Gus Gordon is one of the finest illustrators working today (check out Herman and Rosie and Somewhere Else). He’s inventive, funny and totally understands kids. I’m lucky to collaborate with him on the My Life books. In part three of my blog series on How to Make a Children’s Book, Gus shares intimate insight into his process and how you might go about creating your own illustrated book.
When you get the ‘My Life’ stories and start to read them, what’s your process in terms of visualising the action?
Firstly, I read the whole manuscript (this is kind of important) front to back. While I’m doing this I write notes, highlight passages and roughly sketch any ideas that immediately leap from the text. When I’ve stopped shaking and have thoroughly recovered from this first read, I start reading it again, only this time I try to imagine that I am actually Tom Weekly (this is the scary part and why I spent most of last year in therapy). Once my brain has become Tom’s brain it’s just a process of reading, drawing and seeing what Tom comes up with.
What’s the weirdest illustration job you’ve ever done? Or the strangest situation your job has ever put you in?
I was once hired to draw the entire staff of a division in a life insurance company. When I had finished the commission, over half of them had left. I’m pretty sure they didn’t want to hang around and see how I had drawn them.
What were your favourite books as a kid?
My favourite books as a kid were Harry The Dirty Dog by Gene Zion (illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham), The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and anything by Richard Scarry. I could look at his work for hours.
How much of you is there in your illustrations of Tom Weekly?
Nothing. Once, I have become possessed by Tom, it’s all Tom.
Can you share any tips that could help kids create their own illustrated books from the comfort of their own homes?
Make a rough plan of a story idea that you want to tell, making sure your main character (or characters) has an interesting journey, whether it’s a large or small one. On this journey things should not go according to the character’s plan (this is important). At some point in the story a problem needs to be solved or an issue resolved (nothing is more boring than a character who gets all they desire).
Think about story structure; a punchy beginning, a captivating middle and a rewarding ending. Keep your story simple (the best stories are simple stories). Write your story, using your words sparingly; 300 words or less over 16 pages, not including your front and back cover. Imagine that your illustrations are going to do most of the storytelling and the text is just the glue that keeps it together. Sketch out the illustrations roughly at first with small thumbnail drawings until you have worked out what you want to draw. Make a little ‘dummy’ book out of blank A4 paper. This will help you visualise the reader turning the pages. Now draw your pictures on each of the pages, leaving enough room for your story text. Voila! You just wrote a picture book! Oh, one last thing. Make sure your cover is attractive, inviting. Despite what some people say, you CAN judge a book by its cover!