Drawing on a love of nature

Published August 19 2019
7 minute read
Not many successful careers start with a broody chicken, but Emma Levey is different.  A self-described ‘Vale Girl’ she grew up just outside Cowbridge and went to school in the town.

At the age of 33 she has already had a career to be proud of. Illustrator, author of children’s books and an associate lecturer at UWE in Bristol, her first picture book Hattie Peck has now been translated into over a dozen languages. With several books now to her name, it is still nature that inspires her storytelling. “It did start with chickens,” chuckled Emma.

“I grew up at my parents’ house and we had a smallholding. There were chickens, geese and sheep. I was particularly taken with chickens.” “A lot of my work is character-based and the characters are usually animals. The first book was specifically about a chicken who only ever laid one egg and it never hatched. So she goes off in search around the world for all the lost and abandoned eggs and she brings them home. When they hatch she has a complete menagerie of different animals. I didn’t even write it to be about adoption but that’s how it’s been marketed a lot especially around Easter time.”

“A lot of my stuff is animal based. I have just finished a book with Tiger Press which was about a grumpy duck. I would say my style is lively with bold, bright animals following usually quite humorous narratives.” Anyone who has ever read Emma’s stories will know how utterly charming her characters are. This is for a multitude of reasons but two that stand out are: believable characters and appealing to both children and parents.  It can be hard to keep believability when you have a chicken parachuting!

“The most important thing is to give your character heart and believability.” she said. “Even if you have a completely wacky scenario. Mine was based on when I was younger at the smallholding. There was a chicken who hadn’t made any eggs. One of the ducks abandoned her nest and the hen got onto that and hatched out some ducklings. They all imprinted on her! The only time it got a little bit confusing was when, after about six weeks, we let them out of their hutch and they went instinctively straight for the pond. The hen was pacing around the pond really panicking.”

“That was something that’s real and was the seed for that story. The beauty of picture books is you can start with a grain of truth and then completely run with it. I think because it has that seed of truth it is more believable. I think it makes it believable even though the chicken ends up doing things like diving!”

Emma says that children are made to absorb stories through pictures but it is important to appeal to the parents as well. Like great works of cinema such as Toy Story she includes plenty for the adults as well. “It is mainly targeted at children,” Emma explained. “Children are better at taking a picture and understanding. That’s how they learn to read. Children learn visually at first and their whole world for their formative years is visual. They are taking in everything. It is natural for them to read pictures. That said I do think picture books are for everyone. When I go to secondary schools I still read my picture books to them. They laugh at me at first but by the end none of them are scoffing at me! I think they are absolutely  universal and it’s just a shame they think they have grown out of picture books.”

“Children are a lot cleverer than we give them credit for. The worst thing you can do is patronise a child when you’re doing a picture book. To underestimate them is a bad idea. They don’t have preconceptions so they see it for what it is.  You can leave things so that the adults can get some fun as well. Messages the child won’t clock on till they’re older.  “You don’t want your book to be read once, you want it to be read over and over again so you add little things you would not necessarily notice. It is a really enjoyable part of my job.”

A common misconception with picture books is that the visuals are there just to reflect what the words are saying. According to Emma, there is far more to the pictures than that. “It’s about the marriage of the words and the pictures,” she said. “It’s about knowing when to let the words do the work and knowing when to let the pictures do the work instead.”

“The ideal amount of words for a picture book is about 500. To try and tell a good story arc through 500 words is actually really difficult. I really enjoy the process of collaborating words and images. The fact I can be in charge of both is brilliant. In the future I want to do more of my own picture books. I do love illustrating other people’s books but my preference is my own stories. I have a whole bunch of them in my sketchbook ready to pitch. The process that I really enjoy. It’s really tricky but once you get into the rhythm and the pace and the pages are turning it just feels really exciting.”

In order to be creative Emma needs inspiration. That is why when working she’s often surrounded by her pet chickens. This does not mean that she stays at home. Often she heads back to her childhood home in the Vale for walks in the woods to inspire her. However sometimes inspiration comes from the most unlikely places - like public transport. “I definitely move around,” she said. “Many of my best ideas come from being in a different setting other than my studio. Studios are for knuckling down and getting on with it but for the generation of ideas I find being outside in a new location is really useful.”

“Sometimes I will go home and walk around the village and up in the woodlands. Sometimes even just a little cafe helps. There’s a couple of places in Pontcanna. If you are around familiar places you tend to get distracted by things you need to do. That is why public transport is a really great one. If I am on the train or bus I will get a lot of story ideas because my head is empty and there is nothing distracting me. I can’t get on with chores there!”

Clearly writing and illustrating is a real skill but according to Emma there is no reason that anyone can’t have a go and improve. All they need is that love of the work. “I think there is a talent aspect to it,” she said. “I also think that everybody has the capacity to draw. I think you should approach anything creative like you were trying to get fit. The only way you’ll get fit is by doing it on a regular basis. It’s a bit like exercising a muscle in your brain. The creative muscle. If you’re drawing from life you will be learning by watching. You pick up how people or animals move. I genuinely think drawing is a skill and if you do it everyday you will inevitably get better.”

You can seen Emma’s work on her website www.emmaleveyillustration.com

Read more local stories like this in the summer edition of our Distinctive magazine.