Polly Dunbar: Polly and the Penguin
Polly Dunbar is a rising star in the children's book world. Her drawings have been likened to those of Maurice Sendak and she has been chosen to illustrate texts by distinguished authors including Margaret Mahy and David Almond.
Her third picture book, Penguin, has been shortlisted for the 2007 Booktrust Early Years Award in the pre-school category.
Dunbar has always thought of herself as an illustrator first and foremost; she still seems somewhat surprised to be a writer too. 'I thought of myself as a visual storyteller. The words would just come to help the flow of the story,' she explains.
'I don't sit down and write a story from beginning to end; I draw it out with pictures first. I've become a writer accidentally, I suppose.'
Her first books were published when she was still a teenager, and were aimed at the teenage market. In her 20s she began to realise the rich possibilities inherent in the picture book form.
'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.
Penguin is simple but not too sweet. Ben is given a toy penguin for his birthday. He uses a range of tactics to get the penguin to say something, but despite his efforts the penguin remains silent.
The boy throws a tantrum, a lion swallows him for being too noisy, the penguin bites the lion on the nose, the lion exclaims and Ben falls out of his mouth. Finally, at last, the penguin speaks.
As with much of Dunbar's work, the inspiration for Penguin arose from a real-life incident. Her brother Ben, out furniture shopping, spotted a toy penguin perched incongruously behind the counter and bought it.
Polly, captivated by the toy, was given it, with a warning. 'Ben said,"Make sure that you look after him because he bites." That made me think there was something funny there that I could write about. I'd done a little sketch of this penguin biting a little boy's nose.
It all changed around in the final book and he ends up biting the lion rather than the little boy, but that was the main idea. When I did the bit where the penguin says everything in pictures, I was imagining the child could go through it, either on their own or with parents, and talk about the whole story without me saying anything. I put those elements of surprise in to entertain myself as well.
Dunbar wondered whether the scene in which the lion eats the boy might be considered too upsetting for young readers and is pleased that her editor did not ask her to alter it. 'I kind of enjoy that feeling of "OK, everything's not all great now, but we're going to get back to a good place."
'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.'
Dunbar's work is characterized by her distinctive line drawings and use of colour. Indeed, colour is a theme of her first two picture books, Flyaway Katie and Dog Blue, although, ironically, the latter book probably uses less colour than any other picture book she has illustrated.
'With Dog Blue I wanted him to have his favourite colour being blue but also feeling blue, and that didn't end up in the book because I thought it was maybe too sophisticated a concept, but hopefully it shows the feeling without saying he feels blue. I wanted to show that you can use colour to show different moods.'
'Doing books like Dog Blue, where there is no collage, there is no fancy background, it's been really good learning how to draw a character from page to page, keeping that continuity when there's nothing around to support it, and that drawing therefore has to be very good to be a whole page spread on its own. That's been a really good training for me in learning to draw children and how to capture their emotional qualities.
'When you're just doing a few dots and lines, not only does their emotion change very very quickly, but they can look like a completely different boy every time. So changing those dots and lines to express the emotion but also keeping hold of that same child, it's quite a process.
It takes a while to get to know the child so I don't have to think about how to draw him at all, I can concentrate on how he's feeling. It's almost getting into character as an actor or something.
Penguin has a similar spareness to Dog Blue, although Dunbar uses collage in the newer book. She uses the technique to good effect in Fly Away Katie and, particularly, Shoe Baby, which includes intriguing fragments from a French advertisement.
'I've collected bits of random paper; some bits I've had since I was about five. Collage is almost like a good starting point. I'll get a few bits of paper that reflect the mood of what I want that picture to look like. Once you've got that, the rest of the picture evolves out of those few bits.
'With Shoe Baby I concentrated, like the character of Bertie in Dog Blue, on just drawing and drawing and drawing Shoe Baby until I had him exactly how I wanted him - the same baby in each - and the drawing was good. Once I had him right it was great fun. I had him collaged out and I had the bits of paper that suited the mood and I moved them around.
It gives you that freedom and playfulness. You don't have to commit like with paint, you can move them around until you've got the balance of the page exactly how you want it. I love the hands-on cutting out and sticking.
The text of Shoe Baby was written by Polly's mother, author Joyce Dunbar. The younger Dunbar collaborated with a friend to create a successful touring puppet show based on the book. She finds it liberating to illustrate other people's texts.
'It comes from other people's imagination, so I end up drawing things I'd never think about drawing and it feels like a relief sometimes. If you're writing your own book, sometimes it's really hard to see what you're trying to say and you get too close to it, whereas if you're doing somebody else's text you can just be more playful.
'With Here's a Little Poem (edited by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters) it was so nice, because every poem was different and there was space and time to go mad, really, on every page and not feel self-conscious. I also loved doing My Dad's a Birdman by David Almond. It had all the colour and the playfulness and that depth to it, and it was nice to do something for a slightly older audience.'
Polly Dunbar may have built up a prolific career in a relatively short space of time, but she acknowledges that having books published is not the sole indicator of a healthy picture book market.
'You don't see many picture books in the shops, but on the other hand there are really really exciting picture books coming out at the moment,' she observes. 'It's a shame, because I think picture books are very important.
'Hopefully it will swing the other way. It's got to at some point. At least people still want to make them even if they're not selling. That's the main thing. You've got to keep making them, haven't you?'
Polly Dunbar studied illustration at Brighton Art School and now lives and works in London. Author and illustrator of Penguin, Dog Blue and Flyaway Katie, she thinks that colour is a brilliant way to cheer yourself up and whenever she's feeling grey, she puts on her best pink frock and paints! Polly is the daughter of the distinguished author Joyce Dunbar who she collaborated with on the picture book Shoe Baby. She is also the illustrator of My Dad's a Birdman, written by David Almond, and Here's a Little Poem, an anthology of poems for very young children. Polly was one of the Best New Illustrators 2008 and Book Trust's fourth writer in residence read her blog. Polly lives and works in Brighton.