Q: How did you come up with the idea for Selfie, about a selfie-obsessed squirrel?
A: The idea for Selfie came to me after reading reports and articles on children’s exposure to social media, and how children can now spend more time gaming than playing outside.
Around the same time, I had been watching a family of exuberant squirrels causing havoc at the end of my garden. And so Sylvie the selfie-obsessed squirrel was born. Squirrels are such energetic, funny and sociable characters. I wanted Sylvie to be like this, but her selfie obsession keeps getting in her way – and into trouble!
Q: Did you focus on the text first or the illustrations first--or work on them simultaneously?
A: I tend to come up with a concept first and then plot out the different stages of the story. Then I flesh it out with more detailed text.
At the same time I draw it all onto a storyboard and try to get the whole thing to fit into 32 pages, as that’s the typical pagination for a picture book. That includes covers, endpapers, title pages etc., so you are left with about 12 double-page spreads to fit the story and illustrations into - this is usually quite a challenge!
I draw little thumbnail sketches, which helps me visualise what the illustrations might look like at each stage of the story. These initial sketches are very rough. But for me they are key to working out compositions and the structure of the book.
I like to plan how the text and illustrations might work together from the start, making sure the illustrations allow space for the text, so that they are integrated from the beginning of the process.
From there I start to develop the characters and the world that they live in. Once the characters start to take shape, they often develop their own voices and take over the story writing!
From this point I switch back and forth between the illustrations and the text, fine tuning and developing them both at the same time.
Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story?
A: Kids now are digital natives - they’ve not known a world before the internet or social media. Social media is here to stay and kids are being exposed to it at a younger age.
Selfies can be a positive tool for creativity and self-expression when used in a balanced way, but kids see other people (celebrities, their peers) presenting a perfect version of themselves and their life for social media. There’s a danger of seeing and recording the world only through the lens of a camera, rather than experiencing it personally and directly in the moment.
Physically active play is seen to be essential for healthy development, playing a vital role in the defence against poor health outcomes and mental health issues.
I feel this is even more important now, in this post-Covid world. We all know how easy it is to fall down the social-media-virtual-rabbit-hole. Selfie encourages kids to be present in the moment, enjoy having fun outside and to make connections with friends in the real world.
I hope that kids will take inspiration from Sylvie the squirrel and agree that they could be missing out on a whole lot of fun with their friends if they focus too much on selfies and social media.
Q: How did you first get interested in creating picture books?
A: Many years ago, during my Bachelor of Arts Illustration degree, I wrote and illustrated a children’s picture book as part of my studies.
My tutor suggested I enter it into a student competition - the Macmillan Prize for children’s picture book illustration. I was reluctant as I’d written the book more for myself than for children and it wasn’t a typical children’s book. But I entered and was shocked to win third prize!
I really enjoyed working on the picture book, but after my course I ended up working in the newspaper and magazine industry for many years.
A few years ago I decided to take a career break and became a student again, attending the Master of Arts Children’s Book Illustration Course at Cambridge School of Art. This rekindled my love for creating picture books and I got my book deal for Selfie after completing that course.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am currently working on a wonderful project - I have been commissioned by Suffolk Libraries, in association with the Arts Council England, to draw in local libraries and capture the unseen moments that happen in libraries across the county.
Part way through the year-long project, Covid-19 arrived. After a pause because of lockdowns, I was able to continue drawing in libraries, in a more restricted capacity. This time my drawings were documenting how things had changed because of Covid.
I am now developing my drawings into a set of original prints, to celebrate and document the amazing services that libraries offer. At the end of the project, we hope to create a digital exhibition online, to display the artworks.
I am also working on new picture book ideas, which I hope will make it into print sometime soon.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: As well as illustrating picture books, I create artworks using traditional and experimental printmaking techniques, and I like nothing better than inky fingernails!
You can see more of my work here:
--Interview with Deborah Kalb