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Freya Blackwood on ‘The Boy and the Elephant’

Freya Blackwood is a Greenaway Medallist and seven-time CBCA winner whose picture books are beloved for her warm and perceptive drawings. Her latest book, The Boy and the Elephant (HarperCollins, November) is a tender, wordless picture book about a young boy’s friendship with an elephant and ‘the grief of human development encroaching on wild spaces’. Reviewer Anica Boulanger-Mashberg speaks to the author.

Although The Boy and the Elephant is wordless, did you actually write the story for yourself in words as a guide while you worked, or did the narrative for you always exist purely in images? 

The idea for the book developed from a sketch I did for a series of murals for the high-care children’s ward at the Canberra Hospital. It was an idea based on hide and seek where an elephant was hidden in the form of a tree. The image wasn’t used in the series of murals, but I stored the idea away and slowly a story developed around it. As the concept for the book relied heavily on the elephant tree visual, and the plot developments were easier to explain as images, it came together as drawings only, with the odd line in the storyboard to help it along. When I pitched the idea, I did wonder if it would need words, but my publisher, Chren Byng, thought it would work in images alone. And I think we both found this a very exciting challenge. 

You have talked about still being on a journey of learning, even after illustrating more than 25 picture books. What did you learn from working on this particular book? 

I’ve always wanted to create my own picture books, but I’m very much a visual person and not so much a words person. While creating this book, I discovered a way of working that felt right for me. I just drew all my ideas. I think until then I’d been following a writer’s way of developing stories. Similarly, it felt quite natural for me to tell a wordless story. I feel like this story and the way it is told is the closest I’ve come to representing who I am. And I love the fact that it can be interpreted differently by different readers, in their own voice. 

On a technical level, I discovered my own way of including more narrative in my illustrations without resorting to comic book or graphic novel type layouts. I also learnt to use dark colours. I’ve always been too scared to use very dark colours, but the use of oil paints and the subject matter meant I had to push myself to get the images really dark.

How does your work change as it grows from initial sketches to paints and colours? 

There is a lot that gets tested and then tossed out in the initial stages, lots of trials of scenes shown from different viewpoints and using different compositions. The initial drawings are a process of discovery and always have a greater freedom than the final drawings, where you are emulating the freedom of line to replicate that original discovery.

The coloured images are a much different thing to the initial sketches. I used oil paints and bristle brushes for this book, and it adds layers of texture and a freedom in the paintwork. 

While some of the final works in this book are just like coloured sketches, others are more painterly, using colour and tone to enhance atmospheric elements of a scene. Colour further emphasises mood, emotion, and therefore the reader’s experience. And of course, colour is an intrinsic part of the story, revealing the different environments, urban to forest, day to night.

Your illustrations are for children’s picture books, but they also connect with and appeal to adults. How do you navigate this dual audience? 

I think I just do what I do intuitively and create the work to my own set of parameters regardless of the audience. I aim to make the characters relatable no matter the age of the reader; I work hard to represent their emotions, all of which we feel no matter our age; I love creating an environment the reader can immerse themselves in, and I design each individual double page in a way that is interesting and captivating, with variation between pages and consideration to composition to enhance the storytelling.  

I don’t alter the way I draw to suit either audience. I guess my work is more classic than it is trend-based and perhaps this allows it to span a wider audience. 

What was the first picture book you remember seeing in your childhood? 

I have no idea which book from my childhood was the first I remember seeing. I remember many fondly, including Burglar BillCops and RobbersWhere the Wild Things AreHarry the Dirty DogThe House that Beebo Built.

What was the last book you read and loved?

We Are Wolves by Katrina Nannestad (ABC Books).


Category: Features Interview Junior