Today marks the first of the holiday books we will be talking about this year. It’s cute, heartfelt, and a picture book you won’t want to miss.
Chris is originally from Bradford and studied illustration and graphic design at Bradford College of Art. In 2000 he moved to France where, amongst other things, he was an English teacher before working in newspaper layout and design. When his children were small he realized he loved the picture books he read to them, sometimes even more than his children did – the Picture Book Bug had truly bitten. Chris has since written and illustrated several books and is currently thinking about the next one, probably with a cuppa in hand at home near Limoges. You can learn more about him at his website.
TINY REINDEER is a fresh take on those stories with Santa. Here’s a new reindeer to love (and if you ask me, he could be as “big” as Rudolph!). Tiny can’t do anything to help out during the holiday season. He’s too small. Isn’t that the perfect setup for any young reader to sympathize with? Yes! BUT he finds his own story with heart warming results. Now maybe you’re no fan of Christmas picture books, but I think you will still enjoy this one! It’s a unique story that I haven’t seen before in the Christmas picture book market that I think young readers will ADORE. I need to get a copy for my classroom collection!
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about your artistic journey? When did you start drawing and/or painting? How did that lead to where you are now as an illustrator?
Chris: I’d always enjoyed drawing and after all kinds of unsuitable jobs and trying to be a professional musician I studied design and illustration at Bradford Art College in the north of England in my late twenties. Then I moved to France and eventually worked in graphic design (newspaper and magazine layout), and a little bit of illustration. It wasn’t until my own children were little and I started getting picture books for them that I realized what amazing things these books were – the perfect combination of illustration, typography, composition and storytelling on a big, gatefold album-cover sized format! I was hooked and started thinking about writing and illustrating a book for my own children.
Me: The art work in the book is absolutely beautiful. Is this traditional watercolor? Or is there some digital work here too? What did your illustration process look like for this book?
Chris: Everything in the book is originally on paper, with ink and water-color and soluble watercolor pencils. I do some composition digitally, so I might illustrate an empty background and then illustrate the foreground character separately, to combine later. This way it’s a lot easier and quicker to modify if the page layout changes for any reason. I have to keep reminding myself that in the end we’re producing an image for print, not a painting to be hung on a wall, and use whatever means works best.
I sometimes tweak certain colors or tones digitally if they feel lacking. I know my strengths and weaknesses – I’m good with drawing and composition but not so great with colors intuitively. There’s a lot of trial-and-error with colors, I know it’s right when I see it but I can’t guess it beforehand. I wish I could.
Me: I love a fresh holiday story, especially one like “Tiny Reindeer” that delights and surprises me. What inspired this story?
Chris: The phrase ‘a tiny reindeer’ cropped up in a conversation with a friend about something Christmas-y and I thought it sounded like a nice, interesting thing. Later I wrote the story and illustrated a page per day and posted it online for a small group of friends, leading to Christmas Eve about five or six years ago.
Me: I noticed that this is your second holiday picture book, after “The Lonely Christmas Tree.” Is Christmas a favorite holiday? Why are you drawn to it for storytelling?
Chris: Christmas is definitely a favorite holiday. And because I moved away from my home country a long time ago, going back every couple of years for Christmas is very special. But to be honest, I’m not particularly drawn to Christmas stories for my books.
‘The Lonely Christmas Tree’ also came out of a story I shared online with friends a few years ago. It was something I’d just done for fun at Christmas a couple of times and they both ended up being published. My original Tree book was a wordless picture story – very subdued and quiet I suppose, and is quite different to the published version, whereas Tiny Reindeer is pretty faithful to the original.
Me: You have written and illustrated several picture books now. Which is harder for you: writing the story or illustrating it? Why?
Chris: Both are difficult at different stages. Stories rarely come easily and I spend a lot of time barking up various trees that turn out to be the wrong ones and chasing down ideas that end up going nowhere. But once a story works in my head (which can sometimes take over a year in the background, amongst other stuff), the actual writing of it is relatively easy. I don’t write in a flamboyant or overly poetic style, I just try to get the story across in the most effective and efficient way. Having said that, when I was working on Tiny Reindeer with my editor I started coming up with a parallel storyline about the girl’s parent who was lost in a snowstorm or something and the two threads came together at the end but it was too complex and thankfully my editor told me so. We kept it simple and often that’s all you need.
Illustration can be daunting. Tiny Reindeer is different to my previous books, which are mostly quite minimal. This book has big landscapes, dwellings, interiors, animals, people and Santa! It’s much more ‘real’ looking than my other books. I was blocked for a while thinking maybe I’d bitten off more than I could chew, then I got started and realized it might, just might, be do-able. There’s always that big hump to get over at the start of a new book.
Me: Wow! I’m surprised to hear that. I loved your illustration style in this book. What is one thing that surprised you in writing and/or illustrating this story?
Chris: Hmm… well I was surprised that I managed to illustrate it successfully at some points! And when I got an advance copy, I couldn’t look at the illustrations for a while and couldn’t open it for quite a long time. I was so worried that I’d feel disappointed with it. I’d felt so out of my comfort zone making it. Then I finally sat down and read it and I was really happy.
I know it’s very subjective and dependent on each person’s memories and experience, but it felt evocative of that ideal Christmas we kind of pine for when we get older, and that hopefully children live through before they get too old to appreciate the weirdness and mystery of it. Also, for me it’s quite a traditional kind of story, but sometimes it’s just really satisfying to be in that kind of fantastical world, especially at that time of year.
Me: Any advice for other aspiring picture book writers and/or illustrators?
Chris: I don’t think I have any great nuggets of wisdom but I’d say don’t worry too much about illustration style (like I did at the start), or trying too hard to be distinctive. I struggled for a while being overly influenced by other books or illustrators I admired and tried to emulate them in my own way. It never looked right and was just frustrating. In the end I started inking and painting things without trying to direct myself to make things look a certain way. And even if the results were mixed, at least I could say – well, it’s not great but it’s me!
And more generally, at the start I never regarded doing this with the intent or motivation of being published. My first book was just for me and my family, because I felt compelled to do it. And I though the book looked ok. Well I could send it out to agents and publishers, but I never had that in mind when I started it. My initial instinct on it was probably right because it got rejected by everyone except an agent who took it on – who is still my agent to this day. If you do decide to try to get a book published, disappointment and frustration are just an inevitable part of it – and that applies to published writers and illustrators too. Ideas still get rejected and work still goes off the rails sometimes even if you’ve had a few books in the shops. You have to carry on regardless.
That’s great advice Chris. Thank you for sharing your book with us and stopping by my blog.
Dear readers, if you like a good Santa story, track down this book before it’s made into a movie. Seriously! It’s a sweet story with a lot of heart that young readers will most likely want to hear over and over again. And that is the perfect holiday tradition: reading together.