The art of storytelling : We interview illustrator Nick Butterworth

llustrator Nick Butterworth couldn’t read until he was nine - now his books are bestsellers and his characters internationally known. He explains what inspires him

Posted: February 20, 2020

Illustrator Nick Butterworth

Books for children seem to be very popular despite some saying print is falling away against online media. There has been a trend over many years for sales of children’s books to decline. Surprisingly, and happily, this has been reversed more recently. I can’t account for it, but sales are up so I guess the enjoyment of reading is up too. I hope it lasts!

What came first your love of words and story telling or your love of art and illustrations?
These things developed concurrently. My mum and gran read a lot to me when I was a boy. They were also storytellers, recounting tales from their own lives that grabbed my interest and made me laugh. I grew to enjoy words from these stories – sometimes just the sound of the words, even though I perhaps didn’t know what they meant. I can still hear my mum’s voice in my head, reading from Rudyard Kipling’s The Elephant’s Child…”The great grey-green, greasy, Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees…”

Drawing was different from reading and writing for me. I always loved drawing from my earliest years. I looked at things, noticed things and drew the things I responded to. (Sometimes, especially early on, what I noticed was other people’s drawings. You can learn a lot by trying to copy a Ronald Searle or Mort Drucker illustration).

Where do your characters come from? What inspires you to create them?
Characters arise from narrative. Who are these people? (They’re people, even if they’re animal characters!) What do they look like? What had happened to them? How do they think? Why? And so on. I start to doodle with these thoughts in my head and characters begin to emerge on the paper. Sometimes it’s a slog; sometimes it’s like magic!

The question does pose another: where does the narrative come from? Story ideas arise from a writer’s desire to express their take on the world – how they respond to the things they encounter.

A writer’s values and opinions will always be present somewhere in their work and these are invested in characters of a story.

Illustrator Nick Butterworth

I think you live on the Essex/Suffolk border?
I do now. I’ve moved about a bit – Romford, St Alban’s, Southampton, Ipswich, Colchester, and currently not far from Gosfield. My parents bought a ‘classic’ corner shop after the war. Children like the idea that I grew up in a sweet shop! Percy the Park Keeper was born in Raphael Park, Romford, thirty years ago.

I think you sometimes visit schools to talk to, and inspire, budding authors and illustrators?
Locally I’ve been to a couple of village schools in Mid Suffolk, a few around the Ipswich area and some in Essex.

My books are used quite extensively in primary schools. When I go I tend to share my love of books, stories and reading – and drawing – and how someone like me, who couldn’t read until he was nearly nine years old, managed to become an author!

You have become involved in producing TV programmes connected to your work – is that fun?
Fun yes, but also hard work. I enjoy collaborating with other people. The pooling of creative ideas can lead to more than any one of us might have come up with individually. The trick is to avoid egos.

When you collaborate, everyone needs to buy into the importance of the end result. It doesn’t matter who came up with this or that idea along the way. The creation of the animated TV series Q Pootle 5 from my children’s picture books (now in 100 countries around the world) is an example of this kind of collaboration.

Presumably you are semi-retired now? Do you see yourself writing and illustrating for years to come?
To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of my semi-retirement have been greatly exaggerated. I’d quite like to spend a bit more time in the shed, doing some is whether some celebs can actually write, and whether some celebs are given an unfair opportunity to fill up the limited space on Waterstones tables, denying that space to more deserving writers. My own view is that publishers have indulged some celebs because they will attract sales.

Sometimes that indulgence goes as far as duping the public by employing ghostwriters to provide the whole shebang, and all that the celeb provides is their name. I don’t think David Walliams fits into that category of celebrity author.

As featured in David Burr Rooftops Winter Edition 2019

This interview with Nick Butterworth  was extracted from David Burrs Rooftops Winter Edition

Images copyrighted to Nick Butterworth