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The SRB Interview: Debi Gliori – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

The SRB Interview: Debi Gliori

August 14, 2015 | by SRB

Debi Gliori was born in 1959 in Glasgow. She graduated from Edinburgh College of Art and worked as a freelance illustrator before publishing her first picture book, New Big Sister, in 1991. Since then she has published over seventy-five books for children of all ages.

Her creation Mr. Bear will be familiar to many who grew up in the 1990s. In 2009 she created the Bookbug, the mascot for the Scottish Book Trust’s early reading scheme. Bookbug sessions are a frequent occurrence in libraries all over Scotland, and since their inception have done immeasurable good in improving literacy rates across the country. Determined to raise awareness about climate change among children, Gliori published The Trouble with Dragons in 2010. Her more recent books include The Tobermory Cat (2012), What’s the Time Mr. Wolf? (2014), Dragon Loves Penguin (2014), and a new book for toddlers called Alfie in the Bath (2015). She has recently finished her first illustrated book for adults about depression. Debi Gliori is Artist in Residence at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival. One of the many events she will be hosting includes Debi Gliori’s 

Big Draw. This is a chance for children to draw the animals of Antarctica and learn more about global warming. 

Nick Major met Gliori in her garden studio – ‘International Shedquarters’ – on a typically dreich July day in East Lothian. They sat surrounded by drawings, drafts of work in progress, a large easel and a montage of postcards and pictures spread over the adjacent well. Gliori perched on her work stool, but throughout their conversation frequently leaped up to pull down a book or open a large drawer to lift out a sketch. Among much else, they talked about the importance of libraries, her ubiquitous Bookbug, and the dangers of not reading to children. 

SRB: Is this where most of your books start?

Debi Gliori: I tend not to think of any ideas just sitting here. They tend to come when I’m in the great outdoors. Actually, the more books I do the more the weight of the previous books becomes completely oppressive. I long to clear all the shelves and start again with a blank space.

And where does an idea start: with an image or the word? 

The image. It’s usually a single image and I try to write a story around it. A good example is Dragon Loves Penguin. I’d been doing an awful lot of reading about Antarctica over the course of the previous winter and the idea came out of that. My imagination was full of what a treacherous place it can be, but also how wonderful it must be and how much I wished I could go there. And so I began drawing what I imagine an Antarctic spring is like, when the ice is starting to break up but it’s still very grey and cold and nasty. I drew a dragon flying over the ice and began to ask myself questions about what was going on in the picture. I’d long wanted to do a book with an abandoned egg in it, and I’d tried crocodile eggs, ducks and hen’s eggs. But this picture made me wonder: what if there was an abandoned penguin egg? The general idea for the book came from that one picture, but that couldn’t have happened if I hadn’t done the background reading.

Are certain times of day better for drawing? 

I can draw at any time, but the difficulty in the northern hemisphere is that come winter the light is awful. If you don’t have colour-balanced bulbs your paintings can be quite cold because most lightbulbs cast a yellow light and you paint to compensate. I was on Iona for three days trying to do some background drawing for a new book called The Hebridean Alphabet and [that’s] a very different procedure because you’re rushing to capture the light before it changes.

What’s The Hebridean Alphabet about?

I was on Mull publicizing The Tobermory Cat and the publisher said: ‘I’ve got a yen to do a Hebridean Alphabet’, and I said: ‘stop, I’ll do it!’ What came into my head was setting up a child’s day up from A-Z, and coming up with things for each letter. What emerged was a short text about a six year old’s perfect day in the Hebrides. Because there aren’t any busy roads, and because the parents are quite chilled about the children going out to play, you have the whole day to yourself, to guddle on the beach and make dams and climb hills, and basically have the best day ever. So I’m now starting the illustrations of a perfect sunny day, which this summer is going to be difficult.

Many illustrations in children’s books are quite precise, but there is a great sprawling quality to the drawings in Dragon Loves Penguin

I was trying a completely new technique. All seventy five of my previous books have been painted in watercolour and you can see the boundaries where the colours stop and start. There is a bit of freedom with watercolours but not that much, so I was dying to do something that was a bit more out of control, a bit looser.

What are your favourite materials to work with?

I love charcoal. It’s big and smudgy and you can draw with your hands rather than using a meticulous watercolour technique, which I always think is terribly ladylike. There is something very visceral about drawing with charcoal. You can get incredible atmosphere because of the way charcoal works on paper. I’ve been doing a book for adults on the subject of depression which I’m still trying to find a publisher for. All the drawings are in charcoal and I’ve found that to be incredibly powerful. I couldn’t have done it in watercolour; it wouldn’t have worked. In the latest children’s book I tried to combine charcoal and watercolour, which is lovely because you get the charcoal atmospherics plus the finer watercolour detail.

What’s this new book about?

The next one is a goodnight story for the whole world. It begins by saying goodnight to the moon and the stars, and coming closer and closer in until right at the end you are in the child’s bedroom and you realise it’s not actually the child speaking; the mother is pregnant and the baby is speaking: ‘all is well in my small world, round my mother’s heart I’m curled.’ It made my art editor cry.

How have children responded to the new style?

They haven’t noticed at all. They haven’t said: ‘oh, you’ve changed your technique’. Up until February this year I would have said: ‘yeah, every single child I have read Dragon Loves Penguin to has responded positively’. But I had a really tough series of events in a library this year: it felt like I was being eaten alive by four year olds. I was talking with them and they said: ‘your book is really boring’. I was aghast: how exciting does it have to be? The main baby penguin character is about to be immolated in a volcano. In further conversation, it transpired that my tiny critics didn’t have a story before they went to bed: instead, they played Minecraft on iPads. Not being familiar with these games, I asked them what Minecraft was about – what was its story? Unsurprisingly, they couldn’t tell me. It was of some concern because these library events were held in a massively socially deprived area, and instead of taking books out of the library – for free – they all had iPads.

Are you worried that digital media might usurp books as a way for children to learn and understand the world?

I’ve read about the rise of screen-based storytelling, and what effect neuroscientists think this has on infant brains. I am very concerned about it. I know good stories can be told on screen, but in the main iPads and the like are used as electronic babysitters to keep small children occupied.

Parents must have coped without these devices in the past.

We did. We carried vast amounts of books around with us.

Do you think this new technology affects children’s levels of concentration?

It’s very hard to do focused reading [on a phone or computer]. Everybody acknowledges that sitting and reading a book on a screen is quite difficult because you keep straying off. That type of fragmented consciousness or ‘grazing’ is a disaster for small children.

You designed the Bookbug – the mascot for Scotland’s early reading scheme. Do you think literacy among children in Scotland is improving?

There is still work to be done. I think the Bookbug initiative is absolutely brilliant. Having been to the Scottish Book Trust (SBT) Children’s Book of the Year and observed how engaged the children were was heartening. But I have been to areas in Scotland where I’ve thought: oh heavens, we need Bookbug here right now. In a library in another deprived area of Scotland, prior to a storytelling event, I saw a teacher hand over a PlayStation to a tiny four year old and say: ‘here, take that, it’ll keep you quiet’. The whole point of participating in a storytelling event at a library is not to be quiet – it’s to engage with the story. So it’s not just the children that need educating, it’s the parents. Bringing the parents on board is going to be a large challenge for Bookbug. The children are relatively easy but they need to see the parents using books.

When did the Bookbug programme start?

They launched the programme in the summer of 2010. I did a session last year in Perth with a range of Primary pupils from schools all over the county and I said: ‘so, you are the first generation that has grown up with Bookbug because you’re five years old and book bug is five. So, everyone knows who book bug is?’ And of course everyone did apart from one little contrarian in the front row, and I said: ‘you have been living under a stone’. For the rest of them it was part of their lives. I love saying ‘Bookbug is my child’, but for children Bookbug just appeared. It’s probably the most successful thing I’ve ever drawn!

Where did the Bookbug come from?

In Autumn 2009 the Scottish Book Trust rang me up. They wanted me to design a mascot for them. At that time they were still using the English Book Trust’s rather scary blue polar bear logo. SBT wanted their own discrete brand. At first I drew a couple of pencil sketches of wise owls with books, but when I showed it to them they wanted something completely different. So I came up with three things: one of Bookbug with a thistle coming out the top of his head called Thistletop, which is a bit alarming – he was meant to look really Scottish. There was another one called Bookbun, and I’m delighted they didn’t use it because he became Alfie. Then there was this little creature who had red and white stripes with a little yellow face and these two anthers, and they said: ‘what’s that?’ To which I replied, ‘Bookbug’. Which is where his name comes from. They showed Bookbug to a focus group of mums, some of whom said it looked satanic. So I tweaked the colours, and lo and behold that was Bookbug. I’ll never forget the day he was launched. I had never seen him with babies. SBT had commissioned a huge walk-in costume and filled a room with tiny children. The door opened and in came Bookbug. Their faces actually lit up and they began crawling towards him as if he was a magnet. 

You mentioned earlier that criticism from children can be quite brutal.

Sometimes you can see what’s happening is mob rule. One child will say something fairly controversial, and the others will scent blood in the water and join in. Sometimes I feel it’s completely valid and I think: I’m out of touch; I need to make my books more exciting, perhaps I should’ve chosen an easier way to make a living. And sometimes I think that holding up a picture book to an audience of sixty primary ones and primary twos and hoping to hold their attention for up to an hour is all very well if quite a lot happens in the text and there’s a bit of scatological humour thrown in, but a lot of my books are almost like lullabies. They are meant to do the exact opposite to what primary school children are wanting out of an author visit, because the children either want to be challenged or they want to be amused, whereas my books are made to wrap the whole day up and put the child to sleep. I think a lot of my books are stories to reassure at the end of the day, and the weirder and wilder the world becomes the more I think there is a place for that kind of book. It works beautifully with a one to one, but if you’ve got a huge crowd it’s a disaster.

The book bug programme has done a lot to get children into libraries. Were libraries important for you when you were growing up?

My parents split up when I was about seven. In that period my mum and I moved into a rooming house in Hillhead, Glasgow: we had one room with a shared kitchen and bathroom. It was fairly scabby and full of old people – it was really quite sad that at the end of their lives they were living in this horrible rented accommodation. Anyway, the one thing that kept me sane was a library just around the corner. Before they built the Hillhead Library there was a Nissen Hut on a piece of public ground that had been allowed to go wild. The hut was crammed with books. The librarian quickly realised I could read my way through the shelves. She used to give me extra tickets so I could get seven books a week. So I just fell into books. I have been a devoted library user up until – a terrible confession – I started to buy books of my own. We have a ridiculous number in the house. It’s unbelievable how many you accrue over a lifetime and how big a house you need to accommodate them. They are running down the hall and up over the doors. 

Some libraries have had drastic cuts in their budgets because of the government’s austerity programme, but considering how cheap books are now do you think libraries are necessary? 

If you are living under the axe of austerity there’s no way you can afford to buy any books. Having gone through several fiscally perilous periods in my life I was very glad there was a library because I could go there and read whatever I needed. Also, they’re important for people who are trying to drag themselves out of the hole they currently find themselves in. Whether it is just to escape, or to study and find out about the world, and then possibly get themselves on to a course of education. I’m no fan of our current government and keeping us stupid is definitely to their advantage. Libraries keep us awake. 

What made you want to create your own books as well as read them?

I’ve always done it – ever since I was wee I made up stories and illustrated them. Because books were so much of my life growing up it just made sense to make them. Neither of my parents said: you could do that when you’re grown up. They had other ideas for my future. It wasn’t until I went to art college that I realised this was a path forward and that if you wanted to be an artist you didn’t just have to slap paint on canvas – you could actually make books. 

How difficult was it to get published at the beginning?

I think I was quite lucky because I was first published in 1989 and it was probably the third picture book I had written. It was called New Big Sister, about a mum who was pregnant, and it got taken up by Walker Books immediately. Once the door was open and I had a published book one thing led to another, but when I first started off doing picture books I was a single parent so I also did advertising work. You can make a fairly decent living drawing assorted distilleries and salmon! I drew in a style that resembled old-fashioned woodcuts which was beloved of various Edinburgh advertising and design agencies. That kept the wolf from the door, but it was a very happy day when I could wave goodbye to advertising and work for publishing one hundred percent, because that was all I ever wanted to do.

Can children’s authors make a living in the same way as they’ve done in the past?

It’s becoming harder and harder. Publishers seem to be very cautious and only want to take on books they’re sure are going to sell in comparatively large quantities. Very few publishers actually work the long tail, where they used to take on someone new in the full knowledge that their first few books might not sell hugely, but in the hope that with a bit of nurturing their new author would come up with something really good later on. Now it’s two strikes and you’re out. I don’t think I’m being bleak: publishing has changed. I used to be able to pick up the phone and speak to an editor, but not anymore. Nowadays it’s a bit like trying to get a message through to a fortified castle.

What are they doing?

I’m informed they’re in meetings all the time. It’s the Fear. I suspect what happens – though they would never admit it – is that to get something published now, just about everybody has to approve it. Time was an editor could say: I don’t give a damn what you think, I know this book is solid gold so I’m going to wager my shirt on it. Now everyone’s terrified because the stakes are higher. So much money can be lost or gained with one title. Everybody has to get on board and approve a new acquisition so that if it sinks without trace, everyone’s culpable, right down to the guy in the post room. Trying to get a decision about whether a book is published or not is an exercise in nail-biting. I used to send a text over to an editor in the morning and by the afternoon they would say ‘go for it’. Now it’s months of waiting, and frequently it’s no. Not because it’s a bad book but because it’s simply not commercial enough. Whatever that means.

It seems counter-intuitive: surely some talented artists need publishers to take a risk with them.

I can’t imagine how people can make a living. When you first start out you don’t get paid enough to live on. If you can only manage to publish one children’s book a year you’d have to have several jobs. It was difficult when I started but there was loads of work so I would work on three and a half books a year, and that way I could just about survive. But now it’s very different. It saddens me because it used to be the best industry in the world to work in. You would have really excellent arguments with editors and you would have these rigorous debates about the shape of the book. Not anymore – now it’s all centered on appealing to sales and marketing. I mean, which tail is wagging which dog? Whatever happened to the story? Isn’t that important?

Why do you think certain children’s books, such as Where the Wild Things Are or The Very Hungry Caterpillar, have endured?

Both books are delightfully simple. Max [the protagonist in Where the Wild Things Are] is angry with his mother and his rage is so vast it spawns the Wild Things. This speaks very clearly to a child, saying: it’s alright to be angry, the world will not end if you have a temper tantrum. I think a lot of children feel the world might end because their own rage is so all-consuming. So there is something in that that answers to children’s fear of themselves and their own feelings. Where the Wild Things Are is a really simple idea beautifully realised, by a complete master. 

There’s an authenticity to it?

Yes! Max looks very like what I suspect Maurice Sendak looked like as a little boy. The Very Hungry Caterpillar has very sophisticated images with all the textures and cut-outs, but it’s a simple idea that we can hold on to very easily. It will be interesting to see which books survive the test of time.

What writer-illustrators have influenced your work?

When I was small, there was a golden age of illustrators from Czechoslovakia and I had some fairy-tale books that had really absolutely gorgeous and mysterious oil paintings. They were nothing like the digital images produced nowadays. There was one book in particular, of Hans Christian Andersen stories illustrated by Jirí Trnka, where the paintings are like nothing I’d ever seen before. Dream-like and beautiful, those pictures have remained fresh in my memory fifty years on. I love Tove Jansson. Her line work is astonishing and her writing is luminous. When I was at art college I stumbled upon Janet and Allen Ahlberg, a husband and wife team who made several memorable and jewel-like classic books for children; I still pore over the detail in Janet’s watercolours.

You mentioned that a careful simplicity of image and word is important for a good children’s book. Is that precision of language difficult to achieve?

It’s fiendishly difficult. I don’t find the writing of picture books easy. I aim to tell the story as concisely as I can, then I read it out loud over and over again. That way I can actually hear when it’s not working. Children’s books are designed to be read out loud in a way that no other book is. And of equal importance – there must be room in the text for the illustrations to tell the story. 

One of your more recent books, The Trouble with Dragons, tells the story of climate change. How did that book start? 

Through feeling powerless about global apathy in the face of evidence from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and thinking: what can I do? As well as having a deep-green son who leads by example. It took two years to find a way to discuss the subject with children without saying: don’t worry, just use low-voltage lightbulbs and all the nasty climate change will go away. But how to do this without frightening my small readers? After much thought, the idea of using dragons as vectors of warming came to me one morning and from then on, the book almost wrote itself. After publication, I had some interesting mail from outraged climate change deniers, mostly from America.

How have children responded?

They don’t go: we’re all going to die! Children are amazing because it’s a pretty uncompromising look at six degrees of catastrophic warming, yet they take it on the chin. It’s their world we’re risking.

Do you worry about putting a difficult subject like that in a children’s book?

With the climate change book it’s quite subtle. There is an underlying message which basically says: if we don’t do something we’re toast. We’ll be as extinct as the dragons. But that’s not immediately threatening, because as we all know dragons are mythical beasts. The only bit in this book that I was really worried about was the scariest picture I’ve ever done: the world at six degrees of warming; seas have risen up; methane clathrates are coming off the sea bed; there’s nothing left in the sea but jellyfish. But a child wouldn’t realise that. And besides, it’s happening to dragons, not people. It would only be a climate change expert who would say: yeah, that scenario looks familiar. We appear to be heading rapidly towards that. It’s horrific. But I would never put something really horrific in a picture book; in the world we live in, we need less horror and more reassurance. 

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