Sunday 25 January 2015

How childhood books influenced new stories and illustrations - by Mandy Stanley (Guest Blog)

Many thanks to this month's guest blogger, Mandy Stanley, a British children's author and/or illustrator of over 200 publications. Here, Mandy looks at how the books of her childhood have impacted on her ideas, illustrations and colour schemes.

Being a children’s author and illustrator for the past twenty-five years, there are many subjects I could write about but what really interests me at the moment is the relationship I had with books as a child. I’m keen to discover if there are any links between those books I read and listened to and loved so much as a child, and those I write and illustrate for today’s children.
Looking back, Middleton Primary School near King’s Lynn is one of the first places that come to mind when I reminisce about my childhood books. I was often the ‘new girl’ at school as my father moved around a lot with his work. Every school presented certain challenges to me as I was afflicted with being shy. But… the one single thing that helped me to cope in the early years was the story mat – thankfully, every junior school classroom had one. Here was a place to feel safe, surrounded by other children sitting quietly on our rectangular island, listening to stories and being shown wonderful pictures. As a six year old at school, books came to represent so much more than just a story and pictures.

Illustration by Mandy Stanley from Tom’s Sunflower– Strauss House 2015 written by Hilary Robinson

It occurred to me that having completed an illustration for Tom’s Sunflower by Strauss House Publications, written by Hilary Robinson, that I had been drawing on my own experience of feeling safe on the story mat. The Copper Tree Class children learn about all sorts of difficult subjects, and subliminally, throughout the series of four books, I’ve placed them on their mat as a device to show they are all connected and will learn from each other’s experiences.

My grandparents and parents were instrumental in giving me a love for stories told and those written in books. At the table, my grandfather told stories of his adventures on the high seas as a Lowestoft trawlerman, and of being a soldier and railway man. He brought his stories alive by referring to things as being the size of his plate or the salt pot.

My grandparents gave me the first book I remember as a Christmas gift when I was very little. The illustrations in Storyland intrigued, delighted and transported me to a wonderful place. Years later, I discovered that Mary Blair, famous for her work with Walt Disney, illustrated many of the stories.

Storyland – Paul Hamlyn 1960
Illustration from I Can Fly by Mary Blair

On Saturdays, my dad took me to the library. He enthusiastically went off to choose his books and left me in the children’s section to discover the books I wanted to borrow. At the checking out desk, I’d meet my father. We both had a stack of books that we wanted to investigate further, at home. The book Folk Tales was one of my favourites as it contained beautiful illustrations and the story The Billy Goats Gruff. The troll, I’m convinced, still lives under the little bridge in the Nicholas Everitt Park, Oulton Broad, Suffolk!

Folk Tales – Leila Berg. Brockhampton Press
The Little Blue Caps – illustration by George Him
Troll illustration by George Him - Folk Tales  Brockhampton Press

Along with borrowing books, I have been given books, I’ve swapped books, found books, received handed down books and I have stolen books (mainly from my sister!).

Amongst my collection, I can’t imagine not including two of my best-loved traditional fairy tales: Rumplestiltskin and The Elves and the Shoemaker. These stories inspired, scared and delighted me in equal proportion. Occasionally, even now, I sometimes wish that a couple of elves would come along in the night, while I sleep and finish off my work for me. I know that I would be more than happy to reward them with a new set of miniature clothes.

The Elves and the Shoemaker and
Rumpelstiltskin – Ladybird Books Ltd. 1968

This reminds me… Lettice Rabbit requires a set of ballet clothes in Lettice The Dancing Rabbit – Harper Collins. Although children offer her their clothes to borrow, they are all too big. Luckily she is able to borrow a set of clothes from a ballerina doll. I’m sure the memory of the little elves must have been to the forefront of my mind at this point in my Lettice Rabbit story.

Lettice, The Dancing Rabbit by Mandy Stanley.
Published by Harper Collins

I’m not sure I really know why, but the idea of a small character existing in our world is always appealing to me. Mrs Pepperpot stories by Alf Proysen were always a source of entertainment. The very idea that a human could shrink to be very small…without warning, fires up my imagination.

Little Old Mrs Pepperpot
by Alf Proysen – Puffin Books

Lettice, The Fairy Ball  – Harper Collins

So, my Lettice Rabbit series must have been influenced by Mrs Pepperpot stories – Lettice shrinks! She becomes the same size as a fairy. Throughout the series, my interest and inspiration comes from the idea that Lettice is a small character that hops into our big, human world.

Brer Rabbit’s A Rascal by Enid Blyton.
Dean, an imprint of 
The Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd

Another character that fascinated me was Brer Rabbit. My grandmother read this book to me. She had a big feather bed and when I stayed overnight with her, I would take my book and slip into her bed in the morning, once my grandfather had got up to make breakfast, and ask her to read to me. I discovered that Brer Rabbit was indeed a rascal… and very clever… and I loved him for it. Any links with Brer Rabbit and my own work are not apparent at the moment, although I do have an ambition to create a character that manages to escape all sorts of troublesome situations using wit and a daring attitude !

It wasn’t all fairy stories and fluffy rabbits in my eclectic hoard. My father bought and read to me Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson and Captain Pugwash by John Ryan. Billy Bones, Long John Silver and Cut Throat Jake – all fabulously intriguing sounding names. Working out new character names in my books is certainly one of the most enjoyable aspects.

Illustration of Cut Throat Jake by John Ryan – Puffin Books

Along with remembering stories and images, what does intrigue me is that I also vividly remember the feel and aesthetic of every book. One Christmas morning I unwrapped a colouring book. On the cover, it had red flocking on Santa’s coat, hat and trousers… wonderful!

I also noticed that books’ pages varied in their paper quality – ranging from thick, dry and sturdy, or wafer thin and slippery, delicate and almost transparent. There were paper engineered sections, high gloss effects, metallic foiling… even glitter! All these things added up to make a full sensory experience. Interestingly, I’m often heard to be requesting textural features on my own books today. One of my wishes was granted when Harper Collins added a set of battery operated, twinkling fairy lights on the cover of Lettice, The Fairy Ball.

As an illustrator, I spend much of my time working out colour arrangements and palettes for each project. Recently, while working on a collaborative project with author David Bedford, Roo the Roaring Dinosaur, I realized that, subliminally I was referring to a set of colours for a lagoon scene as Alice in Wonderland blues. The image of Alice swimming in a pool of tears came to mind as a treatment for my illustration featuring Wooly, the mammoth and Roo the dinosaur splashing around in the blue lagoon in dinosaur land. 

Illustration by Mandy Stanley from Roo The Roaring Dinosaur
by David Bedford. Published by Simon and Schuster
Alice in a pool of tears – illustrated by Willy Schermele
Alice in Wonderland
by Juvenile Productions Ltd

Other colour references I use regularly include Peter Rabbit blue – (referring to his jacket). Babar green (his suit), and Rupert Bear yellow (his scarf and trousers). 

Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit,
Laurent de Brunhoff’s Babar, and
Rupert Bear
created by Mary Tourtel

Spending time, thinking about my childhood, has reinforced my belief that books keep on giving. They stimulate memory and of course, provide comfort and entertainment. As an illustrator, they also provide me with valuable references. I continue to still be inspired by picture books I listened to or read for myself all those years ago.

So the connections are there to be found… it’s fun and satisfying to recognize them. Creating books for children, hoping that some of them may provide a similar level of entertainment and trigger good memories for many years to come is, I think, a significant driving force behind my work. 

Mandy Stanley – Children’s author and illustrator.

January 29th is the publication date for Mandy Stanley's latest picture book: Roo the Roaring Dinosaur, a collaborative work with David Bedford – Published by Simon and Schuster.


Jane Clarke said...

Oh yes, I recognise lots of those, they're my inspiration, too - as was Lettice. When I was an unpublished picture book wannabe working in a school library, so many children wanted to borrow 'the magic glittery rabbit' we had a waiting list!

Jonathan Emmett said...

Thanks for a great post, Mandy. My favourite childhood reads are definitely a huge influence on my own stories. One of my fist picture books, 'Dinosaurs After Dark' was very much inspired by Sendak's 'Where the Wild Things Are', 'Callum's Incredible Construction Kit' was a conscious attempt to write something with a similar concept to 'Harold and the Purple Crayon' by Crockett Johnson and Dr. Seuss has been an endless source of inspiration to me.

I think we're at out most impressionable when we're little, so it makes sense that the stories we read then have a lasting effect on our adult imaginations.

Moira Butterfield said...

Wow! Storyland! That was my inspiration, too! I pored over those illustrations for many hours, and I still have it. So varied and full of interesting detail, which were somehow so rounded and 3d - as if I could pick them up from the page. I remember Ronald Searle so fondly as a child, and E.H. Shepherd - Probably why I so admire draughtsmanship.Thank you for a beautiful blog.

Moira Butterfield said...

PS: I think everyone should have a storymat!

David Bedford said...

The Gruffs were my fave too. There is a troll under EVERY bridge, Mandy!

Lovely post.

Jon Burgess Design said...

I get the feeling that what goes in comes out again at some point. 'You are what you read' maybe? Alongside such things as Paddington and Just William, for me it seems to be The Beano and Tom and Jerry ;-)


This is such an interesting post, and your illustrations are lovely, Mandy. I like Jonathan's idea that maybe 'you are what you read' - books certainly become a part of you I think.

Mandy said...

NO...nooooo - now my bridge phobia is even worse!

Mandy said...

Hi Jane, so lovely to hear about Lettice being popular in your library and that she was inspiration for you to start writing too : )

Mandy said...

Thank you Jonathan, your book titles are great. Also, I was impressed to see pop-up tips on your website - I'm a wannabe paper engineer !

Paeony Lewis said...

Very much enjoyed your post, Mandy, especially the way you label colours Peter Rabbit Blue, etc. I've been pondering how I've been influenced and I obviously wasn't as visually aware as you because it's the stories and not the pictures that have influenced me - especially otherworldly fairytales that contain mystery, such as Kate Crackernuts.

Mandy said...

Hello Moira, I'm thrilled that you had Storyland too. I still have mine but it's buried in my attic at the moment, but ...I'm going get it !

Mandy said...

Deffo !

Mandy said...

Just William ! The times I wished I could be like him. Especially inspired but the story in which he artfully enhances the grades on his school report !

Mandy said...

Thank you Cathy. Yes, Jonathan has summed it up really well. Also, 'You are what you eat' springs to devour books : )

Mandy said...

Glad you enjoyed it Paeony. Oh... I don't know Kate Crackernuts - sounds interesting. Maybe a new colour to add to my palette - Kate Crackernuts coral ?