Meet the Author & Illustrator: Polly Noakes

Welcome to Elephant Notes . . . our periodic take on some of the ideas, issues, and news impacting parents, children, and reading.

January 2020

It’s January and the perfect time for children to learn about hibernation. Which animals hibernate and which don’t? Polly Noakes is our author of the month and creator of The Very Long Sleep, which is a humorous book about 4 friends that decide to live together in the forest. However, little fox is confused when his friends all go to sleep for the winter. He must be ready when they wake up. And what should he do with the packages that start to arrive for them?

Ms. Noakes’s illustrations make you feel like you are in a forest with the friends. The texture of her drawings evoke the feeling of walking through the woods. The Very Long Sleep is the perfect book to read with your child during those long winter months.

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You grew up in a creative house with two older sisters and attended The Cambridge School of Art. Have you been sketching your entire life?

Yes, my upbringing was very creative, my mother encouraged us to express ourselves artistically which we did by playing instruments, writing, putting on ballets and drawing. I was a sickly child, staying off school a lot, so I would draw and write stories to keep myself entertained. I loved being at home, so I was ‘sick’ a lot! I still have my little stories and illustrations from when I was small and smile to myself when I look at them. I come from a family of artists where it was considered normal to go to art school and was almost expected, so I feel very lucky that my creativity was nurtured. At 14, when my teacher asked which career I wanted to study I said illustration.

Your illustrations are incredibly beautiful in all your books. Who influenced your style most?

Thank you! It’s always lovely to get feedback like this because I aspire to create ‘beautiful’ and lyrical illustrations. It’s hard to choose major influences on my work, but I always go back to Warwick Hutton who was my illustration tutor in the 80’s and a constant inspiration. He illustrated fairy stories with the most gorgeous light, patterns and colour. I think of him when I create images wondering ‘what would Warwick think of this?’. I must also mention Pam Smy, my tutor in 2013, when I returned to art school to do an MA, and is another major influence. Alongside her own work which I admire, Pam guided me towards texture and pattern and introducing me to other artists such as Mark Hearld who works with collage and textures.

You’ve illustrated many books; what made you decide to write your first children’s book?

A big part of writing my own stories is an outlet for my creative energy – doing what I love and ‘making’ projects so that I can take them to publishers meetings. I have always written imaginative stories for pleasure, from those early years as a child sick in bed to now. They just pop into my head, and I keep a journal full of images, words or concepts ready to be made into picture books. It just happens naturally and is an added bonus and delight if a publisher likes them.

The cover of The Very Long Sleep is enchanting and the brightly-colored illustrations are some of the best we’ve seen. Did the illustrations come first or did you start with the story?

The cover for The Very Long Sleep, remains my favourite to date and I am so pleased you called it enchanting, thats what Annie the designer and myself aimed to achieve.

The book started as a story first – I was on my daily walk through a wood and saw squirrels busy gathering food, deer peeping at me and birds in the trees and it inspired the story. The parcel element became part of the story, simply because we had just adopted a Romanian street dog, Bertie, who was so curious when parcels arrived he would want to be part of the action opening them. The story had many edits and was initially a little different – characters changed too – Squirrel and Rabbit became Chipmunk and Marmot.

The Very Long Sleep is a humorous story about four woodland friends that decide to live together one winter. Was this story somewhat inspired by where you now live?

Yes, The Very Long Sleep, along with my others, is definitely inspired by living in the New Forest, a national park in the UK. I walk every day with Bertie and soak up the glorious views. I am totally in the moment when we walk – past streams, through woods and squelching through the mud! The New Forest is rich in wildlife including free roaming donkeys, pigs, cows and horses so animals tend to feature a lot in my stories.

In the book, Fox is confused when his friends (bear, chipmunk and marmont) go to sleep for the winter. Was your book intended to be an introduction to the concept of hibernation?

No, the book evolved into a story about hibernation as the story developed and I could see the fun if one animal didn’t hibernate. It can be read on many levels, a story about expectation and how it can go wrong. Interestingly my sisters pointed out that Fox is clearly based on me as a child – waiting for Sally and Kate to wake up and play with me. Like Fox I was mischievous and impatient! But it was also about the feeling I recalled as a child, of playing all day with my sisters and cousins and deciding we would build a ‘home’ in the garden to sleep in because we didn’t want our magical day to end. And of course invariably things would go wrong and someone felt left out. Childhood memories are still very strong for me and often get woven into my stories.

What is the best part about being a children’s author?

I see the writing and illustration as interconnected and it’s a wonderful career to have, it doesn’t feel like ‘work’ but more an extension of myself and an outlet for my creativity. It doesn’t need to be logical or ‘real’ and I get to retreat into my imagination and create books for children – and that is a very meaningful career to have. I also love working from home, hiding away in my studio – and can hibernate myself.

When you look around at the current state of kids and reading, what are the biggest challenges for parents or opportunities to address?

I can recall back when my kids were little and how important the ritual of choosing and reading a story together was, it was always special, however tired we were. Reading and sharing a book is an important time between a parent/carer and child, it’s time to slow down and be lost in a story and pictures, switching off from the events of day. It’s also a gentle way to address possible difficult issues a child might be having but through the medium of a story, often an easier way to approach it.

Today, where most people feel time poor and social media and devices dominate, I would see them as big challenge. I am glad we didn’t have these when my kids were small, they are distracting and at times invasive to family life. There is nothing more fulfilling and delightful than turning the pages of a real book which a screen doesn’t fulfill. It’s a gentle ritual that can punctuate and mark the end of the day, bedtime or rest time and shut out the busy 24/7 hustle of the world.

Are you working on anything new we can look forward to reading?

Yes, quite a few. I have illustrated a new book about friendship, publishing in June this year called A Present For Rosy, written by Jonathan Emmett with Walker Books UK.

I have just started work on Me and My Shadow, my third with Child’s Play Int and publishing in 2021. And I am also about to illustrate a Christmas book, written my Michelle Robinson, called Love From Santa and publishing with Bloomsbury in 2021, It’s going to be a busy year and somewhere within it I need to find time to write new stories, oh and move house!

Wow! That’s quite a busy year coming up! We look forward to seeing all your upcoming titles and good luck with the house move! Thanks as well for spending time talking with us this month.

If you’re interested in learning more about Polly Noakes, you can visit her website here.

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