May 12, 2020

Let's Talk Illustrators #143: Henry Blackshaw

I recently caught up with Henry Blackshaw to talk about his zine-turned-debut-picture-book The Inner Child. Henry examines the strange things adults do, explains them to children, and even highlights how adult behavior is rooted in our childlike instincts. Have a read!

About the book:
Dear Kids,

Did you know that all adults have a child inside them? They try to hide them by pretending to be busy and stressed all the time, but as you know, it's impossible to keep children hidden. Sometimes they just have to come out and PLAY! This is a delightful little book that will appeal to adults and children equally, explaining why adults behave in the strange ways that they do, and how important it is to preserve the place of playfulness and joy inside all of us.

Let's talk Henry Blackshaw!

LTPB: What was the impetus for creating The Inner Child? Where did the idea come from?

AS: I’ve always been interested in how childhood experiences affect you as an adult. I’d been thinking a lot about this, and then just before having the idea for the book, I started to sense childlike emotions in my Mum and Dad. So I suppose I have them to thank for the idea. I witnessed my Dad searching for his car keys once and it was like watching a child rummage through their toys. (Disclaimer: I love my parents by the way. Everyone has a child inside them, not just my Mum and Dad). The idea for the book came pretty much fully formed. I had it whilst riding my bike to work, and I wrote the whole thing in about 20 minutes.

LTPB: The book doesn’t pull punches! How did you settle on a tone that balances humor and reality? How did the illustrations further serve that balance?

AS: I should point out that the book was originally a zine. I liked the idea of making zines for children and had made another one beforehand. So, the first version of The Inner Child was a small black and white photocopied zine. I felt that there was a lot of potential in the juxtaposition of the sensible adult characters and the unrestrained children inside them. I love how kids pick up on small details, and was keen to bring this out in the drawings. I always wanted to bring out a little sadness and naughtiness in the narrative. Naughtiness seems to be a lot more interesting than being good all the time. Just ask kids, they love being naughty.

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about how you created the fonts in this book? 

AS: The font is my own handwriting. The format of The Inner Child is that it is a letter to children (from me) about what adults are really like. So it made sense for the book to be handwritten. The letter format was a helpful way of structuring the ideas, plus I liked the idea of writing a ‘sensible’ letter about something a little silly. I don’t think anyone has ever written a letter to a child without it being a little bit silly.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?

AS: The Inner Child is my first published book, so turning it from a zine to a proper publication was a steep learning curve. I have an art school background; I’m not an illustrator or designer. I spent a lot of time experimenting with different paints and styles. I think I was trying to find a style, rather than letting the style find me. It was actually the publisher who suggested that I just work in watercolour, something that I had been doing in my regular painting for a long time. I have a bit of love/hate relationship with watercolour. It can be maddening when it doesn’t do what you want it to. For my next book, I think that I’ll take the plunge with Procreate. I read a Hockney quote recently that said, ‘you know when you’re an artist when you lie for beauty’. I’ll hold my hands up and say that I’m quite prepared to be a liar on Procreate.



LTPB: What are you working on now?

AS: I’ve written my next book and have nearly finished sketching it out. It is a proper story book, with a beginning, middle and end, unlike The Inner Child, which is weirdly almost non-fiction. I feel very strongly about my next book. It is a story which is very close to my heart, and one which I had a long before The Inner Child. My new book begins with a picture of a house (not particularly ground breaking). But I love kids’ books that start with pictures of houses (so many do). In dreams the house represents the self, and it feels like a perfect way to start a story.

LTPB: If you got the chance to write your own picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

AS: It would have to be Janet Ahlberg. I grew up with the books of Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Kids’ books seem to have the potential to stay with you your whole life. Ask anyone what their favourite books were as a child, and they’ll go on for ages. You never forget your favourites, and I can’t escape mine. 

A million thanks to Henry for taking time to answer some questions! The Inner Child published last month from Cicada Books!

Special thanks to Henry and Cicada for use of these images!

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