‘The most important thing is having fun. There’s so much children can learn from books through fun.’
Cousins’ books have sold many millions of copies, in over 29 languages. Her best-known creation, Maisy, has been around for over 25 years, and is still having new adventures! And her other delightful books include Jazzy in the Jungle, Hooray for Fish! and Yumm.
We asked Cousins about her latest Maisy book, how she started out, and the books which most influenced her.
BRK: Your latest book is Maisy’s Sports Day. We love the array of events Maisy and friends participate in—everything from a wheelbarrow race to playing the hula hoop and joining a relay—and imagine it was lots of fun to create the illustrations! Do you have a favourite?
LC: My favourite picture is Maisy and her friends in the ‘get-dressed-up-silly race.’ I have very happy memories of my children in this race at their school sports days. I used to love sports day when I was at school, especially the three legged race. I’m quite competitive when playing games, and it was fun to put that enthusiasm into a book about Maisy and her friends.
BRK: While Maisy is your best-known character, you’ve created many others. (The charming, busy little wood pecker from Peck, Peck, Peck and wide-eyed, friendly fish from Hooray for Fish are particular favourites at Better Reading Kids.) Do you have a soft spot for one particular character?
LC: As well as painting Maisy, I love creating new characters. I am very fond of the Little Woodpecker in Peck, Peck, Peck. He is a bit of an anarchist. I enjoy the way he goes into the house, and creates havoc with his pecking.
I also have a soft spot for the dog in I’m The Best. He is such a show off, but loveable at the same time. (And he is inspired by my dog, Rosie)
Video: Lucy Cousins paints Maisy
BRK: Please tell us a little about how you got your start in children’s books. How did your first published children’s book come about? And when did Maisy first arrive on the scene?
LC: When I was at the Royal College of Art, I entered a competition called the Macmillan Prize, which is for art students to write and illustrate a children book. I won second prize for my book Portly’s Hat, and it was published by Macmillan, which was really thrilling.
The following year, while I was still at Art College I wanted to create a book with flaps and tabs. I drew a lot of different animals, to try and decide on a character, but when I drew a little mouse, her fun, happy character seemed to make itself known to me, and she developed into Maisy.
BRK: What do you think are the most important elements in a book for preschoolers?
LC: For me, the most important thing is having fun. There’s so much children can learn from books through fun. At the moment, I’m enjoying looking at books with my nine month old grandson, Gabriel. He is fascinated by them, it’s amazing how he is constantly learning and reacting. We are particularly keen on making animal noises together.
LC: Having small children was so helpful because you become so in tune with the daily routine of your child, understanding how they think and learn. It gave me an idea of how they interact with books, what they find funny, how books help them develop and learn. It was like having my own little market research team.
I really enjoyed reading other people’s books with them, and seeing what they enjoy and what works, and the importance of books in a child’s life. At the moment, my grandson is inspiring me to develop some board book ideas for my very youngest readers.
BRK: What’s your usual creative process: does the text generally come first, and then the illustrations, or do you create them together?
LC: It is usually the illustrations that come first. I do lots of drawings and paintings on a particular theme, then I work out how to make them into a book, and the words follow.
I am just finishing work on a new book, ‘A busy day for birds’. I started by looking through lots of books of birds, and painting as many birds as I could, especially ones with beautiful colours, or amazing beaks, or plumage. Then it took me quite a while to work out how to put the pictures together into a book. Once the idea came, I could begin working on the words. It is a bit like putting a puzzle together, making all the different elements work well together – not only the pictures and words, but the concept or idea, the page number and layout, the colours, the design, and lastly the title and cover.
LC: When I started creating books, I did them all myself. But now I draw a sketch, and indicate how I would like it to move, and then a paper engineer will practically realise that design.
There are some fantastic paper engineers, who can do a much better job than I could, and it leaves me free to spend more time on the pictures and the ideas. I think that paper engineering can add so much fun and surprise to a child’s interaction with books. My grandson thinks that flaps in a book are hilarious!
BRK: Where do you do your writing and illustrating?
LC: I have a room in my house that is my studio. It is a lovely light, white room, with views of the English countryside. It’s very convenient working at home, especially when my children were younger. But it can be quite easy to get distracted, and it’s very solitary.
BRK: Finally, please tell us about some of the books which most influenced you as a child.
Babar the elephant. Winnie-the-Pooh. Dr Suess. Shirley Hughes books about Lucy and Tom: my brother is called Tom and the house where I grew up was similar to the house in the books, so I liked the similarities with our family. I have very warm memories of snuggling up on the sofa with my Dad and brother, to read books together.
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