His Royal Highness, King Baby: A Terrible True Story + an interview with David Roberts

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by Sally Lloyd-Jones and David Roberts (Candlewick Press, 2017)

Do you see that pantyhose hair? And big sister’s expression? And her no-nonsense-ear-pencil and toe about to tap?

And the gold on this jacket sparkles with its spot gloss situation, and the whole book from the very beginning is just a yes.

So when Candlewick asked if I’d like to chat with illustrator David Roberts, I was on board. You might also know him from his work with Andrea Beaty on Iggy, Rosie, and Ada? I’m sure you do.

Meet David:

How did you get into picture books?

I got in to picture books after working as a fashion illustrator and milliner. I had gone to work in Hong Kong after graduating from Manchester Polytechnic. I had a degree in fashion design, but I knew I didn’t want to work as a designer. I had always loved drawing, and so picked up some work doing fashion illustration for magazines and newspapers. When I returned to the UK , I tried to find work as a fashion illustrator, but with not much luck. My other passion was millinery and I was extremely lucky to get a job working as a couture milliner for Stephen Jones. I did this for about six years, and in that time I had found an agent to represent me, not as a fashion illustrator but within the world of children’s books.

On seeing my portfolio, my agent, Christine Isteed remarked that I drew characters well, and expressed a wish to push me in the direction of kids’ literature. I was thrilled, as this had been a long held ambition of mine after I shared a house while at college with two amazing children’s book illustrators Gillian Tyler and Dominic Mansell. I had been completely captivated by their work and secretly desired to do something similar myself, but without the confidence to really try, but then Christine (my agent) came along, and all that changed. I have never looked back and feel privileged every day that I get to do this as my job.

When you first read the text of His Royal Highness, King Baby, did you immediately have a look in mind? How did you arrive at such a fabulous period piece?

When I read the text, I instantly loved the irony. I loved the drama and the fantasy that the little girl builds in her imagination. I wanted to try and capture a sort of fantastical traditional fairytale world with castles and horses and unicorns, but within an ordinary domestic home setting. The text left it open to be set at any time period. Being a child of the seventies, I often revert to the decade of my childhood when visualizing clothing or furniture or surface pattern; it was a very rich, bold, and brightly decorative time.

I also love the fashion of the designers Bill Gibb, Ossie Clark, and Zandra Rhodes–they were all exploring fantasy and romanticism in their designs, and it just seemed the perfect approach to use for this text.

I also needed a ‘throne’ for the new ‘king’ to sit on, and those high-backed, peacock style wicker chairs are so reminiscent of seventies interior design, that it all fit together nicely. It was enormous fun to be given the freedom to visualize the story this way.

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Can you tell us about your process?

I read and re-read the text to make sure I fully understand the story. And I do a lot of research, mainly through books but increasingly now with the aid of the internet. I start by thinking about the size and shape of the book, and whether the story would fit best in a landscape, portrait, or square format. When I’ve established the book’s physical size, then I begin drawing ideas onto layout paper, plotting and composing the images around the text, and thinking about how the pagination should flow. I might find inspiration for composition in pieces of art I’ve studied or admired. For example, David Hockney’s work has been a huge inspiration for me, as has Michael Leonard’s work, and Edward Gorey’s work. I recently saw an exhibition on Russian art from the Soviet period, which was fascinating, and I know that has got right inside my imagination and will no doubt find its way into my own work in the future.

I also find that I am inspired by old photography; I love how static it is, and how perfectly and precisely the pictures are composed.

Music or radio conversation is my constant companion while I work, and I do find that certain songs can help me create the mood and atmosphere I am trying to achieve in my artwork.

When I am happy with the composition, pagination, and content, I will share the sketches with the publisher and the author to let them comment and make their own suggestions. When we are all satisfied with the sketches, I begin the final art. This is when I make decisions about color. I don’t work digitally at all so all color decisions once painted in are usually final, unless I can scratch them off with a razor blade. I paint into heavy 300grm hot pressed paper, so it can take a bit of a scrape, but not too much.

I then send it or take it to the publisher, who has it all scanned, and puts the book together with the text.

Who are some of your story heroes?

I was thrilled and privileged to be asked to illustrate The Wind in the Willows a few years back. Having never previously read the book, I was intrigued and excited to see how I could approach it. One of the things I was most keen to capture was the loving, caring, and gentle relationship between the characters of Ratty and Mole. I fell completely in love with them, particularly Ratty and his little blue boat.

I am currently writing and illustrating a book for children about the suffragettes. One very real life character has become a hero of mine since embarking on this subject. Her name was Muriel Matters. She was Australian but lived in London in the early 20th century. In a bid to spread the word about the fight for women’s suffrage,  she hired an 80ft air ship, decorated the side with the slogan “Votes for Women,” and sailed high above London, scattering leaflets about the “Women’s Freedom League” down to the streets below on the day of the King’s Parade to Parliament!

What’s your favorite piece of art in your house?

I recently got married, and while on honeymoon in Japan my husband and I discovered this wooden sculpture. It’s called a kokeshi, which is a traditional Japanese wooden doll, usually beautiful painted, but in the 60s and 70s some artists started to create them in a more simplistic fashion. These are called “creative kokeshi.” We fell in love with this one which was designed by Yamanaka Sanpei, and love her startled expression.

David Roberts Interview for DOTPB

What’s next for you?

I am so lucky to have a lot of fantastic stories that I’ve been asked to illustrate lined up. I am currently finishing my own book about the women’s suffrage campaign, and then I have a new project with Julia Donaldson, with whom I did Tyrannosaurus Drip and The Troll about a king and his cook. Then a book set in the time of the Great War written by Sally Gardner at the start of next year. Along with more stories about the Bolds for Julian Clary, and more from Andrea Beaty who I did Rosie Revere, Engineer with, to keep me busy!

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HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS, KING BABY. Text copyright © 2017 by Sally Lloyd-Jones. Illustrations copyright © 2017 by David Roberts. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.

2 Comments

  • Suellen Franze
    Posted October 17, 2017 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this, Carter. Just the sight of that pantyhose hair and the ear pencil brightened my day. Oh, and the one raised eyebrow!

  • Posted October 17, 2017 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Great interview. David’s work is amazing!