Meet the Author & Illustrator:
Rob Hodgson

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

December 2021 | Authors, Books

My Best Friend is a picture book preschoolers will want to read again and again. Its quirky and somewhat dark humor is unlike most other children’s books and the reason we fell in love with it. What’s not to like about Mouse telling everyone about his best friend, Giant Owl, who may or may not be trying to eat him!

The illustrations are wonderful and tell a very different reality than the story we hear from Mouse about his best friend, Giant Owl. Whether the two “friends” are playing chase, eating donuts (fattening up!), or building a house (cage!), the story is unpredictable. The obliviousness of Mouse to the true motives of Giant Owl, is touching. We hope you enjoy our interview with Rob Hodgson, an author/illustrator we should all keep our eyes on.

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You graduated with a degree in illustration from the University of Plymouth and started your career creating and directing projects at a design studio. After publishing your first picture book, you never looked back. What made you decide to focus on writing children’s books?

I was working a lot in character design and product design and was doing a lot of kids projects, but had never considered writing or doing books before. Then, Steven Malk, the great picture book agent, reached out to me with a mailbag full of kids books and suggested I should try writing one because he had seen my work.

It was a really kind gesture that I’ll forever be thankful for. I always loved writing, but this kind of gave me permission, and when I dove in, I realised how special the medium of children’s books were. They have so many unique features you don’t find in other media and I was hooked. It felt like all the things I was interested in and had been doing before had come together in this one medium.

My Best Friend (your 3rd book) was published as COVID was just beginning. How was that experience? Did it add any unexpected challenges?

It was a real mix of feelings. At that time, you’re right, the pandemic had just begun, so everyone was kind of in survival mode and the thought of a picture book coming out seemed so silly when the future looked so uncertain.

There were practical challenges with production delays and publishers were thinking the pandemic might end soon, so the release dates kept being pushed back. When it was clear the pandemic wasn’t going anywhere, we released the book anyway, but into a very different world where bookshops weren’t open, so it was tricky!

But I know from experience, books really do take on a life of their own, and it’s finding its audience now, and hopefully will continue to over the next few years!

My Best Friend is a story told by Mouse about his relationship with his”best friend”, Giant Owl. They play chase, Giant Owl gives Mouse lots of donuts to fatten him up, and Giant Owl even builds a house (cage!) for Mouse. You successfully walk the fine line between dark and light-hearted humor in this book and we loved it. Was this the plan from the beginning?

Thanks! Yeah, I really enjoy that line, too. I think where things start to get a little dangerous is where we learn the most. It’s a hard line to walk, and sometimes I don’t always get it totally right, but I think when it works, it reflects something of real life that is totally engaging and meaningful.

Your book was written for kids, but in a more sophisticated way than most children’s books. The inferences are quite clever. Where did this unique writing style come from?

I love that picture books can say two different things at the same time with the images and the text. It’s totally unique to children’s books, and I think the space where the reader is having to work things out off the page is where the magic comes from. That’s also the place in where you’re speaking directly to a kid’s imagination and it moves beyond a passive experience as a reader, you have to do a little bit of work.

I think I’m really into this dynamic because I’m both the author and illustrator, so I can write and draw the story at the same (not exactly at the same time!) and it’s almost as if you’re balancing two separate stories.

You are also the illustrator of the book. Did the illustrations come first or did the idea for the story drive the creation of the characters?

I like to have the characters first, usually. I’m trying some new ways of working at the moment, but for these three books, I started with the characters visually, and then started to write about what might be happening to them, how their personalities might affect their decisions and reactions to things. Then it kind of goes back and forth between writing and drawing after that.

The contrasting colors of the illustrations help young readers understand what is really going on with Giant Owl and Mouse. Was that intentional?

Thanks! Yes, I think colour communicates so much, and when you use it in support of the text or contrasting with it, it can be really powerful. It’s another tool to play with when you’re thinking about the look and story.

What is the best part about being a children’s author? Who were your favorite authors as a child?

The best part of my job is hearing about the meaning that is built up around the books. I love hearing that parents do funny voices for the characters, or that kids have come up with their own nicknames for characters. Picture books are so special in that they foster a really strong relationship with their readers, and at such a pivotal time in their lives, and it really is an honour to be involved in that in some way.

I also love spending time with the books before they are finished, drinking a coffee and daydreaming about the characters when there are still unknowns about how the book will end. It’s really a special process and I love it.

My favourite authors when I was younger were quite surreal and fantastical. I loved reading Spike Milligan and Roald Dahl. There’s a Fraggle Rock picture book called ‘No-one Knows Where Gobo Goes’ that I was obsessed with.

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

I think tech and screen time is a big one. I’m not anti screens, and think there are huge opportunities for meaningful storytelling there. I’m excited about new ways of telling stories in interactive ways with phones and computers, but there’s also something that is lost when you move away from books. There’s a tactile element that later comes back to you as nostalgia when you find the books you had a kid. There’s something magical about that, I think, and it’s tied to the physical object as a book, which is important.

You’re also engaging with family relationships with books in a way that you’re not with tech, which is much more a solo experience. Reading with family is a bonding experience that I think is important not to lose. So tech is a challenge and an opportunity, I think, and we’re all still figuring it out.

Any chance you are working on another children’s book we can look forward to reading?

I’m working on a non-fiction book at the moment about the Moon, which I’m writing and illustrating. I’m really excited by non fiction books told in interesting ways right now, especially books that help us see nature as dynamic and full of life, not just something passive that we observe. That’s my personal mission at the moment, anyway! But I’m also starting the ball rolling on a new picture book in the style of My Best Friend, but it’s early days, and I’m not totally sure where it’s heading! I’m trying to do something positive and kind, but still walk that line of dark and humorous, which is proving a challenge!

We look forward to seeing Rob’s next non-fiction work about the moon, as well as the possibility of another fictional work in the style of “My Best Friend.” Thanks to Rob for spending time with us talking about his writing and illustrating. You can learn more about Rob Hodgson on his website here.

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