The long and winding road… to becoming a children’s book author/illustrator

Guest Post by Daniel Gray-Barnett

When I finished high-school, I had a big dilemma. Science vs Art. The problem was that I really enjoyed and was good at both, but which to follow as a career? I was ignorant and didn’t know that there were viable careers in the arts (other than being an art teacher). I hoped that I would probably get paid more in a scientific job. I also thought it would make my parents happy. So I aimed as high as I could, which was a career in Medicine.

I studied Medical Science at the University of Sydney, with the plan to go on to post-graduate Medicine. But halfway through my course, I knew that I didn’t have the passion to follow through with it. So I finished my degree and started working in the pharmaceutical industry. I was a data manager for clinical trials. To me, it was incredibly boring and unfulfilling. What I really cared about were creative things. At the time, I was obsessed with music and bands. So I quit my job and went back to study.

I spent a year studying Music Business, learning all about how to manage bands, book gigs, run a record label, copyright laws. It was incredibly interesting, but the best parts of the course were the assignments where I got to create artwork for a made-up gig or band. I loved it. And I was good at it! My teacher started asking me to design artwork for some of the bands he managed. At the time, I was working at a pub and the manager saw some of my artwork and started asking me to create artwork for the bands that played there. It was a spark that got me wondering whether I could make a career for myself in the arts. A little investigation led me to discover illustration – and I was hooked. Almost 10 years since I finished high-school, I’d finally found something I was passionate about.

It has been 10 years since then. 10 years of challenges, late nights and achievements. I’m a self-taught illustrator so I’ve had to teach myself about techniques and artistic processes as well as the business side of things. There’s a lot you can learn from the internet and a few good books. I also found a great mentor who took me under her wing and set me on the right path. Slowly, I’ve managed to build up my business, working part-time jobs whilst taking on commissions, client by client, to the point where I can now freelance full-time. I’m very grateful for the long and winding path I took. It’s made me appreciate what I do and not take it for granted.

Figuring out my style or ‘voice’ was probably one of the biggest challenges. It took me a long time of experimentation to find something that felt right. There were also a few lean periods where I definitely remember eating rice or baked beans on toast! 

On the flip side, my first professional commission (it was for a computer arts magazine) was a big win. As an artist, you often deal with imposter syndrome and self-doubt, but when clients hire you based on the quality of your work, it’s very encouraging and validating. Also, getting to quit my part-time job as a medical receptionist (See? I did end up working in the medical field in the end) because I was getting too busy as an illustrator was a very satisfying step. 

The most recent win has probably been the success of my first children’s book, Grandma Z. I never sought out to be a children’s book illustrator. I mostly worked on editorial jobs, but wanting to push myself, I illustrated a series about these two characters, Albert and Grandma Z, as a fun exercise in exploring narrative. Scribble’s editor, Miriam, saw the illustrations on Instagram and contacted me, wondering if I had any plans to turn them into a book. She convinced me that there was a good story behind the illustrations. Within the week, we’d signed a contract to publish a book together. It’s rare, but I’m very fortunate that it happened that way.

It took me 12 months to write and another 6 months to finish the art. The art is initially done in ink and graphite pencil – all the layers were scanned in separately and then arranged and coloured digitally.

Albert and Grandma Z are an odd couple of sorts – he’s a bit buttoned-up, black and white, whilst she is larger-than-life and very colourful. I initially had no idea what their story was but it seemed that it would be wild, zany and a bit magical. I wanted them to have the kind of adventures I would love to have myself. Some of the original illustration compositions made it into the book. I decided to keep the original colour palette, as it was so simple, powerful and symbolic of opposites and contrasts.

I see a lot of myself in the main character Albert and his struggle to find acceptance. He needs someone who will allow him to express himself and his imagination. Most of the adventures he has with Grandma Z are things that I have done myself, or would love to do. Grandma Z does embody a lot of great qualities from my own grandmothers. One in particular, who has twinkly eyes and is always laughing.

Whilst trying to figure out their story, I thought one of the worst things I could do to Albert would be to deprive him of a proper birthday. He certainly rose to the challenge. I’m glad he has someone like Grandma Z to indulge his curiosity and sense of adventure.

Working on Grandma Z has certainly opened up another stage to my career. It’s added a level of depth and meaning to my illustration work that I didn’t necessarily have with the commercial jobs I regularly work on. Knowing that my book is contributing in some small way to children’s literature and helping kids to engage with books is incredibly rewarding. 

Grandma Z has been such a success that I’m already working on my next book with Scribble. I’m also working on a couple of other picture book projects for other authors, so you will be seeing a bit more of my work in the next couple of years. Hopefully, I’ll be writing and illustrating children’s books for a long time.

Grandma Z by Daniel Gray-Barnett is out now, published by Scribe, £6.99 paperback. 

The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the FCBG.

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