A few quick questions from Just Imagine…
Just Imagine: You have a background in children’s publishing. Did it feel like a natural progression for you to become an author yourself?
Laura Knowles: Yes, it did, and it happened without me really planning it. As a child, I always wanted to ‘make books’ even before I had any concept of publishing. When pressed as to whether I wanted to be a writer, illustrator, editor, or even a book binder, I had no answer. I wanted to do them all! So I guess that’s never really changed – I just like making books. Part of my job as Editorial Director for Non-fiction at QED Publishing and words & pictures is to come up with concepts for new titles and commission them, so I’m always thinking of new ideas. Not just what the words will be, but how the whole package will look and feel. How it will work cover-to-cover. The books I’ve written are the concepts where the text feels most like my own voice, waiting to come out. They’re the ones on the topics I love most. The difference between working as an editor and as an author, is that you end up feeling much more exposed once your own books are out there in the world — it can be quite nerve-wracking.
JI: Your books are beautifully illustrated, each by different illustrators. How do you choose &/or collaborate with the illustrators to ensure you get the drawings to match your vision?
LK: Selecting an illustrator is done with the help of our very creative Art Director, Susi Martin. We discuss the concept of the book, and what sort of style might suit it, and then she works her magic, researching different illustrators, or going back to ones she’s had her eye on, and suggests ones she thinks will be the right fit. Sometimes you have a strong idea of how a book will look, and that follows through, and other times, the choice of illustrator will take the book in an unexpected direction. I think it’s always good to be open to the unexpected! When I first came up with Once Upon a Jungle, my book that explores the concept of food chains, I’d never envisioned the vivid colours, intense blacks, and bold graphic artwork of James Boast. However, once I saw how brilliantly it worked with the very simple text, I fell in love. Now, I can’t imagine that book being anything different. I think the best illustrated books come about when the author’s vision and the illustrator’s work hand-in-hand.
With We Travel So Far, Chris Madden and I were working simultaneously on the text and illustrations. I would send through a few pages for him to illustrate, and then move on to the next. He has great use of colour and texture, and it was helpful to me to have a strong sense of what his work looked like, as I could then imagine the scenes that would unfold later in the book.
The process was a little different with my first book, It Starts with a Seed, illustrated by Jennie Webber. I’d met Jennie when I attended some of her Wild Life Drawing classes, where you get to draw live animals, usually from rescue centres, while listening to an expert tell you about their behaviour and conservation. I had shown Jennie’s wonderful etchings to our publisher and art director, and when I then came up with the book, we just knew she was the right person to illustrate it.
JI: How do you begin your research into each new book? Do you get to travel to the places you write about?
LK: Oh, I wish I got to travel to all the places I write about! One day, perhaps I will be able to, but sadly not yet. However, when I do travel somewhere, I’m always interested in the wildlife of that area, so I try to make the most of experiencing them first-hand. I was recently lucky enough to visit Vietnam, and one of the highlights was kayaking through caves where bats were flitting above us. You could see them hanging from the bare rock in little clusters, and feel the flap of their wings as they swerved around us – it was wonderful. You definitely have a whole new appreciation of animals when you see them in real life. Then again, there are many creatures that children won’t have encountered in real life, so I hope that my books will help give them that sense of wonder at the natural world, so they will grow up wanting to protect it.
JI: Has natural history always been an interest of yours?
LK: Yes, definitely. I remember as a child I was always pottering around in our back garden and discovering the wildlife there: frogs that had taken up residence in a bucket of rainwater; slow worms hiding under old bricks; ladybird larvae that looked so unlike their adult form. I think I was lucky that my parents left me to my own devices, so I could explore. When I was seven or eight, I collected some just-hatched caterpillars from a patch of nettles in our local park and took them to school. My teacher – who remains my favourite to this day – was kind and thoughtful enough to loan me a special container to keep them in. Every day, I got to pick a fellow pupil to go out to the back of the field and gather nettles to feed the caterpillars. To begin with, everyone wanted to go, but after getting stung by the nettles, their enthusiasm soon tailed off! By the summer holidays, my caterpillars had spun their chrysalises, and when they finally emerged as tortoiseshell butterflies, I let them go. It was an amazing experience, and one that really cemented my interest in natural history.
JI: Do you have any more books in the pipeline & can you tell us anything about them?
LK: My next book, The Coral Kingdom, will be out in the spring. It’s my second collaboration with illustrator Jennie Webber, this time exploring the amazing coral reef ecosystem, which is under huge threat from climate change and water pollution. I’m also beginning work on a new book with illustrator Chris Madden – perhaps I’ll be able to visit a few of the places that will be featured in that one!
Thank you Laura for taking the time to answer our questions.