December 15, 2020

Let's Talk Illustrators #165: Nicola Davies

For my last interview of 2020, I am pleased to present my conversation with seasoned author and debut illustrator Nicola Davies about Last: The Story of a White Rhino. Already an accomplished zoologist and writer, Nicola easily (or so it seems!) slides into the role of illustrator with eye-catching and meaningful visuals that push her text forward and tell their own story. Enjoy our chat!

About the book: 
A rhino is put in a zoo in the middle of a grey city, where all he can do is pace back and forth. He misses his home, his mother, the smell of earth and rain. He fears he may be the last of his kind. Then one day, he is rescued and released back into the wild, to live free with the other rhinos.

Let's talk Nicola Davies!

LTPB: Can you talk about your research process for Last: The Story of a White Rhino? How did you first hear about Sudan? Why did you choose to tell his story?

ND: As a zoologist by training and lifelong advocate for the natural world, I was aware of the terrible problems facing rhinos worldwide, but especially White Rhinos in Africa. But my focus in recent years has been more on writing about whole ecosystems, biological concepts and relationships between humans and nature, rather than individual species. So I hadn’t considered witting a non fiction book about rhinos.

And then I saw a documentary about Sudan quite by chance late one night. After it was over I sat in my kitchen in the dark, thinking about Sudan, his long unlucky life and the beautiful relationship between him and the wildlife rangers who had safeguarded his last months. I got a pencil and a notebook and wrote Last. Sometimes that's how books come, in one go in the time it takes to write down the words.

As soon as I wrote the words, I knew I couldn’t let them go, that this was one text I had to illustrate myself. I had never illustrated a book. I have no training as any kind of visual artist. All I had was a lifelong love of pictures and a clear image in my head of what I wanted the art in this book to achieve. I couldn’t dictate to another illustrator what I wanted in each spread, so that meant I had to do it myself.

Of course none of my usual publishers would consider using someone with no track record or experience as an illustrator, but dear, dear Tiny Owl were prepared to take a risk, and I got the commission to work on the book. I'm so incredibly grateful that they were prepared to take a risk.

LTPB: Can you expand a little on the illustration note at the beginning of the book? Why was it important for you to use the materials you did? What inspired you to make this your illustration debut?

ND: Right from the start I knew I wanted to use collage. I’d seen it used so wonderfully by Petr Horáček and James Mahew in particular. I had the idea that when the animals, including the rhino, were in the zoo they should be made of the same materials as the buildings…collaged newsprint. Two reasons for that: one was symbolic, newsprint and human words being a metaphor for human influence; the other was practical, as using collage allowed me to paint backgrounds and then play around with composition without having to paint everything. 

I used real newsprint exclusively at first but it's flimsy and doesn’t take to being cut, pasted and painted on very kindly - especially in the small fragments I was using (I began working on paper much larger than the page but eventually settled on working to the actual size of the book). So I decided to make newsprint - this allowed me to manipulate colour, language of text, font etc etc. And of course the text itself, contrasting fragments of advertising slogans with environmental messages. Of course that meaning and symbolism is not something every reader will get; certainly almost no one will notice on a first reading, but one of the magical things about pictures books is that well-loved ones get read multiple times and by many age groups; I wanted a deeper meaning that would emerge over many readings and to put something in for the grown ups!

It was really important to me that I told a story that was only in the pictures. The figure of the little girl with the green scarf we see at all stages of the story - it's a non linear time line so we see her as a young woman and then as a child and then as a young woman again. She is the scientist who takes the rhino out of the zoo and back to Africa. so the ending for this rhino in the book is the happy ending that was intended for Sudan, but for which he was too old to make the most of by the time he returned to Africa. In my experience as a young biologist African conservation was male and white so it was important to me that the person who delivered the happy ending for my rhino was female and a person of colour. In Africa today Black Africans are leading conservation as biologists, rangers, veterinary surgeons, campaigners and that needs to be reflected in what appears in books. 

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book?

ND: I threw everything at it! I tried doing the colour digitally at first but then realised that the joy for me is in the physical sensation of putting paint and textures onto paper…so I began collaging. I had to learn everything from scratch. I taught myself to draw rhinos just by watching them in zoos and on film and in photos. I drew and drew. I experimented with composition, colours, papers, glues, inks. Although I knew what I wanted each spread to contain, how I wanted the story to be told visually, I had to find a consistent visual language, and that was hard and took time. By the time I’d found it I had just two months to do almost all the spreads, so I had to work fast. I absolutely adored the process… planning each spread carefully, thinking about the order in which I had to do every thing. I enjoyed the logistics of each spread enormously.

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

ND: I would adore to go on illustrating but of course I'm still a novice and getting my work accepted is hard. I'm going to get back to illustrating my own work next year with a story clued Big Berg which is a cautionary tale about humans, ice and climate change. But for now I'm writing a YA novel which has to be derived next February and also another non fiction picture book about plants which will be illustrated by the wonderful Emily Sutton. A lot of time at the moment is being taken up by the animated film of one of my stories, The Promise, which has just been released and can be seen on the BBC ideas website by anyone anywhere in the world (as well as below). The director and I are busy linking the film to action in the real world, particularly re-connecting kids in urban areas with nature through tree planting and gardening.

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?

ND: If I was ever going to write an autobiography the story would obviously be too close and too personal for anyone but me to illustrate. But there are far more interesting books to write - Im interested in the world not so much in myself.

Thank you to Nicola for talking to me about this book! Last: The Story of a White Rhino published from Tiny Owl Publishing earlier this year.

Special thanks to Nicola and Tiny Owl for use of these images!

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