This is one of my most exciting and exclusive posts of the year! I am honoured to be sharing an in-depth interview and behind-the-scene early illustrations by Greg Stobbs, illustrator of the amazing Don’t Ask the Dragon, written by Lemn Sissay.
This is the story of a little boy called Alem. It’s his birthday, but who knows where he can go to celebrate it? He asks everyone he meets: a bear, a fox, a treefrog, even a bulldog. They all have the same answer… I don’t know but don’t ask the dragon or he will EAT you!
So, what will happen when Alem comes face-to-teethy-grinned-face with the dragon?
I don’t know… you’ll have to read it! Seriously, I can’t tell you because the twist in this gorgeous picture book is too heart-warming to give away a spoiler. It was a joy to see how this book conjured up so many different emotions in my daughter. She thought the dragon was SO scary at first but by the end of the book her viewpoint had changed. Best of all, we loved Alem’s backpack!
Alem means “the world” and this book is going to mean the world to many, many children. Don’t Ask the Dragon is a beautiful, poetic tale to remind us all that home is where the heart is.
I am thrilled to be sharing a fascinating interview with Greg Stobbs…
Hi Greg, thank you so much for talking to me. Don’t Ask the Dragon is one of those picture books where the words and the pictures work perfectly together – you and Lemn were clearly on the same page! Can you tell us how the project came about and the inspiration behind it?
Thanks so much for inviting me! I’m really glad that you think the words and pictures work perfectly together, as this is something Lemn and I talked about a lot. He would say that each spread needed to be it’s own stand alone work of art. That each illustration needed to work with the text but also extend on the story and do it’s own thing. The seeds for ‘Don’t ask the Dragon’ were planted way back in 2016 when I met Lemn and we worked together for Beth Cuenco and the Marlowe theatre with young Refugees, people in care, and care leavers, visualising their stories and poetry alongside musicians, song writers, dancers and projectionists. It was an extremely powerful installation, (to date the only project I have worked on that has made me cry…… although there’s a strong chance that will happen again with the launch of ‘Don’t ask the Dragon!) I learnt a great deal about the partnership between words, visuals and illustration in making it. Lemn would always be suggesting little tweaks, adding, and taking away elements, that enhanced the stories further. He suggested that there needed to be an illustration that would be the first thing that people saw as they came in. I made a red pencil drawing of a boy carrying many homes on his back.
Lemn tells me that this was what made him feel like we needed to work together again. We became friends, and talked about the idea of a children’s picture book about a boy with no family, who was trying to find a place to go. Throughout the early stages of the pandemic I would walk around the garden chatting ideas with Lemn. It helped me through a scary moment. We talked to Arabella Stein at Bright agency, who instantly understood where we were coming from. Arabella spoke to Francis Bickmore at Canongate books, who knew and had worked with Lemn before. They all put a huge amount of trust in me, and gave me as much creative freedom as I am ever likely to have. I remember saying when it was all starting that it was like that scene in Kung Fu panda when he finds himself leaping through the air, looking left and right and seeing all of these highly skilled warriors and legends working alongside him. He looks so happy… that’s how I felt.
How has your street art and other projects influenced your picture book style?
I’ve been drawing on walls since I was a very little boy, always trying to find a way to make the illustrations or paintings bigger, more eye catching and where people could see them. Graffiti and street art allowed me to place work in front of as wide an audience as possible, and the aim was always just to make their journey slightly more interesting. I like to imagine the people walking past, and their reaction. It’s the same with Children’s book illustration! I just love the idea of a child responding to the words and pictures, and for a moment living in a world that I’ve played a part in creating. I like to imagine that relationship between the adult or older sibling who is reading it, and the young person who is living the story page by page. I remember being read to by my own mum and dad, and particular pages and spreads are still etched into my memory. There is something magical about that moment before you go to sleep. I’m aware, and the story makes me more aware that not everybody had that feeling of sharing a picture book at bedtime. This is another reason why it feels like an important story to tell. Street art for me is about layers and layers of history on a wall. The idea that the wall has seen generations of passers by and has been changing itself for their benefit. There is also a texture to every surface that I have painted on that is unique, and a light that hits it and alters it further. This has affected how I like to illustrate, as I always want to bring those textures and layers on to the page, and create as much abstract depth as possible.
Before bringing the character or narrative in to the composition I want any viewer to feel like they want to touch it, and feel it as something tangible, not flat.
What has been the most exciting and most challenging thing about illustrating your first picture book?
This is my first major picture book in the UK. The challenge when working with somebody like Lemn is that the standard of storytelling, and the ability to create pictures with words is so magical that it feels like there is extra pressure to match and expand on that with the Illustrations. Canongate, Francis Bickmore, art director Gill Heely and Lemn gave me a very long leash, allowing me to take responsibility for a lot of visual decisions, which was really exciting! My agent Arabella Stein tells me that this is not how it always works, so not to get used to it! Her honesty and understanding of the Children’s picture book industry has helped me to learn fast.
My daughter loves Alem’s backpack, and by the time we got to end of the book I felt quite emotional about it myself! Did you have the idea for this from the start?
I love this question, and that your daughter noticed the backpack, as it is never mentioned in the text of the story! The backpack came from the original red pencil drawing of the boy with many homes from 2016. I wanted to illustrate the idea that all of the places that you live or are placed as a child in care are carried forward, on your back, weighing you down. That you move forward never the less. That other people could see them but that they were always behind you. I also wanted it to change throughout the book, to suggest it was not a solid thing, more of a feeling with weight that was always changing. There is a moment where Alem becomes close to his newfound friends when he can put it down, at least for a while.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to illustrate a picture book?
My mum and dad were both illustrators and their advice to me was to draw non stop. Being my parents they also wanted a safe life for me so suggested I didn’t take the illustrators path. I listened for a bit, and then decided to do what I wanted! It’s not totally safe, but that’s one of the reasons i enjoy it so much. My advice to any illustrator at all times is to draw and draw and draw. To draw for fun! To find other creative people to collaborate with, as it can be quite a solitary existence. To jam with somebody, and see how they can play with the way you work. My own aim is always to draw differently to anybody else, and to try not to be derivative. I don’t want to make something too perfect. I want the human error to be clear. For anatomy to be slightly off, and continuity to waver, as that’s how I see life. It is not perfect, and is always changing from one moment to the next. I want children who are looking at the pictures to feel like they could be an illustrator one day. Even though it can take people a while to come around to something new, you can get to the end of life and feel like you changed something a little bit?
Thank you so much for sharing your insights, Greg, especially about how you illustrated the backpack – I can feel myself getting all emotional again!
Don’t Ask the Dragon was published by Canongate Books, 24 February 2022
About Greg Stobbs
Greg has been drawing on walls since he was small. He tells stories through pictures and has made installations, murals, exhibitions and artworks, aiming to bridge the gaps between fine art, street art and illustration. At school he wasn’t allowed a pen because he couldn’t/wouldn’t do joined up writing. Greg lives in Kent. Follow Greg on instagram and via his website: www.squirlart.org
About Lemn Sissay
Lemn is a bestselling and award-winning writer for adults and children. His Landmark poems are visible in London, Manchester, Huddersfield and Addis Ababa. Sissay was awarded an MBE in 2010, the PEN Pinter Prize in 2019 and an OBE in 2021. He is Chancellor of the University of Manchester and the author of the bestselling memoir, My Name is Why. A QuickReads edition will be published in April 2022, and will be a World Book Night title. Lemn is British and Ethiopian and lives in London.
I am very grateful to the publisher for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book. This voluntary review contains my honest opinion.