Seven Impossible Interviews Before Breakfast #73
(Summer Blog Blast Tour Edition): Polly Dunbar

h1 May 21st, 2008 by jules

Polly Dunbar{Note: The rest of today’s Summer Blog Blast Tour interview schedule is posted at the bottom of this interview.}

See Flyaway Katie on the book cover below, brought to life by illustrator Polly Dunbar? I’m about as excited as she looks, because Polly, pictured here, has stopped by 7-Imp today to chat with us. Polly—who lives and works in Brighton, England, and happens to have one of the most entertaining web sites of children’s lit— has a style all her own. Her books, both ones she’s illustrated and author/illustrated, are testaments to the power of a child’s imagination, and her energetic mixed-media illustrations, whose palettes are saturated with the loveliest of all colors, manage to be both spirited and cheerful and convey great depth all at the same time. And, in what seems to be a running theme this week, Polly has also talked in previous interviews about the freedom she feels in writing and illustrating for child readers:

I think the younger [readers] are, the more freedom you have with being experimental. Very young kids will accept anything. Their eyes are still so wide open. That’s why picture books for me are the most exciting area to work in.

I’ll show my work to a grown up, who will just sort of flick through it and say, “I like that colour.” A child will be absorbed in a different way, and that’s lovely and really rewarding.

With her first book, Flyaway Katie (Candlewick, 2004)—a book, in her words, “about the ability we have to change our mood and make ourselves feel happier. Blue shoes help.”—Polly burst onto the scene. “Polly Dunbar makes the fanciful transitions from loneliness to companionship magical and beautiful,” wrote The Guardian about this bursting-with-life (and larger-than-life) tale.

The books that followed in the same year—Looking After Louis by Lesley Ely (Albert Whitman) and Dog Blue (Candlewick)—were also met with critical acclaim. Dog Blue, which manages to channel Early Sendak something fierce (yet still with Polly’s own signature style), tells the story of young Bertie, who really wants a blue dog. He manages to get his wish, though that wish fulfillment isn’t at all what he had expected it to be. “Dunbar makes clever use of page turns, unfolding the story in pithy, alliterative prose: ‘Blue really loves Bertie. Bertie really loves Blue.’ In the end, the wish fulfillment is gratifying, but it’s Bertie’s ingenious self-sufficiency that truly resonates,” wrote Booklist.

In 2005, Polly brought us the one and only Shoe Baby (Walker Books)—written by her mother, children’s book author Joyce Dunbar—about a baby who takes a journey in a shoe and, after visiting the zoo, flying, and inviting the Queen to tea, falls asleep and awakens to two very big surprises. “Polly Dunbar’s delightful mixed-media collage illustrations of eccentric creatures great and small burst forth,” wrote Kirkus Reviews, describing the book as an Edward Lear-style story, “with as much glee as the text in this contagiously exuberant mother-daughter collaboration.” In 2006, Polly illustrated Margaret Mahy’s nonsensically-humored Down the Back of the Chair (Clarion Books), which School Library Journal described as a “delightfully optimistic, entertaining crowd-pleaser.”

And that brings us to Polly’s latest titles. These three being, arguably, Polly’s strongest ones, it makes me wonder what wonders we’ll see from her in the future: Penguin, released by Candlewick last year (reviewed here at 7-Imp), tells the story of Ben, who is delighted to receive a penguin for his birthday. However, Penguin (pictured here) will not answer or respond to him in any way, no matter what Ben does, until they finally discover some common ground. Penguin showed us many more sides to Polly’s abundant talents, but—best of all—it showed that she won’t tiptoe around the fears of children (a child-swallowing lion makes an appearance, à la Sendak’s Pierre. In this interview with Booktrust Children’s Books, Polly added, “I think it’s important to give children that different range of feelings. You’re allowed to have those scary moments in the safe, controlled environment of a picture book, and then it’s all right again.” As co-creator of this post, you know I’m happy to read that.) The book is also a visual delight, what with Polly’s spare illustrations in generous white space, giving center stage to Ben’s antics and our straight-man Penguin.

Here’s a Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry, collected by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters and also released by Candlewick in that same year, has to be, hands down, the best poetry anthology created for children last year. “The art was created using a wide range of mediums and techniques, and Dunbar blends them seamlessly to create charming images that are amazingly expressive,” wrote School Library Journal.

Illustration from the opening name-plate (“this book belongs to…”) spread
Here’s a Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry (Candlewick, 2007).

And, finally, there is Polly’s latest title, this one another story—like Flyaway Katie—of wings, which brings us full-circle — David Almond’s My Dad’s a Birdman (Candlewick; 2008; reviewed here at 7-Imp), a story of the ability of imagination and love to overcome grief and which you may have read about this Monday in our interview with Almond. Here’s how Almond described seeing Polly’s art for his text for the very first time:

As soon as the first sketches started coming through, it was clear that the story had found a kindred spirit. Her work is fast, funny, light, poignant, joyous. Quite perfect.

Spread from My Dad’s a Birdman by David Almond (Candlewick, 2008).

Polly is also the co-founder of the Brighton-based puppet company, The Long Nose Puppets, created with her friend and former colleague in illustration at Brighton University, Katherine Morton. Both Shoe Baby and Flyaway Katie have been adapted to the stage via Long Nose — and with music from none other than Tom Gray of Gomez. I repeat, GOMEZ. (I’m a huge fan. So is Eisha. And I figured this out in March of last year — that someone from Gomez created the music for the Long Nose’s shows, but I still need to order those two soundtracks already.) Polly talks about Long Nose a bit more below as well, so let’s get right to it.

And I thank Polly truly and fondly for stopping by 7-Imp to chat with us this week.

* * * * * * *

Mr. Poop7-Imp: What was it like to read My Dad’s a Birdman for the first time, and what challenges—if any—and joys did you experience, bringing those characters to life on the page with your mixed-media approach?

Polly: When I first read Birdman, I felt fluttery excitement and a moving sadness all at once, a strange combination! I think that is how the book is. It was like I had been given a gift. I felt very lucky to have been chosen to illustrate it. It is so rare in children’s books that you see such vulnerability in the parent and such strength in the child. The characters appeared on the page for me very quickly. {Ed. Note: The unforgettable Mr. Poop is pictured here.} I had such vivid images of them while reading the book, I had to draw them all as fast as I could to stop them running away and to keep the freshness and emotion I felt on the first reading. I kept the tone quite dark and muted at the beginning, saving up all the brightness and light for the flying machine finally at the end. I could have gone on drawing flying machines forever!

7-Imp: I think that the 2007 Jane Yolen/Andrew Fusek Peters poetry anthology you illustrated last year is pretty much insanely perfect on every level. Can you generally talk about your work in illustrating it? How much fun was that?

Polly: Here’s a Little Poem was a massive project, a real chance to stretch myself as an illustrator — actually not only a chance to stretch, a chance to jump and dance and swing my arms about shouting! It was so lovely to wake up each day with a large empty page and a new poem to challenge me. I wanted each page turn to be a surprise, to keep myself entertained as much as the reader. At times it was quite daunting, working on such a big project it’s hard to see it as a whole, and I hoped it would all hang together in the end. It was great spending time with the poems. They would go round and round my head. A lovely world to get lost in. During those months my flat was an explosion of colored paint and paper and drawings of children everywhere. It was a good feeling to gather it all up and squeeze it into the pages of the book. Then I had a big tidy up.

7-Imp: Your web site indicates that Penguin was shortlisted for the British Book Design award. Though I don’t know anything about that award, I can see easily how that book would be honored for its design. Tell us about that honor and what drew you to tell the story of Ben and his reticent penguin.

Polly: Penguin was a very different project from the poetry book. Rather than going wild with it, I had to exercise real control to keep it so simple. I’m naturally quite messy. I think Penguin has a strong sense of design, as I stripped it back as much as I could. I wanted nothing to interfere with the text and the illustration and the synergy between the two. I wanted the contrast between Ben’s emotional and explosive temper and Penguin’s stillness to be emphasized. Putting the characters against a plain background gave me space to play with the book as a whole object. This is one of the advantages of writing and illustrating. You can really mould the book exactly the way you want, trimming a word here and a picture there. Sometimes if pages are too crowded, I find they can dilute the point and lose the story. The boundaries which the pages of a book enforce are great for being inventive. I think some of the best ideas arise from problem-solving.

7-Imp: What was it like to collaborate with your mother on Shoe Baby?

Polly: It was lovely to illustrate a book written by Mum. It is such a jolly and exuberant story! The book came at just the right time; we had wanted to do a book together, but it had to be the right story and I think we were both in tune with each other on Shoe Baby. Although we often talk about work together, we didn’t work too closely on this. Mum very much left me to come up with my vision of the story. Shoe Baby is now a puppet show, too {pictured here}. The story seems to have taken on a life of it’s own! It’s a joyous thing for us to share.

7-Imp: Your love of shoes is evident. Your mother also said in her bio for Shoe Baby that you love to draw “shoes, animals, birds, giants, babies.” What draws you to that subject matter as an illustrator?

Polly: Yes, I do love shoes. People say you can tell a lot about a person from their shoes. I think this is true — they can be very expressive and daft and have character all of their own. I like shoes in the same way I like expressive hats…or even flying machines, for that matter (I wish I had a cupboard full of those!).

7-Imp: Your illustrations have what Publishers Weekly called a “light-as-air” quality to them -– and a real euphoria. And the children are always, as The Observer wrote, “alive with curiosity.” You seem to be drawn toward stories (or write your own stories) that convey the power of a child’s imagination (Dog Blue and Flyaway Katie, to name two). Would you say this is a subject to which you are drawn (excuse the bad pun)?

Polly: As much as I love to have fun with my work, I feel it needs to have some emotional depth. If I have drawn a really strong picture, I’m then free to color it with as much frivolity as I like. But you need a good foundation on which to anchor the fun. Unless a story has real meaning, I tend to think, what’s the point? Stories fall apart like houses of cards if they don’t have a good foundation in something real. Again, it’s about setting boundaries in order to have freedom. Imagination is the most important part of life, and it is a shame that it’s shooed away by adulthood. This is what I love about writing for children. They still have that magic in abundance. I think it should be treasured more, as without imagination how can anything come about? And yes, I think imagination is power. All things, at any time of life, start with an idea or a vision, however crazy they may seem at first.

7-Imp: I’ve said several times here at 7-Imp that your work, in several ways, smacks of Maurice Sendak to me -– while at the same time being All Polly, if that makes any sense (and this is a compliment, by the way. I adore Sendak’s books). Do you have a response to that? Flattered? Offended? Agree? Think I’m crazy? Like him?

Polly: I feel honoured! I love Maurice Sendak, as much now as when I was a child. He has a magical quality that is so rare. He creates worlds in which you can actually climb into and walk around. He seems to illustrate because it is absolutely necessary; a lot of illustrators make work that looks how children’s illustration “ought” to look, which often lack magic or true feeling. I am influenced by him, of course; it’s lovely to think you can absorb a bit from those who’s work that you love, but hopefully in a respectful way!

7-Imp: Your site says your first two books, “cartoon books inspired by teenage antics,” were published when you were sixteen. Can you elaborate?

Polly: I was very lucky to grow up around books. My Mum was always writing and my Dad is an artist, so I think this encouraged me to start from an early age! The first book I wrote came about almost by accident, when I was sixteen and revising for my exams. I spent a lot of time making cartoon “Good Luck” cards for my friends. By the time I had finished my exams, I had a whole book book full of doodles. I was so excited when it was accepted to be published. I think drawing cartoons was a good foundation to later working on books. It was good practice working with text and image together and paring down. Then after quite a few years of hard work, I graduated in to the world of picture books — hurray!

7-Imp: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book, particularly when it’s one you have written? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting the idea, starting to write/illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you write/illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Polly: I usually get ideas for stories when I’m not trying to think of one, which can lead to agony when you need to write one and trying to ignore the fact. There is quite a lot of structure involved. Penguin came to me very quickly from a simple sketch of a penguin biting a little boy’s nose. Then it took weeks, even months, to get right. I have about ten mock-up dummies, each one getting slightly closer to the final book. Writing a story is a bit of a balancing act, or a jigsaw puzzle — all the pieces have to fit. Then there is the drawing: I feel like I have to go in to training when I come up with a new character, drawing them over and over again until I know exactly who they are and what they look like, and then I can draw them spontaneously without having to think. The process of making a book is anything but formulaic. It differs every time. I suppose that is one of the reasons it is such a rewarding job.

7-Imp: Can you describe your studio or usual work place for us?

Polly: I live in a top floor flat with views of rooftops all around. There are a lot of seagulls in Brighton, and I spend quite a lot of time watching them, watching me. I’m surrounded by books, pens, brushes, toys, puppets and general muddle and about a million bits of colored paper. I would like to be organized enough to color-code the paper, but I don’t think it’s ever going to happen.

7-Imp: Tell us about the Long Nose Puppets and what’s new.

Katherine and Polly of Long Nose PuppetsPolly: Long Nose Puppets is a theatre company I set up with my best friend, Katherine Morton. We were at college together, and ever since have been cooking up ideas. We have made two shows so far. They are both touring the UK. Our first is adapted from the book Shoe Baby by Mum, and our latest is Flyway Katie. We make the puppets ourselves, out of all sorts of bits and bobs. We have no formal puppet training. I think this helps with the inventiveness and humor of our characters. We are definitely not precious! Our friend, Tom Gray, has written the music. It is the magic glue that binds the shows together, perfect for children and their parents, as it is catchy yet not patronizing in any way.

Long Nose has been a blessing. The isolated life of illustrating was beginning to get to me. To be able to collaborate with friends on something creative and then jump in a van and drive to new and exciting places has been brilliant. The perfect antidote to the quiet hours at my desk. Meeting the children in the audience has been a huge joy, too, and I think has definitely fed in to my work.

Flyaway Katie
Flyaway Katie

Top and center: Photos from the Long Nose production of Flyaway Katie;
Bottom: Polly and Katherine.

7-Imp: What’s next? Any new books/projects that you can tell us about? Can you tell us about Happy Hector and Hello, Tilly (to be released in October, correct?).

Polly: I have been working on the Tilly-and-friends series for a couple of years now. They are about a little girl called Tilly who lives in a yellow house with her five friends {pictured here}, who are all animals! The stories are about the joys and difficulties of friendship. Each character has their own book. Yes, the first two will be published this autumn. They were inspired from my days of house-sharing, at one time I shared a room with three friends?! There were always ups and downs! I have spent so much time with these characters, they really do feel like my friends now. Oh dear, maybe it’s time for a break?

7-Imp: As a book lover speaking to other book lovers, what books and/or authors and/or illustrators had an especially significant impact on you as an early reader?

Polly: I loved Quentin Blake’s Mr. Magnolia. David McKee’s Not Now, Bernard. Anything by John Burningham. And, of course, Maurice Sendak. I also love Saul Steinberg’s drawings!

7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Polly: Erm, my thumb wiggles when I draw.

7-Imp: If you could have three (living) illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Polly: Maurice Sendak, Ian Falconer, Brian Wildsmith . . . I could go on! I think I would probably nervously drink too much and either slur, or babble . . . or not be able to say much at all!

Some of Polly’s many characters, as pictured (and animated) at her web site

The Pivot Questionnaire:

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Polly: At the moment it’s “binvelope.” I try and say it as often as possible, though it’s not an easy one to slip into conversation! It’s a hybrid of bin and envelope. They are a new invention we have on our street to stop the seagulls picking at the rubbish and making a big mess (I live on TIDY STREET, so they are very important!). Not a glamorous word, but fun to say!

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Polly: “Corporate.”

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Polly: I love big, light, empty rooms. They often have a sense of possibility, a bit like a blank page. I have the desire to fill them!

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Polly: Football.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Polly: “Fiddle sticks.”

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Polly: Cats asking to be fed (politely).

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Polly: I want to say air freshener, but that’s a smell!

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Polly: One day I would like to paint large canvases, to hang in those otherwise empty rooms!

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Polly: Anything involving heights or numbers.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Polly: “Everything!” (…in Penguin-style pictures)

For more online information
about Polly Dunbar:

* * * * * * *

Summer Blog Blast Tour schedule for
Wednesday, May 21, 2008:

EDITED TO ADD: Kelly Bingham at MotherReader.

* * * * * * *

Copyright Notes (Illustrations)

  • Penguin image from PENGUIN. Copyright © 2007 Polly Dunbar. Reproduced by permission of the illustrator.
  • Name-plate illustration from HERE’S A LITTLE POEM. Compilation copyright © 2007 Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters. Illustrations copyright © 2007 Polly Dunbar. Reproduced by permission of the illustrator.
  • Father-daughter illustration, Mr. Poop image, and flying spread from MY DAD’S A BIRDMAN. Text copyright © 2007 David Almond. Illustrations copyright © 2007 Polly Dunbar. Reproduced by permission of the illustrator and the publisher, Candlewick Press, Inc., Cambridge, MA.
  • “Something About Me” and “I Am Rose” spread from HERE’S A LITTLE POEM. Compilation copyright © 2007 Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters. Illustrations copyright © 2007 Polly Dunbar. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Inc., Somerville, MA. on behalf of Walker Books Ltd., London.
  • Fetching-sticks spread from DOG BLUE. Copyright © 2004 Polly Dunbar. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Inc., Somerville, MA. on behalf of Walker Books Ltd., London.
  • Boy and penguin from PENGUIN. Copyright © 2007 Polly Dunbar. Reproduced by permission of the illustrator.
  • Final spread from PENGUIN. Copyright © 2007 Polly Dunbar. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Inc., Somerville, MA. on behalf of Walker Books Ltd., London.

23 comments to “Seven Impossible Interviews Before Breakfast #73
(Summer Blog Blast Tour Edition): Polly Dunbar”

  1. So much to love here. Shoes! Air freshener as a hated sound. Her puppet-astic solution to the isolation of being an illustrator (wish I could do this, too.) And of course, her amazing work. I first saw it in Here’s a Little Poem, and couldn’t believe how in page after page, she danced with each poem, not detracting from it, but making the page more beautiful.

    Thanks for the fab interview.

  2. I so loved this interview! Shoe Baby “How do you do?” is slaying me. I could hear Polly’s British accent! Fabulous art and puppets, too! Thank you for “everything.”

  3. Thanks, you guys. Isn’t her work great?

    And how I’d love to see a Long Nose show. Good children’s theatre/puppetry that doesn’t treat children like they’re little idiots is hard to come by.

  4. I have another publishing friend in Brighton! Is that where all the brilliant people stay?!

    You know, we toss around the word ‘whimsical’ and all, but honestly, this chickie is whimsy personified. I love that her work embodies such joy and merriment and the Shoe Baby’s shoe — Look, I’d wear it, so if she wants a second job, I think shoe design would work for her. Such a fun plethora of fanciful art, and I LOVE that in the picture with her best bud, she has paint on her hands.

    This was really fun!

  5. Thanks, Tadmack, for turning me onto this fantastic interview. I’m the friend in Brighton and I had Polly speak at the Brighton Children’s Book Festival which we run – but didn’t know half as much about her as I do now. Like the Gomez link…I think I’ll have to arrange a pub night out. Anyone else for a drink in Brighton?

  6. Jules,

    I’ll have to return later to savor this interview and the pictures. I love Polly Dunbar’s art. Her illustrations in HERE’S A LITTLE POEM were absolutely fantastic!

    I’m taking care of last minute details for our council dinner this evening. Janet Wong is our featured speaker. I’m polishing off my welcoming remarks and author introduction.

    I’ll be back!

  7. Squee! Polly Dunbar is just as fabulous as I imagined she must be, and more. Thanks for profiling her, and thanks to Polly for participating. I’m a huge fan (particularly after Penguin and Here’s a Little Poem!)

  8. That was a fascinating interview. Such fun.

  9. Yes–Andrew and I met Polly once, at the beginning of the HERE’S A LITTLE POEM process, and she was just as adorable and smart as her pictures.

    I am DYING to do another book with her. Someone speak to the publishing gods. Please.

    Jane Yolen

  10. […] Sherman at Chasing Ray Ingrid Law at Fuse Number 8 Polly Dunbar at 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast Tera Lynn Childs at Bildungsroman Siena Cherson Siegel at Miss Erin Barry Lyga at A Chair, A […]

  11. Immediately after seeing this, I put three Polly books on my holds list at the library. Really, all you had to say was “CARTOON PENGUIN,” but the quirky Q&A plus the fact that she says “fiddlesticks” sealed the deal.

  12. Jane, I wish I could control the publishing gods, ’cause I’d like to see you all collaborate again.

    LW, you’ll love Polly’s books.

    Everyone, thanks!

  13. Jules,

    Loved this interview. Polly is so young–and SO talented. I have to order some of her picture books.

    I hope the publishing gods are listening to Jane Yolen. HERE’S A LITTLE POEM is such a wonderful book. I think it’s the best poetry anthology for young children I have seen in many, many years.
    I love the selection of poems and Polly’s art–so perfectly matched. The book is a celebration of childhood. It’s one of the books I now give as a gift to parents of newborns.

  14. Me, too, Elaine! I’ve bought so many copies for new babies of friends. I can’t even keep count….perfect gift.

  15. What a great interview – it was such a joy to finally meet Polly after all the work she put into our book and to read here about more how she lived with our selection of poems in her head – collaboration makes books so much more exciting. Wish she was doing our second book {Brian Karas is illustrating a book of bedtime poems out in 2010} but Polly is greatly in demand now – which is as it should be. I wish her all success! Great to read this blog.

  16. […] Polly Dunbar (interviewed May 21), pictured left: “Imagination is the most important part of life, and it is a shame that […]

  17. […] today from British illustrator Polly Dunbar can be considered my numero uno kick. As you know from my May interview with her last year, I’m a big geeky fan of her work, and she’s one of my favorite illustrators […]

  18. […] to be read aloud and/or used during story times. The art is by British illustrator extraordinnaire Polly Dunbar; regular readers may remember she’s one of my favorite illustrators. Here’s another […]

  19. […] you want to see a BRILLIANT example of this, check out Polly Dunbar’s recent series of Tilly and Friends Books for Candlewick Press. They are so visually rich, and so […]

  20. […] you want to see a BRILLIANT example of this, check out Polly Dunbar’s recent series of Tilly and Friends Books for Candlewick Press. They are so visually rich, and so […]

  21. […] always look forward to new picture books from Polly Dunbar (who visited 7-Imp back in […]

  22. […] Visit her website. • Read this interview on Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. • Listen to this video […]

  23. […] Penguins. Wings. And one REALLY awesome book on the power of shoes. Polly Dunbar @ Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast […]

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