Meet the Author:
Welcome to Elephant Notes . . . our periodic take on some of the ideas, issues, and news impacting parents, children, and reading.
Our September Author of the the Month is Gabriel Evans! Gabriel is an illustrator and award-winning author of several children’s books, including this month’s Elephant Books pick, The Cute Penguin. Read on to hear from Gabriel about his creative inspiration and what makes The Cute Penguin different from his other books.
The Cute Penguin is the story of a penguin in a sketchbook who wishes he were drawn more realistically. The little penguin journeys through his sketchbook and encounters all different characters as he tries to find out if there’s anything he can do to change the way he’s been drawn.
You’re not only an award-winning children’s writer with books published in twelve countries and in ten different languages, but also a talented illustrator and artist. What inspired you to pursue illustration and storytelling as a career?
I’ve always had a passion for making art as well as a fascination with how picture books can have a lasting impact on a young reader. I started pursuing a career in illustration at the age of seventeen, although it took me five years before I landed my first contract with a trade publisher and a further five years before I started writing stories.
Your book The Cute Penguin is the story of a dissatisfied penguin who finds itself on page four of a sketchbook, wishing it looked less like a cute drawing of a penguin and more like a real penguin. How did this clever idea for a story come about?
The idea for The Cute Penguin arose when I considered the premise of how a character in a sketchbook might feel about the way they were drawn. I didn’t want to focus on the idea that he’d been drawn badly as that would send out a negative message to young readers learning to draw. Instead, I focused on the idea that the penguin is annoyed by being drawn deliberately cute and wants a more realistic version of himself.
I feel the story has an underlying mature message about how we construct a persona for ourselves on social media, but that’s a discussion for another day.
The protagonist of this story is inquisitive, resourceful, and seemingly the only sentient drawing in this sketchbook! (Or at least the loudest). The little penguin encounters a cast of other cute animals—including an owl, a cat, a bear, and a whale—on a quest to solve the “cuteness conundrum.” Is there a reason you chose these specific animals, other than that they make for particularly cute drawings?
I chose the animals that were popular toys for children and might appear in their drawing book. A few animals didn’t make the list, including a hippopotamus, a fox and a rabbit. Maybe they’ll appear in a future story…
Illustrations are key to the narrative in this self-referential story, and each new character introduced really stands out on any given page. Can you describe your creative process when writing and illustrating The Cute Penguin? Was this process different from your other books?
Cute Penguin is notably different from my other picture books in its style. My palette is normally more subtle with finer detail and washes of watercolour, while The Cute Penguin was created with a much bolder, ‘punchier’ style. I enjoyed trying something different.
The actual process of creating the story was very similar to my normal working process where I slowly form the story through words and pictures in my sketchbook.
What is the best thing about being a children’s author? Who were your favorite authors as a child?
The best thing is the excitement I feel when pursuing a new story idea. Also, the total immersion and mess I make when creating the final illustrations.
Some of my favourite authors as a child included Roald Dahl (with Quentin Blake’s illustrations), Babette Cole, Richmal Crompton and Arthur Rackham.
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 the challenge is to get children to take a break from screen time and exercise their imagination. However, it’s tough for parents to apply this as the new generation of parents (including myself) grew up with TVs and computers themselves.
Do you have any upcoming books we can look forward to reading?
I have a new book called Listen, Hippo that is out with Penguin Australia in May 2024. It’s a story about listening to someone instead of trying to fix their problems. I’m very excited about this book and have only just finished the artwork.
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