Sarah McIntyre will draw on experience at the Bishop's Stortford College Festival of Literature
Born in America and living in London, award-winning Sarah McIntyre has been writing and illustrating children’s books and comics since 2000. She has worked with well-known authors including Alan Macdonald and Claire Freedman.
When collaborating with friend and fellow author Phillip Reeve, Sarah is in charge of pictures while he tackles words – but they both dress up.
She is renowned for her extravagant hats and pointy glasses, as her audience at the Bishop’s Stortford College Festival of Literature will find out. Here she answers the Independent's questions.
How would you describe yourself in 50 words?
I make books with pictures! Sometimes I make them by myself, picture books such as Dinosaur Firefighters, There's a Shark in the Bath and The New Neighbours. Sometimes I rope in a friend to help, such as my chapter books with Philip Reeve, including Pugs of the Frozen North.
What was your childhood like? Do you come from an artistic or literary family?
They're all creative in their own ways: my dad designed navigation systems for Boeing aircraft, the machines that mean planes can almost fly themselves. My mother was a teacher and always had lots of arts and crafts supplies around the house that my sister and I could use. My sister did a degree in painting, but she's so busy running a bar in Seattle that she mostly roller-skates when she has time off.
What sort of books did you enjoy reading as a child?
I loved book collections of the daily comic strips I read in The Seattle Times, including Calvin & Hobbes, The Far Side and For Better or For Worse. I also loved the homely, bulky illustrations of Maurice Sendak and Arnold Lobel, and I thought no one could make pictures as fancy as Errol Le Cain.
Do you regard your work as "for children" and why?
Absolutely! But I also wouldn't limit it to children, if there are adults out there who enjoy it. And very often adults read my books aloud to children, which is the best thing: that means both ages are reading and sharing a cosy, comforting experience at the same time. The times I always felt the closest to my own parents were when they were either reading to me or singing to me before bed.
How would you describe your drawing style and how it evolved?
I've always been influenced by comic strips, and those tend to rely very much on black outlines, so that's clear in my work. I'm also inspired by the anarchic humour Bill Watterson put into his Calvin & Hobbes stories, settings and facial expressions.
I started out in British publishing by making my own comic books from scratch and selling them at a table in comics festivals, so I had to make things that worked well as cheap photocopies. But when I started working with publishers to create full-colour picture books, I had more chance to experiment with colour.
For the picture book I just finished, Grumpycorn, I played around more in the settings with compositional lines and how different colours bump up against each other. (That comes out in May.)
What is your favourite character creation and book collaboration?
I loved creating Vern the sheep for my comic book Vern & Lettuce. Even though Vern's a sheep, he's very much based on my husband's personality, and I was a bit like Lettuce the rabbit. So for Vern and Lettuce, I'd just imagine Stuart and me talking, and the conversations would almost write themselves and make me laugh.
It's hard to choose my favourite book collaboration, but I love working with Philip Reeve; our latest Roly-Poly Flying Pony adventure, The Legend of Kevin, was based on a tiny bit of driftwood he'd painted a flying horse on, way back in the '80s. I saw it hanging in his kitchen and thought it would make a great character, and we played around with the fat flying pony character for a while, making art and a story just for fun about it on my blog, before it went into a book.
Which comes first in the creative process, the words or the illustration?
It depends on the book. Often Philip will ask me, "What do you want to draw?" and I'll say, "A dog-sled race to the North Pole with ridiculously small dogs".
For Cakes in Space, Philip was curious to see how I'd draw spaceships, so it was kind of like a dare. And Jinks & O'Hare Funfair Repair started as an actual dare: I told Philip I'd write him a four-page comic if he'd illustrate it. That comic appeared in The Phoenix Comic and then we turned the concept into a full-length book.
When I do solo picture books, often the title will come first – Dinosaur Police, Dinosaur Firefighters, There's a Shark in the Bath – and I work from there, designing characters and imagining a story. For The New Neighbours, the story started with a drawing of a tower block and I filled it with different animals living on each floor.
The pictures are absolutely integral to what I do, so it really irks me when people forget to credit illustrators for their work. A picture book isn't only 'by' the writer, it's by the writer and the illustrator (the clue is in the name).
Very often the pictures tell more of the story than the words do. And I know from experience, it's possible to write a picture book in a couple hours, but it will take months and months to illustrate, and quite a lot of research.
In 2015, I set up a campaign called #PicturesMeanBusiness, showing people how everyone wins when illustrators are credited properly for their work. Lots of children come to stories through pictures, but they don't necessarily realise a real person made the pictures unless someone points it out to them. When they discover a person made the pictures, they realise they can make pictures that tell stories, too. Why deny them a hero in an illustrator?
If you could only draw or only write, which would you choose?
Oh, drawing, for sure. But my eyes are quite bad, and I'm the sort of person who likes to plan for worst-case scenarios. So if I ever stopped being able to see, I would try to do in writing what I do now in pictures. (I think it could work.)
What's your desert island book?
Can I have all the Calvin & Hobbes strips in one book?
Your glasses and hats/outfits are dramatic. Are you a frustrated actor?
Ha ha, not at all, quite the reverse! No one tells us in art college that as soon as we have a book out we'll be expected to go on stage and present it for an hour to a room full of 400 five-year-old children. "Just talk about your book," they say. But five-year-olds aren't prepared to sit through an hour-long lecture.
And like most illustrators, I started out naturally quite shy. So if I come onto stage wearing something that looks a bit over the top, they're immediately interested – I don't have to work quite as hard to win their respect.
Actually, it's a bit like that film, The Devil Wears Prada. When I started out, I didn't care at all about fashion. But when I started dressing up as a stage thing for work, I got way more interested in it, and then I discovered the amazing African wax prints on sale in my neighbourhood and was totally hooked.
Do you like appearing at events like the literature festival and what can fans expect?
It's wonderful to connect with readers! I can spend my days drawing and creating stories in my studio, but the stories really come alive when someone else reads them. I love finding out which details people get most excited about, and the freedom and lack of convention in many children's drawings inspire me back.
At the festival, I'll be bringing my stories to children, teaching them how to draw characters and even doing a (rare for me) session for grown-ups (and super-keen children) on how to make and publish picture books. I hope they'll bring their questions, maybe their sketchbooks and lots of enthusiasm!
* Sarah McIntyre will be appearing in the Ferguson Lecture Theatre at the literature festival on Wednesday, February 6 at 6pm. Tickets cost £7.50 for adults and £5 for 7- to 18-year-olds. For more details see www.bishopsstortfordcollege.org
#PicturesMeanBusiness campaign: picturesmeanbusiness.com