Frank and Bert: An Interview with Chris Naylor-Ballesteros
Frank and Bert is certainly a bold picture book - was the colour palette your idea or did it come about as a result of discussion with the design team?
We knew that the colours would be fairly natural but that the knitwear had to pop out of that quite energetically. All through the development of the book the scarf was a bright yellow - so something that would stand out from the landscape but still be within a natural colour range. Only towards the end did my editor suggest the bright pink (like, “Umm… Chris - you know that yellow scarf that you really really like…”) and after getting used to it I thought it looked brilliant (literally!). It was a really good suggestion and it made all the difference to the look of the book.
What do you think of first when a story idea comes to you? Is it the characters, the story itself, or how it will look on the page?
It’s different each time. Frank and Bert came out of an ink sketch I did for no reason of a really big, really strange animal who thinks it’s hiding behind a little tree. I thought there was something appealing in that - and also in that all children do this sort of thing when playing hide-and-seek. But getting from there to a fully-formed story took AGES. Other times I know I have to develop some ideas and it’s just plain old thinking time, thinking of situations and then asking myself lots of ‘what if’ questions until (sometimes) an interesting possibility opens up.
Are you a regular doodler? Do you find that inspiration comes from nowhere and then finds its way into a story?
It comes and goes. But generally no, I’m not a compulsive doodler or sketcher. I should do more as it’s usually a really good way to unlock ideas that are stuck somewhere. I heard another illustrator talk about this recently and he said no one is happy with how they work - the non-compulsive sketchers think they’re frauds because they don’t keep filling tons of sketchbooks, and the compulsive sketchers wish they could stop filling tons of sketchbooks for no good purpose!
As a child, were you a big reader and artist - or were there other things that caught your imagination?
Yes, I read lots - books, magazines, the back of the cornflakes packet - anything. No quality control or guidance really, just whatever. And I liked drawing but I was more taken with music when I was younger. I got obsessively into playing drums when I was about twelve and went down that way for a long time.
Writing for children often means that we have to put ourselves into their mindset. How easy do you find this - and do you have any young testers to try your stories out on?
I don’t really put myself into a child’s mindset. I never consciously imagine how a five or six year old might think about an idea. That might happen later when you’re finalising text or a little plot point - making sure it’s clear what’s going on for all readers. But when I’m trying to think of stories I don’t worry about it. Most stories, even big complex ones for grown-ups, are fairly simple when you boil them down. Things have to feel intuitive and credible whatever age it’s written for.
My children were the young testers when I stared doing this about ten years ago. And they were very honest - if something wasn’t any good I’d know about it straight away. My family are still the first judges of whether an idea is a good one or not. They all have a ‘good ear’ for a decent story.
Frank and Bert is a story with two characters. Did you have a favourite character as you were writing...? Is it possible for the author to have a favourite?!
I couldn’t possibly declare a preference and state in black and white that my favourite is Bert. Oops… Ok, it’s Frank - oh I don’t know! They’re both charming characters in their own way. My summary of them when I’m trying to decide what they do or how they react to something is Frank knows, Bert feels. So Frank is indeed a bit of a know-it-all but Bert could probably be a bit annoying if you spent a lot of time with him. As I have…
The pictures in Frank & Bert stand out from the page as they have white space behind them. Is it important for you that the text and the illustration stand out as separate entities for the reader to engage with?
I think I like simplicity in terms of composition. A lot of the books that got me into picture books were the ones that had really well thought-out design and maybe just a word or two of text (or none) on a double-page. I spent a few years doing newspaper and magazine layout and from that I learnt a lot about composition and hierarchy - leading the eye around in the right direction and order. The difference is a newspaper page has to be completely chock-full but it’s the same principle.
Do you think that stories with a message are important for children, or are you happy to just write them and let every reader find their own message?
There always has to be some sort of message, whether it’s a serious one or a light one. It’s the backbone that a story hangs on. It doesn’t have to be evident though - if the characters are engaging and things happen and it’s entertaining, that’s fine. But there has to be something holding it all up making it mean something.
Often I’ve been trying to think of a new story and realise I just have a set-up then a series of situations or events because I haven’t worked out what it’s fundamentally about.
A couple of great tips I’ve had from editors are - imagine the blurb on the back of the book - how would you summarise what it’s about? And imagine a teacher reading it to a class and making a lesson about it - what would the lesson be about?
Do you have new projects lined up that you are happy to share with us or would you rather surprise us?
Well Frank And Bert 2 is nearly finished so that’s pretty exciting, and hopefully there’ll be more to come. And I have another, finished non-Frank and Bert project under wraps for 2023 and also working on something new for 2024.
If you could illustrate any book, what would you choose and why?
This is really a bit random but I recently got Kay’s Anatomy by Adam Kay for my daughter and I read it too. It’s an explanation of the workings of the human body for children. It’s really good and the illustrations by Henry Paker add so much to the mood and humour of the text. They’re very funny and I thought I’d love to have a go at that kind of thing - not to worry about story and characters for once, just show how things work or how they’re made and provide a few laughs along the way.
Who were your go-to authors and illustrators as a child - and who are they now?
Well I think Quentin Blake is a bit like our Beatles. He’s just the constant background if you were interested in drawing - always there, always effortless and brilliant. The number of times as a kid I saw his scribbles in something like like the big Puffin joke book and thought ok I’m off to draw like him right now because it’s easy. Then completely failing to do it like he does, because nobody can.
Today I really like Felicita Sala, Carson Ellis, Beatrice Alemagna, Sydney Smith amongst loads of others. Again, I can’t do what any of them do - they’re amazing and seemingly effortless, though I’m older now and know that nothing is effortless!