July 11, 2017

Let's Talk Illustrators #31: Joe Todd-Stanton

Today I'm over the moon to share my interview with author -- nay, storyteller -- and illustrator Joe Todd-Stanton. Joe is on fire right now, with two perfect stories out this year, The Secret of Black Rock and Arthur and the Golden Rope, the first in the Brownstone's Mythical Collection series. Joe's books are adventurous, with crisp illustrations and fully-formed worlds, and I am so, so grateful that I had the chance to interview Joe so early in his career, which I foresee as impactful and lasting.

About the book:
Erin loves to lie on the jetty, looking for the weirdest fish in the sea--the weirder, the better And she knows the best ones must be further out, where her mum won't let her go . . .

Out there in the deepest sea lies the Black Rock: a huge, dark and spiky mass that is said to destroy any boats that come near it Can Erin uncover the truth behind this mysterious legend?

Let's talk Joe Todd-Stanton!

LTPB: The world you create in The Secret of Black Rock is just astounding. What did you use as inspiration to create this story (I have to assume Miyazaki’s films!)? How did the characters change as you got to know them in this world you'd created?

JTS: Firstly, thank you very much! World building is a really big thing for me, so if that comes across at all that's great. Miyazaki has influenced pretty much every piece of art I have done since I went to the premier of Spirited Away when I was eleven. I still go back to it often when I'm working on a book because it's so rich in detail and really pushes me to try and achieve something similar.

I also try and connect things to the real world as much as possible, so I looked at a lot of coral reef photography and animals local to Newfoundland (which was the place that influenced the look of Black Rock).

In terms of the characters changing, Erin and her mother pretty stayed consistent from the beginning with a few tweaks, although some of the first sketches I did had Erin with a Father. But I quickly changed my mind once I started fleshing out the story.

Black Rock went through quite a long process, as it's actually based on an image I did about four years previously. As the story took shape, the features of Black Rock became a lot more friendly and childlike, as I wanted his character to be very innocent and comforting in contrast to the scary moment when Erin is lost in the blackness. I also wanted to make it very obvious that it was just as free from motive and harm as the fish that surround it.

original sketch of Black Rock

LTPB: You are currently working on a series called Brownstone’s Mythical Collection. So far we have Arthur and the Golden Rope (2016) and Marcy and the Riddle of the Sphinx (October 2017). Why did you choose to create a series centered on Norse mythology? Are you following any particular pattern as you explore these myths? Will we get to know the mysterious Mr. Brownstone better as we read the books?

JTS: I have always loved mythology, and I think it's such a rich vein to tap for storytelling. Whether it's overt or not, all the work I do that is personal to me is influenced by old myths or legends that I subvert or try and find a new angle on. With the Brownstone books I wanted to hopefully point kids in the right direction so they could discover that wealth of myths for themselves. I liked the idea of books that can quickly dip into a world of mythology each time and just give a little taster of a thing that is so much bigger than I could ever show in one story. I loved the movie The Pagemaster as a kid, and I always thought that could have been a great concept for a series to explore, a different classic fiction or genre every episode. I think Brownstone was my way of channeling that idea.


I have to say my pattern for what I look at is purely selfish, as so far I have just picked two mythologies that I really wanted to read more about, myself. Whilst reading about them, I just hope one story will jump out and spark an idea. In terms of the series progressing, I have a few ideas, but nothing I really want to set in stone yet. I can say I would love to do a book looking at Hindu mythology, as it's so intriguing to me. As for the mysterious Mr. Brownstone, he does have a very interesting past which I would love to explore given the opportunity, but you will just have to wait and see.

LTPB: You have very purposeful endpapers in Arthur and Black Rock, the latter of which has a pretty awesomely subtle difference from front to back. What is it about endpapers that draws you in as an illustrator? How do you use the endpapers as extensions -- or not! -- of the central story?

JTS: Well I love endpapers since they are such a good way to set the tone of a book. As a child I always loved those books that had little opening maps or character profiles. I guess it comes back to the whole thing of world building. I also like them because they are not necessary to the story, so you can think about them more as displaying the character of a book than having to have them make sense in the context of the story. This is especially true of Arthur, as I wanted to the whole book to have the aesthetic of a book from the time of Norse mythology, rather than about it. I hope I can do the same with Marcy and the Riddle of Sphinx. As for Black Rock, my first intention was just to have that page be a way of showing the relationship between Erin, her mum and Archie. In children's books you have so little time to do that kind of thing, and then the idea of having them be different at the end just came into my head as I was illustrating them.

front endpapers

back endpapers

LTPB: What tools do you use to create your illustrations? How do you find your process evolving as you begin new projects?

JTS: A drawer full of 2B pencils and a massive stack of A2 paper is the boring answer to that. Drawing is and will always be the funnest thing for me, and I love tackling a big layout that I have been thinking about for a while. After I have drawn everything, I color in Photoshop. I'm still trying to learn new ways to make that process as fun as possible, as I never want it to feel too formulaic.

The main thing that has been changing for me is just the planning aspect and gathering as much inspirational, relevant imagery around me in the hope that it will stop my work from ever looking too stale. Planning is the main thing, though, and also the part I have the most trouble with. It's so tempting just to get straight into the final art when you have an idea you're excited about, but then you always end up having to paper over so many cracks and issues that you could have dealt with at the start if you had been more patient. I hope the more I work, the more I will improve on this aspect.

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

JTS: I'm still working on Marcy which is taking up the bulk of my time, but I also have an idea for another picture book around the same length as Black Rock which I am really excited to try and flesh out. I don't want to say much as knowing me by the time I'm finished every detail will change but currently it's set in London, and I really want it to explore imagination, unlikely friendships and how people that are very different can really complement each others personalities. That sounds way more cryptic than I meant it to . . .
image from Marcy and the Riddle of the Sphinx

LTPB: Who would you choose to illustrate your picture book biography, and why?

JTS: That's a tough one! I'm not sure whether to pick my favorite illustrator purely because I would just love to see any new work from them, or an illustrator who would be best suited to capturing me growing up. If it was the former, I would pick Tove Jansson, as just to see myself drawn in her style would make me very happy forever. If it was the latter, it would have to be Edward Gorey, as growing up I was quite a small, pale, shy child who wore a lot of black and saw scary monsters in every dark shadow. I'm happy to say I'm quite different now, but I can imagine Edward rendering the world as I saw it as a kid very well.

Thank you for sharing your process for creating books, Joe! The Secret of Black Rock published in June from Flying Eye Books!

Special thanks to Joe and Flying Eye for use of these images!

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