Annie’s Book Stop of Worcester is very happy to shine our Friday spotlight on British illustrator and author Steve Small.
Steve, can you please tell us briefly a little about yourself and your work?
Hello. Thanks for inviting me here on your blog. My name is Steve Small, and I am a fairly recent children’s picture book author and illustrator with a long career in drawn animation.
Where can people find your work?
I publish in the UK with Simon & Schuster and have been lucky enough to also create co-editions with a number of very good publishers worldwide including Henry Holt and Co and Simon & Schuster in the US.
How can we follow your work and share your awesomeness?
For readers unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe what you do? What can readers expect from your next project?
My first outing in picture books was illustrating Smriti Hall’s “I’m Sticking with You.” It’s about a bear and a squirrel who discover that even the best of friends sometimes need to get the balance right. I also write and illustrate my own stories, and the first of these was called “The Duck Who Didn’t Like Water.” My most recent solo book is called “Wellington’s Big Day Out.” It’s a story about a young elephant who can’t seem to grow up as quickly as he’d like. Plus a third installment of the “I’m Sticking with You” series comes out next year.
What cool facts and findings didn’t make it into the final product, but you loved discovering?
I recently found out that a bear’s sense of smell is 100 times greater than that of a dog.
What is your favorite part of being an artist/author? Of the whole art and publishing process? What do you think has been your greatest lesson in the journey thus far?
I love reading, and the pleasure of picture books is in the way words and pictures explore different approaches to storytelling and emotion to a reader. They can sometimes offer an interesting counterpoint to each other or use each other’s range, for example, the way a drawing can convey a feeling and a mood of a character in just one image in combination with the emphasis and clear detail a few sentences can bring to a story moment, to broaden the reader’s understanding of the narrative.
This is an important aspect for me, as storytelling in picture books provides plenty of space for a story to involve the reader’s perspective. Both writing and illustrations give the illusion that a lot of information is being conveyed, and yet, compared to say, a film, books provide readers plenty of room for interpretation, in a way that is not as available to the watcher of a movie or documentary. I think that books extend an invitation to readers of all ages to bring their own mindset and impressions to stories and to participate in significant ways. A movie, with its comprehensive layers of sound, movement, performance, and scene length etc., creates a more formal, definitive, and more choreographed narrative structure, while the spare quality of book storytelling allows for some picture books to exist as almost personal memories in our thoughts for years after reading, furnished with distinctive characters and events to which we have in some part, contributed.
What piece of advice would you want to share with other artists/authors?
I suspect it’s too early for me to offer any worthwhile advice to budding picture-book makers. I am still feeling my way around the process of crafting a book and making the most of its unique ways of conveying stories. However, one thing that I discovered straight away, that might surprise those who are embarking on making a book, is how little space there is to tell a rich story. Several times now, I have reflected on my favourite books made by authors and illustrators, feeling certain that their stories had many more pages than my own books, in order to tell such deep stories.
But no, their page count is as slender as one of my books. Moreover, their word count is also surprisingly trim. Their storytelling skills have just deftly packed everything that the authors needed to say in a few page turns, giving vivid and far-reaching glimpses into another world and into their characters. This gives me renewed respect and admiration for the authors and illustrators of great books who manage to supply such a lasting and complete story with so little.
What else can we expect from you in the near future?
In the past 4 years that I’ve been making picture books, I’ve accumulated about over 50 sketchbooks, all packed with snippets of stories and ideas just waiting to surface and am still sketching every day. I’ve been waiting for a long time to get into making books and I think that these ideas have perhaps been patiently biding their time in the back of my thoughts, until there was a way of expressing them. I’m looking forward to dipping back into my sketchbooks, every now and then, to see which story tells me it’s ready to be a book.
What are some of your art-related hobbies, crafts, addictions?
I have worked in animation for a long time now, and though it’s my job, it does tend to occupy my spare time too (when I’m not making a new picture book). Whether it is designing, directing or animating, there is a lot of craft-learning and skill-honing to be done. I doubt anyone ever stops learning if they are a dedicated animator. I am always discovering techniques and approaches that I have never tried before. It’s intense work, and even though software provides us with powerful tools, there is nothing more powerful than our imagination, so I suspect this career/hobby shall continue for a while yet.
While you’re working, do you prefer music, silence, other? Please elaborate!
There’s a certain aspect to writing picture books that seems to be about assembling a pleasingly tight puzzle. You don’t have the room to expand on an idea or an event with the same number of words available to even a short story writer. I need to concentrate to create that type of interesting brevity, so for me, silence is usually best. Occasionally, an instrumental piece can help to sustain an emotional landscape that seems right for the work.
But when it’s time to illustrate, I’m the opposite. I like to listen to audiobooks, podcasts, and music. I have always done this since I was a kid, and nothing seems to get in the way of focusing on painting or designing.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned, thus far, in your career as an artist/author?
I haven’t got a great lesson. How about two good ones?
They are related to each other and are about the benefits of casting a fresh pair of eyes on even your favourite piece of work, no matter how well it’s going.
Firstly, I always give myself a reason to leave the desk and come back a little bit later to resume where I left off. I have spotted and corrected so many errors this way. It could be a tea-break or a decent night’s sleep. But giving yourself a fresh perspective can be the most important part of my process. I like to leave the room, have a cuppa and walk back into the room looking at the work as I approach it. Seeing it from far away and on the move seems to engage parts of my eye-to-brain connection differently, and I can suddenly see things I didn’t notice before.
Secondly, (and I know a few people who would disagree with this) when you’ve finished a sketch or even a final piece of work, and you are (horror of horrors) asked to change it- no matter how wedded you are to your original idea, don’t reject the proposition out of hand without trying it first. A small sketch before saying ‘it’s a terrible idea and won’t work!’ can produce interesting results.
I’ve had a few occasions when, despite being convinced that it was a far lesser idea, a quick revised layout opened up new possibilities. The main reason for this is that by the second time around, my mind will have already become very familiar with the idea and the composition and might have, in the interim, quietly come up with a surer approach that really lifts the composition when drawing it the next time. This doesn’t always work, of course. Sometimes spontaneity should be protected at all costs, and an overworked image can remain flat, no matter what you do to it. But at least a little sketch will clarify it. There’s something about the act of drawing that is always a little ahead of our conscious thought, and for all the intellectual reasoning back and forth, there is nothing quite as refreshing as a sketch that either makes bad ideas work or else reveals that one’s attachment to the previous idea was just attachment itself and not because it was a better idea.
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions, Steve!