Vegan Illustrator Elissa Elwick on Creating Children's Picture Book

Elissa ElwickIllustrator, author and vegan Elissa Elwick has teamed up with bestselling children’s author Philip Ardagh to create a fact-packed picture book series titled ‘Little Adventurers’. This bright, colourful collection of stories follows the exciting lives of four characters – Finnegan, Floss, Sprat and Peanut – who, through their adventures, encourage children to explore the great outdoors, discover the joys of nature and most of all use their imagination.

To begin with, can you tell me all about your own vegan journey and how this ties in with the work that you produce?

I went from being vegetarian to vegan when I was 19 (I’m now 30) as I just felt that not eating meat wasn’t enough for me anymore, and I wanted to make sure that nothing I consumed or used could have had animal cruelty involved.

I can’t say I specifically notice a correlation between my veganism and my work, aside from the fact that I have a lot of empathy and find it fairly easy to put myself into someone else’s shoes (human or otherwise). I’m definitely a sensitive person and when I was younger I viewed this as a weakness, but I’ve since learnt that it’s my sensitive nature that enables me to think more deeply about things and care so wholeheartedly, and this directly flows into my work.

Where did your love for drawing originate?

I’ve loved drawing for as long as I can remember, so I’d say it’s just something that’s always been there. My dad studied fine art at university when he was younger and I think I’ve definitely inherited a lot of my creativity from him. I grew up watching lots of cartoons (I still do), which have always influenced my work and inspired me, possibly just as much as reading books did. I’ve been lucky that my family have always supported and encouraged me in my ambition to carve a life for myself that focused around my passion to draw and write. It was the same when I went vegetarian (aged 10) and then vegan – no one else in my family was but they all supported my decision and let me get on with it.

Can you briefly discuss the process of writing and illustrating a children’s book?

Typically a picture book will start with a text and a storyboard. The storyboard will loosely show what will happen on each page with rough ‘thumbnail’ sketches, and this process is especially helpful for me if I’m writing a story, because it helps break everything down visually. Usually a publisher will match up an author and an illustrator, but unusually, myself and Philip Ardagh came as a collaborative package on this one.

elissa elwick

What was it like working with Philip Ardagh?

Philip’s written a lot of books and I’d read some long before I ever met him. When we DID meet, I was rather pleased to find that he was just as funny and silly as his writing suggests. Our imaginations seemed to click from the word go. Although he’s been published for many years – and seems to know just about EVERYONE in children’s publishing – ours is a very balanced, equal working partnership because we’re both collaborating in a way neither of us has before. It’s great fun and rewarding bouncing ideas off each other, crafting and honing them as we go.

Where did the initial idea for The Little Adventurers stem from?

After graduating from The Arts University of Bournemouth in 2008 and completing my very first picture book, I moved to London and got a part-time job as a nanny for three wonderful kids, Mathilda, Tom and Sasha (who I’ve dedicated Leafy the Pet Leaf to). Over the three years I was with them we did all sorts – making films, coming up with stories – and many of the things the little adventurers would get up to. I first got the idea during one of our trips to The National History Museum, and everything was pieced together from there.

When we were younger, my brothers were in the Cubs, and then the Scouts, and I never was, so I suppose in a way, by coming up with the little adventurers, I’d created the kind of club I wish I’d been in as a child.

Can you discuss briefly the issues and themes that are tackled in the first book…i.e. kindness to the planet and all animals, bravery, adventure etc.?

In Leafy the Pet Leaf, it’s bring in a pet day; a chance for the Little Adventurers to learn all about each other’s pets. There’s a dog, a cat, a mouse and…a leaf.

I grew up with all sorts of pets as a child, whereas Philip grew up with none, so to have a homemade pet in the book seemed like an obvious way to include all children into the narrative; it doesn’t matter if they have a pet or not, they can be imaginative, brave, kind and caring too.

These are all issues that matter very much to Philip and I, so it felt like they sort of crept into the series by osmosis – we created four main characters that we love so it seemed right that they would care passionately about looking after animals and the planet, that’s just part of what being a Little Adventurer is.

I’m aware you are both an author and an illustrator, is their one that you favour over the other?

For me, drawing is something that comes extremely naturally and is something I find myself doing absentmindedly – like breathing. I can’t imagine ever not doing it. There’s something incredibly therapeutic about it (apart from on the run up to a deadline) and if I didn’t draw I’d probably go mad.

Writing on the other hand feels like an equally therapeutic process, but doesn’t come quite as easily. It requires me to think more deeply about things, which is part of the reason I love it. I think it’s interesting writing with half an illustrator’s brain because I visualise the story much more than I would if I didn’t have the same background. There are moments you can leave out to show in the pictures, and the relationship between words and illustrations can become more pliable.

If I had to choose one that I favour, I’d say drawing because I could tell an entire story through illustrations if it came to it, and I’m quite sure I’d go mad without it.

Were the characters in the book always going to be vegan and lovers of the planet and animals from the outset? Do you think these are important aspects that authors need to deal with more in children’s picture books?

I think the sheer nature of the Little Adventurers club meant that the kids were going to be nature lovers from the start. Much like real children, some might be more keen to be out in the great outdoors than others, some might need help understanding the natural world and identifying one insect from another, but one thing they have in common is their mutual respect for all living things and the environment, which for both children and adults alike, can (unfortunately) take time to learn, and is one of the themes we feel strongly about. I think this is something we should all learn from a young age, whether it’s from books, television programmes, parents or teachers.

The book encourages children to play imaginatively outside, is this something you’re passionate about promoting?

Definitely. At first it was one of those happy accidents – myself and Philip Ardagh were simply creating the kind of stories we wanted to tell, and I suppose because we both put a lot of value in nature and the outdoors, it all kind of fell into place. I’m proud that the Little Adventurers series promotes playing outside and using your imagination.  When I look back on my childhood those are the things I remember the most; charging around outside and inventing all sorts of games.

How did you ensure that the illustrations in this book series would stand out from other picture books?

I think the most important thing for me was to create engaging characters; characters that children can relate to, laugh at, and sympathise with. I think if you get the characters right in a children’s book, everything else can more or less fall into place.

I made sure that each page was colourful and had lots of things going on. For example, if you look closely in most of the spreads of Leafy the Pet Leaf, you can spot hints of Shadow – Sprat’s black cat who goes missing at the beginning of the story.

If possible, can you tell me about any of the other books in the series?

I can tell you that book two will have lots of creepy crawlies, birds and animals in it…not pets but the things who inhabit the garden, (at the end the children make sure that everything is put back safely, just as they found it, of course). And book three will be set at the beach…and that’s all I can say at the moment.

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