February 28, 2017

Let's Talk Illustrators #15: William Bee

It's a particular honor that I got the chance to sit down with William Bee and pick his brain about his latest installment in the Stanley series, Stanley's Store. I've been a fan of William's work for years, and the chance to actually chat with him about his process was like a dream come true. I hope you enjoy reading the interview as much as I enjoyed putting it together!

About the book:
Welcome to Stanley's Store! Can Stanley help his friends find everything they need? Stanley has fresh fruits and veggies to be unloaded, Myrtle needs help at the cheese counter, Shamus and Little Woos groceries must be rung up, and oh no! Charlie just knocked over Stanley's produce display. Even for an industrious hamster like Stanley, running a store is hard work! Stanley's Store invites young readers to explore grocery store processes, colors, and machines in a sweet, simple world.

Let's talk William Bee!

LTPB: Tell us about Stanley’s Store, Stanley’s latest job venture in which he owns a grocery store. 

WB: Stanley's Store—or “Shop” as we say in England—was actually inspired by a trip I made to New York many years ago. A couple of friends were going to the Lincoln Center to listen to an opera. And whilst they were in there, I visited a local supermarket (do you call them that in the States?). The opera lasted two hours, and they had to come and find me after because I was still in the store. I liked looking at all the packaging. We have quite a lot of the same at home, so I wanted Stanley's Store to have lots of colourful packs.

Stanley is a small business hamster, so him owning a store made sense. Because all the characters are rodents, I have to avoid stocking things in the store they would not eat—meat, for instance. Although I am not sure sugar or chocolate would be very good for them either...

LTPB: This is the sixth book in this Stanley series--how do you keep each book feeling fresh, yet representative of the series? How do you decide which profession to explore next? 

Nice that you think they are fresh. The first book, Stanley's Garage, I did before I had a publisher for the series, but since then my excellent teams at Jonathan Cape (UK) and Peachtree contribute to the ideas. Some jobs just won't make a good book, and some—like the aborted Stanley's Circus—turned out to be a bad idea (I didn't like what the characters were doing). Stanley the Doctor has been suggested, but I find medical stuff boring. I want to come up with a factory book, but we have not agreed on what it will produce. School and Train are next to be published, I think. Then we'll sit down and come up with some ideas together.

The books follow a strict format, from the cover onwards. This is, in fact, much more fun—and fresh—than it sounds. For instance, what we call the “tool pages” (as that was what they were in the first book) are interesting to make different each time. We always start with a building (building site in Stanley the Builder), and then end with Stanley returning home for bath/supper/bed.
All tool pages

Tool pages from Stanley's Store

LTPB: How do you create your illustrations? What medium do you use? 

WB: My illustrations are originally drawn on paper and tidied into a nice thick black line. These are then scanned into my machine and colour is added. I like the bright, flat colour you get digitally, and it seems silly to do this by hand when whatever technique one uses it will have to be scanned into a machine in any case. This is the least interesting thing to share, it's just process. Like always wash a car from the roof down, and always wash the wheels last.

LTPB: You have several picture books, some of that you’ve written and some that you’ve written and illustrated. When you create a manuscript, how do you decide whether or not you will illustrate it yourself? When you do both (write and illustrate), which do you generally do first?

WB: I have only written two books that I have not illustrated. In both cases, Digger Dog and Worst in Show, I wrote them thinking I would be illustrating them. The brilliant Kate Hindley illustrated Worst in Show as, frankly, it seemed too much work to me. I do not think I could write something that I knew or thought I wouldn't be illustrating.

First comes the idea. The best ideas are ones that can make a series, for obvious reasons. With Stanley, I knew I wanted to do something for this younger age group—Dick Bruna being an obvious inspiration—but I could not think of any stories that were interesting enough (to me). So I, in fact, did start by drawing Stanley, and then Hattie, and then had the “eureka” moment when I thought to give him a different job in each book. It meant only having to come up with ONE story about a cafĂ© (diner) or a farm, etc.

But in some ways—at least in my head—the look or design of the book is mixed up with the idea. If I came up with an idea about a horse, I would quickly dismiss it, as they are not the sort of thing I would want to draw; same maybe with human children. There are many illustrators—Kate for instance—who are much better at that than I am.

LTPB: My favorite books of yours are Whatever and Beware the Frog, which both have hilariously dark and unexpected endings. Where do you get inspiration for the stories you create? How did you come up with the character Stanley? 

WB: Whatever was my first book, which I drew, designed, and wrote before I had a publisher. The book changed very little, apart from taking out four or five spreads (sadly). The first step to having an idea is deciding to have one. In that case, I remembered a friend using that rude and dismissive expression, “whatever,” on a ski trip. He is well educated (studied at Cambridge), and I thought it made him sound both stupid and arrogant. As it was my first book, I knew I needed an idea I could break down spread by spread.

Oddly enough, Beware of the Frog was me trying to get away from that approach, and I feel it is a bit of a failure. The idea for that book came as I was listening to a radio programme about frogs, and at one point, the speaker referred to a frog whose common name is “The Edible Frog,” which struck me as a rotten name to be lumbered with... (The Latin for that frog, Rana Esculenta, is on the title page of the book.)

The book had a darker tone when first written; there were no mythical creatures, but teenagers instead, and at the end it becomes clear that our sweet little old lady is fully aware of what her pet frog is doing. But the publisher got cold feet, and I should have scrapped it there and then.

When I was first creating Stanley, he was briefly to be a Guinea Pig. But I quickly realised that there are few other animals that are of similar size, so a hamster made more sense. The whole “cast” would have had to be Guinea Pigs, too. I did not want human characters. Put a hamster in a tractor and you are halfway there before writing a word!

LTPB: What are you working on now?

WB: We have four simple Stanley board books on colours, shapes, opposites and numbers. Stanley’s Colors and Stanley’s Shapes were both published by Peachtree last September, and Stanley’s Opposites and Stanley’s Numbers will be published by Peachtree in August 2017 in the US.



I also did two books about a dog called Migloo, which turned out to be massively overly complicated.


As a reaction, I sat down and tried to distill what I was doing. I came up with a book series entitled William Bee's Wonderful World of... and then just added words like “Trucks” and “Cars” and “Trains,” etc. I inserted a character like myself into the books with a dog and three traffic cones, and basically “presented” it in the manner of a TV show. So written in the first person, and based on facts, but in a chatty manner.

The first of these books is out in March here in the UK, William Bee’s Wonderful World of Trucks, to be followed by William Bee’s Wonderful World of Trains and Boats and Planes, and then William Bee’s Wonderful World of Tractors and Farm Machines, with more to follow.

LTPB: If you could pick anyone to illustrate your picture book autobiography, who would it be and why?

WB: Er... I would never sanction any such thing! The moment I have finished a book—or anything—I forget about it and move on. I have no interest in what I have done—apart from things like this interview. The next thing is always the best thing!

But in the spirit of the question, as mentioned, I think Dick Bruna is the greatest designer/illustrator. Richard Scary—if he were still around—would actually be most suitable, as he was great at drawing all sorts of vehicles.

Thank you so much to William for stopping by to share his process! It's always fascinating to learn how stories (and series!) evolve. Stanley's Store publishes from Peachtree Publishers March 1, 2017! 

Special thanks to William and Peachtree Publishers for use of these images!

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