Elli often provides bursts of short snappy poetry via Twitter and Benji has written and illustrated one of our favourtie picture books, The Storm Whale. We were lucky enough to grab a brief interview with Elli and we’ll be giving away a copy of the book on Twitter.
PBB: We’ve followed you on Twitter for a while now and love your bursts of poetry. Where and when did your interest of poetry begin?
I’ve loved verse for as long as I can remember. When I was six I was taken to a bookshop and told I could choose a book – I picked a wonderful Puffin anthology called ‘I Like This Poem’. I still have it; falling apart, battered, and obviously very well loved. One of the poems I liked best in it was Spike Milligan’s ‘On The Ning Nang Nong’, which I still rate as one of my favourite poems (along with Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’, just for a bit of contrast). I think it comes from music – I studied at Trinity College of Music Junior Department as a teenager, and then I went on to become a choral scholar at university, so I was always singing stuff. A lot of my verses are really just songs without music. I started writing poems seriously when my youngest son (who’s just turned six) was a toddler. I was particularly inspired by an event that Michael Rosen did, in which my youngest son distinguished himself by stepping on Michael Rosen’s glasses and accidentally breaking them!
Partly because it’s very difficult to get children’s verse published unless you’ve made a name for yourself and partly because a lot of the poems I was writing were quite long and told stories anyway. Writing picture books seemed to be a natural progression. I’d read and loved so many picture books with my own four children over the years (the oldest is sixteen) that I’d formed strong views on what I thought worked and what didn’t.
PBB: How did you start this story?
It all started with my messy house! Me and housework hate each other, so there are piles of things lying around, including books. A book called ‘Fee Fi Fo Fum’ caught my eye, lying on the floor. It’s a book of nursery rhymes with illustrations by Raymond Briggs. I’d probably last looked at it when I was a toddler myself. But the title got me thinking and soon the “‘Fee’, he said, and ‘Fi’ he said” refrain was in my head. As for the story itself, I think it’s possibly inspired by a friend of mine who had a difficult childhood and ended up spending several spells in prison, including one for a very serious offence. But in prison he completely reformed, and now does great work helping offenders and their families. I think that whenever someone has done something wrong, their rehabilitation has to start by them being treated with humanity. It’s hard for people to start behaving decently unless they’re reminded that somewhere within them is a decent human being. That’s what the innocent children do with the Giant of Jum – he reforms because they see the good in him, not the bad. I didn’t set out to write a story with a message, and obviously there’s a danger of falling into the trap of Little Lord Fauntleroy-style naivety. But I do believe in giving people a second chance (and cake!)
PBB: We love Benji Davies’ work and we saw the lengths he went to to create the giant, including a baked head! Did he look like you’d expected?
To be honest I don’t have any clear ideas in my head for illustrations when I write a story. I’ll think very generally about what might be depicted rather than going into style or specifics – which means I don’t come with many expectations. But Benji’s work has exceeded all I could have hoped for. He’s a complete genius! As you say, he spent ages getting everything just right. I’m in awe of him!
PBB: Who would you choose to collaborate with on a picture book and why?
Well Benji, obviously! I remember when I went to the Macmillan offices for the first time and they had a copy of Benji’s ‘The Storm Whale’ lying on the desk, and I just burst out with ‘I love that book!’, without supposing in a million years that I would be lucky enough for Benji to illustrate mine!
But there are loads of brilliant illustrators out there. Every year I go to the Cambridge School of Art illustration show, and I’m bowled over by the talent. Illustrators whose work I’ve seen recently that I particularly admire are Alex T Smith, Yasmeen Ismail, David Roberts, Benjamin Chaud, Fred Blunt, Gabriel Alborozo, Emma Carlisle and David Litchfield. But of course it’s about finding the right illustrator for a particular book, not just liking someone’s style.
We can’t thank Ellie enough for her thorough and thought provoking answers. Jum is out now and a worthy addition to any bookshelf.