Axel Scheffler & his new book with Dame Emma Thompson

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We spoke to Axel Scheffler about his latest book, Jim’s Spectacular Christmas, a collaboration with Dame Emma Thompson

It is slightly early to talk about Christmas, but when there’s something exciting to share then needs must. One of the world’s most well-loved children’s book illustrators, Axel Scheffler, has a new book which will be released in October. Jim’s Spectacular Christmas is written by Dame Emma Thompson and is loosely based on Sir Henry Cole, largely credited with the invention of greetings cards at Christmas.

Tell us how this collaboration came about

My connection to Emma Thompson goes back a very long time. In the late 80s I got a letter from her; she saw some of my images in an exhibition and she commissioned me to do a drawing for her sister and for her then partner Kenneth Branagh. So that was maybe 1989 and then I did some other work for her, and we kept this loose relationship for over 30 years. We only met just before the pandemic started at a signing at Waterstones, and I said: “Hello, I’m Axel”, and that was our first encounter in person! Then I got an offer from Penguin to illustrate this book so of course I was thrilled, and I read it and it’s a wonderful story.

The story is based on a real person so how much research did you do?

Sir Henry Cole was the first director of the V&A and he designed the first Christmas card. I did a little bit of research, pictures obviously, but the text is not historical, it’s fiction, and Emma invented a story round him and so I did the equivalent of that with my drawings so he doesn’t look 100% like the historical Sir Henry Cole. It’s my version of him. And his dog was a fluffy Yorkshire Terrier and my dog is a somewhat unidentifiable, and I had to make sure you could see the eyes and give expression to him and his mouth, otherwise he was just furry and not so appealing for a reader.

The V&A is an inspirational backdrop for a story.

Yes, and again, I took my liberties and it’s not really identifiable, but I tried to get the spirit of the V&A – it’s not 100% historical.

How are you inspired to create a character?

This is the first time I had to deal with a person that really existed, because when I do the books with Julia Donaldson I’ve always invented characters, although Julia describes the characters in the text a little bit, so the Gruffalo was mostly described, orange eyes and purple prickles all over his back, so I have some guidelines. But then it’s sometimes more interesting and more fun to invent a character that doesn’t exist like the aliens rather than a real one.

Do you draw for joy or is it always work

Yes I do. I still write letters and I write letters to friends, and I always draw something on the envelope. I can do what I want, with no editor interfering. I have very little time and I spend a lot of it illustrating books these days, and like many illustrators I dream of doing something completely different in a different style or start painting but I haven’t found the time yet.

Which book with Julia Donaldson did you enjoy illustrating the most?

That’s a difficult question. I did enjoy – I did so many and some were difficult – I enjoyed The Tales of Acorn Wood – I like the crazy world of animals who are dressed, The Highway Rat, The Smeds and the Smoos as they were so different.

Which books have been the hardest?

I was really struggling with Room on the Broom, to do the skies. I can’t remember why but The Gruffalo was a struggle. There are characters that are a bit more of a struggle like Superworm because Superworm only has eyes and a mouth to give expression so that was a challenge – no arms, no nose, no ears.

Where did you develop your passion for illustration.

Like all illustrators we start when we are children, and we just carry on. I always enjoyed drawing and made it my job later when I was grown up and I had to make a living. I studied History of Art first in Germany and then I came to the UK and studied Visual Communications and that gave me the idea that illustrating was a proper job and then I tried it. So, I took my portfolio and it worked and it’s a good job!

Do you get illustrator’s block?

I don’t, no. I did a lot of editorial illustration when I started and sometimes the way the articles were I couldn’t think what to draw. But with a children’s book, when the text is there, usually I get ideas and I can start sketching.

Is art taken seriously enough in this country as a career?

I’m really worried that in this country the great tradition is being threatened by cuts and that schools don’t have enough art and music – they’re such an important part of the British economy as well. It seems like the Government is not really noticing it. It’s sad and it’s a shame. My daughter goes to the German School so I’m not that close to the UK education system but what I hear is libraries are closing – reading is so important and so is drawing and making music and theatre. All creative activities should be much more encouraged and supported I think. It seems pretty bad what’s happening here.

What’s the best way to encourage youngsters to get into art?

Teachers play an important role and I see a lot of children on my school visits and children can draw. I think they need to be encouraged to draw what comes into their heads. I’m terrible at maths but I think creativity is there and it can be tickled out.

What’s your creative process?

With Julia,  she does illustrate some of her work but when she writes some things, she knows they’re for me. She sends it to the publisher, and we’ve worked with the same publisher and asks if I want to do it, mostly I say yes and then we develop the character. The publisher normally splits the layout, and we discuss structure and spreads. Then I start sketching, sometimes the whole story, and Julia gets to see that and the editor makes comments. Then I start working with more detailed sketches and then I trace it on watercolour paper and start painting with watercolours and pencil. It’s all very hand-drawn and traditional. I’ve been using the same technique for 30 years.

Does anything ever need changing?

Yes, sometimes but usually it’s the editor and at sketching stage so I don’t have to redraw the whole picture, but even that happens sometimes, and these days I can ask them to do changes on photoshop.

Are you good at accepting constructive criticism?

I think I am. I’m a very obedient illustrator.

What would you take to a desert island?

Some paper and coloured pencils.

You can pre-order copies of Jim’s Spectacular Christmas here.

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