The book channel /

Briony May Smith’s The Little Books of the Little Brontes

Interview (Part 1)

Interview transcript

Please note: This interview has been edited for readability. Filler words and repetitions have been removed, and some sentences have been reordered. However, the transcript remains true to the meaning of the words spoken.

Nikki Gamble

Hello everyone. My guest today is Briony May Smith.

Briony has illustrated many books, including Stardust, written by Jeanne Willis, an adaptation of the classic Heidi published by Nosy Crow; The Giant’s Necklace, written by Michael Morpurgo; and Little Bear’s Spring and Little Goose’s Autumn, written by Elii Woollard.

Briony has also written and illustrated her own stories, the wonderful Imelda and the Goblin King, published by Flying Eye, Margaret’s Unicorn and A Practical Present for Philippa Pheasant published by Walker Books,

Welcome, Briony; it’s lovely to have you here.

Briony May Smith

Thank you very much for having me.

Nikki Gamble

The main book we’re going to discuss today is The Little Books of the Little Brontes, written by Sara O’Leary. But before we get into that, I read in another interview that you have been passionate about drawing since childhood. So, I wondered if you could tell us a little bit about those beginnings.

Briony May Smith

As soon as my brother, sister, and I could all play together, I would always insist that we draw the characters that we played before we got going. Both my parents really encouraged it, and I’d always show them the drawings I’d done and helpfully get tips from them about how to improve them. Even now, I’ll carry my sketchbook around with me everywhere. That love of drawing has never gone away.

I don’t think there’s ever been a week when I’ve not been drawing something. One of the books I’m currently working on is set somewhere I went on holiday, and I did lots of drawing there.

I still love taking the sketchbook along, even just holding it, and the enthusiasm about buying a new pencil.

Nikki Gamble

Do you keep all your sketchbooks? Do you keep them in order in which you worked in them?

Briony May Smith

Well, they’re not in order, but they are actually behind me. I’ll grab them here. (Briony holds up a leather-bound sketchbook with her name embossed on it) My aunt and uncle got me one of these when I first started university and I didn’t touch it until my last year because of the fear of the blank page. It’s such a nice object. I did not emboss my own name. That was because it was a gift. I loved it so much that I’m on my fifth now. If anyone’s interested, it’s the Chianti journal, and they are available on a website called Penheaven. They’ve got two new colours in and, I know it’s really lame, but I’m very excited about that because I’ve only been going for the red and brown.

Nikki Gamble

So, you have to hope that they don’t stop making them.

Briony May Smith

It’s like Caramac to me. I’d be as heartbroken as I was about the Caramac situation.

Nikki Gamble

Listening to you talk there about your childhood experience reminded me a bit of the young Brontes. You were living a similar childhood to them.

Briony May Smith

Not as prolific. We did have CBBC, so some of the time was spent watching the telly. But it definitely resonated with me. There’s a particular bit in the book where Sara says, ‘One that dies in one story can be brought to life in another’. And we certainly did have a set of games that we would play. One was Jungle Girls, and the other was just about fairies and shapeshifters. And we’d just play the same game again and again and again. Whatever the game was, we’d play it and then be] perfectly happy to play out the same plot the next day. Children can just play the same game again and again and do all those similar drawings and love the feeling of looking back on a drawing you did a month ago. Or a story you wrote a month ago and realise how you improved as a child. You improve so fast as a child. I wonder if the Brontes felt that too.

Nikki Gamble

You said that your parents helped you. Do you come from a background with a lot of art? Are your parents involved in art?

Briony May Smith

They both went to art college. It was a real privilege to have parents who understood that art was a viable option when I was looking at doing the arts and found a foundation degree and then illustration. So that is very lucky in itself.

I’ve got a couple of prints on the wall behind me from a trip to Paris with my mum. We viewed all the Impressionists, and Mum’s interest in them continues to affect my work now.

Nikki Gamble

Were you lucky with your teachers too?

Briony May Smith

Definitely. Because I loved school and learning, I didn’t necessarily have a good group of friends until the end of school, but I did really enjoy learning. I still think about the artists we were introduced to in secondary and primary school.

The teachers were all very encouraging and gave good advice about where to go next.

Nikki Gamble

I know that you took the illustration course at Falmouth.  It’s not particularly focused on children’s book illustration, is it? It’s a general illustration course. So, when did you know that you wanted to build a career in children’s book illustration?

Briony May Smith

Even in primary school, it was a job that I thought I could do for a living. I would watch Quentin Blake on Blue Peter and think that is what I would like to do.

Then it came to A levels. I loved the pre-Raphaelites. We joked in class, ‘Oh, Briony’s doing another project on women in sheets’. I would take a photo of a friend dressed up as a Pre Raphaelite lady with a sheet wrapped around like it’s a Grecian toga.

But I was worried that I would suddenly get to a point where I didn’t want to draw women in sheets, or I didn’t want to do children’s illustration anymore. So, I explored lots of different areas of illustration and art before going to Falmouth.

When I was at Falmouth, we tried many different areas of illustration, editorial, and informational. The final project was one of those areas, and mine was children’s books. There was a moment that clicked: I’ve always loved children’s book illustrations.

I think it is important to make sure you’ve explored every avenue and given everything a go, but also a sudden realisation that you love what you love. And mine is the Pre-Raphaelites, folklore, fairies and children’s illustration.

Nikki Gamble

Did you enjoy Arthur Rackham‘s illustrations?

Briony May Smith

I did. Can you see the print on the wall behind me?

Nikki Gamble

Which illustration is it?

Briony May Smith

Titania and Bottom. It’s the picture where she is embracing him, and there are lots of fairies with lanterns around her. I bought that on a family holiday in Hay-on-Wye. I wasn’t even at university then; it was probably during my GCSEs. I bought two flower fairy prints from Cecily Mary Barker.

Nikki Gamble

Let’s take a look at The Little Books of the Little Brontes. This was an absolute delight to me.

On the title page, I wondered how involved you were with the typography and the choice of the cream paper.

Briony May Smith

I often create some options, but typography is the designer’s final decision. And I think that’s fine because I’m certainly not very adept at typography. I did really enjoy this one because there were so many examples of Charlotte Bronte’s handwriting in her tiny books. This is taken from pictures I was able to find on the internet of her actual handwriting.

The cream paper works because there’s less contrast with the illustrations and because the colours are quite soft and muted.

Nikki Gamble

I think the cream also gives a period feeling to it, doesn’t it?

Briony May Smith

Yeah, it’s like going back to the Arthur Rackham thing. It makes it feel timeless.

Nikki Gamble

This is a book about the Brontes as children. As we’ve already said, they enjoyed playing together, inventing games, and making little books. We learn about them and their family. We learn that their mother has died and that they live with their father, who is the rector of the parsonage at Haworth.. Their father, Patrick Bronte, brings home the little tin of soldiers, which become really important in their game-making,

Briony May Smith

It was a momentous part of their childhood that suddenly, they were able to build all their stories around these wooden soldiers.

Nikki Gamble

I think they named them, didn’t they?

Briony May Smith

I think each child took one as their own.

 Nikki Gamble

The book takes us into their adulthood briefly as well.

We see the toy soldier that’s been left behind; he’s covered in cobwebs. But although the toys have been left behind, we’re told they never leave stories behind.

You’ve included an illustration of the adult Brontes and the three girls being painted by their brother Branwell Bronte. You have incorporated the famous portrait of the Brontes into your artwork.

Briony May Smith

I think The Pillar Portrait was always very important to the book because the little girls are wearing the same colours throughout as they are in The Pillar Portrait. So, Anne is in blue, Emily is in green, and Charlotte is in brown. So even when they’re children and where they’re writing together at the desk, they’re still wearing their signature colours.

I feel like this image is still quite hopeful because Branwell painted himself out of The Pillar Portrait. I think the pillar is where Patrick would have been, and you can still see the outline of this ghostly shape. He’s the one painting it, but he’s included himself in this version where he’s painting.

 Nikki Gamble

I was thinking about how you distinguish the characters. These three girls must have their own character, and you’re not given much in the text. There’s no description of the children.

Briony May Smith

I have Sara to thank because she sent over a lot of brilliant references. I also dug up some old magazine articles on the Brontes and thought these were useful.

Sara could find descriptions of the girls as they looked at school. So, children’s hair is obviously a different colour from that of adults. In The Pillar Portrait, they might have a shade of hair that is different from a description of Emily in school, which would say she had light auburn hair or Anne, who had very fair hair as children often do. Charlotte was so small, even though she was the oldest, so you need to keep this in mind when you’re designing the characters, but also be aware that children have to recognise who’s the oldest. And if they all have a similar sort of shade of hair, how to keep them distinct from each other.

Nikki Gamble

We only linger briefly on their adult lives because, as we know, they had early deaths. The story moves quickly back into childhood. Sara talks directly to the reader here when she says, ‘We’ll leave them playing happily’ and ends on that upbeat note for the reader.

We’re going to look at some of your sketches and final artwork. Are we starting with an early part of the process?

 Briony May Smith

These are from a sketchbook like the ones I carry around everywhere. They were made before I started drawing the page layouts.

This is getting over the fear of the blank page. I started by looking at Sara’s descriptions and then working out what age each child would be and the costume of the time because, as children, it would have been a Jane Austen waistline. They didn’t have much money, so they wouldn’t have been the most stylish children. The Aunt spoiled Anne a little because she was the youngest, so she’s always got a much nicer dress than the others. Charlotte looks a little bit scrappy. She’s tried her best, but she’s the oldest, so she’s left to do her own hair. And Emily has a wildness to her. So her hair is unkempt.

Nikki Gamble

For this book, you’re interpreting the writer’s words, but you also have history to reference. Yet when we look at faces, for instance, we also end up with something that is distinctly Briony May Smith.

You heard me talking with Rob Biddulph about the softness of round shapes. And that’s one thing that I notice about your faces – their roundness. They have an openness,

Briony May Smith

My faces have changed a little bit since graduating. Designers and editors in the past have said, ‘Oh, maybe that’s a little bit round.’

With children, there is a roundness that you immediately go to.  It was a challenge to get the distinct adult faces and match them to The Pillar Portraits.  Also, children, especially if they’re siblings, look very similar. It was something I hadn’t really considered before.

If I am doodling in a sketchbook, it is usually a profile that I go to. I remember if my mum were on a phone call, she would sketch a lot of flowers, and my dad would draw a myriad of geometric shapes. With me, it was always profiles.

Nikki Gamble

One of the children is drawn without a face. So you’re experimenting with gesture and posture as well.

Briony May Smith

Yeah, trying to get a sense of where the waist would have been and the boots they would have worn every day on the moors. They would have had their smart uniform for church or for meeting people.

Nikki Gamble

Here, we are looking at a page of character sketches. You have added colour, and they’re more defined.

Briony May Smith

I was just finalising them. Anne is a lot freer; she has her hands in her pockets, kicking her heels up. Looking at Anne’s dress in particular, she’s the one who had a biggest change because their aunt really did treat her like a little doll. She’s in blue, like in The Pillar Portrait. It’s the softer of the colours, and her dress is always the smartest, and her hair is always the neatest with its ribbons.

Emily’s got a quietness to her. She’s got a natural elegance but also a wildness.

Charlotte is certainly wilder, a little bit dumpier, and operates in a world of her own. She is almost grown up already, but she is still messy.

Nikki Gamble

You haven’t talked much about Branwell; did you not find him as interesting as the girls? ,

Briony May Smith

Poor Branwell from beginning to end. Because Branwell wasn’t in The Pillar Portrait, there was a little less pressure in choosing his colours.

I did keep a mix of the colours of all three girls, so he has a lot of greens and browns and an odd bit of blue. For example, his tie has a bit of blue in it here and there. He’s a little tricky to pinpoint, but I think the important thing is that he looks happy as a child.

Nikki Gamble

Although they’re in different colours, they all belong to the same tonal palette, so they blend nicely.

Briony May Smith

It matches their landscape and moorland house. It allows the imagery to have a nice cohesion. It also means that all of their presence has the same level of importance on the page.

Nikki Gamble

What about the adult characters?

Briony May Smith

This is working out what the grown-ups in the book would look like – Patrick, Tabby and the children’s aunt. Although you only see the aunt in one little vignette, and Tabby, you only see in a couple. You do see Patrick, but he’s a bit mysterious.

One illustration shows them all by the fire, playing with the toys he’s just bought. Patrick, like Charlotte, was nearsighted, so his book is right up in front of his face. It was a magazine or newspaper that he used to get regularly.

Nikki Gamble

Did you present these character sketches before the thumbnails?

 Briony May Smith

Yes. This is an instance that I think is especially important.

The designer and editor saw these and the thumbnails before starting the final artwork.

Nikki Gamble

Here, we have the spread from the book that shows the children setting out, and they’ve got their pet dog there as well. On the page’s left hand, we’re looking at two of your roughs.

So tell us a little bit about them.

Briony May Smith

This was one of the spreads that changed the most in the book. Originally, there was a part of the story where Branwell teased the girls about the ghostly figures of their mother and sister, and Patrick would come in and tell him to shush, go to bed, and stop winding everyone up. So, when we first introduced the adult characters in the story, they were interacting with the children.

But it felt that the table scene (coming up later) where we see space, which suggests the absence of the missing figures, was enough.

Instead, we see the adults on the lefthand side of the page. They are not the main part of the book; they are just characters in the children’s lives. The children are ready to go out, they’re enough for each other.

Nikki Gamble

I’m going to move into what I thought was an absolutely stunning spread, which you’ve described as the table scene. You’ve chosen a bird’s eye view. Can you explain your thinking?

Briony May Smith

I enjoy a bird’ s-eye view in a book in a cinematic way. It allows the reader to take a new view, and I think this is an especially important part to take a new view on. I was very lucky that Sara wrote such a beautiful scene where sadness is almost sitting at the table with them.

The way I could show that was to have these empty chairs The absences made a nice balance to the spread – the children at one end with their father and the empty chairs at the other end. It isn’t a sad scene because all the children are still interacting, and there’s the cat that can be spotted and the dog being fed under the table, and there is a togetherness.

Nikki Gamble

It’s clever because you mentioned the cat placed on the chair at the opposite end to Patrick Bronte – at the empty end of the table, so it’s not completely empty. That really softens it. If you were to take that cat away, you’d have a different feel.

I love the detail—that’s something I would say about all of your illustrations. I love the fact that I can see exactly what they’re eating—carrots, potatoes, gravy, and pie.

Another illustration I loved is the children playing imaginative games in their bedroom. Charlotte is up on the bed with her sword in hand. Branwell is creating shadows with the light, but none of that is given in the text. So this is all your interpretation going way beyond the words.

Briony May Smith

When I read Sara’s text, one of the first thoughts I had about this particular couple of sentences was how would you show it?

‘The books they write are tiny, but the worlds inside them are huge. They contain continents and oceans, love stories and battles. There are heroes and anti-heroes, and sometimes, those who die in one story are brought back in another. ‘

Obviously, in the child’s imagination, they are actually knights and dragons, and there are battles. I wanted to show the game they were playing without taking the reader away from the fact that these are little children playing in their parsonage.  The shadow is a nice way of being able to show that.

Charlotte is pointing a quill, which, in the shadow behind her, is actually a knight pointing his sword at a dragon. The dragon is the hand gestures that Branwell is making in front of the lamp.

Little Anne is on the bed enjoying the story. It’s like when you’ve got a much younger sibling who’s there and wants to play, but it’s too little to join in.

Nikki Gamble

Shadows could be quite frightening, but there’s such a warm glow created by this lamp.

The overall feeling is just one of cosiness.

Briony May Smith

They’ve all got their little night dresses and socks on and don’t look frightened.

Nikki Gamble

So here we’ve got the book jacket. Are these different ideas that you had for the jacket?

Briony May Smith

I thought it might be interesting to show the stages that we went through with the cover.

 It was always going to show the four children. In the first instances, it was very much in the house, but actually, when you think of the Brontes, they are out on the moors.

You can see the initial idea in the thumbnails.

Working out the roughs, things became a little bit clearer. I removed the huge tors because they distracted from the background. Instead, you have this expanse of sky and the moor behind them, which is a nice excuse to bring a bit of purple and blue in amongst all the brown and green.

Nikki Gamble

I’ve been to Haworth and stayed there. You were spot on in depicting that scene with the high street going downhill. It’s still very much like that today, although there are lots of tourists around.

Do you visit places to create your settings?

Briony May Smith

I’m really delighted that you think it looks similar.

If it’s a book I’ve written, it’s often inspired by a place I’ve been to. Whereas if it’s a text I’m approaching that another author’s written, I often haven’t been to that place. I do find it quite important to get an idea of that place.

I have to thank Google Maps because I dropped myself onto that spot in the high street and got a sense of the houses there. So, each house is genuinely in that order on that high street. And then I’d be drawing it thinking, ‘Oh no, that house doesn’t quite match up with that rooftop now’. So, I think there’s a tiny bit of artistic license. The Bull Inn is there, I don’t think a milliner’s is still there, which is a shame. I love a hat.

Nikki Gamble

You do live quite close to the moors, don’t you?

Briony May Smith

I do. I live in East Devon. So, Dartmoor is about a 40-minute drive, and there is a sort of similarity to the Yorkshire moors with the heather and gorse that grows there. And those huge rock formations that just seem to come out of nowhere. However, I definitely didn’t take for granted that I have a lot of reference images for Dartmoor because the Yorkshire Moors has its own character. So there, there was a lot of dropping myself onto Google Maps and having a walk around online.

Nikki Gamble

Fantastic. Thank you so much, Briony, for taking the time to talk about The Little Book of the Little Brontes. In the next episode, we will discuss The Mermaid Moon.

Briony May Smith

Thank you for having me. It’s been lovely.

Read the review by our Expert review Panellist member, Eve Bearne https://justimagine.co.uk/childrens-books-review/the-little-books-of-the-little-brontes/