Recently I have been thinking about how I could expand the blog, and I decided to include interviews with random people I meet that I think are interesting. So here goes the first one.
Back in the days when Miss W worked in a bookshop, she met Emma Lewis, a fellow bookseller who travels everywhere by bike, and who was also working part-time as a children’s book illustrator. She has since left the bookshop and become a full-time freelance illustrator and is currently working on her first children’s book.
Lewis is half-British half-Argentinean, and although she grew up in the UK, Lewis’s parents had a house in a village outside Girona, so she spent a lot of time in Spain as a child. She has that cross-cultural diversity that makes people so rich. She told me about her childhood.
“I spent three months of the year in Spain collectively in every school holiday and was exposed to a different culture there. My mum also not being British added a different understanding and appreciation of cultures, which translates into a different viewpoint.”
She feels a strong affinity with Argentina; she doesn’t drink yerba mate, that most Argentinean of drinks. “In some ways I am so British – I grew up in London and I feel British when I go abroad. Although when I go to Argentina I feel part of that culture. When my porteño accent comes out and people stare at me and go, What are you?”
Indeed, Lewis is a melange of different places and origins, with her Argentinean family of Eastern European Jewish origin coming to the UK in the 1960s. She feels that she was politicised as a child just being around her family. She said,
“In Argentina there are more political discussions across all generations and backgrounds; there are rallies and strikes every day. People are more exposed to politics than in the UK, more engaged, more aware.” Lewis is passionate about politics and feels that she absorbed this from her politicised parents. “In uni over here (UK) a lot of people don’t care about politics, and I don’t understand how you can’t be passionate about it, because it affects everyone.”
It is this passion and engagement with politics that Lewis believes should be present in children’s books. Different experiences and cultures also fed into the kinds of books that Lewis encountered:
“The books I was read as a child were a mixture of English, Spanish and Argentinean editions, and my parents sent me very liberal messages. The books had children of mixed ethnicities and backgrounds, it was very inclusive.”
She studied Illustration at Falmouth University in Cornwall where she developed an interest in picture books. One of her projects was to illustrate a set of texts, and her interest in the sequential narrative and imagery grew and she started buying children’s picture books. Although, when she graduated Lewis wasn’t sure of what to do next. “I felt lost, I wondered how the bloody hell to make a living. I took a couple of years out, to work part time and travel a bit. In the end, I put my mind to it and realised that the bubble that I was in at University wasn’t real life, and that actually, practitioners (illustrators) work really fucking hard.”
Lewis feels grateful that she is able to make a living from her passion for illustration; “There are people who spend their whole lives trying to do this.” She thinks that
if someone wants something badly enough they will make it happen although she admits that it’s not for everyone. ” I don’t believe quitting is a bad thing in every scenario, but if you do quit, then you don’t want it badly enough. I know a lot of people with talent who sacrifice a lot, even illustrating in their spare time.” Lewis herself says she is lucky as she had family support that enabled her to pursue her dream and was able to move home and live rent free straight after graduating.
Some of Emma’s illustrations
When thinking about creativity, travel is important to Lewis. “Each place has its own landscape; the physical, social and artistic mood is different in each country.” She is inspired
by different places, amongst others Stockholm, Barcelona and Buenos Aires. She doesn’t feel creatively tied to London as a place. “I love London and all it’s amazing creative opportunities and outlets – it will always be my home. But London makes you feel like you have stay here, like you’ll never make it anywhere else, and that’s just not true.”
Her work reflects her mix. It is a blend of styles and media which cannot be pinpointed
as necessarily British. She is inspired in particular by Scandinavian kids books because
of the careful design and clean aesthetics. She also likes the themes that appear in Scandi books, such as same-sex parenting and increasingly diverse themes that reflect a changing society. She likes the straightforward nature of French children’s books and the fact that children’s publishing is subsidised in France. She thinks that publishing in other European countries is much more liberal than in the UK, with children not being shielded from tackling difficult subjects such as death.
Since Lewis graduated, she noticed the UK publishing of picture books changing. “This has been very apparent to me as both an illustrator and children’s bookseller. They’re becoming steadily more fluid in terms of content, imagery and design, with more European books being translated and international re-issues from the mid 20th century (a golden age for picture books!). Perhaps as a direct result of the e-book, just like in the rest of publishing, publishers are cottoning on to the fact that lots of people are buying books as objects and things of beauty as much as for the pleasure of reading. Especially with children there is something oh so important about the tactile nature of touching the words and pictures, turning the pages, physically pulling a book from a shelf and getting into bed with it.”
Lewis believes that the ideal children’s book would be “concise, with a clever and powerful message, but that is accessible and inclusive – and that’s really nice to look at of course, because fundamentally, I’m an illustrator.” Lewis collects picture books and often posts pictures of her favourites on social media. “It’s nice to pull off a book from the shelf and think about all the nice, good things. Sometimes I forget there are so many facets and intricacies to children’s books.”
She says that her creativity works in a way where an idea bubbles away inside her and then there is a moment when it just makes sense. Lewis says she came up with an idea for a children’s picture book while she was sitting in front of the TV.
She pitched it with sample illustrations to a variety of publishers and her book, which she is currently working on, will be published in September this year with Tate Publishing. She said: “I’m excited about working on new books, collaborating with people and bouncing ideas off each other.”