One of the thrills of being part of the children’s literature community is reading a book and then reaching out to the author and/or illustrator and actually entering into dialogue and quite often friendship with them. Even well known busy professionals seem to enjoy the contact in this community. I had read SHH! WE HAVE A PLAN a couple of months ago and loved the color palate and very sparse text (103 words) so much I reached out to him for an interview. If you haven’t yet ready it, may I recommend this stellar review here on Julie Rowan Zoch’s blog.
[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?
[CH] Author/illustrator but I always begin with pictures, and I tend to write as few words as possible! I am a reluctant author!
[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?
[CH] I’m from Ireland but travel quite a bit. I actually worked for a summer as a waiter in San Francisco when I was in art college. I taught English to children for a year in Hong Kong. I taught illustration at colleges in India, Nepal and Korea. I mainly live in London but I travel quite a lot. I really love Mexico, the crafts and art here is stunning. Especially the colours, I love india and Nepal too. They also have incredible folk art. Everything adds to the mix though, there isnt a day goes by where I dont see something inspiring, especially if I am somewhere new or looking around.
[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.
[CH] I studied design in art college, my friends and I in college had a quite idealistic view of design, we liked to think design was about making things better and more sustainable and that sort of thing. When I graduated I was disappointed to find it was hard to survive as a freelance designer and illustrator without doing quite a lot of branding and advertising that most definitely was not encouraging anything sustainable at all. I was looking for other ways of using the positive potential of design rather than just selling something.
Fair Trade and doing non-profit or educational projects were ways that I could get excited about design and creating work that i could believe in and put my heart into. I have worked in fair trade now for more than ten years designing toys, clothing, bags, packaging for coffees/chocolates/sugar, store-fronts, the more I did as a volunteer the more they gave me to do, and I began getting paid and making animations and explaining about fair trade through little stories. They cut me a lot of slack as I was doing it all mainly as a volunteer. It was the realisation that I could actually make little narratives that gave me the courage to write.
It was always my dream to make a picture book, but I didnt have any confidence in my writing until that point. That was about 6 years ago and I took some time off, came up with a few ideas and just tried my luck by visiting the Bologna book fair and showing my ideas to publishers. I was particularly drawn to the foreign publishers actually as their books stalls seemed to be very creative and visual compared to the English language section. I emailed thirty publishers with my idea, in the end it was a Korean publisher who was most enthusiastic and published my first book (Little Owl Lost). I actually moved to Seoul for 6 months and finished it there. For 18 months the book was only in Korean, in fact even my name was written in korean characters and when i showed it to friends and family they didn’t believe that I had made it! I was worried that it would not be translated into English at all as it had been to the fairs twice without getting picked up, it is the fate of most Korean books even though they are so many fantastic ones. Eventually I found Walker/Candlewick when I came back to London and took it to them myself and have been working with them ever since. I am still working in fair trade and looking for more and more ways to bring the books and fair trade work together.
[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?
[CH] I haven’t really thought too much about that. I like circular endings, I like that there may be more problems to come rather just than a happy-ever-after ending, that sort of bothered me as an ending. I quite like telling very simple stories that cut to the core of the issue, if I can find a simpler way of telling that same story I will do that. And in my art I like lots of colour and graphic shapes. I suppose a lot of my characters are not all that clever and not really fully in control of things, there might be a touch of me in there, I can certainly see where I get that from!
[JM] European picture books are often quite different than US ones. Do you create with a specific audience in mind?
[CH] Not really, I just try to make artwork that I like myself and that I hope best tells the story in the most simple and most direct way. I do very much think of how children will react. I have heard picture book artists say they don’t think of stories with children in mind, but just make it for themselves but that isn’t the case for me. I imagine myself as a child reading it and I imagine myself as an adult reading it aloud and if it works for both then it’s a good idea. I think it needs to be really snappy and with a lot of interaction to hold the attention of the younger ones. I like humour that works for both adult and child, not a joke for the adult and a different joke for the child, i think a book should be something you can both share. We see the joke from different perspectives but that we can see the humour in the same joke I think is a wonderful thing to share with a very little person.
[JM] Can you tell us a little about Fair Trade and book work.
[CH] Yes, I have been working as a designer for fair trade for the last ten years, mainly for the company People Tree and mainly as a voluntary thing. I just used to just help out when I could and send them some drawings and ideas from time to time. The work that came back was so beautifully hand-made that it gave me the idea to some day go over and somehow work directly with the makers out there and see what else we could develop. In 2010, I finished my first children’s book (little owl lost) and had some time and a little money so I moved to India and Nepal and ended up staying there for 8 months (you might be able to spot a pattern here!). I worked with four different groups in Nepal, mainly through People Tree. I made little cotton toys in a womens shelter project called Mahaguthi (http://blog.chrishaughton.com/mahaguthi-tulsi-mehar-and-a-lost-owl/)
I developed other toys for people tree with another group called Dhukuti. People Tree introduced me to Kumbeshwar and when i saw their rugs being made I was totally hooked. They are so beautifully made. Not only that but KTS has such an inspiring history, it was set up as a non-profit by a family from the lowest caste who owned a successful business and wanted to help the rest of their caste out of poverty. It seemed like an amazing thing to team up with so I set up a social business called madebynode.com. We invited lots of artists last year to create rugs for the design museum in london. Oliver Jeffers, Jon Klassen, Geoff McFetridge and lots of really great artists got involved and it was a lot of fun.
[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP, and the process of creating them?
[CH] In SHH, for the final artwork I was keen that that the bird seems somehow from another world, brightly coloured and abstracted and removed from the world of the characters, it focuses all our attention on the relatively tiny bird on the page, leads the reader through the pages of the book and gives a punch of colour at the end. My other books are very colourful so it was quite satisfying to try to work almost entirely in silhouette for this one. In fact there was a lot of really interesting experiments with the colour. Usually full colour printing is in CMYK, but the whole of the book is printed in only CMK (blue, magenta, black) and the only yellow that appears in the book at all is in the colour of the birds. It was our hope that with this approach the bird would stand out completely from the rest of the book.
[JM] What does your workspace look like?
[CH] cluttered! (dont trust the attached pic I did a huge clean!)
Five Fun Ones to Finish? [JM] What’s your favorite park in the world?
[CH] Killiney Hill Park, it’s a park close to my parents house in Dublin, its up on a hill and overlooks the city and Dublin bay on one side and the sea and mountains on the other. It’s beautiful.
[JM] Cats or dogs?
[JM] Fact that most people don’t know about you?
[CH] I am in Mexico right now. Most art directors I work with didnt know that.
[JM] Favorite Foreign title for one of your books?
[CH] Actually my favourite title of my books is the Italian version of (Little Owl Lost) they just called it OH-OH! Its funny because thats actually usually what the children call it. I wish I had thought of that!
[JM] Oh, I love that! Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?
[CH] Definitely coffee!
Chris, congratulations on winning the CYBILS picture book award of 2014 with Shh! We Have a Plan. I am sure we shall be seeing more of your books on our shelves over the coming years. I think you are my first irish interviewee so that definitely needs rectifying.