Q: How did you come up with the idea for Hamish Takes the Train?
A: The characters, Hamish and Noreen, were inspired by an old shed on a hill that I kept walking past: as I walked I decided that a bear and a goose lived there, and that one was more adventurous than the other.
There wasn’t a railway at the bottom of the hill, as there is below Hamish and Noreen's house, but there was an incredible view that I think I’d have to go and explore if I lived there. The bear and the goose kept appearing in my sketchbook: cooking, gardening, arguing, doing jigsaws together.
Separately, I’d been thinking it’d be fun to make a book about trains and cranes and building sites, but I was surprised when all these things came together into a story about friendship, adventure, and earth-moving machines.
Q: You've also brought back your characters Alphonse and Natalie in your picture book Alphonse, There's Mud on the Ceiling!. Why did you decide to return to them?
A: Alphonse, There’s Mud on the Ceiling! is my third Natalie and Alphonse book and although I worried at first about the pitfalls of making a series (what if I got bored or boring? What if I repeated myself?) it has actually been wonderful.
One reason I come back to these characters is that children seem to like them, but I think that some of the things children enjoy about series can apply to authors too: you get to know your characters really well and to explore different experiences with them, and they and their world become very real and important to you.
Natalie and Alphonse are little monsters but the books are really about children’s everyday experiences: getting on with your brother, learning to read, and in this case, living in a small apartment but needing to find ways to be wild. There’s a lot of me and my big brother in these books, and a bit of my nieces too.
Q: Do you usually begin with the text or the illustrations--or go back and forth between the two?
A: For me the words and images usually develop together: most of my stories begin as doodles in my sketchbook. A character or pair of characters I’ve drawn will seem more interesting to me and I’ll draw and draw them and get them talking, doing things, interacting with others. I try not to start storyboarding or typing up text too quickly as sometimes that seems to frighten the story away.
I like to photocopy pictures and words and cut them up and rearrange them into loose sequences, and keep drawing and scribbling on scraps of paper and backs of envelopes until I think enough of the story is there.
Q: What first interested you in creating children's picture books?
A: I never grew out of reading picture books – I just added other kinds of books. As a child I loved drawing, making things, and writing, but when I had to specialise I chose to focus on words; I studied English Literature and Creative Writing at university, focusing on poetry.
After my BA, I began to find out more about the people who wrote and illustrated picture books, and to feel increasingly envious of them! But I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it because I hadn’t studied illustration.
Luckily, the MA in Children’s Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art accepts people with all kinds of backgrounds, on the strength of their portfolio (mine was all doodles and birthday cards).
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve just finished the illustrations for a picture book about humans, which made a change! All my book illustrations (except those for Hamish) are screenprinted, so it’s a lengthy (but always interesting) process.
Now I’m thinking about Natalie and Alphonse again: I'm in the very early stages but it’s nice to be back with them.
I’m also thinking about baby board books: my first two, Monster Food and Monster Clothes, will be published in the US in 2021 and I’d love to make some more.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: My next book with Candlewick will be I Like Trains, in March 2021: it’s a very young picture book about a little dog who loves everything railway-related. I didn’t mean to make two train books in a row! But I do think trains are great, and the books are about as different as they could be.
It was so interesting to make a book for a younger audience than I’m used to – we wanted to keep the text and images as simple and spare as possible, but of course the story still had to be satisfying.
One more thing: on 10th December I’ll be talking about my work as an author-illustrator at an online event with illustration consultancy Orange Beak Studios. As it’s online I think people could attend from anywhere, if they were interested to hear more about my work.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb