I Did See a Mammoth!: A Q&A With Alex Willmore
What made you choose to write a book about mammoths?
I really enjoy drawing big fluffy, squishy characters and I just loved the idea of this huge ‘cool’ mammoth on a skateboard. I think the concept of this massive mammoth managing to hide and not been seen by the adults in the book, much to the child’s frustration, is really funny.
I can only begin to imagine how much fun it was to draw ALL those penguins AND hide the mammoth - did the story make you laugh from the outset?
Absolutely. I couldn’t help but laugh my way through drawing each and every penguin. It was drawing the expressions for the grumpy penguins and the frustrated child that really made me chuckle. I don’t know if this is true for other illustrators but I find when I’m drawing a funny expression, I’m subconsciously making the same expression on my own face.
A picture book tells most of its story through illustrations. How did you choose the colours to use for this story and what makes you decide if you should fill a page or leave space for the imagination to roam.
The colours for this book were one of the aspects I was most excited about. I’d always wanted to set a story in the arctic and create an exciting colourful world in an environment that is traditionally thought to be without much colour. Adding a hint of Northern lights (while not geographically correct) made for some nice scenes. It’s always nice to mix things up with very full scenes and some calmer ones too. Actually in this book, the Mammoth really filled the pages!
The more closely you look at the pictures the more obvious it is that you’ve given the penguins, the human character and the mammoth fantastic facial expressions, how difficult is it to achieve that and keep the variety?
This is always my favourite part of illustrating any character. It’s fun to illustrate one character and then think about how the character interacting with them would look. It’s always so enjoyable to see how two characters who are identical can have such different personalities based on just their expressions.
I am always curious. What comes first the story or the pictures or is it a seamless process?
Oh, for me, it’s almost always the pictures that come first! I’ll start with a character and then create a story around them. Where do they live? What is their personality? What do they want, etc? After that I usually like to think of fun scenarios I’d like to draw and then see how that fits into a story.
When you have an idea for a picture book how long is it from idea to creation of story?
This varies a lot for me. I Did See A Mammoth came together really quickly. The quickest I’ve ever written a completed story was about three hours. It was between the hours of 3am and 6am. Sometimes I find those quiet hours, when you’re still very tired is best to let your imagination run wild.
With this particular story being about an extinct animal how much research did you have to do on mammoths and did you do any on penguins too?
I usually like to create the story and not worry too much about being factual. That’s one of the things I enjoy most about writing fun, silly stories. That’s actually what I Did See A Mammoth is about. No Mammoths have ever been found in the Antarctic but that didn’t stop the child in the story believing. I like that idea. It’s sometimes nice to escape from reality.
When you are creating a picture book who do you have in mind - do you think of child and adult reading together Or of child reading alone? This one is very much a book for sharing and reading aloud but is it possible to imagine that when creating?
Do you have a favourite scene from this story and if so what is it?
I do. I absolutely LOVED drawing the avalanche scene. Drawing complete chaos is always just the best!
As author-illustrator of picture books do you find yourself reading others and if so do you have a favourite?
I read so many picture books. There are just so many wonderful contemporary books with fantastic stories and gorgeous artworks but my all time favourites are the Moomins books. They have been a massive inspiration for me.
What person or animal can we expect to appear in the next Alex Willmore picture book and will it be coming soon?
Ooohhh…. It’s top secret… but I can tell you it might just feature DINOSAURS!