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Axel Scheffler – In His Own Words

By Lucy Patchett

Read our exclusive Q&A with Axel Scheffler, winner of the acclaimed Illustrator of the Year award at the British Book Awards 2018, and the man behind the legendary Gruffalo series, among many other favourites. Here he talks about the method behind his work, what he loves to draw and what's next for his career....

Barnes Children’s Literature Festival: What’s your favourite part of presenting at the annual Barnes Children’s Literature Festival?

Axel Scheffler: I like Barnes, I like the atmosphere of the festival very much – it has a village feel. As an illustrator, of course drawing is my favourite, I think people find that [the process] interesting so I usually show some sketches on the powerpoint slides and talk a little bit about my work.

BCLF: You mentioned in your talk that you illustrated your newest publication, The Ugly Five, with a different mindset, preferring them to be realistic and have dignity. What did you mean by that?

AS: Yes, that’s the last one published, next year there will be another new one. This book was a bit different because it was real animals and I felt they had to be recognisable, but I found the concept of animals being ‘ugly’ quite questionable. …Obviously, the children didn’t find them ugly, they were more quirky. There was an idea to make them more like caricatures but I wanted to make them as realistic as I can.

BCLF: Next year is The Gruffalo’s 20th Anniversary, are you planning anything special for that?

AS: Yes, next year. It’s more the publisher planning things. But yes, there’s going to be events around the birthday and, I think, all through the year.

BCLF:  Do you prefer to draw animals or people?

AS: I like the variety. I’ve been illustrating for more than 30 years, I’ve done lots of animals. It’s nice to vary between people and animals, but I think I find animals easier than many illustrators do.  

BCLF: How do you choose how to do the clothes for characters like The Highway Rat?

AS: Some stories lend themselves to more humanised clothes. Yes, I think he [the Highway Rat] needed them. I always saw the animals being dressed as funnier and more fun to draw also.

BCLF: How do you bring humanistic characteristics to make-believe illustrations such as The Stickman books?

AS: I don’t know how I do it, I just sketch a stick-man and make it look like a person. But I think The Superworm was the hardest so far. He only has eyes and a mouth to express, and that’s quite hard if there’s nothing else – no arms, no legs, no nose. But it worked. I thought whether he could have a superman cape, but that didn’t work because there’s nowhere to attach it. He’s very popular so I must have made it work.

BCLF: Is there anything you still haven’t done that you aspire to do?

AS: No, I do whatever comes along, whatever Julia [Donaldson] comes up with. It’s going to be aliens next time around, so I’ve got a bit more freedom. That’s the new thing. We’ve done all the subjects on earth so now we’re moving into space.

BCLF: Have you got any inspirations for how you’re going to do that?

AS: I’ve started drawing the characters. We had a meeting with the editor and designer and we talked about the characters a little bit. That’s the starting point. The main characters are called Janet and Bill, it’s a sort of Romeo and Juliet love story between two alien families.

BCLF: What tips would you give to aspiring book illustrators?

AS: Just draw a lot, be curious about books and what other illustrators do. I think practicing is the main thing. You need to try out different media, different paints and pencils, and different types of paper.   

BCLF: Do you take any inspiration from other illustrators?

AS: Yes, there’s a Franco-German illustrator, Tomi Ungerer, who was a great influence on me. He’s been published here by Firon. I discovered him when I was a teenager, so I didn’t have his books when I was little.   

BCLF: Is their anything else we can look forward to (e.g., books, events)?

AS: The alien book is coming out next autumn, so I’ve got until the end of the year to finish it. There’s a Pip and Posy Christmas book coming out this autumn. I’ll be at the National Trust Children’s Book festival, and I’ll be in Croatia for a children’s book festival.

Thank you Axel Scheffler.

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