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Transcript from an interview with Emily Gravett

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Emily Gravett. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Introduction

Hi. My name is Emily Gravett. I'm an author and an illustrator and I come from Brighton in England, which is quite near London, but on the south coast where we have great weather and peppy beaches. And I've written and illustrated a number of books. My first book was called Wolves and it was about a rabbit that went to the library and borrowed a book about wolves and got a bit more than he bargained for.

And I've also written a book called Orange Pear, Apple Bear, which is a play on words and for younger children, and a book called Monkey and Me, which is a sort of sing-along — not sing-along, shout-along book.

When books are published in England, obviously when they come over to America, they have to be slightly different because even though we both speak in the same language, there's lots and lots of words that are really different. I've been here this week and I've learned loads and loads of words that I've never heard before.

I realized I've been saying some quite rude words without meaning to. But one example is at the end of Monkey and Me in the English version, the little girl, she goes home for tea which is not just a cup of tea, but it means a meal that we have at the end of the day. But in America, here in the U.S., I don't think that maybe you understand what that means. So it ends with the girl going to sleep and lots of, I'm going to say the English word, "zeds" which you say "zzz."

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Balancing pictures and words

I write and illustrate both of my books and I think actually it's easier that way cause I've never actually really illustrated for anyone else so I don't know how people managed, but I think really when you're writing a picture book, you have to have both — the pictures and the words are equally as important.

You can't actually manage one without the other. You need to sort of combine them both together so when you're writing one doesn't particularly come first. You might have an idea because you have the particular image you want to go with or you might have a particular set of words you want to go with.

Well, I both write and illustrate my books because for me, actually, that's the easiest way to do it. I've never actually illustrated somebody else's text or whole book anywhere and I find that that would be actually quite difficult. I'd like to do it one day, but I think it'd be quite difficult because when you're making a picture book, both the text and the picture are sort of equally important and they're dependent on each other. So the picture might be saying one thing, the text might be saying another thing.

And if you took one of them away, the story would completely change. So they're sort of interdependent. And when you're writing them, it's really good if you can sort of take control of both of them and write them at the same time. I'm influenced by people like the Ahlbergs, well a lot of English illustrators just because I think their sense of humor is great and there's little visual jokes. And I just like the detail in people like that drawings, really. I don't have one particular major influence.

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Moving the comma

Orange Pear, Apple Bear was a bit of a fluke book, sort of a one-off for me. I was at college when I wrote this book and I had been working on something completely different. So a completely different project and it really wasn't going very well.

And I had got to Sunday night and I had to hand in this project on the Monday, and I had been reading this book, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, which is about grammar, because my grammar is really, really, really bad. And when I woke up in the next morning, which was a Sunday morning, I had the words "orange pear, apple bear" going round and round in my head.

And it was lucky it was Mother's Day and my family said, "What do you want as your Mother's Day treat?" And I said, "I want you to go away and leave me alone cause I want to try and finish this little project" — the one-day project. So I just sort of put them together and thought, "Well, if you move the comma, then it makes a completely different sort of set of images." And so I did it in a sort of on a Sunday and handed it in on a Monday morning at college.

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Realism and collage

I do use quite a bit of sort of collage in my work but it's not particularly sort of a traditional collage. I'm not really actually doing cut and stick with a pair of scissors. What I'm tending to do is scanning found objects that I like that will make the book seem more realistic.

For example, in Wolves, I really wanted to make this image of a wolf actually read in a book. I wanted to make the book look exactly like the book that you were reading. So I book-bound the book and scanned that into my computer and then started to use that throughout the book. And I think it just makes it feel a little bit more real sometimes to use collage. But you can alter things. I use the computer a lot to alter things in PhotoShop so that you can make them the right size for whatever you're using — whatever drawing you're using.

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Draw, think, experiment

My Dad's a printmaker and he still is a printmaker. My Mom was an art teacher. She's retired now. So when I was growing up, there was always lots of art materials around the house and they were always really encouraging about drawing, especially my Dad.

And he would always say, "You know, whatever works for you, you have to try it out and experiment with lots of different things." So he was a really good influence. And my Mom was really into doing lots of observational drawings, so we used to go out drawing together.

So I grew up in an environment where art was really important and it was never seen as a sort of second class subject. So because I was good at art at school, it wasn't, "Oh, no, you should be better at math." It was always, "No, that's fine. Go with that." So that was a really good thing.

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Life as a traveler

I left school when I was 16 and I think because my parents are very artistic, I had always been expected to go on to art college. And, of course, when you're a teenager, you just really want to rebel. And so I didn't really want to do that and I didn't really want to do anything else, either.

And at the time in the U.K., there was quite a big movement, the Squatting Movement. People squatted empty houses and also squatted land in buses and trucks and things. So I left home and I lived in a bender for a bit, which is a sort of structure made of hazel pole stuck in the ground with a tarpaulin over the top.

And then I bought a caravan and then I bought a bus and I met my partner that I have now and we lived in the bus together and we traveled around the U.K. We worked on fruit farms and I basked. And then I had my daughter and we lived that way until she was about a year old.

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Jam sandwich

My favorite book as a child was a book called The Giant Jam Sandwich and it's illustrated by John Vernon Lord, who sort of wrote the concepts and somebody else put this rhyme together. So it's all about this small village in in Sussex — where I come from — and the town's invaded.

The village is invaded by a million wasps and all the villagers meet in the town hall and they decide on this plan to get rid of the wasps and they make this huge jam sandwich where they put loads of cookers in a big brick shed and they bake this huge loaf of bread, make a jam sandwich and then they trap all these wasps in it.

But it's all intricate, little illustrations and it's just very funny and it rhymed. And there's lots of little running stories going through it. So there's these three little people being chased by wasps throughout the whole book and you see them going over the hills in the background with their little wasp swatters. And it's really, really great. Actually, my daughter really likes that book, too.

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Alternative endings

Wolves was also a college project. So I actually didn't have time to really think about anything I was doing in Wolves because it was a six-week project. So it had to be done quite quickly. So when I was putting it together, all I was thinking about was the best way I need to give the impression that the wolf was going in — the book was sort of happening around you sort of thing.

And so I hardly thought about the picture plans and I just did it sort of automatically and it just sort of worked out. I change it a little bit, but—so… The ending is very accidental cause originally I was thinking, "Well, I can't actually let this rabbit die in the book." And I just couldn't think of a way out of it really but… When I'm doing picture books, I make tiny little dummies about this big so — with pens for drawings and I put the words in. I type them out and then I stick them in with a bit of tape so I can move them about.

And I got to the page where the rabbit discovers this wolf behind him. And then the next page there was just blank. And I was looking and I thought, "Well, I've got to find a way that this rabbit wins out over this wolf and finds a way of beating this wolf." But when I turned the page in my little dummy, because it was blank, I just thought he got eaten.

And then that made me laugh and so I wrote that and showed it to my daughter who was only about — she was six, I think, at the time. And when I showed it to her, she laughed as well. And so I thought, "Well, I'll just leave it." And because it wasn't ever intended for publication, it was just meant to be a college project, I just thought, "Well, it doesn't really matter anyway. I'll just leave it in."

But, you know, kids tend to… Little ones — they like to believe there's an alternative ending and they like to believe the alternative ending. And then the older they get, the more blood-thirsty they get and they like to believe that the rabbit is dead, which is fine by me!

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Fearless

Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears…it started off just as a list of fears and phobias. Not so much now, I'm getting better about it. I'm a quite nervous person and I tend to have quite a lot of fears and phobias and I started to think about. My daughter was also quite fearful.

As a little child, she was quite fearful and I was thinking about her fears and so I thought it would be quite fun to have a book that was just like a list. And I had it in a sketch book for a couple of years really just thinking, "Well, that'd be quite a nice thing to do."

And it wasn't until I came up with the idea of a mouse that it seemed to come together. And then I realized that if it was a little mouse, then that would be perfect because they're so small and shivery and sort of scared of things that he could have these big fears, but he could work his way through the book so he could actually burrow himself into it.

And I really wanted to make it look like he had actually been in the book eating parts of the book and had really made an impact on the book. So, yeah, it's lots of sort of scanning in things into my computer and then altering them to make them sort of tie in with the book and be sort of mouse-friendly.

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An excerpt from Monkey and Me

This book is a book called Monkey and Me and it's based on my friend's daughter who was a really wiggly sort of kid and didn't like to sit still for reading books. So I made her a book which she could join in with and it's about this little girl and she's off out on a day out and she's having trouble with her tights because I remember from my little girl that little girls have trouble putting their tights on. Big girls sometimes, too.

It's called Monkey and Me and it starts off… Monkey and me, monkey and me, monkey and me, we went to see, we went to see some… and the girl is doing the action of an animal that she's going to see. And she went to see some penguins! Monkey and me, monkey and me, monkey and me, we went to see, we went to see some… and she's hopping across the page, …kangaroos!

Monkey and me, monkey and me, monkey and me, we went to see, we went to see some bats! Monkey and me, monkey and me, monkey and me, we went to see, we went to see some…elephants! And then she's swinging across the top and all the way through the little toy monkey's been a little bit miserable because maybe he hasn't been going to see the right animals or maybe it's because he's being dragged upside down a lot.

But on this one he's starting to look happy and it's because Monkey and me, monkey and me, monkey and me, we went to see, we went to see some…monkeys! And then by the end of the day, she's feeling very tired, so it's Monkey and me, monkey and me, monkey and me, we went zzz… so she's gone to sleep. And then you can see at the end all the animals also going off home for their tea and to sleep. And that's the end.

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"There is no substitute for books in the life of a child." — May Ellen Chase