Rachel Bright is a writer, illustrator, printmaker and eternal optimist. Her picture book, My Sister is an Alien, is a charming and funny portrayal of a little boy getting to grips with the birth of his new sister. Little Parachutes asked Rachel about her work projects, sources of inspiration and how her family life has influenced her books.
My Sister is an Alien is such a positive book for children with new babies in the household. How did the idea for the story develop?
Thank you so much! You have perfectly summed up what I was trying to achieve so that’s a huge compliment. The story is one I may have been carrying with me for quite a time really when I think about it. I’m the middle one of three children in my family – with an older brother and a much younger sister (I was nine when she was born so I really remember her being a little baby), so I have been both the alien and the, well, alien-ee I suppose!
That magic alchemy that has to happen for you to weave threads of your own experience, like these, into a new idea for a book and put pencil to paper, happened when a lot of my friends started having babies too and it got me thinking two things…1.what a huge (and wonderful) thing a new life coming into a family is, and 2.How much new babies looked like mini aliens!! (to all my friends reading this, it was not your baby that made me think this of course)…on the fourth or fifth new baby visit, it just all seemed to come tumbling out. I think, though there is often a power struggle or initial adjustment when new siblings come along, ultimately they often end up the best of friends. I wanted to tell that story.
We love the dedication in ‘What Does Daddy Do’ to your parents. Could you tell us a bit more about how they have inspired you and your work?
My parents worked so hard to give me everything I could have ever possibly wanted in life. I know, as probably every parent does, they made huge sacrifices of their own to give us as many doors as possible for our future. Most importantly though, they gave me the freedom to follow my heart. They encouraged me in whatever I decided to turn my hand to, even when it seemed like a slightly illogical next step on what might conventionally be seen as an educational or career path. I went to a very academic school and was heavily nudged in the direction of a profession such as medicine or law by my teachers, but I had always been a creative soul – both my parents say they could never prise the felt-tips and plasticine out of my fingers for long, so when I chose art school, they just did everything they could to support me. It’s been the same all the way through life – I’ve taken a fairly twisty- turny road to where I am now (believe it or not I have been a designer, an air hostess, a life guard, a landscape gardener and a TV extra, to name a few jobs!), but I have never heard them discourage me or try to persuade me otherwise once. I owe them my optimism, my happiness and my belief that if you put your mind to it, anything at all is possible.
Did you experience any sibling rivalry when you were growing up, or was it all peace and harmony between you and your brother and sister?
This question really made me smile. It immediately conjured images of me and my brother punching each other in the arm in the back of the car whilst our mum had stopped to go to the bank. Yes, there was definitely sibling rivalry in our family! He is three years older than me and I just worshipped the ground he walked on when I was little. For the first few years he absolutely loved having me around too and would let me play with his toys and generally take liberties (he looked a little like Alfie in the story with big curls and there’s some great pictures of the two of us looking a bit like Alfie and Ruby), but when he hit teenagedom and I was still catching up, I became a slightly embarrassing annoyance that wouldn’t leave him alone and wanted to play Sindys all the time. I was no angel either, I seem to remember ‘telling’ on him a fair few times and feeling smug when he got into trouble. It’s funny how this all just melts away as an adult though. I love having a big brother and I’m so proud of him. As adults we’re always there for each other. With my sister things a were a bit different as I was just beside myself when she was born so many years later – it was like a dream come true, a life size doll at the age of nine! I found a diary I had kept with little drawings of her first few days and months out of the hospital and it’s hilarious. I was there when she smiled for the first time (or maybe it was wind!) and she was just the cutest little girl – so cute it sort of hurts a bit to look at the photos. Of course we’ve had our sibling moments too, but I feel very protective of my little sister, even now that she’s an adult and more than capable of looking after herself! She’s always one of the first people I think of when something happens in life – only a phone call away in good times and bad. I like to think we’d always be there for each other.
Your talents seem equally divided between words and pictures. Which one is the usual starting point for a new book, and how does the process evolve?
I find it impossible to separate words and pictures – for years I tried to stop myself from scribbling and writing things in my sketchbook amidst the drawings as I felt like it spoilt the way it looked and then one day I thought, ‘Why not?’ – sometimes it’s best to just go with what feels natural to you. So now I scribble all over everything – napkins in café’s, the back of envelopes, my own hand! When it comes to writing a book it can start in many ways – often I think of a great title – something I can weave a story around. I like the way it feels when a rhythmic set off words bounces of your tongue as you say it, and I’m often saying titles, character names and ideas out loud. I write a lot of poetry too. Other times I’ll be drawing and have an idea for a character – almost a doodle – many of my characters have been born this way – and then I will want to get to know them – unlock the stories they have (they always do). Often a story will sit half-written or half-drawn at the back of a drawer somewhere for years before it’s ready to come out. It’s a bit like cooking I suppose – you’ve got to let something bubble away for a while to get the best flavour. I never try and do it in a particular order now. If it feels uncomfortable to produce it, you can bet it’ll read uncomfortably. I say you’ve just got to stick out your creative divining rod and hope that it wobbles.
You have so many ‘strings to your bow’, with your copywriting, stationery range, illustration, books and other projects. How do you manage to juggle so many different and time-consuming tasks?
Honestly? I’ve no idea! Sometimes it feels like the easiest thing in the world and other times I’m pulling my hair out. I’d like to say I’m very disciplined and divide my time up into book days and stationary days and printing days, but the reality is, it’s never like that at all, it’s as haphazard and chaotic as life itself and I’ve come to realise I wouldn’t have it any other way. Ultimately everything important gets done and it still leaves space to change direction completely if you suddenly get struck with inspiration. I’ll often be working on one project and stop suddenly to write a new story that’s popped into my head for no apparent reason other than it was ready to be written. A schedule might stifle that. I’ve only recently had the luxury of being completely my own boss, after giving up my job in advertising to concentrate on my own practice full time a few months ago and I have to say I’m loving it (I’m not sure how I had time to do a job as well!). I often fantasise about having a regular ‘maybe day’ where I plan absolutely nothing at all – not work, nor social and I just wake up in the morning and decide what to do with the next 12 hours. Spontaneity is a real luxury in this jam-packed modern life, but I think it should be made compulsory (possibly between 8-4 on Tuesdays).
Could you tell us a bit about what graphic techniques you use in ‘My Sister is an Alien’?
I’m a printmaker and absolutely crazy about old print-making techniques – especially etching, which is how I illustrated Alfie and Ruby’s world in ‘My Sister is an Alien’. Etching is a process which was used pre-computers to make pictures and it has a quality all of its own. I love the fact I get all inky and messy whilst I’m doing it and there are all kinds of liquids and potions involved! I start by getting a piece of polished copper plate and coating it in wax by using a roller on a hot plate. Then you smoke the plate with a taper (a thin type of candle) to make the wax hard and the surface black. Then you can start drawing. You draw by scratching into the wax with a sharp ‘scribing’ tool. You have to remember everything is backwards in etching, so it will flip the other way around when you print it – for the books I do this on the computer. Once you have finished your picture you have to put your plate in a big tray of acid (trying not to get it anywhere near you!). It stays in there for about an hour as the acid works it’s magic, eating away at the grooves you’ve made by drawing. Then you take it out, wash it and ink it up. Finally the plate goes into a press which squeezes the plate under a heavy roller so it presses into the paper and makes your picture. It sounds complicated but once you’ve done it a few times it’s not too hard. You can watch a little movie on my website to see how it all works. After all that I paint the pictures with gouache paints and then scan them in and do the last bit on the computer. The words were originally hand printed too – but we’ve now converted it into a font you can type so it’s a little bit quicker. The process is definitely a labour of love but it produces such unique results it’s worth it. For me it’s the little unpredictable imperfections – the scratches and smudges on the plate – which make the pictures beautiful – a bit like life.
We hear there’s a new book out next year all about sharing….
Yes I’m very excited about it! I finished it fairly recently and I enjoyed doing it so much. It’s all about two twins –Fifi and Frankie, who are having a little trouble sharing their absolute favouritest toy EVER, Funny Bunny. Funny Bunny is a little toy rabbit with glasses, who is covered in patches from all the rough and tumble of living with the twins. They all go everywhere together, but when one day they go to Grandma Flo’s house, they both want to hold him, which is when…Uh-oh..disaster strikes! I won’t give the ending away, but hopefully it’ll make you laugh! I can’t wait until Funny Bunny is out there in the world.
What’s the next project on the list for you?
I’ve already started lots and lots of new projects! There are two more picture books in the pipeline as well as some ideas for a series with lots of characters who have lots of characters. I’m also working on some animation and the Brightside card and gift range is keeping me very busy! I think one thing I won’t be doing in 2011 is twiddling my thumbs…..
Article by Claire Ward-Dutton
Find out more about Rachel and her work here: http://www.lookonthebrightside.co.uk/