'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Monday 24 May 2010

Author/Illustrator Interview: Lenny Pelling

The very talented Lenny Pelling, author and illustrator of the Pen Pals Forever series for beginner readers, joins us at Kids Book Review today.

Tell us a little about you: what’s your background, your story? I studied fine arts originally. That was followed by quite a long time of trying to figure out how to actually use those skills. I’ve done set design for theatre and short films and made puppets for children’s plays (including a surrealist puppet mystery play for the Sydney Festival). This was written and co designed by a friend of mine who also wrote children’s stories. Together we wrote and illustrated any number of tales that never saw the light of day.

After years of knowing I wanted more than anything to “make stuff”, I landed a job illustrating and co-designing two series of educational books designed to capture the interest of reluctant readers and it has all just grown from there.

What genre do you write in? I really enjoy writing and illustrating fiction for very young children. Beginner Readers are still drawn in by rich illustrations but their developing grasp of language allows me to take a story further and ask them to imagine all sorts of possibilities. I like to use humour a lot and poke fun at everyday things.

What other genres have you written in? This is my first outing as a writer (and terrifyingly fun it was too). Previously, I’ve illustrated lots of educational titles and learned all sorts of interesting stuff along the way, like the eating habits of a Venus flytrap or who invented the bicycle.

Why do you write and illustrate? I started to write to make more work for myself as an illustrator. It just happened that I really enjoyed the writing process. Though it is far more difficult for me than creating the images. When writing, it’s as much about knowing what not to say and what is better said with an image. By doing both I have more control over how those parts work together.

What do you love about writing for kids? I love making artwork where I can really stretch my own imagination and my skills. Children are such a great audience because their minds seem to jump to the most incredible places. They can take in the most fantastical concepts without question. I have to try really hard to take my work to places a child can dream up before breakfast.

A friend’s child once presented me with a blob of cotton wool, foil and sticky tape and in her mind it was this amazing creature that had adventures and was magic and ate fairy floss for every meal. She got all that from cotton wool. If I can make a book that can capture that imagination, I will be very happy.

What was the inspiration for your Pen Pals Forever series? It comes from two places really. My Grandmother is a tireless teller of family tales. She has kept dozens of scrapbooks and used to send me little type written snippets of “A day in the life of a wartime nurse”, or stories about her life in far-flung places. Our correspondence was special and I have saved her letters and postcards for years.

Another influence were letters from my best friend when she travelled overseas for the very first time. Everything was described in minute and hilarious detail, just like our conversations in person. Hand written letters, cards and scrapbooks are just my way of showing that relationships should be cherished.

Also, when writing in the old school way, ideas just tumble out. You write truthfully and don’t have the same opportunities to structure and sensor your feelings.

What are the greatest blocks or obstacles you have experienced on your book-writing journey? I am, first and foremost, an illustrator. So I think the biggest hurdle for me was putting a hold on the pictures in my head and letting the story come to life in a different way. I had to get used to the editing process and not get locked into one way of telling a story. It is much easier to change text than illustrations. I still struggle every time I sit down to put my writer’s hat on first. The compromise is to draw up my characters first and then write with the drawings around me.

What’s a typical writing day? When I write I need as few distractions as possible so at most I will listen to music but often I work in silence. I generally still make lots of handwritten notes about character background and story structure before moving on to my computer to join all the bits together. I also like to talk to people around me about my story to see if they laugh at or are surprised by different things than I am.

When it comes to the illustration part I will often use music or much loved movies playing in the background to help set the tone of a drawing or the pace at which I work. I am much more instinctive about the visuals and like to sketch out everything quite quickly before I move on to finished art.

What advice do you have on writing and illustrating? I think that if you feel the drive to write or illustrate, you need to be prepared to do a huge amount of work to make it happen. You have to practice and experiment and not be afraid to put aside what doesn’t work. You might find a different way to use it later.

Also, really look at what goes on around you. Not just the big, obvious stuff but also the little things that seem so everyday. Those relatable details allow readers to put themselves in the story, even when they are very young.

If you couldn’t be a writer and illustrator, what would you be? I was very close to trying to make that decision a couple of years ago because it can be very hard to keep trying when you’re just not sure it will amount to anything. I can’t say I have ever imagined myself not doing something creative. If I had to choose another career, it would involve travel.

What are your all-time favourite kids’ books? I grew up reading Roald Dahl and have never tired of his cheekiness and sometimes darkly terrifying stories. My other all time favourite is still Wind in the Willows. My parents read it to me over and over and I have read it again many times. I also love the work of Shaun Tan, especially The Red Tree and The Lost Thing. He is a wonderful artist, designer and writer. More recently, I have really enjoyed Ian Falconer’s wonderful Olivia books.

What else do you like to do, other than write and illustrate books? I have discovered, only very recently, that I love the outdoors. I have never been sporty (staying in all hours and drawing will do that to you) but I love to walk for miles and listen to bird life and smell all those lovely outdoor smells. I also really enjoy all the other types of story telling and watch movies often, both at home and the cinema where you can sink into a story like nowhere else.

What would be your perfect day? It must start with a sleep in. I very rarely get them and usually can’t stay still for very long but there is something about sneaking an extra five minutes in bed while everyone else gets on with life around you.

There must be some time set aside for drawing silly cartoons of whatever pops into your mind. I love to make cards or paintings for special occasions and for people I love.

And there must also be chocolate. I have never quite managed to follow Cookie Monster’s dietary advice that cookies are a “sometime food” but I try (sometimes).

What five words best sum you up? Colourful, Laughing, Creative, Silly (it’s a good thing I promise) and Talkative.

What’s next for Lenny Pelling? I am working on a new series idea with a little mystery and a supernatural twist. Again for Beginner Readers (5+), the first character sketches are already staring at me from my wall, and the first manuscript is slowly but surely taking shape. I am fighting the urge to draw the pictures first as always and loving every minute.

Visit Lenny Pelling's website

See our review of Pen Pals Forever 1: Summer Days

Watch this space for reviews of books 2, 3 and 4 in the Pen Pals Forever series.