HELENCOOPER
PICTURE BOOKS

PUBLICITY PHOTOS
BIOGRAPHY
BIBLIOGRAPHY
FAQS
RESEARCHER'S RESOURCES
TEACHERS' NOTES

BACK TO
WELCOME PAGE
Artwork © Helen Cooper
FAQS
WRITING

When and where do you write?

I often get the first line or idea from a book on a train or in the bath. After that I usually finish writing in my studio. Illustrating takes much longer, and that all happens in the studio (which is in my house). I have a wooden griffin that sits over my desk and helps me concentrate, and I have lots and lots of reference books.

Do your stories take a long time to write?

I write my stories quite quickly, sometimes it takes me a morning and sometimes two weeks. The pictures take a year to draw and paint.

How do you go about writing a book?

Well first I have to come up with a good idea. I sometimes think my head is a bit like a toaster. I have lots of story ideas toasting in there for a long time. Then suddenly a story is ready to be written - the idea for the first line pops out of my head and I have to write it down. It usually happens when I'm in a cafe, or in the bath.

With a picture book, once I've got the first line worked out, I can usually sit down and write the whole story

How long does writing a book take?

Sometimes it only takes me three hours to write a picture book and sometimes it takes about two weeks. Then it's time to do the illustrations which can take up to a year.

But you have to think about the text for a long time don't you?

Yes. But not nearly as long as I'll spend thinking about the rest of the book. 90% of my thinking time goes into the pictures and the way they will integrate with the text.

Do You write with a pen, or a word processor?

Both. But I always start off with a pen and paper. I keep nice fat notebooks and always write the first version of my stories in these. I type them into the word processor when I'm ready to shuffle and fiddle with the words.

How do you think of names for your characters?

They usually work rhythmically with the text.

How old do you have to be to write books?

You can start at any age - don't worry if you're still learning to spell - the ideas are the important bit. It's like playing a musical instrument. No one is very good at first but the more you practice writing and drawing ,the better you get. Never give up because you think you aren't good enough. If you do it long enough you will be good enough.


DRAWING AND PAINTING

Where did you learn to draw?

I began to learn at home when I was very little. The best way to become good at drawing is to do a lot of it. Too many people stop drawing when they're ten. You have to keep practicing if you want to get better. I actually didn't go to art college, but I had a very good art teacher at school . After that I taught myself lots about illustrating books by going to the library and looking at the books there.

Where do you do most of your artwork?

In my studio at one of my two desks. One of them is a rather nice roll top desk, which I'm supposed to draw and write on. The other is a very small, very untidy desk, which is slightly falling apart. The edges of it are propped up by a children's encyclopedia and it has a hat stand attached to it for propping up my references. My paints sit in an old makeup tray with a lid on it . The makeup tray has a perfect surface for mixing paint but it is very scummy. There are always grains of salt on and underneath the desk because I often use salt for my paint effects. I'm only supposed to paint at this desk but it is my favourite so I usually draw at it too. The nice roll top desk is usually piled up with paperwork and hair brushes.

I have a wooden Griffin with a purple light attached. I think it once may have been a mini gargoyle in a church. Now it hangs between my two desks and helps me concentrate.

How long does it take to do the pictures for a whole Picture Book?

Usually about a year.

Why does it take so long?

I think doing the illustrations for a book is a bit like putting on a play - But there's only me to do everything and there's an awful lot to do.

First I think about how the characters will look. That's a little like deciding who's going to play which part. Then I go on to be the person who designs the costumes. I have to make sure that the main characters look the same all the way through the book so I make a character sheet to help me.

What's a character sheet?

It's a page of drawings which show a character from lots of different view points. It helps me to work out how the character will look from the side, or the back as well as the front, doing lots of activities, and pulling different expressions. Whenever I draw the character in the pictures, I have the character sheet next to me for reference.

What do you do next?

My next job is to decide what the person reading the book really needs to see.How many words should I put on each page?What is the most important thing in each picture?

It's a bit like being the director of a play. I draw lots of very small pictures because it's easier and quicker to draw that way at first. I try out lots of different ideas. These tiny scribbles are often called thumbnails, but they are often about two inches across the bottom. (Perhaps they're called after a giant's thumb.) The thumbnails drawings that I like best of each page, can then be stuck down on one big piece of paper. Now I can see how the whole book looks at one glance . This is called a story board. It's a technique used in animation, but I find it useful for picture books too.

Do you do the paintings now?

Not yet. First I make a dummy book. It's the same size as the real book but I do very rough drawings so that I can still change things around. The drawings have to fit perfectly with the words, and the page turns need to come at natural places. It's a bit like a play rehearsal. I read the book out loud to lots people and see if there's anything they don't understand.

So now you're ready to paint the pictures?

Not quite. I copy what I've drawn onto tracing paper, and put in all the extra details that I want in the final illustration. Now I'm thinking about how the backgrounds will look. It's a bit like being the person who makes the scenery and props in a play. Sometimes I have to go looking for ideas. Sometimes I change things even at this point.Then when I'm sure I've got everything right , I trace my drawing onto the final water colour paper using a light box, and it's ready to paint.

What paints and paper and brushes do you use?

Water colour, gouache, and crayon. Sometimes water based felt pens and salt too. I layer the colour on with a number 10 brush. (That's quite a fat one.) And I use cotton buds to soften up the edges. It's all done on water colour paper. Either Fabriano 5 or Waterford. If you look closely, you can see lots of tiny brush strokes building up the colours. That's why it takes me so long to produce the illustrations.

Do you draw from life?

Not unless the pose is particularly difficult. But Ted made a plasticine model of the car in The Baby Who Wouldn't Go To Bed, so that I could light it with a torch, and get the shadows right.

What do you like best about being a children's illustrator?

That I can explore my own preoccupations within my books and that I can listen to the radio or my favourite music while I work.


GETTING IDEAS

Where do the ideas for the stories come from?

I think some of the ideas have come from things that I remember myself. For instance, when I was very little I thought there was a Bear living under my stairs. At first the bear was my friend. Then I got a bit scared of him, so I fed him smarties and cabbage leaves until my Mum found them. I used this idea when I wrote The Bear Under the Stairs.

Are your drawings based on real things too?

I put things I see and find in real places into my books all the time. Sometimes my characters are based on real toys. I'm always taking photos of things I see, particularly when I'm on holiday. I never know when I might want to use them . I also have a huge collection of reference books which I look through when I want to spark off some ideas.

You can read more about where ideas come from in the background info sections of the individual books.

Did you copy some ideas?

I looked at lots of other books which helped me think about my stories. I think it's OK to copy drawings when you are learning to draw so long as you bring something of your own to it, just as long as you don't go and pretend you didn't copy. All the great artists used to practise by copying at first, until they were so skillful that they didn't need to.


REAL LIFE

Do you do school visits?

We both love coming to see children but because now we have to work and look after Pandora it's hard for us to find time. That's why we made this web site. It's so that you can meet us on line instead.

Who lives in your house?

My daughter Pandora ,and my husband Ted Dewan.

Do you have any pets?

No, but I used to have a cat called Tigger who was ginger and white. I wrote about him and drew him in my first book which was called 'Kit and the Magic Kite'. It's quite an old book now, so you won't be able to buy it in the shops. You might be able to find it in your library.

(Read more in background info section of The House Cat.)

Do you work in the same room as Ted?

Almost never. We would argue too much if we did. We both have our own studios, and there are very strict rules about knocking before entering. Pandora breaks all these rules.

Do you steal each others art materials?

No, we have two of everything so that we don't fight.

Does Ted help you with your books?

Yes. He's a very good advisor and sounding board for ideas. He's also particularly good at the things I find difficult, like composition, perspective and lighting. I'm better at colour and story line so I take my turn at giving advice on them.

How much money do you make?

Almost enough, but not as much as you would think or I would like.

Does Pandora help with your books?

Well, she's only one year old so she's not that hot on advice yet, but watching her gives me ideas. However, as I look after her myself a lot of the time, I don't really have time to turn any of these ideas into books. I'll have to wait until she gets older.

Does she like your books?

She's a bit small yet for most of my books although she is a keen reader, (and book chewer.) Her favourite book at the moment is Picture Book by Ian Beck. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd is also a favourite. Before I had Pandora I didn't like that book very much but now I think it's great.

What do you do on holiday?

We go to see interesting stuff that isn't in art galleries. At least one of us usually comes up with new ideas for books on holiday. I think it's because we're seeing interesting things that spark off ideas. Also there's no phone ringing or letters to write so there's time to think. All the pictures in The Baby Who Wouldn't Go to Bed were inspired by one holiday in the American west.


HOW OLD WERE YOU WHEN...

How old were you when you first started drawing?

Too young to remember, but my Mum says about 2.

How old were you when you first started writing stories?

Again too young to remember but I still have some I did when I was about 7 or 8. Mostly they are about sweet shops, but the best one is about my teddies. It tells the story of a lady who married my teddy bear, and had a koala bear instead of a baby.

How old were you when you left school?

I left school at 18 after my A levels and I got a day job painting china animals. In the evening I played in a rock band and studied for my music degree. (Not at the same time.)

What was it like painting the china animals?

Painting on china is much more slippery than painting on paper. It's very difficult to control the paint. I learnt a great deal of paint brush technique while I was there. And I got very good at painting fur and feathers.

The ornaments were very detailed and some of them were very big. The race horses were the size of small dogs. Often people would send in photos of their own horse or dog and we painted the china model to look like the photos. My favourite models were miniature owls, about the size of butterflies. (We used to paint butterflies too.) I used to paint lots of owls at a time and each one had about 200 brush strokes on it.

The company was called Border Fine Arts and all the ones I painted had HC written on them in tiny letters. No-one used the same initials so look carefully at your Grandma's ornaments. I may just have painted one of them.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I knew I wanted to write books and I always liked drawing, but I didn't think that anyone could do that as a real job. So I decided I would need a day job. When I was 5, I thought that I might be a nurse. That was until I saw a harp. Then I wanted to be a harpist. At 2 I was more sensible. I had found out that harps are heavy, so I stuck to playing the piano and viola. I would be a music teacher instead...and write books at night...or maybe I would be a concert pianist...or play in an orchestra...or a rock band...

Why did you decide to write children's books?

I trained to be a music teacher, but after I had qualified I wasn't sure I wanted to teach. I wasn't good enough to be a concert pianist and I was bored with playing in a rock band, so I decided to illustrate a children's book. (I had a day job then painting china animals.) I didn't know any writers, so I wrote a book about my cat and it was published. It was called Kit and the Magic Kite.

How old were you when you had your first book published?

I was 22. (It wasn't very good.)

Was that the very first book you illustrated?

No, there was one before which never found a publisher. I didn't write the story. It was a rather odd (but interesting) poem called Pim and the Piper by a local poet and I illustrated it.

How old are you now?

Fifteen years too old to tell.


FAVOURITE THINGS

Who are your favourite illustrators?

Too many to mention, but Errol le Cain, Lidia Postma, Lizbeth Zwerger and Maxfield Parrish are on the top of my list.

What other art influences your work?

I tend to be inspired more by film, animation, and comics, than fine art. Special favorites are the comics of Winsor McCay ,and Walt Kelly, and the animation of Ladislaw Starewicz, Henry Selick, and Nick Park. I also spend a lot of time looking at roadside graphics in the U.S.A.

Which of your own books is your favourite?

I still think Bear Under the Stairs has the best text, but I like the pictures better in Baby Who Wouldn't Go to Bed and Pumpkin Soup. I think that Pumpkin Soup is the best all round book.

Which of your characters do you like best?

Cat in Pumpkin Soup.

What were your favourite children's books when you were young?

Hauff's fairytales, particularly Nosey the Dwarf, because of the squirrels with coconuts on their feet. Cinderella because of Pumpkin coaches and Fairy godmothers. The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goodge , Brian Wildsmiths' Nursery Rhymes, because of the colours, and like everyone else I loved C.S Lewis' Narnia Books. The illustrations are great too (by Pauline Baynes.) I think I'd better stop now. This list could get very, very long.

What are your favourite things?

Americana especially roadside graphics, mini golf, eggs, playing piano, listening to classical and lounge music, all things small and beautiful, especially my daughter.

What is your favourite food?

Potato and ice cream. Not at the same time.

What is your favourite colour?

Red.

What is your favourite music?

Bach's 48 preludes and fugues and 'The Penguin' by Raymond Scott.


HOW ARE YOUR BOOKS PUBLISHED

What comes first for you. The words or the pictures?

Always the words. I don't do any drawing until my editor has seen the story and likes it.

What does your editor do?

My editor is a cross between a doctor, a sports coach, a chief organiser , and a really good teacher. The teacher part of her is very good at saying little things when I'm just starting a book that will inspire me and give me ideas. She also corrects my grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes, (which is a good thing as I'm not good at that.)

She has to be the sports coach when I'm onto the marathon of making the art work. It's a long job for me, so even if she doesn't feel like it, my editor has to keep in touch with me, and say nice things so that I don't get discouraged. But she also has to get her stop watch out. She has to check that I'm keeping up to speed, and try not to sound too disappointed when she finds out how few pictures I have done. My part of the work has to be finished in time for all the other people who work on the book to do their part of the job.

The book doctor bit of her gives the book a check up every few months and makes sure it's developing the way it should. If the story has any weaknesses she will diagnose what is wrong and give me a prescription for improving the book. (She tells me where I need to do some more work and it is a little like giving the book medicine.) When I've finished the words and pictures she checks everything over carefully and pronounces it healthy, and ready to go to press.

Then she becomes the chief organiser. She will talk with all the other people who help make my artwork and story into a book. She makes sure that the designer, the reproduction department, the printer, and the publicity and sales department have everything they need to do their job properly, so that the book will look good and be published on time.

What does the designer do?

When I first start scribbling I only have a vague idea of how the book will look. A really good book designer can help me firm up my ideas. He also will suggest typefaces (the sort of lettering I should use,) for the text and cover, and advise on the composition and layout of my pictures. (Composition is the placing of all the things within the illustration. Layout is the placing of the illustrations and words on the page.)

Often quite a small tweak from the designer can make the whole book look more stylish. The cover of a book is particularly hard to get right. The designer is crucial to help work out how all the lettering can fit in with the illustration.

After I have finished all the paintings, the designer lays out the whole book with the words and illustrations in the right places, so that it is ready for the printer.

Do you make the actual books all by yourself?

It takes a lot of people to manufacture my books. The reproduction department take the designer's layouts and work out where the book should be proofed and printed.

The proofs are floppy unbound versions of the book. They are made from a kind of photographic film of my illustrations. They are a way of checking that the book will look the way we want when it is printed.

The printer takes the film, and from it prints the whole book on one or two giant pieces of paper. Only four colours of ink will be used. Red (magenta) yellow, blue,(cyan) and black, to print all the different colours in my illustrations. If you don't believe you can make all the colours of the rainbow with just four colours, try looking very closely at the pages of the book. Perhaps you can see that the image is made of millions of tiny dots. With a magnifying glass, you might even be able to see the individually coloured dots.The big printed sheets are folded, cut and bound together. The cover is glued on and the finished books are sent to the warehouse.

The sales and publicity team work out the best way to sell them, and the foreign rights department sell permission to publishers in other countries to make their own versions of the book. When this happens someone from that country will translate the story into their own language.

So there are loads of people who help turn my words and pictures into a book. They don't get to have their name on the cover which seems a bit unfair. I suppose there isn't room for everyone. But I couldn't make my books without them.

How do you go about getting a picture book published?

The best thing to do is send in a copy of a reasonably well sketched out 32 paged dummy book , and three copies of finished art work, to the Picture Book editor. Do your research thoroughly . Look at all the other books in your local library and book shop. Find out which publisher publishes the sort of book you want to do.

How old do you have to be to get a book published?

You can be any age. You just have to be good enough. One writer called Caitlin Moran had her first book published when she was 16. Another artist called Mary Feddon illustrated her first book when she was in her eighties.