. Read them out loud. Find your voice.
Thank you so very much for answering my questions, Anna! It’s been a real pleasure!
Her new book with Jane Godwin, What Do You Wish For? will be out this September.