I met Beth Norling one cold, foggy evening at a CCBA Blue Mountains gathering, where she was being honoured for her contribution to the children’s book industry, as an illustrator. Our friendship began in front of the open fire in the vintage lounge room at The Carrington hotel in Katoomba. As we conversed, we both began to discreetly peal off our layers of clothing, neither wanting to admit that the fire was making us feel a little too hot and woozy. Then, almost simultaneously, we declared that we needed air and in fits of giggles we retreated from the flames.
I knew I liked Beth from the moment I met her. She had a warm, kind demeanor and was endlessly smiling. She is equal parts gentle and wickedly smart. Just being in her presence feels like an education in life; she is humble, experienced and wise.
Beth has been an illustrator for over a quarter of a century, working for the likes of Penguin, Allen and Unwin, Scholastic and Harper Collins. Her picture books include I found a friend…and my friend found me (Penguin), The Stone Baby (Lothian Books), and Little Sisters Are… (Puffin). She also illustrated the Macquarie Children’s Dictionary and Australian Organic Gardening magazine.
After working in traditional publishing for many years, she decided to self-publish her own illustrated books. Beth is passionate about including positive messages in her books, and feels that this is something that is still missing in today’s children’s publishing industry.
We are lucky to not only share a friendship with Beth, but also to work with her as a part of The Manuscript Agency team. I persuaded her to answer a few questions on what it is like to be a children’s book illustrator …
The above is a very brief outline of who you are and what you do… and I know it doesn’t begin to do you justice! Can you tell us a little more about what lead you to becoming an illustrator?
Dad and Mum were artists (Mum was an illustrator for Earth Garden Magazine, Dad a painter and lecturer at the Art Gallery of NSW). Drawing was a second language at home. I just loved illustrations and given I was a bit dyslexic I’d enjoy just sitting with a book and making up my own stories about the pictures. I saw an article when I was about eight in Women’s Weekly magazine about an illustrator of children’s books and there was a photo of her sitting at her desk at home; working from home looked like the perfect life, and I said to myself: ‘that’s what I want to be when I grow up, a children’s book illustrator!’
From school onward it was a measure of luck and good timing that I got into the industry at the right time. Although largely inexperienced, I was employed by a local company G-Raffics to do drawings for textbooks, brochures and to stick type into position when bromides were still in use. This was my informal apprenticeship and I am forever grateful to Greg and Carol Gaul for taking me in. Later, I responded to a callout from Harper Collins for new illustrators from an advertisement in the newspaper, Cathie Tasker at Harper Collins then gave me my first text Princess Pricilla to illustrate, from then on I worked on my own. It’s only recently that illustration has been considered such a covetable job, I used to have to explain to people what an illustrator was!
Can you share a little more about the work you have done? What projects have you been most proud to have worked-on/created?
I am most proud of my solo shows, these works were mostly sculptural and were considered to be quietly subversive. However, the art world is very tough, you have to throw your whole life into it to be a success, I didn’t see myself as someone with enough stamina to make that kind of commitment and as I was supporting my family I couldn’t live with so little financial security for so many years.
Children’s books as an art-form is pretty conservative, there are so many no-go zones, some may surprise you, one publisher explicitly asked that I remove the beard from a father character, I guess because he may be seen as a terrorist, it’s just ridiculous. I am also proud that although I am never really asked to make gender equalities and race equalities I try to do it as a matter of due course.
How do you choose which books you want to illustrate?
They have to resonate with me; I have to see it in my mind’s eye easily.
How do you approach a manuscript for illustration? Where do you find inspiration for new stories and characters?
It can start with a vision that I jot down as a sentence or two, for example for The Stone Baby the story began as an image from a dream of a whale bumping the bottom of a boat, I then saw a real life stone baby in a ruined cathedral and put the two together. Other ideas come from my own need to resolve or explain something, I Found a Friend was the result of a difficult and confusing relationship I had with someone.
Books I am writing now broadly have to do with loss, and environmental issues, not because environment is popular or in the syllabus but because its something I really care about and it hurts my heart that nature is in peril.
Can you tell me more about if you think messaging in children’s books is important, and if you feel it’s lacking in the current publishing climate?
I am not sure messaging for the sake of it is important. I think having a heart and soul to the book is important. The message I like to give is hopefully a homely, gentle, whimsical kind of feeling to those who look at my work. I also think that giving children gloomy books about topical issues is cruel; they are so powerless to do anything with the world we have dealt them, many issues are just too big for little souls. That said, I don’t mind if books have some darkness in them, darkness is a part of every psyche even in young ones. I have been a bit out of touch lately with what’s on offer, Australia has always made exceptional children’s books, I do however get worried that books are dying as a medium. They offer such a different experience to a screen. A book feels more intimate and the timing of the read is paced very differently because the turn of the page sets a pace that just isn’t the same as the timing of reading something on a screen. The page turn provides pauses. We sadly lack enough pauses in life. I am all for slow and simple.
Do you feel that as an artist, working on commissions hinders or helps your creative development?
Both. Without commissioned work I could not eat, or make other work. But unfortunately my time does get chewed up in making the commissioned work, and there is not much left over to be more creative. I like to get a bit obsessed when I am making my own work so really it’s not a question of doing both simultaneously, I need a good chunk of time (and some financial security) to focus on my own work. Generally speaking, I am the hands for someone else’s creative vision. I made time to do my own work recently, but spent a lot of time grieving the loss of a creative self; I’ve got to build up some creative reserves before I launch out again. I guess after 30 years of working my ‘creative well’ had run a little dry.
What does a day in your life look like?
I like to start early and get things done before 2-3pm, but sometimes when I am on a roll I sit still for hours on something and time flies by and before I know it it’s midnight. Other days I procrastinate. Often, a new project can be difficult to start so I have found a neat trick to help me get started. I get really scared starting a new project and think ‘I have absolutely no idea how to draw, I can’t believe I said yes to this job, it’s going to be a disaster!’ So I just set myself an utterly practical task, ‘all I have to do is get the paper out and rule the page, that’s all’, but after I have started on the ruling up I am ready to go and my fears have been forgotten.
What does ruling up the page mean, for people such as me, who have no idea how the illustration process works?
Ruling up a page is when I get out the ‘good’ paper and draw up the size that the image will be, generally this is a scaled up version of the page size, selected as the final format, of the book. I allow for a ‘bleed’ which is the margin exceeding the page cut, so that where an image ‘goes off’ the page limits the image is cleanly cut through without the straggly bits of the edges of the image being seen. Recently I spoke with illustrator Tohby Riddle about his process and was astounded to learn that he doesn’t have ‘good’ and ‘bad’ paper i.e. rough paper. His images start and finish on the one piece of paper, whereas I do roughs on thin see-through paper ‘bank’ or ‘bond’ and trace up with the use of my trusty light-box the final image onto my ‘good’ paper. Ruling up doesn’t require any creativity, which makes it a godsend for tricking me into working.
Where is your favourite place to create/work?
I like to face south, this is just something I have learnt from moving my desk here and there and a tendency I have noticed. Even when I have moved from house to house, or room to room … I don’t know if my inspiration rolls in from the south, I don’t know if I prefer south because the light is soft and I can see the road from my desk (and I kind of like that connection with the outside world?). It’s a mystery. I also have really loved working at residencies; I just love the social aspect and that sense of locking myself away from the world for a few weeks to dedicate myself to a project.
What kind of residencies have you attended? Do you have a favourite?
I have been to Bundanon, Varuna Writers Centre and The Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig in Ireland. I felt immensely privileged to attend every one of them. Every experience was unique and productive. For Varuna it seemed strange to go to a residency in my own hometown, but at the time my kids were small and the residency gave me that extra head-space to concentrate on my work, I also treasured the nights chatting to other writers over dinner or in a sneaky break in the kitchen over tea. I also made friends, writers are a solitary bunch so it’s a luxury to get together talk and be fed.
My residency in Ireland was absolutely magical; I could see myself happily living permanently at an artist’s commune. The setting is so beautiful, a large mansion house and stables overlooking a private lake, I felt like I had walked on set of some BBC period drama. I painted a lot there and had the most vivid dreams, which fuelled these tiny, sad, heartbroken visual narratives that I made.
Work spaces really do influence the work one makes.
The hardest part was that the residency is six weeks long and my kids at the time were smallish, now my daughter says that it felt like I had died, I did remind her that I called home almost every night, but for her six weeks felt like an eternity. Bundanon was special too; I just loved the rural landscape and would lie out in the paddocks at dusk with the wombats trumping round. I painted huge works, the studio was so big it needed huge work; like a goldfish in a tank grows to fit the size of its surroundings my work grew to the size of the studio.
When you’re writing your own books,
which comes first: the words or the pictures?
The pictures; not that I draw them first, but they come as an image in my mind’s eye. I can also have a phrase that comes in, that is repeated until I pay attention to it; it’s like a story hovering, waiting to be told. I know Elizabeth Gilbert talks about this kind of inspiration in her book BIG MAGIC, I don’t really give it too much thought, it’s just the way it works for me. Sometimes people say why don’t you do a book on ‘x’, the reason is simply because I’m not called to do a book on ‘x’, it may be an excellent idea but it hasn’t got my name on it.
How long does it take you to illustrate a book?
Books that have been my own (both written and illustrated) have taken up to a year or two to complete, including the editorial process.
What many people don’t know is that an idea that was pitched to a publisher is very seldom the same baby that gets published.
A book is a collaborative process with the publisher and therefore goes through many versions before it is printed. Other projects have a strict deadline and I always get them in on time, actually before the deadline, I hate cutting it fine.
What was you favourite book as a child?
Originally in French, The House That Beebo Built was my favourite illustrated book. The drawings are both realistic and impossible; Beebo’s house is a fantastical creation any child would want to live in.
Are there any illustrators/authors who have inspired you?
Ron Brooks, Maurice Sendack, Lauren Child, Armeen Greeder, David Mackintosh.
What advice would you offer anyone who wants to write for children?
Be simple at explaining interesting things. Write from your child’s heart (your heart as a child), too many people try to be clever, or use a voice that isn’t their own, it’s like they mimic the voice of a children’s book in their writing and then think the job of writing has been done, it’s a very subtle medium and one that is hard to get right (I am not sure I have managed to do it well myself).
What art medium do you use (i.e. watercolour etc.)?
Every medium that is flat. Digital, B&W only, watercolour pencil, acrylic, gouache, tempera, collage. I pick the medium that suits the genre and the story and the time restraints.
Do you have a ‘dream book’ that has already been published/illustrated that you would love to have been able to work on?
I’d love to have illustrated for Margaret Wild. Old Pig is a favourite, but Ron Brooks has illustrated it beautifully.
Can you tell me what you are working on at the moment?
I have a couple of books Id like to take a little more seriously, A book about a tree and my father dying, a book about recycling and a woman from out of space, and a book about a blue bear replacing a child’s mother.
Where can find out more about you?
If you have any questions you would like to ask Beth, please post them below and we will endeavour to provide you with a response!
A few more of Beth’s illustrations…