Q&A with Catherine Rayner

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Arlo The Lion Who Couldn’t Sleep by Catherine Rayner (Macmillan Children’s Books) is shortlisted for the BookTrust Storytime Prize, celebrating the very best books for sharing with babies and children under five. The shortlisted titles are central to a new national pilot that the UK’s largest children’s reading charity is running in partnership with libraries. The BookTrust Storytime pilot is designed to support disadvantaged families with young children engage with their local public library so that sharing stories becomes a regular and long-lasting part of family life. The BookTrust Storytime Prize winner will be revealed early in 2022. Previous winners of the £5,000 award include This Is Owl by Libby Walden and Jacqui Lee (2020) and Cyril and Pat by Emily Gravett (2019). For more information visit www.booktrust.org.uk

When did you first start drawing and sketching? I have been drawing for as long as I can remember! I’ve always found drawing therapeutic, and I’ve always loved books. (I was the child who secretly loved it when it rained as it meant you could stay indoors and draw.) I used to draw our pets, we had a sausage dog called Wilfred and he featured in most of my pictures. The first book I ever wrote, illustrated and made was about him being naughty. My mum still has it. I was about four. I think I knew then I wanted to be an author and illustrator.

Do you have a favourite animal that you love to draw? Ooohh, that’s a hard question to answer! I love drawing different animals for different reasons. Guinea Pigs are my absolute favourite animal and therefore I especially love drawing them. It’s just wonderful how much energy can be packed into their little shape and they have such brilliant personalities. Oh, and fish too! I really adore drawing fish!

Is there a time of day when you work best? It can really vary depending on what’s happening that day and where I am. What I love is when I know I can devote a good chunk of time to a drawing or painting and really get into it. I like to put on some music or an audiobook in the background and I find I just get happily absorbed into my work with really good concentration.

When drawing a new character, do you immediately know their name and personality? Usually, an animal just pops in to my head and I start to doodle but I can be doodling that creature for ages before personality fully emerges or sometimes, it leaps out almost immediately! Usually, I do have a name running through my head as I work on the drawings but I don’t settle on it until I’m finally happy with the drawing. Sometimes I hear a lovely or unusual name and I jot it down in the hope I might be able to use it for one of my animals in the future.

Is it harder to illustrate a book you have written or one by another author? That’s a great question! I’ve had experience of both over the years and they are very different processes. It’s always a tremendous honour to be asked to illustrate another author’s book and I feel a huge sense of responsibility to get it right for them and their beautiful words! I also like the challenge of illustrating someone else’s story and the collaborative process of working together. With my own books, I guess the whole process is more organic as I often have the words and the drawings working together in my mind right from the beginning. In this way, I have more freedom about how it will finally all come together. I’m very lucky to to be able to work in both ways and really enjoy the diversity.

How does it feel when you learn of an award nomination or of winning one? Has this changed with time and experience? Oh wow, I can definitely say that it hasn’t changed at all and I’m as excited now as I was the first time! In fact, I think it’s true to say I’m possibly MORE excited now as I feel so honoured and also have a sense of relief that I am still producing books that children are enjoying! It means the world to me and it’s difficult to sum up the sense of happiness, honour and pure excitement when I hear that I’ve been shortlisted. The BookTrust Storytime is a particularly precious prize to be shortlisted for. As well as being a hugely prestigious prize, the BookTrust Storytime shortlisted titles form part of a national pilot that BookTrust are running to support families engage with their local public library so that sharing stories becomes a part of family life.

Children often ask the funniest questions- what is the strangest/funniest question you have been asked by a child? I have always loved doing book events and one of my favourite parts is the smart, funny and just brilliant questions children ask! My favourite is a little boy who asked me if I’d ever met a poorly tiger. I replied that I hadn’t and asked if he had. He told me that once he had met a poorly tiger and he knew the tiger was poorly because it was covered in spots! Of course, I didn’t mention that perhaps this particular ‘poorly’ tiger was in fact a leopard!

What tips would you offer aspiring illustrators, of any age? My top advice would be to draw as much as you possibly can! Practice is the only way to improve a skill and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You’ll need to work hard. Be prepared to take other peoples feedback on board and be honest with yourself about your ability. Finally, when you are drawing, spend lots more time looking than you do actually drawing!

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