'If we're only given one image of ourselves, it severely limits our aspirations as people.' - Dapo Adeola

Published on: 21 January 2020 Author: Emily Drabble & Sheba McFarlane

Illustrator Dapo Adeola speaks to Emily Drabble about his debut picture book Look Up with Nathan Bryon, his inspirations and why representation something we need to keep talking about.

Can you summarise the story of your debut picture book Look Up?

Look Up! is about a 6-year-old girl called Rocket and her brother Jamal who, like any typical teenager, is really into his social media and mobile phone. I don’t mean to generalise, but that’s my experience of teenagers! Rocket is obsessed with the stars and space. She wants to see the Phoenix meteor shower and she tries to convince her brother and everyone else in her neighbourhood to come with her to see it. This story follows them on their journey for the day.

Where did the idea for Look Up!, which was written by Nathan Bryon, come from?

The idea for Look Up! came from an incident that Nathan described to me. He was walking in the park with his girlfriend while on his phone. She was talking, he wasn’t listening and walked into a lamppost because he didn’t look up! So that was the initial inspiration behind the story. Initially, Nathan approached me to design the character of Rocket. He gave me a brief description of a black girl who is “obsessed with space” wears glasses and has “big hair”.

I went away, put together a mood board including some images that Nathan had sent to me, and thought about what I wanted this character to say in terms of who she is and how she moves.

The main inspiration for this came from one of my lovely nieces. Her name is Sarah, she is 10 years old and she is the most curious child in the world (according to me anyway).

I wanted to see if I could capture that in Rocket’s design and mannerisms, and I believe I achieved that.

Why do you think it’s important for young children to get access to really brilliant books?

Apart from the obvious reasons, I think it’s important to me for all children to get the same amount of access to good quality books because you don’t know what’s out there until you see it.

So, if you’re not exposed to certain kinds of books it is difficult to envision yourself being in certain places, or to see positive and accurate reflections of yourself in the world.

There’s a lot more that I could say. In terms of equal opportunities all around, I think that it’s unfair for only children of a certain demographic to have something that all children should have access to. Something as simple as good quality books which offer a range of representation, a range of experiences and range of richness in imagination, I think is massively important.

Which illustrators most inspired you to become an illustrator?

My inspirations range quite a bit. As well as more typical inspirations such as Quentin Blake and Ronald Searle, who are absolute masters in their field, I had some more ‘off-the-path’ ones. There was a guy called Jim Mahfood, an amazing American comic book artist who really inspired me from my early 20s into my 30s. Not only do I look at the work of the artist, but I look at them as a person, their life experiences, their ups and downs and how they got to become an illustrator. Jim was one of the people who really inspired me because, for him, it was all about the craft. He had a dedication to the craft that I hadn’t seen anywhere else and he spoke quite openly, even documenting his journey. That is how I actually got the idea to start documenting my own. He has always been a massive inspiration.

How important are the illustrations in a book?

Let’s just put it this way-you can have a picture book without words, but you can’t have a picture book without illustrations.

As far as I’m concerned (and this is no shade to any writers), the text itself is important, the marriage between the text and the images is also important but picture books would essentially be non-existent without pictures!

One of the joys of making picture books for me is that I get to tell a different story to a certain extent through the visuals that I put down. To me, the mark of a good illustrator is how well they manage to strike the balance between telling the actual story that’s been told in the text, and the other little narratives that have been woven into the illustrations. All of that contributes to the fun that parents and children experience when they are reading the book together.

What are your tips for parents reading the book to read the pictures as well as the words? (leads in to reading video?)

To be honest, I don’t have many actual tips, apart from to try not to skim over the pictures while just focusing on the text. Really clever illustrators tend to hide the things that help to flesh the story out even more. So make it a challenge to look at the pictures and talk your children through the pages if needed. You’ll be amazed at the things that children pick up. For instance, there are some things in the picture book that I didn’t even realise I’d put in there, that they have picked up and appreciated. We had one particularly amazing review from a girl in America. She started off reviewing the book before lapsing into this whole dialogue about the cat in the book. This was just something that I included as a companion for the character, but it’s something that children have really taken on board and gravitated towards.

What are the biggest challenges in creating books for the very young?

My biggest challenge when creating books for the very young is, believe it or not, the adults! That’s my biggest challenge. Children are able to find adventure in a lot of things, whereas adults are hyper-critical about texts for children. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as we need to have some critique within the picture book realm. However, I think there needs to be a balance between being constructively critical and remembering that the critiques do come from the perspective of adults.

How important is it for children to see themselves reflected in a book?

It’s massively important. For example, you can’t visualise yourself in a role in this world until you see a representation of yourself in said role. The example that comes to mind is a bit off topic. Bernardine Evaristo recently won the Man Booker Prize. As a newbie to the industry, I didn’t even know much about the Man Booker Prize. I was aware of it but I did not realise its significance to the literary world until I saw a black face winning. After that, I looked into it and did a lot of research. As a result, it became a space that someone like myself could be in all of a sudden.

So, in answer to your question, it’s massively important for children to see themselves and for everybody to be able to see themselves represented across the board, whether it’s in literature or in literary spaces…

What was your journey to becoming an illustrator?

So, this feeds back into what I just said. Again, it’s massively important. I studied graphic design at university and didn’t do illustration. One of the reasons why I didn’t is that I had never seen anybody like myself doing it. I just didn’t think it was a space for me at all. It sounds kind of silly, as I do consider myself to be a fairly intelligent person, but I couldn’t make that jump to link the two together. Even how I ended up where I am is down to a series of very, very random events. I didn’t intend to get into book publishing, it just happened. I really didn’t think there was a space for someone like me in it, but now I realise that there is, and I feel like I belong. So yeah, it's massively important.

Did you see yourself reflected in any books when you were young?

I saw myself reflected in terms of my characteristics and how I am as a person in terms of my ambition, imagination and the things that I wanted to do.
Did I see myself visually as a person? No, not at all. There were no characters that I can recall in any picture books growing up that looked like me. And when I say ‘’look like me”, obviously we did have books like Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman but Grace is a girl. I could only relate up to a certain point. So, my answer is that no, I did not have that representation as a kid. 

Did you notice that you weren’t really reflected in books you read?

I didn’t because it very much works on a subconscious level. It’s like part of your brain switches off, or that part of your brain doesn’t switch on because you’re not seeing that representation.

It’s like you become so hardwired to not see yourself that it becomes the expected norm and you just accept it as you plod on through life. It isn’t until someone actually points it out that you start to notice. And then you look at everything that came before. Once this was highlighted to me, I started to look at the representation that does exist for young black men in cartoons, pop culture and other things that we look to. It’s always seemed to revolve around sports and athletics with the same tired tropes being trotted out over and over again. This made me start to question representation across the board. I feel that if we are only given one image of ourselves, it severely limits our aspirations as people.

What are you working on now?

I have just wrapped the 2nd book in the Look Up! series. It’s called Clean Up! and its release will be announced soon . I’ve also wrapped the first book in a Macmillan series with Dave the Pigeon author Swapna Haddow. She’s an amazing author and I’m really looking forward to that coming out because it was so much fun to do. It’s called My Dad is a Grizzly Bear. I’m also working on a new young fiction series for which is called Space Detectives. Finally, I’m working on a soon to be announced picture book with Penguin by a particularly amazing author. Watch this space for that announcement…

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