Mini Grey interviewed by Madelyn Travis

Mini Grey was born in the front seat of a mini in an icy car-park in South Wales. She grew up in a village in Buckinghamshire with plenty of places to make camps, climb trees and pretend to be horses. As a child Mini created many bizarre objects from cardboard, clay, papier mache, dough, plaster, toilet rolls and crisp packets.  At university Mini became involved with set-building at the Bloomsbury theatre and eventually got asked to design some shows. After her degree she worked making latex puppets in a basement in Covent Garden until she was offered a place on a theatre design course. Mini loved theatre designing but she didn't earn much money. She trained to be a teacher and worked for six years in South London before studying for an MA in illustration.

In this interview, she talks to Madelyn Travis about her recent picture books.

You have a space theme going on in a few of your books: Toys in Space, Space Dog, Traction Man and Turbodog as a SciFi theme too...

Dogs, cats and mice seem to keep cropping up! And toys.

Yes, some recurring ideas there. Are you a sci-fi fan?

Yes, I am a sci-fi fan. My bookcase is behind me and I’ve got a sci-fi encyclopaedia here, and books like Jules Verne, robots, The Time Machine by HG Wells. I am very into  steampunky science fiction. It’s always inspiring because all those sci-fi books and films are invented imaginary worlds.

Space Dog came from the story of the first cosomonaut dog, Laika, who was sent up in 1957 with Sputnik 2. When my son Herbie was little he had this fantastic toy from the Early learning Centre -- it’s a rocket with a countdown voice. There’s a complete kitchenette inside, with a kettle, coffee making facilities, cups, a washing machine and over here there’s a lovely bed you can sleep on. So if you’re going to go into space and you want your home comforts it is the rocket for you. It came with a little space dog with a little space suit on.

If you walk round your house holding this rocket you can imagine that all the rooms in your house are different areas of space, or planets. So Space Dog’s space is really your house. That’s the secret: all the planets are things you might find around your house. There’s a planet that’s about bathtime and plug holes, there’s breakfast planets with cereal on them and planets with sausages and bacon. So it’s a way of going into space but really not leaving your house. That’s maybe why there are cats, dogs and mice – they are the animals we live with. So that was the idea behind Space Dog.

Another idea was that the life forms don’t look after their planets very well. The planets are badly maintained and malfunctioning, and I wanted to suggest that maybe you should take better care of your planet. There’s one spread where Space Dog is lying in his bunk dreaming of his home planet and it says ‘shining like a beautiful marble in space’. That comes from the things that the astronauts said when they finally went to the moon and could see Earth. That was the big insight, that Earth is the most wonderful, exciting, interesting object in the whole sky.  Compared to all the other planets in our universe it’s the most extraordinary, beautiful thing. And it’s all we’ve got and we don’t look after it.

I made a Christmas card a few years ago, a matchbox with a planet inside.  If you need an emergency secondary planet, it’s your pocket planet. On the one hand the idea of a planet is great because in your imagination you can make them into anything you like  but at the same time, planets that are out there in space are really extraordinary too. So in Space Dog there is also a message about looking after your planet.

A lot of your books are a  blend of quirky and retro, like the representation of typewriters and record players, for instance.. Space Dog definitely feels a little bit retro. Was that intentional?

It comes from watching TV shows like Star Trek. I was a big fan of Star Trek and old Doctor Who. when I was growing up. I got quite a lot of inspiration for the rocket out of a book of old tin toys so that probably adds to the retro feel.

I would have liked to make it even more retro but sometimes you can't make it look exactly like the picture in your mind. The cover of Space Dog was the idea of my wonderful designer Ness Wood – who also came up with the Star Trek-inspired bonkers strapline ‘To Bravely Go Where No Carton of Milk has Gone Before’!

I grew up watching the Clangers. What I love about the Clangers’ planet: it looks like you could make it yourself out of papiermache and you could knit them out of wool. They were in a sort of adult-child zone, they were thinking about big issues although they were talking in a universal tooting language. They had this mysteriousness about them that was very charming. So, I like that home made quality and Space Dog’s universe is a bit badly made, badly drawn. 

As a character Space Dog seems like a cousin of Traction Man. Would you say that’s fair?

I think he probably is because he has the same  long-suffering attitude. He’s polite, well-meaning and fairly practical in terms of getting his spanners out and overcoming the animosity between Astrocats and Space Dogs.He’s a straightforward handy-dog around space. he hasn’t got a particular weakness. Like Traction Man he's  just trying to do a good job in a weird world but Space Dog has a need to have adventures too, which is where Astrocat fits in. 

I burst out laughing when I read about the evacuation of a Colossal Stink from Bath Time, and it’s rare that I actually laugh out loud at a picture book.

Someone’s got to come and pull it out! And when you do, it’s strangely exciting. You know how everyone can let the bath get more bunged up and it doesn’t drain very well, but you leave it. And it takes someone to finally go, ‘look, come on, guys’. So it’s excitement and disgust in equal measure.

And you’ve got a familiar looking spoon, and shrooms… I feel like one day all your characters are going to meet up!

I think it’s the excitement of animating household objects, like the Dish and the Spoon, and making them walk around. The world of the edible is always really exciting, I love drawing edible things, taking everything you can see around the house and bringing it to life. Biscuit Bear is in the same realm. But in Space Dog, it’s taking that whole thing and transporting it to space. It’s a cheap thrill, picking up your pen and going: let’s make it talk and walk. I still find it exciting. When you‘re a kid you do it all the time,– my son still does it. He and his friends will be in his room and they will be having a great big long conversation and they will be picking up plastic dinosaurs and any other objects to hand and doing a mission. You pick up things and you bring them to life and your imagination animates them, and I suppose I still find that zone so exciting that I keep going back to it. It’s the realm of the small and the big. So you’re right, it’s in a zone where edible things are coming to life.

I really like that you put some challenging vocabulary in there – mandibles and compound eyes. You are not patronising your readers.

It’s great when schools use my books with older children. I really really believe that picture books are for everybody. I think they’re a unique way of telling the story equally with words and pictures. It doesn’t work quite the same way with graphic novels because there’s a more clear simplicity with picture books, because with picture books the pictures are much more involved. The secret of picture books is that they really are for a wide audience of everybody. But it’s a collaborative thing, it’s a sharing thing between a parent and a child, it needs some work from you to bring it to life because of the big gaps between turning the page and reading the next page, so you have to supply these missing bits that animate the story. The secret is that they are for anyone of any age. The secret of picture books isn’t that it’s going to help you learn to read. It’s an exploration, and if it does anything, it’s almost like an empathy-building exercise. When my son was about two, I remember reading George and the Dragon, a Chris Wormell book, and that castle and the red dragon, and all these things in the picture book were in his imagination, this limitless space to build all these things. You can imagine being someone else: a picture book is a portal to imagine being somebody else, or being a spoon. It’s a really good thing to do to put yourself into someone else’s place and to imagine the world from their perspective.

When my son Herbie was 3 he was obsessed with the dinosaurs with the really long names and he had no problem with any of that. There’s maybe a boy thing there, but I think children like words for amazing things like mandibles. I think it’s good when you’re reading to ask what it means and go look it up. I think children like to find an exciting word and use it themselves. I think they can cope with things like mandibles and whatever technical word… especially if it’s the body part of an insect. I think big scope and open to everybody is what I’d like to see in every picture book. I love a picture book that is for everyone.

I was just talking to an illustrator who said that picture books are quite limited in what is considered suitable, but you seem to be the exception. Do you think nobody else has such wacky ideas or that you are allowed to get away with things that other people aren’t?

I might have been lucky in that I started going 10 years ago and maybe things are changing fast now. It might be that people are now looking at picture books are more of a thing for 2-6 year olds but maybe a while ago they were seen as something that had a bigger spread. It’s to do with who buys picture books and who they buy them for. They probably get bought for 2- to 6-year-olds and maybe not so much for children over that age, but maybe people are thinking they have to focus on that age group or maybe they think that they need to appeal to what parents think appeals.

I’ve been lucky because I have been allowed to do wacky books about weird things. I think that if I was starting now and took the same books to show to people, I don’t know whether I’d be allowed to do them. I’m not into the book that goes, ‘Are you my mother? No, I’m a shoe. Are you my mother? No, no I’m a hat.’ Actually, I like the sound of that!

My son can always spot a book that has lots of resonance about it, that’s got a deep message that a lot of people would enjoy, things that are unresolved. So we have to live in hope that there’s an audience out there for books with big themes and that can go to weird places. I’m interested in books that do that. For example the Greenaway shortlist books will tend to be be a work of art with a deep message. We’ve got to fight to keep this sort of book around.

Let’s talk about your artistic process. Last time we met – quite a few years ago! – you were using Quink and bleach and emulsion paint. Have any of your working methods or materials changed?

They probably haven’t changed that much. I still use Quink quite a lot because you can do a quick wash and it’s very fast for doing sketches and the bleach means you can take it away. I use liquid watercolours a lot which I shouldn’t do because they fade really badly, but they’re lovely for splattering colour.

Lately I’m quite into drawing on tracing paper. Working on tracing paper means you can lay the tracing paper on top of stuff and draw something that floats on top. There’s something nice about the texture of the tracing paper and I scan it in and then I can print it out and draw on top of it. For Space Dog what I’d do is draw the pictures in pencil, scan them in, beef them up a bit and print them out on thick paper and paint all over them. It’s quite good because you can do it as many times as you like. In Space Dog it’s put together quite digitally, which is sort of fun because you can use it like scissors and sellotape and glue, but it somehow takes much longer.

That figure with a top hat in the sketch book you just showed me – what’s he for? He looks great.

This is for a story that I’m working on at the moment. He’s the owner of a flea circus. He’s abducted the main character. He’s creepy. We like going to the dark side, if possible…  It’s a work in progress.

Do you start with a story or a character?

I start with a theme. In my sketchbook I often start at the back and doodle things in the back pages as a ‘what about that?’ and I keep coming back and I’ll just draw all the pictures around this theme and you draw lots of scenarios, so once you’ve got a theme, you collect stuff that might go into the story and then eventually, hopefully, you’ve got a story arc about what might happen.

Does it ever happen that it just doesn’t pan out?

Yes. Things often don’t pan out! Sometimes you make a story and at the end you think maybe it’s not a story anyone will want to read. With Hermelin I had real problems getting it to work as a story and I actually put it aside for about five years. It started when I moved house and I lost my cat, Bonzo. And also with this particular kind of cheese that was called Hermelin cheese. One day Bonzo didn’t come back through the window. We searched high and low for him. We had a noticeboard at the end of the road and lots of other cats had gone missing. We found him two and a half years later. He had a microchip so someone had found him. He was living in a bush. I think maybe he was living with students. Then we had to go on holiday three months later and he went missing again. So a theme started to develop of losing something.

At the beginning it was going to be about this mouse that solves mysteries and the mystery was about the missing cats. The cat story just got too complicated: working out where they were going, what they were doing. At one point they were involved in making cat food in an underground cat food cellar. So I gave up and put it away. A few years later my editor at the time saw it and asked what it was, so we took away the whole cat thing and suddenly it seemed to work better as a story. The trouble is, you only ever have 32 pages. The story that I wanted to tell would be better in more space. My books always seem bursting out because I’d really really really like 40 pages. It’s a good discipline to put it into 32 pages, but with Space Dog perhaps it would have been fun to have had a bit more space to meander around.

So Hermelin is an example of a story that took a long time and it seemed to resolve itself. Quite a lot of time when you start a story you don’t think it’s ever going to be anything; it’s a voyage of hope. For a lot of the time I’m going to suspend the fact that I think it’s rubbish and just carry on regardless. Things like The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon, I remember showing that to my publisher, thinking, this isn’t really a book. It ended up being a book!

Hermelin is gorgeous. For some reason – even though they’re totally different – it reminds me of Biscuit Bear. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s that he’s such a lovely, endearing character in danger. I don’t know!

I think it’s the scale thing. They’re both small but quite plucky. They both have big plans to do big things. So Biscuit Bear can make a whole biscuit circus and doesn’t think anything of it, and Hermelin thinks he can just solve people’s mysteries and write things on the typewriter and both of them have this shock realisation of what they really are. It’s their own identity that they come face to face with. Biscuit Bear has to confront the fact that it’s a biscuit: that’s what you are – what are you going to do about it? And Hermelin has to confront the fact that he’s a mouse and a lot of people think he should be exterminated and some people think he’s a pest. They both have an existential crisis. So you’ve pointed out something similar that I didn’t realise. They both have some realisation of what they are and have to adjust accordingly. There’s also the perspective. I love seeing from the perspective of a small character, from up high, down low, all over the place.

That seems like a cinematic approach. I’d thought I could see Space Dog becoming a little cartoon series. Do you have any ideas about one of your characters being adapted for TV?

I would love it because it would be so fun to take your character into a different dimension and see it in a different media.

I like that you often use Times New Roman or something very like it, an easy to read, quite solid font. Although there is a lot of visual action in your books, the type is actually placed so that it is very readable, not tumbling all over the page like you sometimes get.

The font is not actually Times New Roman, it’s Perpetua. I keep coming back to it. Partly it was solidified when I did a book called Jim. We had a challenge with the typography. I had a paperback version and I’d photocopy the text and cut it and stick it down and we tried to make a font for it but it didn’t quite work. It was the wrong strength and balance, and in the end for Jim we used the font photocopied from the book as if I’d cut it and stuck it down. I like it to look like I did it slightly haphazardly. But also I want the font to not get in your way. Perpetua is classic and readable. There’s something comforting with the way it’s got serifs so it’s anchored.

You realise it’s incredibly important where the words go on the page, for them to be readable, to be grouped. With a picture book it’s so very visual that you don’t really need commas all the time because you use where you put the type to punctuate. I’m trying to put the words on so that you know where to go next. You don’t know how pernickety about this you are until your designer typesets all your words and you realise you need to get them back where they were before because the millimetre difference of the position where they were was actually quite important. They are busy pictures, I confess, and they need a less busy font to give some space.

I’m trying to work out whether you alternate the funny books with the sweet ones or whether it’s just by chance which one comes out.

It seems to have been quite often that there’s been a comic booky one like Traction Man or Space Dog and then a bigger view kind of thing, more … I’m not sure of the word, but something like Three by the Sea or Hermelin. It’s not deliberate, it just seems to have panned out that way. I like doing books that have the bigger spreads in them and that have more of a mood to them.

With Three by the Sea I was working on watercolour paper. It’s something I’d quite like to go back to. They fitted together to make one spread. They were big watercoloury paintings; they were fun and traditional to do, whereas with Space Dog I have a pile of little bits and bobs. Hermelin was very multi-layered. Because of the typewriting and the messages there were lots of layers of writing that was going to go all over the pictures. There’s layers of wood textures and things like shadows. In a picture from the attic there are all these tiny bits and bobs that have messages on them. There’s Emily’s feet and over the top of that, as well as the layers of writing and detritus, there’s a shadow layer so that Hermelin’s cheese box is right where her heart would be. So it was traditional painting, but with quite a lot of multilayering going on.

Your books look quite complex, but you are pretty prolific. Do you tend to produce them at a regular rate or does it vary depending on what you’re working on?

It seems to figure out to about one book a year. I’m quite slow at doing the books, partly because they are complex and I’d love to do a more simple style of pictures, but because it’s about being a storyteller you get this story that comes to you and you think, oh no, I’m going to have to draw that! I don’t want to! But you have to tell it in the best way that you can think of to tell that story. So I’m happy if I get a story that says it’s a simple, one-big-spread one. It takes about a week to do one spread and so you tot that up and it adds up to four months and then you do the cover, so the artwork takes about six months. I do sketchbook stuff and turn it into a dummy. I scan stuff I’ve done in my sketchbook and make it into something you can turn the pages of. That’s the impression of what it’s going to be like and you just go from there. So that would be the next stage from sketching out something rough and working out a story board. It’s a really exciting moment because you try to work out what flavour the picture might be like, but you can be rough, you don’t have to be perfect. You can just cut things out and scan things, so you can be quite playful.

I can imagine that, needing to be so creative, sometimes it must be hard to focus and sometimes the inspiration must just not be there.

You’re right. It’s the spark of inspiration. You want that inspired bit that turns it into something worth saying. It’s insight and inspiration coming together, but you don’t always get that. It’s just a lucky thing if it happens, so sometimes you have to do the best with what you’ve got. It’s like inventing a fantastic joke. It doesn’t come to order sometimes, so you’ve got to do something else so that the subconscious mind throws up things. The good thing about illustrating is that you can switch jobs a bit. If you’ve struggled but you haven’t got that bit of inspiration, you can always just go and sketch, so you can always find something else to do. I find that cutting and sticking is good because your mind is turning things over while you’re doing it.

I’ll get an idea and write on a Post-it note, and it doesn’t matter if it’s rubbish. You suspend disbelief in your idea being rubbish. It’s difficult when your job involves coming up with an amazing idea. We were reading Roald Dahl’s Boy and Going Solo. He was working for a petrol company and he was talking about the difference between working for a company and being an author, and he said being an author was the worst job in the world because it was like living on the next good idea and not knowing if it was going to come. And when you were working for a company you got told what to do and you did it and you had your working day and you had free time. It’s a double-edged sword, trying to originate exciting things.

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