Blog Tour, Book Review, Middle Grade Fiction

Children’s Book Award Blog Tour ~ The Griffin Gate by Vashti Hardy & Natalie Smillie

For my stop on the FCBG Children’s Book Award Blog Tour, I’m thrilled to be sharing one of the shortlisted titles in the Young Reader category – The Griffin Gate by Vashti Hardy & illustrated by Natalie Smillie!

You’re in for a treat as I have an exclusive interview from FCBG with Natalie Smillie about the illustration process from initial ideas right through to her wonderful finished covers.

How does the briefing process work when you take on a design project for a publisher?

Usually the publisher comes through my agent when they have a project in mind that they think I would be a good fit for. I get sent a briefing document (I have to say that Barrington Stoke are REALLY good at briefing), which contains all the information for the project.

The briefing document will tell me what images in my portfolio the publisher likes so I can tailor the style to the project, a brief outline of the story, and any important elements that need to be included. Any information the publisher gives me at this stage is crucial and I always take as much as I can get because more often than not I won’t see a manuscript for the book while I’m working on the cover. If I’m illustrating internals I will usually get to read the whole book as I work (illustrator’s perk!), but if I only illustrate the cover I will very rarely if ever get the manuscript before it’s published. With Vashti’s books, we managed to hash out the look of the covers on the first book so the visual language was set for the second two, which made it a bit simpler layout-wise from then on. 

I’ve included two first roughs for the Griffin Gate from when we were working out the visual language. In the end we took out the bottom elements and we ended up reusing the spyglass as a device inside the book. This filtered through to the other books where I illustrated a puffin and a Raven respectively for the second and third books which were used inside as chapter headings. 

I’ve also included the roughs for the second and third books so you can see how much they change from rough to finished illustration. You can also see how much the designer trusts me to add in details because I tend to do that at colour stage where I can see how they would fit the best.

Which fiction book jackets do you remember from your childhood?

I don’t know if these count but I really strongly remember the Rupert annuals which I got each Christmas. They always had such bright and engaging cover illustrations, full of adventure and mystery. I also remember the cover to the 50th anniversary edition of The Hobbit, illustrated by Michael Hague which I got for one of my birthdays. It was so scary and also so beautifully illustrated. I remember spending hours and hours trying to replicate the internal illustrations when I was a young teenager – I thought they way he painted was completely masterful. Suffice it to say that I got nowhere near his level! 

How does the process of working on a fiction jacket differ from other projects?

It really depends on the project, for instance working in non-fiction is a completely different process because those projects are usually educational in nature and they need to be very specific with those briefs. Everything needs to be just-so and that usually means a bit less freedom with layout, subject and colours. A fiction jacket can be very interpretive within the bounds of the brief so they definitely afford more creative freedom.

Which parts of the manuscript do you pick out to incorporate into the jacket designs?

 In my experience I tend not to get sight of the manuscript before I start working on the covers. I noticed with these books though, that one of the main themes was travel – this fantastic map that transports you all over the place – who wouldn’t love that? When I got the brief for each of the books from Barrington Stoke, they all focused on one main thing – the location of the next adventure. I think the skill of the person briefing me is definitely important here and the designers at Barrington Stoke know what they’re doing – by focusing on the adventure and keeping the gate theme going through the books, we’ve managed to create a view into this amazing world while keeping everything visually cohesive.   

They say don’t judge a book by it’s cover but we disagree, which elements do you think make a great book jacket? 

For me personally, I really love book jackets that have something visually strong about them, so the gate in our books is a real anchor that acts as a solid foreground to the mysterious location in the background. So a strong focus or a device that draws the eye. I’m also a sucker for a frame, so something illustrated around the outside that draws the eye to the middle. And a good book cover should have important story elements but maybe in an inconspicuous way so you can’t tell they’re important until after you’ve read the book. I also really love illustrated book jackets, I think that illustrating book covers can add such a wonderful dimension to the book shelf. There’s something so brilliant about mixing art and writing where possible and if an illustrator can help someone to pick a book up off the shelves then we’re doing a good job. 

How do you decide on the colour schemes for each book in a series?

Usually the designer that briefs me will pick the colour scheme, unless I have a really strong opinion on why it should be different (and I rarely do because I’m so lucky to work with legitimately amazing designers), I tend to make their scheme work. For the Puffin Portal we had originally agreed on sunsetty oranges and yellows but when I painted the final image it just wasn’t working so we decided to switch to beautiful pinks and purples and it immediately brought the image together. I have a trick for keeping all the books in a series cohesive no matter the colours picked. I carefully match the tone of the colours to each preceding book so that each book looks good sat next to the next one on a shelf. 

Which fiction book past or present would you most like to illustrate?

I feel treacherous saying this because Paul Kidby is such an amazing artist but it would be so fun to have a go at some Discworld illustration. I really love Terry Pratchett’s universe and especially the Tiffany Aching and Commander Vimes stories. I’m also partial to a horror story so anything scary would be fun!

The Children’s Book Award is the only national award voted for solely by children from start to finish. It is highly regarded by parents, teachers, librarians, publishers and children’s authors and illustrators as it represents the children’s choice. Thanks to the support of the publishers, around 800 new fiction titles are donated to be read and reviewed by local FCBG groups across the country every year. This year approx 50,000 total votes were cast, and we expect many thousands more to come in for the Top 10. At the end of each testing year, many of the books are donated to hospitals, women’s refuges, nurseries and disadvantaged schools by our groups.

There wasn’t an award in 2021 – the challenges of getting books out to the child judges in lockdowns meant the award did not run last year. Therefore, this year’s award celebrates the most popular books from 2020 and 2021 so no one misses out.

Voting will open soon on the FCBG website and remain open until the 27th of May.

You can purchase all the shortlisted books from Heath Books. Follow this link to go to their website.

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