Illustrating Owl Babies
This autumn sees the 25th anniversary of the classic picture book Owl Babies, called 'the perfect picture book' by the Guardian and now available in a special commemorative edition. The book was written by Martin Waddell and illustrated by Patrick Benson, who has won many awards for his work, including the Mother Goose Award, the Christopher Medal and the Kurt Maschler Award. Roald Dahl personally asked him to write what turned out to be one of Dahl’s last ever books, The MinPins. He lives in Hawick, Scotland. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Patrick describes how he came to illustrate what would become a much-loved modern classic.
I was incredibly lucky to be offered the job of illustrating Owl Babies written by Martin Waddell. I was a young and relatively inexperienced illustrator, and when I first read the text I was unnerved by the prospect of having to draw several pictures of baby owls having a long chat. In the text very little happens except for them moving out from their nest onto a branch, until Mum flies back, and they jump up and down in joy. So when I began to start roughing it out I wondered what it would be like to try and make the book like a film, with myself as the director. This allowed me to then use the techniques of a director such as panning in and out, altering the viewpoint and perspective, mirroring the emotional narrative of the story with the way that the pictures change from one spread to another. Thinking this way persuaded me that it was possible to make a book in which very little happens and still make it interesting, with the focus on the long conversation between the baby owls, followed by the fairly quick but totally satisfying resolution.
I am very interested in natural history so I had a good idea of what the owlets might look like and also how to visualize the woods where they lived. I was brought up on a farm and used to spend hours roaming around the woods and fields, climbing trees and discovering the wonders of nature. I also like fishing, and particularly fishing at night, so again I know what the countryside can look and feel like after dark. All of this was incredibly helpful in making the pictures for this book. The other challenge was to try and make a book that truly reflected the darkness of night time without being too frightening for young children. I also wanted to make the darkness rich with colour, so that the book has a warmth to it which is vital to enhance the emotion of the story.
Under the guidance of Amelia Edwards at Walker Books, we came up with a way of making the pictures which would achieve the effect that I wanted and would also make the possibility of printing foreign language editions very simple. We decided that I would do black and white drawings which I then transferred onto acetate, a clear film. Using these as an overlay I then painted the colour on a separate piece of paper using very loose brushstrokes with watercolour. The effect of this is that the black plate, on which the text is printed, was already separated from the colour, making text changes, such as translating the text, very easy. It also allowed the printer to really get the rich black that I wanted, and with the crosshatching, the effect is similar to stained glass: the black lines containing the colour, which is made brilliant by the white of the paper coming through a thin layer of colour. Night time is very rarely just black; there is always colour and this is something which I wanted to convey in my pictures.
Why I was lucky to be asked to illustrate is because the text is absolutely perfect. It is completely satisfying as a story, with just the right amount of tension to capture young children's imagination. Fear of the dark, and then the much greater fear if a parent or parents disappear, is universal, and I believe that this book addresses both these issues in a sensitive and heart-warming way. I like the simplicity of the story and the fact that it is precisely the right length for a bedtime story. Children like the repetition of Billy's phrase, 'I want my Mummy', and who could not treasure his concluding line, 'I love my Mummy'? I think the combination of words and pictures makes the reading experience for small children just scary enough without being too terrifying. The night time is truly dark… but is rich and textured. The tension and uncertainty is there but the resolution is so complete and comforting. It was a pleasure to illustrate and I am delighted that it still is a bedtime favourite for many young children all over the world.