Wednesday 16 February 2022

Saving the Butterfly - Q&A with Illustrator Gill Smith


A little brother and his big sister try their best to settle in a new home, where they have nothing left from before except each other. The little one makes new friends and quickly learns to laugh again but his sister remains haunted by the shadows of their past and hides away in their broken house. Trying to help his sister, the little one catches a butterfly for her and brings it inside the house. His sister knows that she needs to set the butterfly free ... but that would mean going outside. In taking the first steps to face her fears and save the butterfly, she also begins the process of saving herself.

Can you tell us more about your journey into children’s books?
As a child, I was in my element drawing and that never left me. However, I didn’t summon the courage to go to art school until my thirties after an English Literature degree, primary teaching and working within community arts.
When I graduated in 2008 with a Graphic Arts degree from Liverpool School of Art, I wasn’t sure how to find work as an illustrator. Liverpool had become the European Capital of Culture and exciting arts events were happening all over the city. By chance, I came across an amazing show in the park. An acrobatic fairy was twirling from a huge paper moon, high above the trees! There was fire, music, puppetry and I was completely enchanted. It was the creation of The Lantern Company, a community arts organisation. That night I wrote to them asking if I could work with them.
Consequently, I found myself in their old warehouse surrounded by a menagerie of giant creatures. I had run away and joined the circus at last! The next ten or so years were my artist apprenticeship, painting and making outdoor spectacles with a network of performers, designers, pyrotechnicians, musicians and community groups.
The Lantern Company 2008
 I was forever obsessing over children’s book illustration and I noticed in Martin Salisbury’s Children’s Picturebooks (2012) that the illustrators I so admired had studied with him at Cambridge School of Art. This discovery led to a leap of faith, a move to Cambridge to gain an MA in Childen’s Book Illustration where I was inspired by Martin, Pam Smy and many great illustrators and fellow students.
During the MA, I won an illustration competition I met one of the judges, Louise Jackson. I signed with an agent Claire Cartey and I was then approached by Louise shortly afterwards with the manuscript for Saving The Butterfly by Helen Cooper. I was elated that I was going to work with Walker Books, the publisher of all the beloved books I had grown up with.

I’m aware I make this journey to illustrating books sound quite smooth but the reality was a couple of decades of part time jobs to keep afloat whilst freelancing, financial insecurity, and a growing feeling of failure! Sometimes I worried that I was foolish for not getting a ‘proper job’ and making life easier. I’m really glad I didn’t as I am in my element once again, illustrating children’s books.
How did you begin illustrating Saving the Butterfly?
The poetic nature of Helen’s writing sparked my imagination straight away. It conveys big emotions with few words, inviting the reader to ask questions. Who are the little one and the bigger one, where have they come from and why are they all alone? It is an intimate story about two children but it speaks gently of the trauma experienced by unaccompanied child refugees in many parts of the world. Helen wanted the story to represent all children who have escaped from danger, not just now but in the past and sadly, those who may experience it in the future.

Helen was exceptionally generous throughout the process. She allowed me to find my own interpretation but was encouraging and offered insight and suggestions. I felt reassured that I could draw on both her and the Walker team to help to tell this story sensitively. I started by drawing my way into the themes of home and safety in my sketchbook. There were many versions of the ‘broken house’  with elements from refugee camps, informal tent settlements, favelas and slums. I find the fragility of such adhoc dwellings very emotive. I pieced them together, building a patchwork of temporary looking buildings that could exist anywhere in the world.
I also focused on the sibling relationship of the story and found myself drawing on childhood memories. My younger sister, Jen and I were close, always dressed the same and sharing a bunkbed. I remembered how protective I felt on our first day in a scary new school. She was much more adventurous than me though and could run up steep hills and climb trees where I could be quite timid. I couldn’t sleep without the security of my scruffy toy rabbit, Bobo who features in the book. I also remembered the reassurance of heavy woollen blankets and eiderdowns when we stayed overnight in my Aunty Jean’s big house and this informed the patchwork comfort blanket wrapped around the little girl. I could remember the wonder of looking closely at a worm in the mud or a ladybird on your hand and I recalled the dramatic day that my sister and I attempted to rescue a fallen baby bird. This kind of childhood stuff drifts through your mind when you are drawing for hours each day and I think some of the feelings and sensations found a way into this book.

I realise what a priviledged childhood I had. As I write this I am hearing on the radio of orphans from Ukraine being supported by a charity to come to the UK. More little ones and bigger ones in
trauma. And in Yemen, children are dying of malnutrition and bombs are being dropped on them, bombs made in the UK. I have been volunteering with a solidarity group of of local women called Habibti Liverpool who fundraise for the only free children’s hospital in Yemen. The hospital is run by Paediatrician Dr. Najla Al-Sonboli who lived in Liverpool while completing her training. Although offered the chance to return to safety in the UK, the medics decided they had a duty to remain and help treat the sick in a country suffering from a dire humanitarian crisis brought on by the war. I feel compelled to try and raise awareness if I can. 
See facebook@HabibtiLiverpool for more information about their work.
What was your favourite spread to illustrate in Saving the Butterfly?
The last spread was my favourite. I had become so protective of the little brother and sister having spent a lot of time with them. It was a relief to give them a more hopeful scene to play in. We didn’t want to sugar coat the reality with a neat and tidy ending but rather acknowledge the little girl’s tentative step towards her recovery. I looked at newspaper photographs of Syrian children who had found safety in a childrens centre in Lebanon. Miraculously they are smiling for the camera, singing and playing with their friends. Whilst the struggle to survive makes them older than their years there are moments where they perhaps feel safe enough to play like any child in a playground would.
In this spread, I imagined the potential new friendships between the children. It felt very emotional to draw the characters who, ‘on that day’, could retain their right to play.

What are your favourite picturebooks, both older and more recent?

I really enjoy the warmth of Helen Oxenbury’s characters. The family members in So Much ( Walker 1994) are just fantastic. I find Laura Carlin’s illustration in Nicola Davies The Promise very beautiful. I love her mark making and naive urban landscapes. Paula White’s, A Baker by The Sea is a book I’m very excited about. I witnessed Paula develop this during our time on the MA. It is exceptional.
As a child, I adored Mrs Wobble the Waitress by the Ahlbergs and read it over and over again. She wobbles uncontrollably and spills roast chicken and jelly over the bewildered guests. I’ll stop here as I could go on and on about children’s books forever.

A special thanks to our guest this week, Gill Smith!
Saving the Butterfly is now available from all good booksellers.