Jackie is one of our most treasured and talked about artists here at The Golden Sheaf, and when she was deservingly nominated for the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Children’s Book Award for Something About a Bear, we caught up with her to find our about how these magical books come to life.
Jackie is currently working on a new book and was kind enough to give us an exclusive look at the illustrations for The White Fox. We hope you love them as much as we do.
Can you introduce yourself and describe your work?
My name is Jackie Morris. I am one of those people who loved to draw as a child, but unlike many, as I moved into adulthood I didn’t stop.
I can’t pinpoint the moment in childhood when I realised that grown ups had things called ‘jobs’, but I do know that from the age of 6 I said I wanted to be an artist. It was all I ever wanted. To draw. To colour things.
You’ve recently been nominated for the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Children’s Book Award for Something About a Bear, congratulations! How does it feel to be among such established children’s authors?
Strange question. Because they are all my contemporaries, and I am also an established author.
There’s an odd line I walk in my head. On the one hand I produce books and have to have the confidence to send my work to my publishers and then once the book is done I have to be out there promoting it, trying to say why it’s good and people should buy it. On the other hand I look at the list of people on the shortlist and I think, ‘Oh my word, Chris Riddell, he draws like an angel. Footpath Flowers, wow, what an astonishing book, so beautiful. Are they going to turn around and find out that mine’s a fluke, shouldn’t be there....’ It’s the same with festivals. I see all my contemporaries at festivals and I’m on there too. My mum summed it up for me once when she said, "I’ve looked at who is going to Cheltenham Festival and there’s some really famous people there, did you know? And you of course." I think there is a name for feeling like this. It’s called ‘impostor syndrome’. Many of us have it. That feeling we are going to be found out for not being worthy of the place we hold in society.
Although I work mostly in the children’s book part of the book industry there is nothing child like about it. It’s a fierce, hard and competitive industry. I’ve worked so hard for years learning my craft and my trade and it feels, I have to say, utterly wonderful to be recognized with the honour of being on the Greenaway shortlist. But more than that, in the very crowded world of children’s publishing the shortlisting has given me a platform to talk about the plight of bears, and also other wild creatures. I take great pride in being the only non-fiction title on the Greenaway and Carnegie list, while at the same time wishing there were more non-fiction titles beside me. It’s not a place I ever expected to be.
Pembrokeshire, and Wales, has a huge storytelling tradition- do you feel this feeds into your own storytelling or is the oral tradition coincidental to your narrative?
I think the oral tradition should weave its way through all picture books. They are meant to be shared, to be read aloud. The Welsh language has a rhythm about it that has always been easy on my ear, though I pick up languages so slowly. My language is graphic, in the real meaning of the word. It’s watercolour, pencil, it’s mark making on paper.
When you begin, do the words inform the paintings or do the characters you paint tell you their story?
Stories come from many places, watching a cat dream, seeing a black fox, meeting a white fox. The idea for the bears book came out of simple self indulgence. I love bears and wanted to paint them. It has it’s roots in another book I did years ago. But it became something much more in the making. And researching the book was hard. Man’s inhumanity to man never ceases to amaze me, and if we hold our own species in such contempt you can only begin to imagine the horrors we impose on animals. Bear, so like us in many ways, suffer so much at our hands but you can’t put the kind of darkness like that into a picture book. What I have tried to do is to link the toy that so many children have, the teddy, with the real bear, and hope that through my book I can help to shape a generation of children who will love and respect the wild and wild creatures, and as I said it does give me a platform for talking about how humans relate to wild bears.
But how can you talk about the hunting of bears, and decapitation for trophies, an act which takes place every day in the 21st century? About bears kept in cages and taught to perform? About dancing bears in India who have a hole drilled though their snouts and their teeth removed and are then taught to dance? And the worst horror in my mind, the bear bile farms? The chopping off of bear paws for Chinese medicine? The trade in wild animals? This is the darkness that lies behind Something About a Bear. It’s hard to talk about such things with children.
When I was a child David Attenborough made television programs that taught me so much about the wild world, nature, tooth and claw and fierceness. He brought the wild world into my home. I try to do that just a little with my books.
And that doesn’t really answer the question asked, but I guess the simple, direct answer is that the words and the pictures twine around each other and that is the pleasure of both writing and illustrating a book.
Have you ever been completely struck by a story or a character and unable to paint or write them? If so, what happens? Do they stay around your head until you have stories for them?
I have a story called “The Panda’s Child”. It’s a good story. Let me tell you something about the process of making a book. This is how it works for me.
I have an idea. The idea is exciting. It paints images in my mind’s eye. They are elusive, vibrant, like dreaming.
I sell the idea to a publisher, get a contract, an advance, and then I have to work on the book.
So, take for example The White Fox. This is a book I am working on with Barrington Stoke at the moment. I found the story in Seattle and it’s based on a true story. For a couple of years it fermented somewhere in the back of my mind. This was the first book that I was commissioned to write as well as illustrate. Usually I do the words first and sell those but here I sent a synopsis to Barrington Stoke, after a series of emails about working with them and various ideas.
I wrote the words, and the story grew, evolved, changed in the writing and became something else and more as the characters took over and found their place among the letters. I sent the text to BS, heart in mouth, fearful that they would say, ‘well, we didn’t expect that, can you do it properly now please’, but they edited it and then it was time to illustrate and I hit a brick wall. I couldn’t draw, couldn’t find the characters ( apart from the fox), didn’t know how to draw any more, tried different ways, a looser style, panicked, felt sick, cried a bit... and worked, and worked, sometimes just sitting staring into space trying not to panic, trying to see the way.
And then I remembered that I had struggled in the same way with East of the Sun, West of the Moon, with Tell Me a Dragon, with The Wild Swans. And then I started sketching, and now I am painting, holding my nerve, hoping all will be well.
It’s hard. And sometimes I don’t find the way in. I still have the text for The Panda’s Child, because so far I have failed to find the way in with this one. But I have an idea. There are keys that I find along the way that unlock the doors that bind and block, but the biggest monster that sits on my shoulders is the self doubt impostor monster. I think one day I will draw it.
Did you tell your own children stories you made up, or did you read to them?
I read my children picture books. I didn’t make up stories. I did sometimes test out my texts on them. I seldom read them my own books. I did sometimes feel guilty when I was reading to them, because part of my mind was always looking and learning, what made a book work for them.
I loved that close intimacy of the circle of arms, and child and book. Love the opening of a picture book, which for me is like the curtains opening at a theatre or cinema. I love the space you inhabit when you become lost in a book. It’s like stepping into another world.
What was the first children’s book you remember owning?
I still have the Treasure Book of Animals. And a big collection of stories with pictures I never liked, ( It’s funny how that style of working has returned and is becoming very fashionable). We had very few books when I was a child, but we did have libraries, which was brilliant, and libraries were where I learned to read. My library tickets were a fascination for me, and I loved the date stamps, and seeing all the dates when a book had previously been taken out from the library.
Do you have a favourite piece from your own collections?
I have a beautiful drawing by Mary Fedden, a fantastic piece of artwork I pulled out of James Mayhew’s bin that he had torn up in desperation ( to remind me that we can’t always be the best judge of our work) and a lovely Evelyn Williams drawing and some Katherine O’Kelle birds. And The Snow Leopard front cover, which I won’t sell.
What artists do you admire locally and nationally?
Adam Buick does the most sublime work. Ceramic moon jars and votive bells.I love Graham Hurdewood’s work. Brian Wildsmith has been a great influence on me. James Mayhew is astonishing and he is illustrating Mrs Noah’s Pockets for me, to be published by Otter-Barry Books. Angela Barrett, she’s astonishing. Catherine Hyde, Tamsin Abbott, one a painter, one who works in glass. Chagall, Van Gogh, cave painters and all those glorious anonymous painters who illuminated manuscripts in monasteries. Shaun Tan. He is just genius. Peter Till.
What do you hope people feel when they open your books or look at one of your paintings?
I hope people get a sense of escape into another place. I have just finished working on a picture book for grown ups. It will be published by Graffeg in September. It’s called The Quiet Music of Gently Falling Snow and I hope that it is a lullaby for grown ups. Escape. Stepping outside, sideways, into another world. A harbour. Peace.
Social media has a massive effect on an artist’s visibility and popularity, do you find it a distraction or are you naturally socially minded?
I find it a necessary intrusion, and also a distraction. I have found amazing things through it, been informed and also wasted so much time. I am learning to use it better, but part of me wants to take a break. So when I have finished The Wild Fox I am going to have a holiday for a week. I have heard of holiday. Publishers take them in the summer. I was talking about my plans for my weeks holiday with a friend yesterday. I am hoping to spend a few days walking, sitting and watching the sea, and painting. And I think I will switch off Facebook and Twitter. That will be my holiday. No Facebook, Twitter or Instagram for a week. I’m sure it will survive very well without me. But it is now a part of my working process and it does, for good or bad, help readers connect with authors and us all with our contemporaries.
But sometimes I crave the solitude of mind that is still there, if we unplug.
Once again, a huge congratulations on your nomination, we have no doubt there will be countless more to come, and thank you for such an inspiring interview.
- Love, The Gallery.