Hayley Wells is a debut author-illustrator who graduated from the prestigious Cambridge Art School MA programme. Their debut picture book, The More Monster, is a timely and thought-provoking tale; a topical modern fairy tale with a moral message that will encourage young readers to think and talk about power, consumption, greed and sharing. Hayley is interested in exploring political topics through their stories, but with an emphasis on playful and accessible artwork to offset any underlying darkness. Here they introduce us to their new book and talks about their inspirations…
Can you tell us a bit about the book, what is the story about?
The More Monster is set on an island controlled by a big, greedy monster. The small creatures that live on the island work really hard to meet the monster’s demands but it never seems to be satisfied. Then, one of the little creatures’ curiosity leads to a big discovery… I don’t want to spoil too much more!
What inspired the story?
As an environmentalist I have always been frustrated by rampant consumerism. But the problem goes beyond individual actions: the whole system is harming the planet and human wellbeing. So, I knew I couldn’t explore consumerism and greed without also addressing some of the wider issues our society faces. Easy stuff for 3–7 year olds, right?!
I realised during the making of this book how much I am influenced by science-fiction, and particularly dystopian and utopian futures. With the climate crisis and pandemic looming over us, people are having lots of existential conversations about work, privilege, and priorities in life. While these may be big and difficult subjects, I think it’s important that we include children in these conversations too.
How did you create the look of the characters – and why did you choose not to make them recognisably animal or human?
The subject of the book is quite large and abstract so I needed to find a good visual metaphor. I drew lots of creatures on piles of stuff, like dragons’ hoards, and lots of creatures eating things – eventually the two combined to create the monster. I also experimented by cutting out abstract shapes of paper to find the monster’s body type.
Initially there were humans in the story but after some discussion I realised it worked better if the characters were a bit more interchangeable. That decision gave me a lot more freedom to be playful which added more humour and charm overall. It’s also nice that the characters are small and quite childlike in their own ways, so that children can relate to them.
How do you imagine the book could be used in schools / libraries?
I hope the book can open up discussions about greed, power, and authority – younger children can talk about sharing and fairness, while older children can perhaps relate the book’s themes to issues in the wider world. The characters’ reactions could also lead to conversations about different personalities and why different people might want different things in life.
What messages would you like children to take away from the book?
I’d like readers to consider lots of questions: why should anyone have more than anyone else? Why do some of us accept the status quo? What kinds of things would make us really, truly happy? I also wanted this book to offer some hope and empowerment to young people, allowing them the space to imagine what a better world might look like. Ultimately, I want children to feel brave enough to ask difficult questions and to remain curious.
What inspires your illustration style?
Visually I’m often drawn to screen printing and risographs, and while most of this book was made digitally, the process of layering separate colours on top of each other is quite similar to printmaking.
I also really like using limited colour palettes because otherwise I can be overwhelmed by having too many possibilities.
The book is visually very dynamic – with the double page spreads that turn the book on its side, for example, to emphasise the endless conveyor belts or the size of the monster. Did you find it difficult to plan the design of the pages to make this work within the constraints of the picture book format?
Yes, it was a really tricky book to plan! It was really important that the monster appeared to be much, much larger than the little islanders and there’s only so many ways you can do that with a landscape spread. The book deals with disrupting conventions and looking at things from different perspectives, so it makes sense that the layout prompts the reader to do that in a very physical way.
As both author and illustrator, what is your creative process – do you visualise the illustrations first, or write the story first? Or perhaps it’s not as straightforward as that!
It is definitely not as straightforward as that! Typically I will write the bare bones of a story first, then once I start drawing I tend to discover ideas that change the direction of the narrative. Then, as the story changes, the images change too – it is quite an organic process. The first draft of this book was very different to the final version and it went through multiple rewrites, but I’m really glad, as it helped to improve the book overall.
Which other picture book authors / illustrators do you admire?
I am a big fan of Anthony Browne, but I also love books by Viv Schwarz, Alexis Deacon and Emily Haworth-Booth – any books that ask the reader to contemplate big questions. And of course, Mr Bunny’s Chocolate Factory by Elys Dolan was an inspiration, too!
What are you working on now?
I am working on another author’s text that I can’t say much about yet, but it is completely different to The More Monster in terms of tone and content. I am also exploring ideas for a book about extra-terrestrial life, starting with collage experiments like those mentioned earlier. It seems like a natural progression from The More Monster so I’m excited to see where it takes me!
The More Monster by Hayley Wells was published by Pavilion Children’s Books on 3rd February 2022, £6.99 paperback.