Blog Christmassy Q&A with 'Mouse and Mole' creators Joyce Dunbar and James Mayhew
Hello, I’m James and I’ve been illustrating books for children for over 30 years! After training as an illustrator, I began by writing and illustrating the Katie series, about a little girl’s adventures in an art gallery, followed by Ella Bella Ballerina. But in between, I began illustrating for other authors and was lucky enough to be gifted the opportunity to illustrate the original Mouse and Mole stories by the legendary Joyce Dunbar. I live with my husband Toto, and our dog Diva, in Suffolk, where the big skies and gentle light are perfect for artists.
I really try to develop projects I love or believe in, that I think are really good quality, in terms of text, illustration and production. I think children deserve nothing less! It’s impossible to not be inspired by Mouse and Mole, the stories are so beautifully written, the characters so endearing. I put a lot of my own world into the characters, filling the paraphernalia of their lives with things from my own home. I also work non-digitally, with pen, ink and paint, and I just love that process. I love the act of creating something on a piece of paper. Of course it goes wrong sometimes. often there is a puzzle to solve. But I enjoy that process, I like coming up with solutions. If I get really stuck, like Mouse and Mole I do for a good long walk!
Yes, I change and develop according to the book. Mouse and Mole are established with ink and paint, and to be consistent I don’t deviate from that, but other projects might need a different approach. Nen & The Lovely Fisherman (by Ian Eagleton) suggested something softer and more painterly. Other titles, like Once Upon A Tune were created using printmaking and collage. It’s all different sides of my creativity. I just think one has to serve the BOOK as an illustrator, and create the best illustrations for each title that you can - I also enjoy the experiment and growth that comes with that.
This is a wintry book, full of snow and Christmas preparations, the first time I’ve illustrated Mouse and Mole in that season. I really love painting snowy landscapes, so it was a treat to do. The stories are so enchanting, really capturing the anticipation I think we all feel as the festive season approaches. But what I love about Mouse and Mole is that things sometimes go slightly wrong, too - which I think we can all relate to!
I grew up in the countryside, and there would often be heavy snowfalls and sledging trips, so my memories of that landscape and those experiences very much informed my work. I grew up with very typical Christmas traditions, like stockings on the mantlepiece, mince pies and carrots left out for Father Christmas and reindeer, bringing in greenery to decorate - all of which has been beautifully captured in these stories. Nowadays, my Christmas is very different, as my husband is Spanish, and we celebrate more on Christmas Eve and on the Dia de los Reyes.
Draw! Look at real things! Draw them, observe, sketch, make mistakes, try again. Always carry a sketchbook, and DON’T just sketch with pencil. Try other things dip pen and ink. Crayons. Charcoal. Brush and ink. Be BRAVE - and don’t be put off if it goes wrong. Something *always* goes wrong with every book I do. Just remember: That’s how you learn!
I was born in Scunthorpe in January 1944, near the end of the war. I don’t remember seeing any picture books. Paper was in short supply, colour printing very basic. When I got married in 1972, a friend gave me Where The Wild Things Are as a wedding present. I couldn't think why.
There were very few books at school. Mostly dog-eared copies of Biggles, on coarse grey paper. My father read Grimm's Fairy Tales and Aesop's Fables to me and my younger sister. I loved them. In the classroom, we passed a copy of Wind In The Willows round, reading a short section aloud each. It was a very slow process and I got no sense of the whole story. One line stayed in my mind for some reason. 'What’s a little wet to a water rat?’ It’s become almost a mantra for me. When I got to university the girls in the hostel swooned over The Beatles and something called Winnie The Pooh. I’d never heard of either. Not till I had my own children did I get to know Beatrix Potter. The joy of having babies was greatly enhanced by all the wonderful children’s books coming out. It was a golden age.
I wrote a poem when I was seven which won a prize. It was about a mouse who runs away from home and is gobbled up by a cat. It would never have occurred to me to be a writer - very far-fetched - so I taught English in schools and colleges for 23 years. One day I told my mother I wanted to be a writer. 'Writers write' she replied, a matter of factly. What had I been doing all these years? Waiting for permission?
Iconic? Moi? I don’t think so. But yes, my first book was published in 1980 and I’ve had a steady output since then. I stopped counting at 80 but now I think it must be nearly 100. I’ve worked with more than a dozen publishers and about as many illustrators. Not deliberately, but because of the comings and goings of editors. This was good in a way. It meant I could write many different kinds of stories in many different styles of writing. The downside is that I didn’t have a recognizable 'look’ like the partnership of Roald Dahl with Quentin Blake, or Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. I don’t think any publisher regarded me as icon material so I haven’t been much promoted. I’m happy with that. I’ve earned a living doing what I love for nearly 40 years.
Nowadays the emphasis is on brand. Because Graffeg is printing so many of the stories with James Mayhew as an illustrator, they may have brand potential.
My biggest success, Tell Me Something Happy Before I Go To Sleep sold in 22 languages. I mentioned the title to my agent. She said, ‘Write it!’ But I didn’t have a story so I shut myself in my bedroom for a week vowing not to come out until I’d written it. Even then I wasn’t sure if it was any good. After the devastation of 9/11 it was recommended as a way of making children feel safe again and I was invited on tour to America with the illustrator. The book is still in print after 33 years.
I think a lot of my stories are a way of making children feel safe, especially Mouse & Mole. They make me feel safe too. No wonder a child who spent part of their early months in an air raid shelter needs to feel safe. Millions of children are not safe, to our shame.
There is no simple recipe for success. Every new story is a challenge and an adventure. Mouse and Mole was different. I hadn’t been able to write much after the upheaval of a house move and began to worry that I’d run out of ideas. Then, after a morning of staring at the page and scratching my head, I wrote The line, ’Talk to me …’ The story followed in a few minutes. After that, they just seemed to roll off the pen. Hardly any corrections and very little editing needed. But you have to make yourself available by sitting down regularly to write. You also have to sharpen your awareness in a certain kind of way, align your energies to be receptive. This takes time. And intuition. So a lot of the writing is done in my head, on a walk, in the bath, washing up.
You also have to be aware of the market, all the other books being published - while never losing your individuality. You are sure to be influenced by what you admire, but don’t copy. Don’t follow the market. Create your own.
As the title reveals, it is a Christmas book of 3 stories. James Mayhew gets right inside the characters so that in their facial expressions and body language we can read their inner life. James also completely ‘gets' the humour. From the first sketches, I recognized my characters and now can't imagine them in any other way. We have a shared sensibility in some ways. Both our houses are Mouse & Moley. But the stories are not cosy in the way that might suggest; they are questioning, in the way that children are.
My childhood was spent in the time of post-war rationing. We didn't have much. My mother would unwrap our tiny Woolworth's Christmas tree and fold out the branches. She encouraged my younger sister and I to make our own decorations, paper chains and so on. We never had anything so exotic as an advent calendar. We hung our pillowcases at the end of the bed and there was always a tangerine and a piece of coal amongst the presents. A large tin of toffees remained open on the sideboard from which we could help ourselves. The story is the mythical Christmas of my childhood, by and large, the story we told ourselves. The tradition is fading, but I hope Lo & Behold will keep it alive for a while longer
Same as my mother’s ‘Writers write.'