I’m delighted to be sharing a review and fascinating interview with author/illustrator Victoria Cassnell about her charming debut picture book The Grizzly Itch which was published earlier this week.
When Bear wakes up from his winter sleep, he discovers an itch. And not just any itch – an unBEARable Grizzly Itch. But when he gets to his favourite scratching tree, it suddenly crashes to the ground. It turns out Beaver likes trees too . . . Thankfully, Beaver knows lots of other trees, and promises to help Bear find a new one. But Bear’s itch is getting more grizzly by the minute, and none of the trees Beaver show him are quite right. Maybe it’s not a tree Bear needs, after all?
Hi, Victoria! Please can you tell us a little bit about the book and the inspiration behind it? Did the words or the pictures come first?
The Grizzly Itch is about an itchy bear and a well-meaning beaver, whose friendship blossoms when they decide to help each other. Growing up I spent a lot of time in the Lake District, as my grandparents lived there.
I’ve always loved drawing the mountains, trees and scenery and that was the main inspiration for the book.
I wanted to create a story set in a beautiful place and a bear character seemed a natural fit. I also find the North American wildlife and landscapes very inspiring, it’s a place I’d love to visit one day.
What were your favourite picture books growing up?
My favourite picture books growing up were the Alfie series by Shirley Hughes. Shirley Hughes illustrations are so warm and atmospheric and she captures childhood dilemmas so perfectly. My favourite was Alfies Gets In First. I also loved Mick Inkpen’s Kipper books.
Did you always want to be a writer and illustrator?
No, I’d always loved drawing as a child, but for a long time I wanted to be a vet. After that I wanted to work in conservation. I was all set to do a biology degree but changed to illustration at the last minute. Art was always my favourite subject at school and I had an excellent teacher who guided me towards illustration.
Can you tell us about your experience completing an illustration degree and MA and your publishing journey?
I did a BA Hons Illustration degree at The Hull School of Art and Design. It was a great course, with a fantastic print room and I learned a lot. For my final project I created a picture book, and from then I decided this was what I’d like to do. I applied to the MA Children’s Book Illustration course at the Cambridge School of Art the following year. I studied part time, travelling down from Hull to Cambridge at 5a.m. every Wednesday and it would be a jam-packed, inspiring, wonderful day.
I created The Grizzly Itch as my Masters Project, which was then shown to publishers at the London Degree Show and at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. I also met my agent, Elizabeth Roy through Bologna, and after meetings with several publishers, I signed with Macmillan.
Could you give us any insights into what happened after you signed with Macmillan in terms of how the book came together and the design process?
Macmillan have been wonderful in helping the book come to life. Making the book has been a collaborative process with the editors, designer and art director. To start with I met the team down in London to discuss their thoughts on the early dummy book, and finer details of the publishing process. I then went away and worked on the roughs for the book, and together we tweaked them until the story, page turns and page layouts worked best. Then after we were happy with the roughs, I worked up the final artwork. This was then sent to the designer to add the text, then the book was sent off to print. The most exciting part was definitely getting my first copy of the finished book.
Which spread did you most enjoy creating and why?
My favourite spread to create was probably the last one.
I particularly like creating scenic double page spreads, and this one gave me the opportunity to illustrate a different time of day and atmosphere to the rest of the book. I was happy with how it came together and I think it ties up the story nicely.
What’s next for you, in terms of writing/illustrating projects?
I’m currently working on book two with Macmillan, and this one features a different type of bear!
What advice would you give to other debut author/illustrators? Is there anything you know now that you wish you’d known at the start?
My advice is just to keep experimenting, creating work and coming up with new ideas.
Not everyone is going to love your work but hopefully someone will.
Also not to expect anything to happen too quickly, creating a picture book and getting it published can be a long, but exciting process!
Thank you so much, Victoria, for giving us an insight into your debut journey. I can’t wait to read your next bear picture book!
Here is my review of The Grizzly Itch…
There is nothing worse than an itch you can’t scratch and poor Bear has been patiently waiting to scratch his grizzly itch. Victoria’s love of nature and the Lake District really shines through and this is a gorgeous scene with all the bears scratching that itch!
After Beaver chops down Bear’s perfect itching tree, they go off on an unlikely adventure to find a new tree – but none are quite right. My favourite spread are these two – I love Victoria’s illustration on the left and it perfectly sets up the comic next scene.
Bear gives the tree a good try but…
Victoria has created a story with the perfect blend of humour and friendship that children will love. The illustrations are simply gorgeous and make you want to tag along on Bear and Beaver’s fun adventures. I hope she makes a sequel!
Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books
Publication date: 5 March 2020
Victoria Cassanell graduated with a degree in Illustration from the Hull School of Art and Design. For her final project, Victoria created a picture book which led her to embark on a Children’s Book Illustration MA at the Cambridge School of Art. Victoria loves drawing characters then creating stories and settings around them. The Grizzly Itch is her debut picture book. Victoria currently lives in Yorkshire.
I am very grateful to the publisher for providing me with an advanced copy of this book. This review within this feature contains my honest opinion.