Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Mini Grey

h1 October 8th, 2008 by jules

I’m so pleased that British illustrator Mini Grey has stopped by for breakfast this morning here at 7-Imp. If you were to ask me who I thought some of the most inventive, imaginative illustrators working today were, why, Mini’s name would most assuredly come up. She’s a favorite of mine, delivering mixed-media visual treats at each turn, whether it’s the detailed world of the unstoppable Traction Man, what Publishers Weekly called the swashbucklin’ nursery-rhyme romance of The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon, or the cookie carnage of Ginger Bear. Best of all, there is a slightly twisted humor to her work, which I love, a twinkle in the eye, a little bit of mischief, a refusal to talk down to children. She always intriques, and she always keeps you on your toes.


Spread from Ginger Bear (or Biscuit Bear, if you are in the UK),
Alfred A. Knopf (first American edition), 2007

And, if you’re a fan of the aforementioned Traction Man, you’re in luck, since Traction Man Meets Turbo Dog—the sequel to 2005′s Traction Man is Here! (Knopf Books for Young Readers), winner of the 2005 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in the category of Picture Books—has just been released.

Yes, Traction Man and his faithful pet Scrubbing Brush are back for more heroic rescues — this time Traction Man must rescue Scrubbing Brush, since the family chucked him after a trip to the northwest slope of Mt. Compost Heap (“it’s just so unhygienic, it must be FULL of germs…”), though it takes Traction Man a while to figure this out while he’s off having adventures with the battery-operated Turbodog. In Grey’s further tributes to the imaginative play of children—not to mention the very real bonds wee ones have with their toys—Traction Man meets up with Handbag Dwellers, the Lone Sock, the Grand Sofa Canyon, the Dark and Terrible Underworld of the Bin and its Evil Creatures and Bin-Things, and much more. I’ll invoke the words of Publishers Weekly again, since they nail Grey’s particular charm: “{H}er real gift is in transforming an ordinary household into both thrilling stage and supporting cast (who knew an old mascara wand could be so emotive?). To create a fantasy world is one thing, but to trigger a gestalt shift in the way kids look at their own environments is quite another.”

So, Mini’s going to sit down with me for breakfast—“a big cup of strong coffee with milk; toast with butter, marmite and banana on top; lots of very cold cranberry juice (low sugar!)”—to chat about her work as an illustrator, and I thank her immensely for stopping by. Let’s get the basics while we set the table here . . .

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Mini: I am an author-illustrator. Well, I make picture books.

7-Imp: Can you list your books-to-date?

Mini: My books to date: Egg Drop; The Very Smart Pea and the Princess-To-Be; Ginger Bear (AKA Biscuit Bear in the UK); Traction Man is Here!; The Adventures of the Dish and The Spoon; Traction Man Meets Turbodog.

{Ed. Note: Here is my short history of Mini-Grey reviews here at 7-Imp: Ginger Bear in June ’07 and Traction Man Meets Turbodog last month. But let’s not forget her cover and interior illustrations for Lyn Gardner’s Into the Woods, reviewed here in July ’07.}

7-Imp: What is your usual medium, or -– if you use a variety -– your preferred one?

Mini: I usually use watercolour, ink, pencils and collage bits and bobs on heavy watercolour paper. I am keen on Quink ink and bleach. I love splattering. And I use a computer quite a lot.




Three spreads from The Adventures of the Dish and The Spoon,
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006

7-Imp: If you have illustrated for various age ranges (such as, both picture books and early reader books OR, say, picture books and chapter books), can you briefly discuss the differences, if any, in illustrating for one age group to another?

Mini: The main difference is how much of the story the pictures are telling. In my picture books, the pictures are telling a lot of it. The more words there are in a book, the less work the pictures seem to need to do. To me, a picture book is a unique way of story-telling –- words and pictures work as a double act where neither is necessarily in charge –- and I do think they are for people of all ages.


Spread from Traction Man Meets Turbodog,
Alfred A. Knopf, 2008

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Mini: I live in a little house in Oxford, UK. I am near the river and parks and hills but also near Oxford city which is full of historic buildings.

7-Imp: Can you briefly tell us about your road to publication?

Mini: I started out being a (penniless) theatre designer, then worked as a teacher for six years before deciding to try to plunge into book-making. I was very lucky -– I did a postgraduate MA in illustration, and my tutor introduced me to my UK editor, who bravely decided to publish Egg Drop.

7-Imp: Can you please point us to your web site and/or blog?

Mini: Whoops I don’t have one (yet..!)

7-Imp: If you do school visits, tell us what they’re like.

Mini: Always fun and enthusiastic (the children, that is!)

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, the table’s set. Mini’s got her coffee—I love how she specifies that it’s a big cup and a strong brew; this is a coffee-drinker after my own heart—and we’re ready to sit down and talk more specifics. Many thanks again to Mini for the visit!

1. 7-Imp: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Mini: I go plundering about looking for a starting place -– nursery rhymes and fairy tales are fertile hunting grounds. I sort of think of a question and try to collect lots of ideas about it -– I doodle little pictures of the ideas. I collect everything in my sketch books {pictured below} -– doodles, scribbles, newspaper cuttings, inspiring pictures, sweet wrappers, anything. If it turns into a story, I am overjoyed -– getting the story to work is the trickiest bit. Then I build a sort of rough model book of the story and play about with what the rules of the book are going to be (a bit like secret obsessions or a secret identity) and don’t worry too much about it being an unpublishable mess. That’s the most fun bit. Then there’s storyboarding it into a (probably) thirty-two-page picture book and working out exactly what’s going to go where. And then there’s actually making the proper pictures.

2. 7-Imp: Describe your studio or usual work space for us.

Mini: Very cluttered pandemonium, it just won’t stay tidy. I work in the back bedroom of my house, it looks out over the garden. The room is full of books and little things. The little things include: model insects, boiled sweets, eggcups, knitted cacti, kaleidoscopes, tiny theatres, puppets, robots, old telephones, toy TV sets -– etc. etc. I used to think it was a bit lonely working at home, but now I have a two-year-old little boy, I think it works quite nicely thank you (except for always running out of time.)

3. 7-Imp: As book lovers, it interests us: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Mini: The first book I bought was One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss from a school jumble sale when I was about five. I was amazed and riveted -– it was like opening a door into a bizarre barmy universe with different creatures on every page. Later, I loved Finn Family Moomintroll, the Narnia books, and everything by E. Nesbit. My illustrational hero is Lane Smith, and his (and Jon Scieszka’s) book The True Story of the Three Little Pigs is what made me want to try and make picture books when I was working as a teacher.

4. 7-Imp: If you could have three (living) illustrators or author/illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Mini: I’m just too shy, but what I would really like is to have a drink with my heroes of animation — Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, who made the Clangers, and Nick Park, who makes the Wallace and Gromit films.

Crackin' good coffee, Gromit!

5. 7-Imp: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Mini: If I am writing things, then I don’t hear anything that’s going on, but I do have Concentration Music (e.g. Penguin Café Orchestra), which helps getting on with thinking about things, and Getting On With It Music, which might be more dancy. The louder and faster the music, the louder and faster I can paint.


Another spread from Ginger Bear,
Alfred A. Knopf (first American edition), 2007

6. 7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Mini: I am programmed to self-destruct if I tell you.

7. 7-Imp: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.

Mini: “Tell me ALL about your pet!”

Answer: My pet is a cat called Bonzetta, who is a stripeless tabby, loves butter, and helps sing my son, Herbie, to sleep every night.



* * * * * * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * * * * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Mini: Today’s favourite word is: pudding.

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Mini: Today’s unfavourite word is: deteriorate.

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

Mini: Cream cakes, scientific discovery, and open-mindedness.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Mini: Religion and greed.

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

Mini: I tried writing it down, but it only really works if you say it nice and loudly after hitting your thumb with a hammer.

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

Mini: Birdsong, overemotional music.

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

Mini: Scrapy fingernails on blackboard, electric shaving machines.

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

Mini: I would like to have a job wrapping up presents in inventive ways.

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

Mini: Anything where I had to get up at an unearthly early hour in the morning.

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

Mini: I fear he/she/it would disappear in a puff of improbability. If not, I’ll be all agog and expectant — I can’t imagine where they might begin.

* * * * * * *

* * * * * * *

Photos of Mini, her sketchbooks, her studio, and the devastatingly cute Bonzetta—and all featured illustrations here—reproduced courtesy of Mini Grey. All rights reserved. All titles from featured illustrations published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

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22 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Mini Grey”

  1. I just (JUST!!) discovered Traction Man! How is it possible that I missed him all these years?!?!

    Great interview! The photo of her sketchbooks is just about my favorite part. Right after the photo of Bonzetta. Someone needs to do an lolcats caption for that photo!


  2. Another great interview. I love the visuals included. Do you guys have these archived anywhere? The numbers of terrific illustrators you have interviewed is impressive.


  3. Thanks, you guys! Why, yes, Katherine, they are all archived here. It’s the “Featured Illustrators/Artists” page of our site, which you can access in the template on the right at the top under “Pages.” Oh heavens, I’m a SuperNerd who wouldn’t DREAM of not archiving all our features and interviews. For illustrators, that page is divided into interviews and features done and even a section for those reviews in which I share art which the illustrator sent.

    There’s an “Author Interviews” page, too, here.


  4. Y’know, I often find myself thinking to myself when visiting here, Dang. Browsing Eisha’s and Jules’s bookshelves must be exhilarating…!

    And then I remember you’re librarians. Oh. Duh.

    Whatever. When archaeologists dig up all our homes and workplaces in the year 3000, I hope they begin with yours so they’ll at least start out thinking we must have had some pretty good darn taste.

    This interview (ALL the interviews, and the RIFs, Kicks, etc.) — well, just more evidence.

    While I loved Mini Grey’s work (previously unknown to me), like Mary Lee, I loved the sketchbooks especially. It was KILLING me that I couldn’t sort of dive into the picture to hold them closer, or to turn the pages.

    On the Slidy Diner book yesterday, I mentioned how much an author’s word choices appeal to me when I’m looking through a kids’ book. I see MG’s Traction Man books are classified as for ages 4-8. Maybe that’s why the first example here which jumped out at me was “The Ancient Potato.” Ancient is a word which juuuusst pushes the limit (at least here in the US) of what a child might read on his/her own.

    (Plus, it summons up a real-life scene where said child is at a holiday dinner table and points at Uncle Joe or Aunt Almira and starts shouting, “Ancient Potato! Ancient Potato!” I’d pay admission to see that scene play out.)


  5. Curses, but Egg Drop is not available in my library system. I thought I’d read all the Mini Grey I could. Many of us are big fans here at WPL.

    And I am now officially in love with Bonzetta. What a great photo.


  6. Such a fabulous interview! There’s even pudding and cream cakes :). I hadn’t heard of Egg Drop, and now I’m obsessed with reading it. Bonzetta would like to come live with me . . .


  7. [...] Impossible Things Before Breakfast has Mini Grey this morning.  We’ve been reading Traction Man Meets Turbo Dog, and it’s a smashing sequel. [...]


  8. Oooooo I love this interview. We have Biscuit Bear, thanks to my British Auntie, and it is a sight for sore eyes, I tell you. And wow do I wish I would’ve come up with the title: The Very Smart Pea and the Princess-to-Be. I lust after fine titles…


  9. Awesome sketchbooks! And illustrations!


  10. Wowie Wowie! I put in a link to here from my post about Traction Man at Anokaberry.


  11. The illustrators’ offices I’ve seen in these pictures look like treasure troves, and Mini Grey’s is no exception. I’m going to look for her books in my library. I wish ‘Biscuit’ Bear had made it across the pond with its title intact. I understand why the publishers changed it, but still– it’s more alliterative.


  12. Ooooh, I haven’t thought about the Clangers in years. Now memories of my London childhood have come flooding back.

    Now I will have to ask my Mum to get a copy of Biscuit Bear for the little ones – I like to expose them to as many British versions of children’s books as possible. Thanks for introducing me to Mini Grey.


  13. You did it again! Thank you so much for taking us into Mini Grey’s world! I loved seeing her sketch books and wish I could have seen more. Once she mention Lane Smith’s influence (another awesome 7 questions interviewee of yours) I immediately saw the connection! I just wish you had asked her if she was really born in the back of a Mini Cooper like her bio on one of her book flaps states!


  14. Tanya, I KNOW! {smacking myself on the forehead} I realized after I sent the questions that I had failed to ask her that. D’oh’eth!

    Thanks for the feedback, everyone. That was a fun interview. What a fan I yam! I can’t wait to see what Mini does next.


  15. Great illustrations and photos. I’m a huge fan — I LOVE traction man!


  16. [...] Mini Grey (interviewed October 8) on one thing most people don’t know about her: “I am programmed to self-destruct if I [...]


  17. Another favorite, thanks for spotlighting her
    !! Great choices on this blog!


  18. [...] be wine, because—generally speaking—illustrators tend to be shy. Then I’d see if Mini Grey, Olaf Landström, and Marc Simont would want to come and hang out on my front porch. And, if they [...]


  19. [...] today, and I hope to bring you some work from the delightfully subversive and always surprising Mini Grey very soon. And that’s it. But perhaps this is something I can continue in the new [...]


  20. [...] author/illustrator—and one of my Most Favorites Ever—Mini Grey. Mini visited 7-Imp in October of last year, and I’ve been following her book releases this year as well. First off in 2009, there was [...]


  21. [...] Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books once described one of Mini Grey’s picture books as “expectation-busting.” I love that, because, first of all, don’t [...]


  22. [...] From Mini Grey’s Traction Man and the Beach Odyssey(Knopf, May 2012)(Click to [...]


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