Interview: Emily Gravett

First published on 23 April, 2010 in Star2

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EMILY GRAVETT must be the most prolific picture book creator in existence. In five years, the 37-year-old Brighton-native has produced 10 books – nine wholly by her, the 10th, a collaboration with Julia Donaldson (author of The Gruffalo and many other much-beloved picture books).

But when I speak to her on the phone, Gravett frets about being unproductive: ‘I don’t think I’ve published that many books,’ she said from Singapore, the final leg of her recent Asian tour to promote Cave Baby, her collaboration with Donaldson. ‘I could be publishing more – I feel a little uneasy whenever I’m between books.’

Gravett is inspired by everyday situations, conversations on the radio, things she overhears in shops and on the bus. She claims to work in a ‘very chaotic’ way.

‘I have a sketch book and I mess about with ideas. A book usually comes together in a bit of a mess. There’s a lot of reorganisation and sorting things out.’

Gravett’s books are either deceptively simple (like Orange Pear Apple Bear, The Odd Egg or Blue Chameleon) or extremely complex, full of subtle jokes, witty asides, and visual gags.

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Take The Rabbit Problem: it takes as its premise the species’ tendency to reproduce at an alarming rate. The book’s format is based on a calendar – there are holes to allow for hanging like you would a real calendar – and a different problem, as experienced by the inhabitants of Fibonacci’s Field (the 13th century mathematician Fibonnaci derived his famous sequence of numbers when he answered the challenge to mathematically calculate the number of rabbits bred in a set period of time.), is highlighted each month. Almost every two-page spread features something extra pasted on top of the page – a party invitation, an instruction manual, a rations book, a map, a newsletter, a recipe book, etc.

Several of Gravett’s titles are similarly labour-intensive creations. Her very first effort, Wolves, which won the prestigious Kate Greenaway prize in 2005, has a removable library ticket and a warning letter about an overdue library book – very apt as the story is of a rabbit who becomes so totally engrossed in a library book about wolves that he walks straight into a wolf’s mouth (there is a alternative vegetarian ending).

Meerkat Mail features actual postcards sent by wandering meerkat, Sunny, to his family; whileLittle Mouse’s Big Book of Fears has peep holes, flaps and a map of the Isle of Fright (Gravett delights in verbal and visual puns).

The books that have simpler concepts and presentation show Gravett’s love for wordplay and her mischievous sense of humour. But although simple at first glance, these books also work on several levels. The Blue Chameleon, for example, is, at its most basic, a concept book about colours, but Gravett takes it to another level, using the word blue to explore the world of a chameleon who is sad because he is friendless.

In Orange Pear Apple Bear, the words in the title are the only ones used in the book (in various combinations), with the artwork cleverly and subtly echoing each combination. This is Gravett’s favourite among her books, as it is the one she created the most quickly.

‘I suppose it’s the most spontaneous. I usually fiddle around a lot more but I didn’t change anything in Orange Pear.’

Any fan will notice that Gravett tends to favour animal characters. The little girl in Monkey and Me is her only human character in her own books.

‘I just think it’s easier for a child to identify with an animal. You know if I create a girl then maybe girls would find it easier to relate. But everyone is able to identify with an animal.’

emily caveShe admits that it was quite a challenge to illustrate Donaldson’s latest story, Cave Baby, which has three human characters.

‘Also, I tend to leave a lot of white space in my illustrations,’ says Gravett, ‘but this story sort of demanded that I fill in the background.’

Another challenge was reading someone else’s text. Cave Baby was published in Asia ahead of Britain to coincide with Gravett’s tour, and the absence of Donaldson meant that Gravett had to handle reading duties during promotional events. ‘It was a strange experience,’ she says.

Considering what a speedy worker she is, we will probably see a new Gravett title before too long. Although she has considered writing a longer book, Gravett says she prefers how images and words work together to create a picture book.

Gravett had planned a ‘little holiday’ after her tour, with her partner and their seven-year-old daughter who had already joined her in Singapore when the interview took place.

‘Then it’s back to England. I hope I’ll have an idea for a book by then!’ she says.

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