Simply 7 interview with Hazel Mitchell–“Toby”

I first heard of Hazel Mitchell’s picture book “Toby” via 12×12.  I was fascinated by her story (a story written about her own dog) and how it succeeded where others failed.  That kind of story isn’t supposed to work!  BUT she made it work by working at it.  Imagine my surprise when I found out I won a copy of the book and started talking with Hazel directly.  I asked if she wouldn’t mind an interview as well, and lo and behold, it’s another Simply 7 interview!

Hazel has been a successful picture book illustrator long before she debuted with this picture book  as an author illustrator.  You can learn more about her at her website:

Me: Thank you for joining me today Hazel.  What draws you to creating picture books?

Hazel: That’s an interesting question. I guess the first thing that drew me to them is that I’m an artist first and foremost, so I want to tell a story visually. That’s the starting point I guess. And who doesn’t love looking at picture books! It’s such a great format. I love the narrative form of the picture book. I like creating a story which can be moved along by pictures. Working on single pieces of illustration (ie not picture book work) is very much like creating fine art. It’s a stand alone piece. When you’re collaborating with an author and working with a publisher it’s a team effort and I enjoy that! I used to be a member of the Royal Navy and I guess being part of a team was drilled in to me. Picture books are such a big part of a child’s early life, I also feel that it’s so worthwhile as an occupation.

Me: How did you get started as an illustrator?

 Hazel: That’s kind of a two part question. I started to draw – well I can’t remember when I wasn’t. Art and English were all I was good at in school. I left school and went to art college and drifted. There were no illustration biased courses back in the 80’s in England, at least none I heard about, so I did fine art and finally dropped out. If only there had been an illustration course I might have come to books sooner! That’s when I joined the Royal Navy and, luckily for me, I worked in a branch that incorporated a lot of graphic design. I learned my trade there. For many years I was a designer and commercial illustrator. I loved children’s books, but had no idea how to get into the business. Luckily the internet was just getting going and I discovered the SCBWI. Like many people I attended a conference (NYC Winter 2010) and hit a steep learning curve. I began to put together a children’s portfolio, a mailing list and sent postcards. I got my first book contract in Fall 2010 and have been working ever since!

Me: This is your first picture book as both an author and an illustrator. What part of the process came first: writing or drawing? Which did you find more challenging for this project?

Hazel: Drawing. Totally. I adopted the real Toby and as an artist I couldn’t resist drawing him, he had so many expressions! And as I was drawing I kept thinking about a story woven around him, not with me and my husband in it, but in a fictionalized setting following his development from a very scared to normal dog. I really thought it might be a wordless book. But dialogue began to creep in and later, when the book was under contract I added linking narrative lines in first person so that the story made more sense and so that it was easier to read aloud. I really can’t say that either was more challenging, because it came together naturally. I think when you are drawing you are already telling the story in your head, so the words are already there, but maybe not written down as yet.

Me: I know Toby is based on your real life dog, but what about the other characters? Why a boy instead of a girl? Why is the single parent a dad instead of the mom? How did these characters come about?

Hazel: I never saw Toby with a girl. Always with a boy. If I think about it afterwards it’s because I thought the boy might have more interesting issues with a scared dog, when he had hoped for a rambunctious, gamboling friend. Maybe a girl would have been too caring and I wouldn’t have had such great emotional issues to explore. Originally I had a mom and dad. In a brainstorming session at Candlewick we decided on a single parent, maybe mom. But I got back to my studio and it was obvious to me it was a single dad. We don’t know why in the book, that’s for the reader to conclude. It’s not a set up you see often in picture books and I like that. Dad also has some issues … he is coping with moving to a new house, his son and a hard to deal with new dog. No wonder he gets a little frustrated! For the same reasons also that the boy is a boy, I felt a mom would be able to handle things better and might solve all the problems. Three main characters who were all male made it interesting to write!

Me: Do you have any future plans for another book as an author/illustrator? Or any sequel plans for Toby?

Hazel: I have some other books in my WIP pile, but not under contract as yet. Watch this space! I would love to work on a Toby sequel, but we have to see what happens with that. I do have a synopsis written, though!

Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?

Hazel: How much it changed from my original dummy to the final book! There were a lot of edits and revisions. And for the better, I may say.

Me: Any advice for new picture book writers and/or illustrators?

Hazel: Something I have heard constantly on my journey, ‘Write from the heart’. I didn’t know how to do that when I began, but I feel I know a bit more now. When you love what you are writing about, whatever the subject or genre, it feels natural and right.

So true! Readers, if you haven’t had a chance to read “Toby” yet, you must check it out.  It is full of heart.  The story not only encourages animal adoption, but it doesn’t sugar coat how hard it can be to deal with an abandoned dog (or the other life issues the characters are facing).  Yet for all that, it isn’t overly maudlin or depressing.  It is a heart warming story that any child can relate to (especially if they are a dog lover!).  I mean, just look at the darling cover!  How can you resist such a face?


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