Garn Press Interviews Rachel Backshall the Illustrator of Toodle-oo Ruby Blue!
Rachel Backshall is the totally brilliant archaeologist and artist who illustrated Toodle-oo Ruby Blue. At Garn Press we are unabashed fans of Rachel’s art and we are totally convinced that she will be as well known as Beatrix Potter one day. Best of all Rachel is always kind and generous and she lifts everyone’s spirits when you talk to her – which you can do in September because she is flying from Scotland to New York City to visit with children in schools and to participate with Garn Press at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Here’s Rachel.
Garn Press: Do you have a favourite author?
Rachel Backshall: I have a few authors that I really admire, mostly older ‘classics’, particularly Daphne du Maurier and her Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, but I also enjoy a good Peter May or Terry Pratchett. I have also proof read a number of manuscripts for friends and family, Ruth Finnegan’s Black Inked Pearl, which was absolutely astounding.
GP: What do you like about reading?
RB: The escapism. I love being transported to new places, living different lives in different worlds and in different periods. I suppose Freud would have something to say about that, but I think it is good to escape from your life for a time, in order to look at it anew when you come back. A book is a cheaper form of holiday!
GP: What do you dislike about reading?
RB: I do struggle with my eyesight if I have been illustrating all day, and I find my eyes are too tired to read. This is one of the reasons I am so fond of audio books.
GP: Is there one artist who has influenced your illustrations more than any others?
RB: I find Mairi Hedderwick extremely inspirational – both her drawings and writing in her Katie Morag series paint such a gorgeous image of life in one of the most remote locations in the UK. She makes each page busy and full of life, with humorous additions that really make the books, and her characters, lovable. She also focuses her stories upon the family life, community and environment – all topics, which I feel very strongly about.
I also find Rudyard Kipling and Paul Jouve’s illustrations and field sketches of wild animals absolutely beautiful, especially their works in black and white ink.
GP: Do you think the relationships between authors and readers are changing?
RB: I think readers still consistently want new and challenging material to read, but authors are struggling to get their work out to the public due to the difficulties of this time, for authors and publishers alike. That is why I think Garn Press is so important; they get important, relevant and different manuscripts published and make them available for everyone.
GP: If you could express one thought to all your readers what would it be?
RB: I suppose I would want to stress how important I feel it is to encourage children to appreciate the natural world, and understand how precious and fragile it is. Moving to the Scottish Highlands has only made this more plain to me, that without our beautiful natural world and the creatures that live in it, we would have nothing. It is a responsibility that our children need to be aware of.
GP: When do you draw? Do you have a routine?
RB: Yes, I am definitely a creature of routine. Three days a week I start work at 8:30 and finish at 6:30, trying to keep the illustrating similar to a normal working day. I also work part time at an archaeological centre, so those days I usually paint well into the evenings.
I first check my emails, refill all my water pots, get clean blotting paper, and work till 10.30, then a quick coffee break, then work until lunch at 1:00. I go for a walk down to the loch and our small beach around 3:30 to get some fresh air and look down towards the mountains. It helps to come back from a walk and take a fresh look at the pictures.
GP: How do you begin an illustration project?
RB: I start by taking the new manuscript, and reading it through a few times, making notes and scribbling down the images that the words create in my mind. I then start to create a storyboard, picking out the most imaginative and visual parts of the text, and trying to form a continuous flow of sketches. When I am happy with this, I can start work on the actual drawings.
GP: Do you keep notebooks? Use special paper?
RB: I keep a lot of notebooks – half a bookcase full in fact, and often manage to forget exactly which book I recorded something in. However, if I don’t have a notebook to hand, any paper will do! I often find myself scribbling ideas onto the back of receipts, the inside of book covers, on cafe serviettes, and even in tiny sketches on train tickets.
GP: Do you listen to music when you draw?
RB: Occasionally, either classical or current, but I prefer to listen to audiobooks – I am currently working my way through a wide ranging list of novels, from Austen to Bram Stoker, Winston Graham to Pratchett. It keeps my mind occupied when I’m drawing, without the distraction of a screen.
GP: Do you share your drawings while you are still writing or wait until you have a draft?
RB: I will show my sketches to the people most close to me, checking what they think about the composition and colours etc, and I often send sketch updates to the authors. It can really help to have a new pair of critical eyes, however, if there is no-one available I find that holding the painting up in a mirror really helps for a quick composition check.
GP: How does your “day job” influence your illustrations?
RB: I work at an archaeological centre in the highlands, and I find that the education side of the centre helps me understand how children think about the world around them and their place within it. They are often, in fact, more realistic and logical than the adults, and I definitely consider this when I start a new series of illustrations. Living by the loch also inspires me; I try to include a lot of nature, wildlife and other creatures in my work, and it helps to live with a swallows’ nest above the window, red deer on the drive to work, and hares in the field below.
GP: What worries you about today?
RB: The speed with which our society is developing worries me, especially the consumerist nature of most of our technological advances. This has such a big impact, not only on the natural world, but also on the morality and culture of people, creating the existence of the live-fast, google-now, think-later generation. We need to pause and consider ourselves as a part of the wider world, and to reassess our values, against that which stands in our way, such as money, power and success. It is an issue which I think about daily, and have my own struggles with, but I try my best to be aware and to make choices rather than to ignore.
GP: Are your illustrations connected to present day events?
RB: I would like it to be more so. I try to make my illustrations in some way topical; either in terms of the people or the issues depicted. In my most recent children’s book that I am working on, I use a wide variety of UK saltwater fish, both endangered and common. Over-fishing is a big issue which we face today, and also the UK fishing industry is struggling to compete against more globalised markets. I think it is important to recognise what rich abundance we have in our water, and then to make an educated decision as to how we protect this, which is especially prevalent in the wake of Brexit and the US election.
GP: What are your earliest memories of words?
RB: I very vividly remember the Postman Pat theme song that my Uncle used to sing to me. That’s about as far back as I go. I’m not even sure how old I was!
GP: What about your earliest memories of someone reading to you?
RB: I know my mum used to read to me very often, but I don’t actually remember that. What I do remember is my grandma sitting with me when my parents went out for dinner and telling me stories about my family and the old family in Wales. I must have been about 6 or 7. We used to call them ‘funny stories’ and I have some written down somewhere, but they just aren’t the same on the page.
GP: Did you have a favourite author when you were a young child?
RB: I used to absolutely love the ‘Milly Molly Mandy’ stories by Joyce Lankester Brisley, and ‘Uncle Stories’ by J.P.Martin. Not only did I love the stories, but the illustrations as well, they are fantastic.
GP: Did you read a book series as a child?
RB: Yes, I used to collect the Just William series, and the St.Clare’s series by Enid Blyton. I really loved the slightly old fashioned romance of the writing and having ‘ginger beer and midnight feasts’!
GP: Can you remember doing research for a project in school?
RB: I remember lying in a field in Cornwall on my summer holidays from Primary school, drawing pictures of Egyptian gods for a research project on ancient Egypt. It is the first real project I remember, I think I was about 9 years old.
GP: Did you study for exams — if so how?
RB: I studied hard for my exams, and I always used the same technique since high school. I condense and re-condense all my notes until I can fit a full topic on a small card. I find that using trigger words is the best way for me to do my best in exams, and it definitely helped me through Oxford final exams.
Connect with Rachel
Toodle-oo Ruby Blue! – Hardcover and Paperback Now Available!
Toodle-oo Ruby Blue! hardcover and paperback now available. Buy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, Indigo Books, Books-A-Million, and Waterstones.
Book: Toodle-oo Ruby Blue!
Garn Press (36 pp.)
Hardcover $18.95 | ISBN: 978-1-942146-62-9
Paperback: $12.95 | ISBN: 978-1-942146-61-2
Buy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Indigo Books | Books-A-Million | Waterstones
About the Book
Toodle-oo Ruby Blue! is a touching story about two little girls – Ruby Blue and Lilly Wu – saying goodbye to each other. Part poem, part song – the words rhyme as Ruby Blue and Lilly Wu remember playing together:
Toodle-oo Ruby Blue!
I had fun playing with you.
I was really worried when I saw your tiger –
But it was very funny when you tried to hide her!
In the vibrant illustrations the tiger is a small soft toy that grows to be a larger than life real tiger, which almost leaps from the page in Rachel Backshall’s brilliant illustrations. Destined to be a beloved classic, Toodle-oo is highly predictable and easy to read. Both children and adults already love it.
Nominated “Most Distinguished American Picture Book for Children” – 2018 Randolph Caldecott Medal
Nominated “Most Distinguished Contribution to American Literature for Children” – 2018 John Newbery Medal
About Rachel Backshall
Rachel Backshall, BA Oxon, is a UK artist and illustrator recently graduated from Oxford University. She has exhibited her highly acclaimed silk paintings in London, Oxford and Liverpool – many of which are inspired by her research into specific archaeological sites during her degree.
Her illustrations are inspired by the natural world and focus in particular on the wild and wonderful animals that appear both in reality, and in children’s imaginations. She is particularly interested in the concept of imaginative play, looking at the way children visualize and develop games and stories. Acknowledging that human imagination plays such a vital part to all stages of our lives, Rachel hopes to capture some of these moments within her illustrations, and in particular to relate to the magical way that children bring their toys and games to life.
Rachel has recently illustrated the prize winning Pearl of the Seas and Kris and Kate Build a Boat – The Magical Adventure for Garn Press author Ruth Finnegan, and has since been honored to work with Denny Taylor on Toodle-oo Ruby Blue as part of the Ruby Blue Series. She is currently working with both authors on future projects.