5 Minutes with...Donovan Bixley
Award winning and bestselling author and illustrator, Donovan Bixley joins us to introduce his new picture book, The Good Old Looky Book
What is your book The Good Old Looky Book about?
The Good Old Looky Book is a colourful romp through Zelandia’s past. Kid’s books should always be fun first and then, by stealth, years later readers may realise that they’ve actually been exposed to all manner of ideas regarding history. You never know what will spark a child’s imagination, and I love to make books that throw up so many ideas, a child may just discover one little item in a corner that sets them off on a voyage of discovery.
Personally, I can’t pass any chance to draw dinosaurs, or giant eagles cruising ancient Aotearoa for giant moa. But I also love revisiting genuine historic elements, like Goldie’s famous 19th century painting of the arrival of the Māori in Aotearoa. He depicts them as desperate starving wash-ups. I’d like to think my depiction, full of purpose and fun and energy will set young kiwi kids on the right path to understanding our great Pacific heritage without even knowing it.
Where were you when the idea for The Looky Book series hit?
Most of my book ideas come when my wife and I are driving on a long trip, and The Looky Book came to the surface after mulling away in the back of my mind since I was a boy. I adored the books of Mordillo and Jean Jacques Loup — their energetic colourful spreads with no particular story are images that you can just pore over for hours. Graham Base’s Animalia is another great example — just endless things to explore and discover on return viewings.
The first Looky Book came about after I had a few published picture books under my belt. Hachette had published my version of The Wheels on the Bus,which was racing off as a great success. However, due that that success I was being approached by all sorts of publishers for more of the same nursery rhymes. I love doing a diversity of books and I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed – so I went to Hachette and asked what they though about my idea for a Looky Book. They loved it, and good call too. Out of the 120 books I’ve done, The Looky Book turned out to be my third most popular title.
Do you have a specific routine when creating your books?
Yeah, I’m a pretty solid “working 9 to 5” kinda guy — actually it’s more like 7 to 5, with a few breaks for exercise, mandatory afternoon tea, and a good dose of honking on my saxophone.
Usually I’m working on several books at any one time so my day is divided between: writing some future book — which I usually do in the evenings, sketching and doing background research — I’m currently working on a biography of Leonardo da Vinci which has been a decade-long project (that usually happens in the evenings too, doodling in front of the TV), then my daytime studio routine is dedicated to doing all the final illustrations as well as editing any current manuscripts I’m working on, and any design and layup elements.
Cor, I almost forgot about social media, which takes up a good chunk of each day. Creating books is, by necessity, such a solitary profession, so it’s fantastic that I can connect with all the fans and followers around the world and let them see what I’m bringing out next, as well as share some insights to the long process of making books.
What is the best thing about illustrating Kids' books? What is the hardest?
My favourite thing is spending my days in the mindset of a child. Thinking about picture books and funny stories, and of course I just love to draw — it’s what I do in my spare time even though it’s my full time job — I love it. I look around my contemporaries and I always feel like a kid who hasn’t grown up. Should I know how governance committees work? What do people do all day in board meetings? As a full time author and illustrator some days creativity just flows out of your fingertips like lightning.
The hardest thing is when you have an idea, but you just can’t make your words and pictures work as perfectly as you can see them in your mind. That’s when you need to go off for a swim or a walk, or meditate by sight-reading some music. A few laps will usually give the old brain time figure out how to do things.
What did you enjoy reading as a kid/teenager?
When I was a teenager I still loved picture books … well, I still love them as an adult! I remember getting one of Graham Oakley’s Churchmice series for Christmas when I was 14 — I was stoked! Oakley’s sophisticated use of words and pictures to each tell part of the story has had a huge influence on my work as an author/illustrator. My mother was the school librarian throughout my school years, but I never considered myself a great reader. Funnily enough, nowadays I’ve come to realise that I read (and have read) a lot more that the average male, but as kids there’s this ridiculous pressure for boys to progress on to “worthy reading”. As a boy I loved Footrot Flats, anything by Bill Peet, and Dr Seuss — particularly The Lorax. Throw into that mix, the The Lord of the Rings of all things — a novel I read almost every year after my my read it to us when I was 7. I’d never really liked comics as a kid, except Asterix which I still love today, but in my late teens I went to art school in the big city and that opened my eyes to the seriously arty comics of Neil Gaiman and Dave Mckean — which in turn lead on to Gaiman’s novels and whole world of great fiction.
When did you know you wanted to be an illustrator?
One of my earliest family photos is of me aged 3 drawing a dinosaur. Crikey that must show my age — coming from a time when there were only a handful of childhood photographs by the age of 3 — not like the bursting albums we have of our 3 girls!
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t lying on the floor drawing pictures. It became a defining marker of my childhood — “Donovan’s good at drawing”. I used to make elaborate comic diaries and the obligatory cartoon strips of my teachers and classmates. An interesting aside for many artists, is that pictures are so dominant in adults minds that they overshadow the other things that a child may be passionate about. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realised I’d also been writing stories all through my childhood to go with my pictures.
After attending art and design school at AUT in Auckland, I thought I wanted to be a filmmaker. There are many similarities between picture books and filmmaking, especially as I was interested in writing scripts and drawing storyboards. You’d think my career path should have been bleeding obvious from the outside, but making books has never been one of the standard career pathways you’re supposed to choose (even at art school in those days). I’d done a few paid drawings when I was a kid, and after I graduated I’d worked as an editorial illustrations and done freelance art for storyboards. Eventually, at some point in my mid 20s, I realised that I’d been making these books and comics all my life, throughout art school, and after as well … so I decided I would follow that passion and make a full time career of it. 25 years later, here I am.