The Poetic Power of Illustration: Interview with William Grill

Bandoola: The Great Elephant Rescue, by William Grill

When I came across William Grill’s book The Wolves of Currumpaw four years ago, I had no idea that I was in for a complete shift of view on children’s books, illustration and storytelling. William Grill’s illustrations evoke the kind of creative freedom that children have, that complete freedom of the mind, something priceless that we, as we grow up, will try the rest of our lives to recapture without succeeding. His style of drawing, those effortless, unrestrained, natural-flowing, simple yet remarkable strokes of pencil leave enough room to the imagination. It’s the most striking feeling. The writing is spare, yet the illustrations carry so many details and sincere understanding – they are drawn from real life, from actual observation, from looking and seeing, truly seeing.

I bought The Wolves of Currumpaw for my son. Then I bought Shackleton’s Journey for myself. And I bought the latest Bandoola: The Great Elephant Rescue because William Grill’s books already feel like classics. But there is more to them than the storytelling and drawings. You just have to hold any of them in your hands to understand why. Every single detail, from the cloth spine to the cover artwork, feels very much hand-crafted. It helps children imagine. Adults, too. “When we are no longer children, we are already dead,” Constantin Brâncuși said. William Grill’s books help us remain children.

William’s first book, Shackleton’s Journey, won the 2015 Kate Greenaway award and has been translated into over 14 languages. His second book, The Wolves of Currumpaw, won the 2016 Bologna Ragazzi prize for non-fiction. When not drawing himself, William enjoys teaching and encouraging others to draw, and he is currently working alongside another author for a new book. I am honoured to have Will as my guest today, talking about drawing, childhood, unhindered creativity and worldwide journeys that fuel his work.

Bandoola: The Great Elephant Rescue, by William Grill

What is your earliest drawing memory?

One of my earliest memories was drawing at the kitchen table next to my older brother Kit. I can remember looking at what he was drawing and wanting to be as good as him. Another specific memory was when I was about seven, at school where we were drawing fruit, I chose to draw a pineapple which took ages – though I was quite pleased with it. Most lessons I struggled with, but I remember feeling like this was something I could do if I tried.
Your style of drawing is so simple and sincere yet exceptional and striking. When I looked at your illustrations in Shackleton’s Journey, I imagined being in the open sea, 500 miles from the nearest civilisation, on a tiny boat, and I felt chilly staring at Endurance trying to cross the Weddell Sea. As for your drawings of Lobo, in The Wolves of Currumpaw, they just let my imagination roam free. Were you allowed the freedom to draw whatever you liked in your childhood? Did you have a teacher or art teacher in school who encouraged you to draw?

Thank you! My mum was always very encouraging with art that we made, I think that made all the difference. My mum also had a partner for a while who was good at drawing and painting, I can remember him teaching me about using different grades of pencils, etc. I don’t think my art teachers did anything out of the ordinary. Seeing my brother and his friends drawing things really did make me want to draw more and be better.

“It’s a shame children don’t get much time to draw at school, and those who don’t draw neatly aren’t necessarily ‘bad’ at art or being creative.”

Do you yourself work with children? Because I believe that children’s books authors are a great source for educational alternatives and who could help creativity and open up possibilities more than schools usually do.

I try and visit schools every March and October – it’s a great thing to do for me as much as it is for them! I get quite inspired by what they make, often wishing I had the same energy and freedom that some of their drawings have. I hope that my visits encourage those who like to draw, or those who are maybe less academic (like myself). It’s a shame children don’t get much time to make or draw at school, and those who don’t draw neatly aren’t necessarily ‘bad’ at art or being creative – I get a lot of pleasure seeing those come out of their shell or being proud of a drawing they’ve made.

I wholeheartedly agree. What about the books of your childhood? What was the book that sparked your imagination more than any other when you were a kid?

I used to love What Do People Do All Day, by Richard Scarry. The busyness and detail of the book, the characters, and the fact that it made me realise that outside school the world is full of possibilities and different personalities, all interconnected and working in unison.

We should learn from children’s ability of seeing no boundaries and no storytelling boundaries. What did you dream to be when you were a child? How early on did you know you wanted to be an illustrator and children’s book author?

When I was five, I used to want to be a builder, I think I thought a builder could make anything he wanted! And then, when my mum took me to a carpenter’s workshop to pick up a kitchen table, I used to want to be a carpenter.
I didn’t want to be an illustrator until I was about 21, when I was in my first year at Falmouth University. I didn’t think children’s books were for me until I got a publishing offer by Flying Eye Books. Luckily, about two weeks before the end of my course, my tutor encouraged me to bind my Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition (now Shackleton’s Journey) drawings in a dummy book for the D&AD design show in London. As a dyslexic, I’d always struggled with reading and writing, so the thought of being an author seemed impossible.


The Wolves of Currumpaw, by William Grill

There is a lot of research that goes into your books. For The Wolves of Currumpaw, for example, you also went on location to New Mexico. How important is actual observation for your work?

I try to get as much research as I can first hand. Drawing on location, speaking to people who are experts in their field, seeing a country in person can all give you little or big rewards that, to me, are worth it – a chance upon a particular view, a gallery, a local artwork that inspires you… It makes you more connected with what you’re researching, not just the visuals, but the other senses as well: smell, temperature, sound, they all contribute to the experience you’re trying to distill into your book. Direct experience gives you more confidence in the story you are telling. Seeing Lobo’s territory in New Mexico, for example, was so useful, it was really different than how I had imagined it, and being there in real life just made me care about the story so much more.

Do you always carry a sketchbook with you?


You also went to Myanmar as part of your research for Bandoola. Did that have a great impact on your story? And if so, how?

Visiting Myanmar was hugely useful for gaining a deeper understanding of the environment, elephants and the working relationship between humans and elephants. There isn’t a great deal of books or documentaries about timber elephants, and the idea of seeing them in real life was alluring. There are things you see and feel in person that you just can’t get from watching a screen or reading a book. I got a better sense of the scale and strength of the animals, but also of their sensitivity. Meeting and observing the oozies (elephant riders) gave me a greater appreciation of their skill and connection with their elephant, incredible to me where nature is quite far removed and sanitised. The oozies walk around the jungle bare foot, while I tried the same, they were cut up by bamboo after half a day’s walk tracking an elephant!

What else fuels your creativity?

I watch a lot of films and documentaries. With film, there’s so much you can learn about composition, colour, image quality and storytelling, while documentaries can open your eyes to so many different subjects that I wouldn’t be able to access through books because I’m a slow reader! I also love looking at paintings, prints and textiles, they all give me inspiration and ideas, too.

Which are your favourite films and documentaries?

Favourite films: Days of Heaven, Badlands, Alien, The Thing, Predator, O Lucky Man, Wings of Desire, Memories (animation), The Man Who Planted Trees (animation), Five Easy Pieces, The Sting, Dawn of The Dead (original), After Hours, Dead Man.

Documentaries: The Hermit of Treig, When We Were Kings, Cosmos, Koyaanisqatsi, The White Diamond, Encounters at the End of the World, Stories We Tell, The Century of the Self, BBC Documentary – Hells Angels, London 1973, OJ: Made in America, Touching the Void, The King of Kong.

“I try and make the text as short as possible.
Exposition can be patronising, and, by leaving space
for interpretation, it can make for a richer experience for more readers.”

All your books, Shackleton’s Journey, The Wolves of Currumpaw and Bandoola: The Great Elephant Rescue, are non-fiction books, based on real events, and, more than that, man versus nature stories. What exactly sparked your interest in these subjects and in re-telling these stories?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been intrigued by animals. Growing up in the countryside, working on a farm when I was younger and having a mum who taught philosophy at school all probably have something to do with my interest in how we interact with the natural world. Animal ethics in particular really got me thinking about it when I was a teenager. As I wasn’t the most academic person at school, I found myself participating in as many outdoor pursuits as I could. I suppose all of this combined to make me drawn to these stories visually, but these stories also carried value and meaning to me that I want to share.

Shackleton’s Journey, by William Grill

I think it’s extraordinary how your books introduce children and young audiences to real-life stories, historical events, cultural diversity. Your books are also beautiful, hand-made works of art in themselves. Do you believe the world of children’s books today underestimates the depth of topics young children are capable of understanding?

I think children are more capable than we might assume, and if we present them with a challenging topic, they may rise to that occasion. To me, it’s about how you present that information. On the rare occasions we got to discuss ethical issues at school, I found it so much more engaging and stimulating than regurgitating information – like I was learning something about real life, and, in doing so, it made me wiser in some way. Something I really believe in is cross-curricular learning, and critical thinking. As challenging as it may be, if a book can combine aspects of science, history and maybe even ethics, whilst being emotionally engaging and relevant, then I think children will get far more out of it.

In your books, the drawings alone could easily tell the story. Do you prefer to tell stories in images rather than with words? How important is it for you to leave space to the reader and his imagination?

I hope that’s the case. When I make a book, I write a list of bullet points out of all the major events or information, then the writing stops and I make a small storyboards based on these points – I want the images to drive the book. Then I’ll make the text work around the imagery. I try and make the text as short as possible.

Like in film, often the sound and visual can make a point that is more powerful in poetic form than literal form. When we over-explain, it’s far less interesting to us as a reader… it’s satisfying to fill in the gaps sometimes. Exposition can be patronising, and, by leaving space for interpretation, it can make for a richer experience for more readers. If I could, I’d have far more wordless pages, but that means more pages, which isn’t practical for the publisher. One day I’d like to make an animation, as I feel music and sound can help tell a story, which can reduce words further.

I really feel that true comprehension comes from the images in your stories, from thoroughly looking at the images. That’s where the true alliance between you and the reader occurs. Have you considered creating a purely fictional book?

I would love to create a piece of fiction one day. I get fleeting ideas, but haven’t yet had something that I’m compelled to do. Hopefully that will happen at some point. I still feel I am learning how to tell stories working with non-fiction. The closest I’ve come is planning to adapt a classic piece of fiction. There’s just so many non-fiction subjects I’m drawn to at the moment that should keep me busy for a long time to come.

Are you working on a new book currently? Anything you can share with us?

I’m currently working on a new book alongside an author – it’s nice to just focus on images for a change, we get on well and make decisions together, which is good! All I can say is that it is non-fiction, and really about appreciating the world around you.

In this time and age, what to you wish people appreciated more?

Tough question! There are so many things… I think I just wish that we appreciated our planet more, as obvious as it sounds, from the small and insignificant to all the amazing animals that exist on it. Humans have really only been here for a fraction of time compared to many species (flora & fauna), and it’s questionable how long we will be around for, and what we’ll leave behind, but when we do make an effort and think beyond ourselves, we can do great things.

Thank you, Will, for sharing your work and creative process with us. | Instagram: @william.grill




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