Tuesday 23 November 2021

My Pet Goldfish - Q&A with Catherine Rayner

"Catherine Rayner has a marvellous gift for capturing the souls of animals in a few, rich washes of colour." Daily Telegraph

My Pet Goldfish is a delightful picture book with facts by the Greenaway Medal-winning author-illustrator Catherine Rayner. The child narrating this story has been given their first-ever pet: a tiny fish with shimmering scales and bright beady eyes… Their very own goldfish! Sitting alongside the gentle narrative and dynamic illustrations, the subtext introduces facts about goldfish and their care – some gentle, some funny, some fascinating – making this a perfect choice for first-time owners.

Q&A with Catherine Rayner

What was the inspiration behind writing My Pet Goldfish?

I absolutely love fish, and I've had an aquarium since I was very little. In this story, 'Richard' is named after my real goldfish, and he's full of character. I adore watching all kinds of fish swimming around, and I find it very therapeutic painting them too. I really wanted to create not only a beautiful storybook but also an educational book that could help dispel some of the myths that exist about goldfish and how to look after them. They are not simply a pet to be put in a bowl and forgotten about - they are beautiful animals with totally fascinating characteristics that can live for a very long time.

They are also wonderful, engaging pets, and I felt it was important to help people appreciate just how special they really are. Making this book was an absolute pleasure, from the research all the way through to painting the water endpapers! I've already had a lot of emails from people saying they had no idea how fascinating fish could be!

Can you tell us about your process?

My writing and illustrating process change slightly with every single book that I make. I'm often asked about my method, and I can firmly say that I don't really have one. I quite like this because it makes each book a new adventure with its own timescales and rhythm of work. 

With My Pet Goldfish, I wanted to make the book for the reasons above, and also because I love Richard, the fish, and I felt goldfish are often overlooked as simple, easy, sometimes boring pets. I started drawing and painting Richard quite a few years ago, and the more I studied him, the more I noticed his personal quirks and habits. That led me to research goldfish, and I leant so much that I wanted to share!

I had illustrated one non-fiction book with Walker books called Hello, Horse which was written by Viv French - all about my own horse called Shannon. When I was asked if I had any other ideas, I suggested that Richard would very much like his own book and the team at Walker rather liked the idea too! 

I showed them the paintings I had already made of him and gave them a loose outline of a story which I then developed alongside lots of fishy facts I'd uncovered during my research. I could only use the 'child-friendly' facts as this is a picture book, but it was great fun deciding which ones to use and what to illustrate. 

Once I had completed the text, I started to make rough layout drawings for each spread in the book. Once I was happy with the design, I started painting. Painting fish (I discovered) is just as relaxing as watching them. I LOVED all the colourful ink bottles hanging around in my studio while I was working on it. Usually, I use a lot of brown, green and grey and these vibrant inks was an absolute delight to work with. All of the elements of the artwork were painted and then scanned into my computer and worked on further. I visited lots of local ponds, aquariums and specialist fish centres where I could speak to the staff and find out as much as I could about them as well as sit and draw them and take pictures. But my visits were really about absorbing their movement into my mind so I could go home and make lively looking fish and water paintings.  

Do you have a favourite Goldfish fact?

I think it's a fascinating fact that goldfish can see more colours than humans! I try and imagine the wonderful 'extra' colours they can enjoy! However, my favourite fact is that scientists believe fish can remember things for FIVE months! Isn't that incredible as most people believe a goldfish memory only lasts a couple of seconds? I think five months is far longer than I can remember most things!

Can you tell us more about your journey into the world of children's books?  

I have been drawing for as long as I can remember! I've always found drawing therapeutic, and I've always loved books (I was the child who secretly loved it when it rained as it meant you could stay indoors and draw). I used to draw our pets, we had a sausage dog called Wilfred, and he was featured in most of my pictures.

The first book I ever wrote, illustrated and made was about him being naughty. My mum still has it. I was about four. I think I knew then I wanted to be an author and illustrator. After school, I studied at Leeds College art and the Edinburgh Collect of Art, specialising in illustration. In my final year, I made a book that went on to be published, and this started my career! That book was called Augustus and his Smile. I have since made a further 20 books with various publishers and also had the privilege of illustrating some wonderful authors words too. I'm making this all sound very straightforward and easy - which I can assure you it wasn't. But I still can't believe I get to do my dream job every day and that children all over the world read my books. I still have to pinch myself sometimes!

Do you have a favourite spread in the book? 

For this book, yes, I do have a favourite, and it's on page 20/21. It's a close up of a group of fish, and I love the different colours, textures, sizes and individual characters all swimming together. I really, really enjoyed painting this page! 

What are your favourite picture books, both older and more recent? 

Ohhh, that's such a tough question as there are just SO many I could mention here. Jon Classen's The Wolf, the Duck and the Mouse is definitely up there as I think it's just so clever, and my five year old adores it. His enthusiasm has rubbed off on me and made me love it even more!

When I think of books from my childhood, Judith Kerr's Mog books immediately come into my mind with happy memories of my parents reading them with me. Now I'm a parent too, I really enjoy sharing John Burningham's Borka with my children, and it's one they ask for again and again!

Finally, given the subject of my book, I simply have to mention Brian Wildsmith's Fishes. His books have inspired me so much, especially when I was starting out as an illustrator. His use of texture, colour and movement is just magical! 


A special thanks to our guest this week, Catherine Rayner!
My Pet Goldfish is available from all good booksellers.