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Grahame Baker-Smith

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CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal 2011 winner, Grahame Baker-Smith, talks to us about his work, influences and his children’s book, FArTHER

Grahame Baker-Smith

How do you develop your ideas? What was the starting idea for the project that became FArTHER?

The starting point for FArTHER was an image that came into my mind’s eye during the course of an ordinary day. I saw a figure, a man, sitting at a workbench making a pair of wings. At the time, as I went about the various tasks and demands of the day, I did not know who he was or what he was really trying to do. In the evening, the house grew quieter and the family retired to bed. I felt there was a story somewhere in this image and so sat downstairs (with a glass of dark English ale), took out a notebook and pen and the first line just appeared: ‘Poppies lined the path to my father’s house.’ From there on over a period of about an hour and a half I wrote the story line by line, as if it were being dictated. I didn’t really know exactly what was going to happen or where it was all leading to – the things that happened in the story were a surprise to me – but I had a feeling of something being ‘right’ and a sense of exploration and trust in the work, that all will be OK!

I didn’t know until I actually wrote the words that the Father would be called away to war. This was a part of the story I actually hesitated over as it seemed a bit extreme for a picture book, but then decided to go with the flow as it seemed an important and pivotal point in the story.

I also didn’t know how it was going to end and, again, until I got to the last two pages I couldn’t imagine how to end it at all, but somehow it just seemed to fall from the pen. I still have the notebook and barely a word has been changed from that to the final published text – and there was no crossing out!

I have thought about the themes that appear in FArTHER for a very long time, ancestry, the idea of inheritance on a sub-atomic level, the power and pursuit of dreams and obsession, and how these things work within the context of our most profound relationships and loves.

So that is how FArTHER came about, but no project is the same. The illustrated novel I’m working on, Tales from Terramaunia, is at the moment clocking-in at around 40,000 words and is a very different animal though the source material, the thinking about our human nature, love and loss, are all very much a part of it.

Do you tend to write all the text and then work on the illustrations, or do you think about them both together?

With FArTHER I did write the whole text first. With Tales from Terramaunia I started with a vague idea and then made a couple of sample pieces of work which then helped me to further develop the idea in writing. I have ended up doing quite a bit of artwork for it but probably very little of it will appear in the final book. The real function of this artwork is to open up possibilities for the world I’m trying to create – most of the images themselves are not good enough to portray this world as I wish it to be.

How do you organise your working day? Where do you work?

Well, the alarm goes off at the ungodly hour of 7:03. Why 7:03 and not just 7:00 or 7:05 I have no idea – my wife sets it and I prefer to retain the mystery! Anyway, that is the start of the process of rousing our three children and feeding them, getting them to school, and so on. Consciousness dawns slowly in my mind and by nine, nine-thirty… maybe ten, I’m ready to work at whatever is most pressing or most interesting.

There is nearly always a break at 11 for coffee with my wife (who is also an artist) – often cake or scones play a part in this! If the weather is good we sit outside. I absolutely love work but it is important to talk to your loved ones and this time is one of those little spaces in the day when we can do so.

Then back to work, often missing lunch entirely because the time goes so quickly and before I know it, the children are back from school. This brings a certain level of chaos and noise, which makes it difficult to concentrate and, anyway, I want to see them and cook and all that domestic family stuff. I often start work again later on, nine or ten in the evening until whenever I feel like stopping.

I work in a large room on the first floor of our house in Bath. I call it a studio but it is also where everyone gathers in the evenings. I haven’t separated my work from my life because I feel it is all one big experience rolling and tumbling together. There is no place where one ends and another part begins. I do what I do because that is how I am wired but it is a part of my life, not separate from it. I feel strongly about this I think, because my father, as most fathers of that generation inevitably did, had a job, away from the house and all that went on in it, and a home life and the two were very distinct and different.

What are the differences between illustrating another author’s work and illustrating text that you have written yourself?

The fundamental challenges are the same – how do I make the most of this image or that event, how do I tell parts of the story that are not in the words, can I make something beautiful from this? If I’m illustrating something I’ve written it feels very complete and satisfying. I also have the liberty to write scenes and events that I know will be great fun to do. To illustrate someone else’s text requires first that I really like the words and the story. There has to be a connection because an author deserves to have a committed and passionate eye at the service of their words.

But what I really love about working on someone else’s text is that it takes me down paths I may not otherwise ever have explored. With Angela McAllister’s fabulous Leon and the Place Between (Templar) I had the most wonderful time experimenting with all kinds of ways of creating a theatrical and magical feel for the visuals and to figure out a way of constructing mechanical-looking toys like the gatefold ‘carousel’ spread. I am sure I wouldn’t have thought of doing these sorts of things without the prompt of Angela’s imagination.

Wings appear on most pages of FArTHER, in some form. Are wings an important symbol to you?

Well flight is, I think, a very powerful metaphor for aspiring, striving, dreaming and for freedom. It is the age-old classical dream of mankind – how many of us have dreamed of flying? Feathers, the means by which true flight is achieved, are incredibly beautiful and it fascinates me that the mechanical elements by which a bird breaks the bond of gravity, are in themselves so fine.

FArTHER feels a little like a dream. Do you tend to remember your dreams, and do they contribute to your stories?

It’s interesting to me that you feel it’s a little like a dream, I understand what you mean though the thought and feeling behind it come from a very real place. Life feels at times a little like a dream – childhood when looked back on from a distance of some years seems a little like a dream, and I think that came out in the way it was written.

I do remember some dreams and I have written some down but it is usually the strange ones that get remembered. One is very vivid. In it I ‘flew’ – I really felt I was rising out of my bed and could feel my head going through the ceiling of the bedroom and then through the differently textured layers of the roof and out over the city. I went to a place where I met my father (who died in 1999), we embraced and I woke with a realisation that stunned me. I had – like many children who have rather un-demonstrative parents – many questions over whether my father loved me but I realised I had completely neglected to ask myself the question: Did my father know I loved him? Did I ever make that clear to him?

Did you enjoy writing and drawing when you were at school? Do you have any advice for a child who enjoys writing or drawing?

I was hopeless at just about everything at school including art. My best subject was English and I did write stories though I can’t remember any of them.

My advice is the same as I have heard given by virtually every author or artist that is asked this. If you enjoy it, if it is something you feel compelled to do, just keep on doing it. If you find it is something that does not go away as you get older then don’t listen to anyone trying to tell you that you are wasting your time doing it. There are plenty of people in the world who never attempted anything, never aspired to or dreamed of anything, who will try to pour cold water on you. It is your life and you have a right to live it in a way that accords with your natural character and inclination. But… work hard… strive for excellence!


Grahame Baker-Smith has won the 2011 CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal, the UK’s most prestigious children’s illustration award, for FArTHER (Templar). The book tells the moving story of how a son takes up his father’s unfulfilled dreams of flying, and finally takes to the air.

Grahame says: ‘It’s been an extraordinary, painful, joyous, frustrating and wonderful trip, this making a living from my imagination. I am utterly amazed to win.’



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