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Interview: Children's illustrator Vanessa Cabban

VANESSA Cabban likens working as a children’s illustrator to being the front man in a band – implying that it’s not possible to be a star performer without lots of people slaving away quietly in the background.

Illustrations by Vanessa Cabban

VANESSA Cabban likens working as a children’s illustrator to being the front man in a band – implying that it’s not possible to be a star performer without lots of people slaving away quietly in the background.

Unlike a lead singer, however, there’s very little ego about Vanessa – just chat about knitting, papier mache sculptures and her two beloved miniature dachshunds.

In fact she can’t recall all the different prizes she has won, the latest of which was the Sheffield Children’s Book Award for best picture book, The Pig’s Knickers, written by Jonathan Emmett.

“Books are created by teams of people,” she says. “I never forget that I am just a cog in a wheel.”

Vanessa studied for a BA in illustration at Brighton Art College and an MA in the same subject at the Royal College of Art in London.

“I had always been very interested in children’s books and used to frequent the children’s sections of book shops rather than the adult bit. I loved the narrative pictures and started to think about children’s books when I was at the Royal College.

“But children’s books were considered very uncool at college and this interest was not encouraged at all by my tutors, even though I had Quentin Blake as a visiting lecturer. So instead, I came out of college with a portfolio of illustrative work for newspapers and magazines which was an ‘acceptable’ line of work.

“I did get editorial work but my heart wasn’t really in it. However, the idea of becoming a children’s illustrator still really appealed to me.”

Vanessa Cabban

Vanessa took six months out to come up with an entirely new portfolio and was employed immediately by publisher Walker Books. Her first book, Bertie and Small and the Brave Sea Journey, was published in 1999 and since then she has helped to create 25 exquisitely illustrated children’s books

“I get the text,” she says, “then I work with my art editor on rough drawings before doing the final artwork which can take six to eight months.

“I do it all by hand in pencil and watercolour which is quite traditional. I love drawing and I haven’t really been attracted to doing stuff on the computer. For me, the thought of working on a computer seems very labour-intensive, whereas I find painting quite quick.”

Vanessa, 40, moved to Berwick from London in 2000 after falling for the landscape of Northumberland during a holiday a few years previously.

Her childhood was spent in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), Spain, America and Belgium due to her father’s job, so she says: “I have never regretted my move to Berwick and enjoy living in one place now.”

Vanessa’s favourite illustrators tend to be traditional artists such as Ernest H Shepard, who drew the original pictures for Winnie the Pooh. She also admires the work of Helen Oxenbury, who illustrated We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, and John Burningham who created Mr Gumpy.

“As a child I loved the books which gave me a feel for place and time and I haven’t lost that. I also love Raymond Briggs for his magical stories.”

Her own successes include A Secret Worth Sharing, The Best Gift of All, No Place Like Home and the award-winning The Pig’s Knickers, a wonderful story about a tango-ing, tightrope-walking pig who believes he can only be astounding while wearing polka-dotted knickers.

When she isn’t illustrating, Vanessa has a busy life as a sculptor, knitter and blogger with a following of up to 2,000 readers a day.

She says: “As I work at home on my own, I don’t get a lot of contact with lots of people so the blog is a fantastic way to reach people all over the world.”

Vanessa’s most recent books, The Pig’s Knickers and A Secret Worth Sharing, are published by Walker Books. For more information visit www.vanessacabban.com

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