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

Sunday 3 October 2010

Chatting with Author and Artist Jeannie Baker

Born in England and living and working in Australia, Jeannie Baker’s name is known around the world by anyone with a love of picture book art. Jeannie has just released her amazing picture book Mirror. You can find out more about her picture books and the travelling exhibition of her artworks at her website - jeanniebaker.com.

How did you get your first book published? In my final year at art school, we were allowed to work on a project of our own choosing. I developed the illustrations for what would become my first book, Grandfather. A lecturer suggested that I show the work to a visiting speaker, who gave me a list of publishers and suggested that I get in touch with one of them.

I chose the first name on the list and approached them with my book. They were interested but hesitant to publish a book by someone who was totally unknown. They suggested I illustrate a book for one of their existing authors and if that was successful, they would publish my book.

I illustrated Polar by Elaine Moss and, as promised, they then published Grandfather.

How did the idea for your current book - Mirror - come about? When I’m working on a book project, I am very focused. When the project is finished, I love to travel to clear my mind and find new inspiration. I found myself in travelling alone in remote Morocco where I experienced incredible generosity and friendliness, which was such a contrast to the very negative comments being made at home at the time about foreigners and foreignness.

This is where Mirror began, as I thought about how even though outward appearances can be very different, the inner person might not be so different at all. Family life, everyday rituals like mealtimes and being part of a larger community are experiences that most of us share.

Your illustrations are very detailed. How long does it take to create each artwork? Some of the smaller artworks come together in only a few days, while the larger artworks can take several months of focused work to be completed. Each artwork starts as a sketch, so the process begins long before I ever start forming the collages.

With Mirror, I had two different assistants help me for a period of time on the backgrounds of some of the larger artworks. There is so much work involved in each one.

Why do you choose to display your art in picture book format? I love the format of picture books. It comes easily to me as it’s the way I see things. I can get lost in it. Textures and images mean a lot to me and I love to convey stories through images.

I love being able to communicate with adults and children through my work. The stories have layers that appeal to different experiences. Young children will get one things from the stories while adults or older children will get something else. I love the text-free format in many of my books, as it gives space for a child to tell the story.

Many of my picture book artworks are also displayed in travelling exhibitions like the one currently underway for Mirror. I enjoy the way that different spaces can make a difference to the way the artworks look and the way the story flows.

What are the greatest blocks of obstacles you have experienced on your writing journey? A lack of confidence in my ideas has often been an obstacle. With each new book, I have wondered whether the publisher will be interested and whether the idea will appeal or be as meaningful to others as much as it is to me.

I can also get frustrated by my own lack of ability. I’m not always able to get the artworks to reflect the images in my mind. Sometimes the printed results aren’t quite what I was hoping for.

What advice would you have on writing for young people? My advice for anyone is always to find a way to do what you love, what you are passionate about and what you are good at. Dream big and then work hard to make your dreams a reality. With hard work and practice and determination, you can do your best to make your dreams come true. It doesn’t always work, but you’ll never know if you never try.

You need to be passionate about what you do and practice, practice, practice.

What do you enjoy most about what you do? I feel very fortunate to be able to create picture books and share them with people. Creating each story takes me to a different world and I have the opportunity to have a very personal connection with what I create.

I enjoy the adventure of each new book and love to hear that others enjoy the books as well. I feel very lucky to be an artist and author and I don’t take my good fortune for granted.

- this interview by Susan Whelan. Read Susan's book signing and art exhibition Mirror experience in Sydney here.