Set in a bleak urban landscape, Sam Boughton's debut picturebook tells the story of an imaginative boy called Joe who plants an apple pip. From small beginnings come great things - Joe's balcony blossoms, his neighbours get involved and suddenly the whole city is blooming.
Joe’s story is full of warmth and hope but it’s the illustrations that take centre stage. The grey cityscape – created using techniques including washes, resist work, splatters and collage – forms a visually-accommodating backdrop for Sam's detailed pencil drawings of its wonderfully diverse community, and her colourful transformation of these streets and buildings (and people) is a joy to observe.
The themes at the heart of this book – the value of imagination and curiosity, personal responsibility, making connections and effecting change – are powerful and motivating. The Extraordinary Gardener is fast becoming a favourite and we've really enjoyed discovering her subsequent picturebooks, too - Matisse's Magical Trail written by Tim Hopgood and published by Oxford University Press, and three titles for younger readers, Hello Mr Dinosaur!, Hello Mr Whale! and Hello Mrs Elephant!, all published by Templar.
So it was a huge pleasure to chat to Sam about her creative process and discover more about her work. I hope you enjoy our conversation!
I went the long way round in becoming an illustrator! I did a BA in Illustration about 25 years ago, but then decided at the time I was more interested in travelling and like many young people of that age went to Asia and other countries. I ended up settling in Hong Kong for about 5 years where I worked in a children’s art studio called Colour My World designing and running workshops. This job was the spark that led me towards children’s illustration. I loved working on artwork with the kids and creating picture books. It was here I also developed my love of collage and loose painting. Although the seed had been planted in my mind, I didn’t take the step for another seven years.
I returned to England and set up my own community arts business, again working with children but I had started illustrating on the side. I got interest from a US publisher and decided I definitely wanted to take that path so ended the company and enrolled on the MA in Children’s Illustration in Cambridge. From then on it’s been my full time job and I’ve been lucky enough to create and be part of lots of amazing children’s books.
Tell us about the techniques and materials you use in creating your artwork - it looks as though you embrace lots of different media and approaches. Are there any you don’t get on with, or wouldn’t choose?
I do use lots of different materials in my work. It’s a very unique process. I think it developed from the time I spent teaching with children. In my workshops I used to create lots of collage paper looking at pattern and colour, and that’s what I do in my own work now as an illustrator. I’d say the only material I don’t use is oil paints! But apart from that anything goes!
When I create backgrounds and scenery I tend to use ink, acrylic or collage. Then for all the small details, such as people and animals, I’ll use coloured pencil and pastel pencil with a small amount of collage. It all depends on the project. I create everything by hand, then scan it in and save each image. This is then put together digitally to create the final artwork. This part takes a long time and is very fiddly. Lots of illustrators work digitally. You have some flexibility to move things around if a publisher needs you to change something.
Do you visit schools and other venues to talk about your books or deliver creative workshops? Have you seen your books being used as inspiration for creative learning activities in schools or other settings?
Yes, I do visit schools and I was lucky enough to run some mural workshops based on the book for some local primary schools. We imagined that their school had been taken over by nature and we made a huge mural that all the children added to. Because of my teaching background, I find primary workshops are fairly easy and I’m familiar with the classroom set-up.
In terms of inspiring learning activities, I think The Extraordinary Gardener can support so many subjects in the KS1 curriculum - such as community, growing, looking after our planet, the benefit of nature, the cycle of life, equality, diversity, friendship, giving, intergenerational studies… I could go on!
You’re so right - and I’m guessing some of our readers will have worked with it already in schools and libraries, art galleries and lots of other places. It would make a great focus for a community-centre family activity session – or even an event at a garden centre!
As an illustrator who also writes text, I’d like to ask you about that experience, because they’re such different skills. How do you feel about writing text? What’s the difference between illustrating your own text and someone else’s? Which do you prefer?
Writing text is a really long process, and for me it’s much harder than creating illustrations. When I wrote The Extraordinary Gardener, I had the encouragement and support of Holly Tonks, who was then Commissioning Editor at Tate Gallery. Her job is to recognize when someone could be nurtured to produce a story or book, and she helps you structure your idea to be relevant for a picturebook. With all her skills and knowledge together we created the text. It was an amazing process, and one I’d love to do again. I’ve written and illustrated the ‘Hello’ series for Templar Publishing, but they are non-fiction. It’s different creating a story from scratch! I have a lot more ideas for other stories and am working on developing a few at the moment. I think I prefer working on my own text, but I’ve worked on three amazing texts from other authors and that’s been great too!
How long did it take you to complete The Extraordinary Gardener and how did it evolve? Did it change a lot from its early stages?
The Extraordinary Gardener took over eighteen months to complete, mainly because it was my first book. Holly (Tonks, at Tate Publishing) had seen my artwork already and asked if I had any story ideas. I’d had an initial idea about a child who changes his environment and brings nature into the city. I discussed it with Holly and she encouraged me to go ahead and write it. Originally it was called Carl’s Garden and it was very wordy, but the main concept was there. The meaning behind the story was solid from the beginning. It took about six months of tweaking the text until it was simple and meaningful and flowed. When you work on the text you also start to thumbnail your ideas for drawings. These are small rough sketches that can show the publisher the possible content of your artwork. Everything can change a lot at this point. You have to decide whether you’re going to do a single page, double spread or vignette. Each one of these is used as a visual tool and can speed the story up, slow it down, show time passing, make an impact etc etc. So there’s lots of rearranging and editing at this point.
Once all the roughs and text look good, then you begin on the coloured artwork. That also goes through the same process. You create a spread then discuss the changes. Once all the artwork is complete there’s a final edit so then everything is signed off and you wait to see the printer’s proofs to check the colours are correct.
That does sound like a lot of work! But the results are definitely worth it. Which aspect of The Extraordinary Gardener did you most enjoy illustrating, and which was the most challenging?
The most fun was the spread where Joe give plants to everyone in the city. I loved creating the diverse mix of people, and leaving white space around them was really nice as lots of the other scenes in the book were very complex.
The hardest spread was the grey tower block in the beginning, and also Joe’s bedroom. They were both the first spreads I tackled and it was a really slow process to create what was in my head and get it down as coloured artwork!
What’s a typical day like for you, Sam, when you’re illustrating a book? Where do you work?
I am really lucky as I have a big studio at home. So I work from there most days. In the beginning I used to find working from home quite isolating, but now I actually need the isolation so I can concentrate! I wake up about 6am and go out with my dog Monty until about 9.30. We walk quite far and sometimes I sketch. We live right on the coast path so I am spoilt for walks! Then I come home, Monty goes to sleep and I work until about 4-5 pm. Sometimes it changes when I want to meet a friend, then I’ll work in the evening to make up the time. I make quite a mess when I work so my floor is covered in cardboard matting and I have lots of shelving for all my paints, and drawers for my collage. It can become a big old mess, but that’s how I like it. It’s a very creative space!
It sounds perfect - I’m definitely a fan of creative messes!
Which books did you love when you were growing up? Which illustrators have influenced your own artwork, do you think?
I didn’t have loads of books as a child, but I’d say the most influential ones were Richard Scarry’s books, as I loved looking at all the small details, and the animals doing different jobs. I also had a Disney book album that showed the history of artwork from Disney cartoons and movies. It was a huge encyclopedia and I’d spend hours and hours trying to draw the characters until they looked exactly like they did in the book. I ended up making my own poster with about forty characters on it. I still have it now!
Your audiences would love to see that! It’s interesting looking back at how things evolved and what prompted us to take certain paths. If you hadn’t become an illustrator, what other career might you have chosen?
I wanted to be an architect when I was at school. I have always been passionate about buildings and thought it would be an amazing career. Although my work looks very messy and loose, I’m actually a perfectionist when it comes to my art, and technical drawing was something I excelled in. At that time architects’ drawings were done by hand and that sounded so much fun! But I’m much happier being an illustrator.
No wonder the buildings in your work have so much care and attention paid to them! But I think we’re all very pleased that you took the illustration path, and wish you all the very best with your future plans. Thanks again for talking to us, Sam, it’s been much appreciated.
The Extraordinary Gardener was shortlisted for the 2019 Klaus Flugge Prize. Find out more about the award via our Cast of Thousands blog HERE or visit klausfluggeprize.com - click HERE
Earlier this year, Bowling Park Primary School in Bradford chose The Extraordinary Gardener as the focus for one of their innovative Family Learning Packs, which were distributed to vulnerable inner-city families during the UK’s Coronavirus Lockdown. To read about that project via our Cast of Thousands blog click HERE – and I also wrote about it for Teach Reading and Writing Magazine (click HERE to read the article).
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