Hazel Mitchel – Illustrator Interview

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Hazel and Toby

Hazel and Toby

Hazel and I go way back, to a time when pocket money was 10p and for that you’d get you a bag of candy as large as your fist;  and London was overrun by wonderful creatures called wombles. Seriously, I have known Hazel since before our first in person meeting at the Hyatt bar at my first SCBWI bash in LA, 2011. I have watched her create warm and whimsical artwork for many authors and am more than thrilled to be part of her blog tour as she launches her debut picture as author and illustrator, TOBY!

I will also admit to being one of the few to have petted Toby, and he actually sat next to me on the couch (albeit anxiously) a couple of times this summer!

[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?

[HM] I usually begin with pictures. Given that Toby is my first published book as an author and illustrator I can only describe my experience so far with this book. Really I started sketching Toby idly and the story came from there. The words came as I went along (and changed a lot throughout the process!)

[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?

[HM] I am originally from Yorkshire, England. So my roots in children’s literature and art are very much in the English tradition having been raised on AA Milne, Enid Blyton and classics like Wind in the Willows, The Tales of Beatrix Potter and the like. I love old style illustrations from the 40’s and 50’s (Edward Ardizzone, EH Shepherd and Pauline Baynes) and later illustrators like Quentin Blake, Ralph Steadman and Raymond Briggs. But when I moved to the USA in 2000 and began to get serious about illustration I discovered a whole world of American illustrators. Up until then I do believe I only knew Dr. Suess and Disney. Shocking!

[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.

[HM] I can’t remember not drawing or making things. It was an escape as a child and all I was really good at in school – along with English. It’s probably all I am really good at now! After I left school I attended art college in York and Sunderland in England, studying fine art. But I wasn’t a good student. Looking back if there had been an illustration course readily available back then, I might have been illustrating books a whole lot sooner! As it was no one seemed to even have heard of illustration at college. In the end I drifted and dropped out. Luckily I then joined the Royal Navy and they taught me to be a graphic designer and I got to work with a lot of very talented civil servants in design work. So it was a kind of apprenticeship. It has served me well! When I was a kid, I always wondered who did the illustrations in books. It took me a long time to really find out. I came from a working class background where being an artist for a living was not on the agenda. That only happened in London and the like. I left the Navy after several happy years and worked as a commercial designer running my own business. It wasn’t until I came to the USA that I finally found my way to illustration and, along with commercial illustration, I began to put together a portfolio for children’s illustration. And lo and behold in 2010 a publisher gave me my first book! (After I joined the SCBWI I may say, and worked out how publisher’s worked! Ever thankful for that society.

[JM] You were fostering the real Toby when you started this story, was this before or after he got lost and it felt like the whole of FB was mobilized to help find him?

[HM] It was before he got lost. (I hate thinking about that time!). The story in the book is not about him getting lost (even though I think a lot of people imagine it is!). So many people were following the story of the fostering of Toby and when he was lost they felt personally involved – it was amazing the support we had! I’m just thankful that Toby came back to us. If he hadn’t I don’t think I could have illustrated his book. It would have been too sad. I fictionalized the setting for Toby’s book, he gets a different family, but really it’s a retelling of how Toby overcame a lot of his fear and learned to love. It’s all about trying again when things get hard. Children really relate to that theme in the book.

[JM] I know Toby came from a horrible abuse situation. How is he doing now?

[HM] He’s doing great! It’s been three years now (unbelievably) and we’re still seeing changes all the time. At first he was completely frozen for several months. He would creep around, scared of his own shadow. He’d had no contact with people and had been kept in a basement with a lot of other poodles. He’d never been outside. He hardly knew how to stand up to pee. It was so sad. But with love and time he’s now a real personality. He’s very bossy and tells our other rescue poodle off (she is very good and humours him). Now he loves cuddle time and treats and watching the world go by out of the window. He’s still very scared of leaving the house and that’s something we are working on. But he’s making strides. Sometimes I look at him and can’t believe he’s the same dog. I think having his own book has given him a lot of self-confidence. He doesn’t let us forget it!

Toby, first photo

Toby, first photo

sniffs - now

[JM] I can so attest to the transformation yours and Mike’s love have brought to Toby. Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of TOBY, and the process of creating this picture book?



Sure. As I said, this is my first book as author AND illustrator, so I was on a learning curve. I’ve illustrated several other books, but working with someone else’s manuscript is a different thing altogether, you’re weaving around the author’s words. Writing your own words and illustrating them is a whole different ball game. Scary, but exciting. When I started to think about Toby’s book I always knew it’d be in a fictionalized setting. There was no real story arc with me and my husband as the secondary characters. So I gave Toby a boy and a dad who adopt him and explored that relationship … which turned out to be a great triangle of emotion. I love to explore emotions with mood, colour and setting in my work.


I went through several different drafts of the dummy with my editor (Liz Bicknell) and art director (Ann Stott) at Candlewick Press (who is my dream publisher by the way!). I think I did about five drafts in all before I got to final art. The finished story is much simpler (and therefore better for young readers!) than my first draft. I learned a lot about flow and what words were needed and when to create a book that children (and parents I hope) will want to return to many times.

I used a style I hadn’t really explored before. It feels more ‘English’ to me. It’s quiet and moody and looser and the colour palette is more subdued than in my previous books, which suits this story. I used red to connect the boy and Toby, (on the boys shoes and Toby’s collar), it echoes their emotional bond. I used graphite and watercolour in one colour to create the underdrawings of the spreads and then gave a colour wash over them, digitally, in photoshop. I like the marrying of traditional and digital techniques in my work.

TOBY. Copyright © 2016 by Hazel Mitchell. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

TOBY. Copyright © 2016 by Hazel Mitchell. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

TOBY. Copyright © 2016 by Hazel Mitchell. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

TOBY. Copyright © 2016 by Hazel Mitchell. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

[JM] Are there any sequels in the works? (Full disclosure—I have just spent time with the real pup and am a tad biased!)

[HM] Ha! Yes, I have another story in mind, (can you guess what? It may involve another dog …), but we’ll have to wait and see how the first book does first.

[JM] What does your workspace look like?

[HM] Right now it looks pretty chaotic!

[JM] At what point in your process do you consider the end pages design?

[HM] In Toby it was an integral part of the story, because it is a 40 page self-ending book (meaning the story begins and finishes on the end pages). I was thinking about the end papers right at the start. They lead you in and out of the story and are probably the most complicated spreads in the whole book. Usually, though, you wouldn’t think about the end papers until you have finished the interior art.

[JM] I love the story in the end pages in TOBY!

Five Fun Ones to Finish?                                                                                           [JM] What’s your favorite park (state/urban..) in the world?

[HM] Kew Gardens in London, UK.

[JM] How many dogs have you owned in your life?

[HM] 15, not including fosters and dogs I looked after on a regular basis in various places.


[JM] Those lucky pups! Fact that most people don’t know about you?

[HM] I’m an introvert.

[JM] What word best sums you up?

[HM] Extrovert

[JM] Hahaha! Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?

Yorkshire Tea.


Hazel, we continue to wish you and Toby and TOBY great success and we certainly hope for a sequel. Look out for my review of TOBY this Friday, as part of Perfect Picture Book Friday when I will be doing a giveaway of a copy of TOBY!

Links for Toby:
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9 Responses to Hazel Mitchel – Illustrator Interview

  1. Wonderful interview, Joanna!! As a dog lover, and the owner of another formerly submissive rescue pup, I cannot wait to read Toby!! The illustrations are just adorable!

    Congrats, Hazel!! And you’re a lucky pup, Toby 🙂

  2. Patricia Nozell says:

    Wonderful interview, Joanna & Hazel. A dog lover, and owner, too, I’ve been looking forward to reading Toby – learning the back story makes me more excited to read it soon.

  3. I knew a little of Hazel’s fascinating life and it was fun to find out more! Toby is super lucky to have such a funny, talented, and loving mum. ??

  4. What a great interview! I learned some things I didn’t know about Hazel. I didn’t realize she had a background in commercial design, and began illustrating books in 2010. I have always admired her work, especially Imani’s Moon. I look forward to reading Toby’s story. Such wonderful illustrations. Looks like a great gift book for grandchildren! I’m glad Toby is in such a loving home. I’m for rescuing dogs as we have a white poodle. Have a great book launch, Hazel!

  5. Anne says:

    Great interview! Now I know more about Hazel AND Toby! Those English illustrators you cited were my entry into children’s illustration as well. I’m so glad Toby’s book is out in the world.

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