In Conversation with Rob and Tom Sears
Bestselling author Rob Sears and illustrator Tom Sears' debut children's book, The Biggest Footprint, is an illustrated, fact-filled book about climate change and protecting our planet. It imagines all of makind as one giant human being and explores the consequences of all our combined actions on the future of Planet Earth.
Combining brain-bending stats and beautiful illustrations, this book shows how we are currently destroying the planet and offers ways that we can care for and respect it instead, in a fresh and accessible way.
How did you find the “voice” that suited the book? Was it a joint decision/discussion?
We both wanted the book to feel wildly inquisitive and maybe even be funny. There’s no rule saying you have to be earnest or ominous just because you’re talking about the environment.
Mostly, we let the surprising (sometimes shocking) facts and surreal-seeming illustrations speak for themselves. That meant all we needed from our narrator was a friendly, deadpan voice to lead the human race through our crazy smooshing experiment and back to safety.
Speaking of joint decisions, who came up with the ideas and the layout/structure of the book?
Joint decisions! Months of brainstorming and pinning bits of paper to the wall to see how the images and text worked together.
The old-school idea of writing all the text, and only then handing it over to the illustrator to illustrate doesn’t make much sense to us – we’d both keep wanting to change everything.
What prompted you to want to know more about humans and why did you want to share this with children?
A sudden awareness that even though we knew there were nearly 8 billion humans, we couldn’t really grasp that number – is it a lot or a little? Are we as dominant on the planet as it seems? (Answer: yes, but in ways that surprised us.)
Actually, we didn’t set out specifically to write a children’s book. It’s just that, as the subject and storyline of The Biggest Footprint is about literally everyone, we wanted everyone to be able to read it.
I imagine much of your research returned very adult statistics. How did you make it child friendly?
Frankly we reckon most adults are confused by ‘adult statistics’, too. When you’re working at a global level, the numbers just get too big to relate to, and our picture of the world (based on our experience as medium-sized mammals) starts to break down.
Our main trick for helping make stats friendlier was the concept of ‘smooshing’. This helped us turn raw data into startling mental images of gigantic people, animals and objects. Bizarre, yes, but hopefully easier for the brain to take in.
The Mega Great White Shark made me smile with the slightly irreverent approach. Did you test this out on any children or make yourselves smile and know it would work?
Yes, we did a bit of testing, sharing early drafts and sketches with friends’ children and godchildren. We were particularly keen to make sure they got the idea of the Smooshing Machine.
When they couldn’t stop talking about different things they wanted to smoosh next (planets, buildings, guinea pigs), we knew we were probably onto something.
Were you both fact fans as children?
To be honest we were more fiction fans, although we both loved Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Cross Sections – another book that gives you a new perspective on the world. There is something about an illustration with loads of captions that makes you want to read them all.
We developed a few info-rich spreads like that but wanted to hold them together with a story, too.
What is your favourite fact? What is your scariest fact?
Favourite: that it would take 1,000 years to say a quick hello to everyone on earth.
Scariest: the biomass of chickens is about three times greater than all wild birds combined. (Nothing against chickens, but a frightening demonstration of the scale of industrial farming.)
What, if anything, have you changed about your own behaviour as a result of writing this book?
Learning what goes into the mega burger made us both cut down on meat. We’ve also acquired the habit of obsessively smooshing things in our imaginations.
Why did your giant human come out blue - did that dictate your colour palette?
That’s just the way it came out of the Smooshing Machine!
We wanted the mega human to be universal, and not look like any specific race of people, which could have been very misleading. Our thought process in choosing blue was probably similar to that of James Cameron, who made the aliens in Avatar blue partly as a way of getting past human difference, and partly because most other colours have connotations we didn’t want.
Tom. What can you tell us about your style and technique as an illustrator?
Although everything started as sketches and hand drawn storyboards, I created the final images digitally (on an iPad).
This was partly because we needed to be able to check and tweak the sizes of everything to be as accurate as possible and show the relationship between different species (much easier when they’re on different layers).
I also like being able to rub things out and draw them again and again until I’m satisfied. It’s a bit hard to put your finger on what gives a foot or a cloud its charm, but you just have to keep going until it feels right!
For this book I took inspiration from two of my illustration idols, Shaun Tan and Jorge González, who manage to be epic and realistic but also playful, scruffy, dream-like, and not too childish.
Rob. What can you tell us about your style and habits as a writer?
I always do a lot of research up front and get a really clear plan in my head before I so much as put pen to paper. I probably should have unlearned this by now, given that, once the wheels are in motion, I tend to go off road rather a lot. In the case of The Biggest Footprint, we ended up taking out a strand of the book involving astronauts, adding a dream sequence and rejigging the ending, even after we had a ‘finished’ draft.
In terms of writing habits, mine revolve rather boringly around coffee – I typically do a burst of longhand writing in a notebook after the first of the day, and another after the second. I once worked out that I cross out 96% of the words I write.
Any tips you can share with budding illustrators and writers?
Start now! Some ideas need a long time to hit you and won’t come unless you’re working on something.
We also recommend working in a shed like Roald Dahl if it’s a possibility. Most of the drawing for this book was done in one and it just felt right.
What’s next? Do you both always have ideas bubbling?
The pipeline is always gurgling if not gushing. We’ve got more ideas for illustrated books in the works, but also films, posters, events, gameshows! Most of these ideas will never go anywhere, and that’s okay.