Since graduating from the MA in Children’s Book Illustration at the Cambridge School of Art, Elys Dolan has produced many funny children’s picture books, and her latest, Steven Seagull: Action Hero, promises to be equally hilarious.
Steven, a retired cop, saves Beach City with the help of his sidekick Mac the goldfish. Together the heroes embark on an action-packed adventure involving sharks, hippos and 100% legit ice cream vans.
Where did the idea of a vigilante seagull spring from?
It might be pretty obvious that I’ve seen more than a few action movies, and there’s one particular film star who might have provided some inspiration. The first time the idea for this particular children’s book popped into my mind was whilst I was on holiday in Cornwall. I was walking along the beach with my boyfriend looking at the seagulls and I said as a joke, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was a book about a crime-fighting seagull called Steven Seagull Action Hero?’ He looked at me like I was mad and that’s when I knew this was the perfect subject for a picture book.
You have a brilliant sense of humour. What makes you laugh?
Many things make me laugh. The recent debacle about a public vote to name a new navy research vessel ‘Boaty McBoatface’ had me in stitches. Also I think goats and guinea pigs are hilarious.
How does your sense of humour translate into your children’s picture books?
I am a great believer that a child’s sense of humour isn’t any less sophisticated than that of an adult. Children just laugh at different things, even if that thing is simply the word ‘poo’.
It’s very tempting to dumb down the humour in children’s books and write something that comes across as patronising. I will not use a joke that I do not find funny myself. If it’s not good enough for me it’s not good enough for the kids. I also add in jokes for adults too because I do not forget that parents also end up reading my books.
What inspired you to write children’s picture books?
The gift shop at the Tate Gallery. I studied a BA in Fine Art and found out I was actually much more interested in the children’s book section of the gift shop than the art inside the gallery. At that point I decided it was time for a change of career.
At the beginning of an idea what comes first, drawing or writing?
Both together. I find it very hard to separate the two. When I come up with an idea for a book I draw the characters and their setting obsessively in my sketchbooks, then as I go along lines of dialogue and narrative emerge as I go.
What is more fun to illustrate? A hero or a villain?
Both are pretty fun. I do love a really evil villain, the sort with huge underground hideouts and hoards of minions. They seem to have the most fun. But then again I especially like to draw a hero if they’re a bit of an idiot but end up saving the day anyway as if by accident.
I hope you are never forced to choose but…if you were stuck on a desert island and you could only pick one art material to take with you what would you choose?
Now this is tricky because inevitably most art materials need another material to paint or to draw onto. For the sake of argument let’s say this is a desert island where cartridge paper is supplied. Then I would say a Caran D'Ache Supracolour Water Soluble Pencil set of 30. Wait a second; I’m going to need a pencil sharpener too…
If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring writer or illustrator what would that be?
Stick with it. I think there’s something to be said for the 10,000 hours principle, which suggests that it takes that much practice to become proficient at something. If you’re not happy with your work or you’re getting rejections, then put in some more hours and your work will improve.
Thank you Elys for your time and good luck with Steven Seagull.