Club Tropicana

Sarah McConnell

12 May 15 words: Aly Stoneman
The children's author and illustrator answered a few questions of ours about her creative process and what it takes to hit the big league
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How did you get into illustration?
As a child I was always making little books, crazy cocktail recipes and secret clubs. I did an Art Foundation at Loughborough and a degree at Cambridge School of Art. After that, I thought I’d like to specialise in children’s books, so I did an MA in Sequential Design and Illustration at Brighton. Two of the books I wrote there were published, so they paid for the course.

After that initial success, what were the next steps for you?
I started building up my business as an illustrator while waitressing on the side. I got a really good agent who I’ve had ever since. She sorts out most of my work for me, and I get on with the writing and illustrating.

You’ve worked with some well-known publishers…
I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked for most of the big publishers, such as Hodder Children's Books, Harper Collins UK and US, Orchard Books, Gullane, Oxford University Press and Scholastic. Once you find a publisher that you enjoy working with, and an editor who champions your work, you go to them first with all your stories.

When you first started, were you mainly illustrating work that other people had written?
I was writing right from the beginning. I think it’s a good way to break into illustrating – it’s so competitive, you need to come out with all guns blazing. If you have both things to offer then you’re more likely to get work.

What’s your latest project?
Slumbery Stumble in the Jungle is my latest book out with Harper Collins, which I wrote and illustrated. It’s about a monkey who goes on a perilous sleepwalking adventure through the jungle, it was inspired by the silent movie star Harold Lloyd who did all his own stunts.

How much work do you do on the computer?
I do loads of stuff by hand – I love the human element of it. I use a lot of charcoal and ink, and enjoy getting messy. Digital illustration has become so exciting and there’s lots of work out there, but if you can collage the hand-done, lo-fi stuff with the digital stuff, it makes the process much more economical.

What sort of age group are you writing for?
I tend to specialise in ages three to five because you get 32 pages of full colour artwork – you can really go for it. It’s a nice age group to work for because you’ve got a dual audience with the parents reading to their kids. I’ve done books for slightly older children but I missed having the adult audience there to put little jokes in for.

Do you have a favourite book, artwork or character that you’ve created?
I really enjoyed Don’t Mention Pirates [CBeebies, read by MacKenzie Crook] for the story. Scarlet’s my favourite character. She’s a feisty, independent thinker who knows what she wants. My favourite book would be Marvin’s Funny Dance [featured on CBeebies and chosen for the Boys to Books Scheme] because I loved doing the artwork. It’s a very speedy book, there’s loads of action.

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You also run workshops and courses in illustration...
I work on the Masters in Visual Communication with illustration and graphic design students at Nottingham Trent University . I’m also teaching a ten-week course called Children’s Book Illustration there, aimed at all levels of experience, teaching students about the inner workings of children’s books and focusing on illustration, design and writing.

What’s the main purpose in writing children’s stories?
I’m interested in children being thought of as people. When you’re an illustrator working for children, you spend a lot of time getting into the mindset of a child. When I was a kid, I couldn’t understand why people thought of me as a different type of being. I was like, “I’m just the same as you, I’m a little person but I’ve still got things to say.” Sometimes children are actually smarter than adults.

Has having children of your own changed your work?
I didn’t think it would, but when we paint together I’m looking at the way they use materials; they’re not thinking about representing anything, they’re just really involved and having fun. When I was doing some jungle drawings for Slumbery Stumble, I was splashing colour around and really having fun with it, and that is definitely inspired by them.

Where do you find inspiration for new stories?
With Don’t Mention Pirates, I was listening to the radio and there was a story about a family who found gold in their garden in New Zealand, and they dug away their whole garden. I imagined their house on this apple-core shaped piece of earth, and I just had to draw it. I’ve got loads of sketchpads and notepads, sometimes I go back to things two or three years later. I’m constantly looking around for new ideas, but sometimes things just strike me out of the blue.

What’s your typical day like?
I start work about half-eight, I’m most creative in the morning. I leave things unfinished the day before, because it’s easier to get stuck straight into something that’s already underway. I normally have an extended lunch which involves sitting in the sunshine. You’ve got to have some perks, haven’t you?

How does that fit in now you’ve had two children?
I look back on my full-time days of work and it was great. Now I have two-and-a-half days a week. It works, but I haven’t quite mastered writing books while they’re playing in the same room. With things that require a lot of thought and contemplation, you need to have quiet and space.

Is Nottingham a good place to live for you as an artist?
After my studies I lived in Cambridge, but I wanted to go somewhere that was grittier with more going on creatively. Here, it’s like every second person you meet is a photographer, sculptor or painter. I love that because illustration is an odd career, so it’s nice to be around people who are doing similar things. I’ve lived in Nottingham for about ten years now and it’s still really exciting for me.

More information on Sarah’s ten-week Children’s Illustration course in October is available on the link below.

Children's Illustration Course at Nottingham Trent University

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