Seven Questions Over Breakfast with David Roberts

h1 December 31st, 2014 by jules

photo taken by Lynn Roberts MaloneyI couldn’t let 2014 go by without posting this interview with British author-illustrator David Roberts. I’ve enjoyed his books over the years, but he also provided spot illustrations for Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, the book I wrote with Betsy Bird and the late Peter D. Sieruta, which was released in August of this year (Candlewick Press). David filled our book with a set of very entertaining startled bunnies, one pictured above (it’s hard to pick a favorite, but she may be it), and he also did the cover art, the image at the very bottom of this Q&A.

So, it’s the very last day of the year, but I managed to get this interview in here just in time.

As you’ll read below, David has illustrated more than 150 books (picture books and beyond), some—but not all—originally published in the UK and then released here in the States, thanks to publishers like Abrams and Candlewick. I appreciate David taking the time to talk about his work this morning and share some art. For breakfast, he told me that every Friday he has breakfast at Joe’s Kitchen near where he lives in South London: poached eggs on brown toast with bacon and tomatoes. He also said he’d always make room for a Danish pastry, but I’m all about the toast this morning (with coffee, of course), even if it’s not Friday, so we’ll have that while we chat.

Without further ado, here’s David …

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

David: Both. I have written and illustrated two books and illustrated more than 150.

Illustration from Carolyn Crimi’s
Dear Tabby (HarperCollins, 2011)

Jules: Can you list your books-to-date? (If there are too many books to list here, please list your five most recent illustrated titles or the ones that are most prominent in your mind, for whatever reason.)


[Ed. Note: You can see a selected bibliography here at David’s site.]


David: “Me and Andrea enjoy our favourite cakes in Chez Snooty Pa Toot
Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau)” …
(Click to enlarge)

Jules: What is your usual medium?

David: Watercolour, ink, pen, pencil, crayon, pastel, anything that comes to hand.


(Click to enlarge)

Jules: 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?

David: I have illustrated for very young children with books like Dirty Bertie, Jack and the Flumflum Tree, and The Troll. I’ve also illustrated for young adult readers with books like The Boy Who Kicked Pigs, the Tales of Terror series, and Tinder.

(Click each image to enlarge)

I’d say I never really think too hard about the age that the book is aimed at. It’s always the individual response to that piece of text, but the main difference would be that for picture books you are telling the story through the images, whereas for fiction it is more about creating an atmosphere.

Above: “Thirteen flaming vicars” from Tom Baker’s
The Boy Who Kicked Pigs (Faber and Faber, 1999)


Illustration from Chris Priestley’s Tales of Terror series
(Click to enlarge)

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

David: South London and Liverpool, my hometown.

Illustration from and cover of Andrea Beaty’s
Iggy Peck, Architect
(Abrams, 2007)

Jules: Can you tell me about your road to publication?

David: Hated school, apart from art. Hair washer, shelf-stacker, egg-fryer, film extra, coffee-maker, milliner, fashion, illustrator, children’s books — Hooray! Got there in the end!

Illustration from and cover of Janet S. Wong’s
The Dumpster Diver
(Candlewick, 2007)

Jules: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?


One of David’s old Christmas cards

Jules: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.

David: Very loud. Lots of “Urgh!” and “Yuck!” and “Blurgh!” and “Ew!’” and “Blah!” and ending with a triumphant “trump!”

The delinquent dogs from Jon Blake’s Stinky Finger’s House of Fun
(Hodder & Stoughton, 2005)

Jules: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?

David: I’m really excited to be doing a fourth fairy tale book with my sister (Lynn Roberts). We’ve collaborated on Cinderella: An Art Deco Love Story, Rapunzel: A Groovy Fairy Tale, and Little Red: A Fizzingly Good Yarn [pictured below]. The new one will be our interpretation of the Sleeping Beauty story.


Mmm. Coffee.Okay, we’ve got more coffee, and it’s time to get a bit more detailed with seven questions over breakfast. I thank David again for visiting 7-Imp.

1. Jules: 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?

David: I start by reading the text, and if it’s for a chapter book I will be looking for what I think will make an interesting illustration or scene to illustrate. Sometimes this might not necessarily be the most obvious.

Sketches and dummy images from Andrea Beaty’s
Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau (Abrams, September 2014)
(Click each to enlarge)

For a picture book, it’s working out the pagination, where the page turns should be, whether the text will be integrated in the image or kept separate, whether the text requires the illustration to tell more of the story than what is actually being said in the words. I’ll then plan the content, thinking very much about colour, composition, and style. I’ll usually get an image of how I want the book to look the first time I read the text. And although things can change slightly as I work through, often I stick to that original vision. I find inspiration from film, music, art, exhibitions, fabric, wallpaper, fashion. All of these can influence me in my work.

From Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau
(Click to enlarge)

2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.

David: I always used to work in a corner of my studio flat, but last year I moved and now have a whole room just to work from. One whole corner encompasses a floor-to-ceiling book case for all my own books and foreign editions, plus all the books I use for reference and inspiration. I then have a desk in front of a window to get the maximum light, which is always a complete chaotic mess. Behind me is a mirror, not because I’m vain but for working out facial expressions for my characters. I have lots of postcards, pictures, and objects — and a lovely grey plan chest to store all my paper and artwork. The walls are white and grey with grey carpet, and I have three maps on the wall of places that I’ve been to and adored — Scandinavia, Manhattan, and the Faroe Islands.

Cover art from the newest book in Alan MacDonald’s Angela Nicely series,
Puppy Love!, coming in 2015

3. Jules: As a book-lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

David: Actually, I wasn’t a very confident reader as a child and I really struggled with it, but I loved stories and my older brother used to read to me at night, so I would always fall asleep with images of Fantastic Mr. Fox or James and the Giant Peach.

David’s vision of Dahl’s Mister Unsworth

I also loved Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree and Wishing-Chair series. The first book I felt confident enough to read myself was the first book I ever bought and remains my favourite to this day. It’s called A Hole is To Dig, written by Ruth Krauss and beautifully illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

4. Jules: If you could have three (living) authors or illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose? (Some people cheat and list deceased authors/illustrators. I won’t tell.)

David: I would love to have a glass of wine ‘in spirit’ with Edward Gorey, Charles Keeping and Errol Le Cain. Living and not yet met is very difficult [to answer], as I’ve met so many of my heroes over the years.

Above: The Lepidoctor from Mick Jackson’s
Ten Sorry Tales (Faber and Faber, 2005)

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

David: Folk music is never far from my CD player, and The Roches, Sandy Denny, John Martyn, and Joni Mitchell are in constant rotation. I’ve been going through all of my Kate Bush albums, as I’ve just been to see her live performance (the first one in 35 years!). My recent new obsession is with Perfume Genius. I always work to music or the radio. My favourite channel is 6 Music on the BBC.

From Paul Fleischman’s The Dunderheads
(originally released in 2009 by Walker Books)

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

David: I went on a course to learn how to make Elizabethan ruffs.

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

David: Can you hula hoop?

And the answer is “Yes!”


* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

David: “Hooligan.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

David: “Dapper.”

Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

David: Art, music, cake.

Jules: What turns you off?

David: Time.

Jules: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

David: “Oh, bother.”

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

David: Walking on snow.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

David: My own voice!

Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

David: Bee-keeping. (They turn the roses into gold.)

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

David: Chef.

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

David: “I knew you were coming, so I’ve baked a cake.”


All images are used by permission of David Roberts.

Photo of David taken by Lynn Roberts Maloney.

WILD THINGS!. Illustrations copyright © 2014 by David Roberts. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, copyright © 2009 Matt Phelan.

10 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with David Roberts”

  1. Oh Jules, thanks for this interview — David Roberts’s work was perfectly suited for Wild Things, I thought: just the right mix of spritely, skeptical, and irreverent.

    So glad he mentioned Gorey. More than a little bit of psychic kinship, I’d say.

    (That Christmas card would have cracked, me, UP if I’d gotten it in the mail. And you know I loved the delinquent dogs, too… Not familiar with the book, but apparently most of them aren’t delinquent by nature, but easily led astray by a forceful personality. 🙂 )

  2. I love the mischievous cat pictured in Dear Tabby – and he’s a southpaw to boot!

    How have I not yet read Rosie Revere, Engineer?!

    Happy new year, everyone!

  3. John, I love those dogs somethin’ fierce, too, though I haven’t seen that book either. I think it was a UK release? And that old Christmas card IS great, isn’t it?

    Happy New Year to you, too, Little Willow!

  4. Since I realized I wanted to illustrate children’s books and discovered David through Iggy Peck Architect, a gift to my son some years ago, I have remained a big fan of his art and his sense of humour through his art. Thanks for sharing this great little interview.

  5. What a fantastic interview – I’m going to link to it from my newsletter going out tomorrow which contains news of his latest artwork into the gallery. Thank you!

  6. Wow! I just read Iggy Peck Architect and fell in love with the illustrations! I am a fashion fan and love the art deco look. All I could think of is where did Iggy’s mom get that fantastic pink gown? Love it! Please put up your website because it would be really nice to visit it to see what is new.

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  9. […] Sources: Illustrator website Illustrator page : Children’s Book Illustration Illustrator biography : Wikipedia Illustrator interview : Young Writers Illustrator interview: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast […]

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