Rediscovering Little Robin

Mrs Claus knitting in front of a fire
Category: Reading

Robin Red Vest coverWhich is harder – creating a book from scratch or revisiting an existing one? There is freedom in conceiving a new book, but the opportunity to revisit an old favourite is a rare privilege. Little Robin was my first book and it means the world to me. I imagine it also means a great deal to others, judging by the amount of correspondence I still receive. Although I am very proud of it, for various reasons I have always wanted to re-illustrate this story. Twenty years on, I was fortunate enough to have the chance to make Little Robin fly again.

New ways of working

But oh, the things to consider! It was essential to honour the original whilst exploring my new working method. Originally, I used ink and watercolour, and although I still use that medium, I now work digitally. There were some tough decisions about what to keep and what to let go. Essentially, I was distilling a book I had lived with and loved for years into a completely new way of working. It was a terrifying joy. But when I found my new Robin, it felt like coming home.

The deadline was excruciatingly, terrifyingly tight. For Little Robin to leave the nest in time for Christmas, everything had to be finished by February 2018, and the wonderful people at Nosy Crow were going to move heaven and earth to get it printed in time for the 20th anniversary.

Animals ice skating in cosy jumpersNot everything went smoothly: it was suggested that we needed to see more animal friends in the backgrounds and they should wear winter clothes. To me, these suggestions were wrong. If the animals wore winter clothes and had warm, cosy houses, the story didn’t make sense! It’s heart breaking to have so much invested in a project with a ridiculously tight deadline and you are asked to do something you feel spoils everything.

I was convinced it was a huge mistake but I didn’t have the time or confidence to argue.

Funnily enough, a robin started peeking in my studio window – which I hoped was a good omen!

After over a week of solid redrawing, I received a phonecall. Everyone was utterly and fulsomely apologetic about the clothes and the houses. They were desperately sorry, because I’d wasted two precious weeks. But, sometimes in making a book, one has to try things. You need to see it in front of you – only in black and white, thank goodness – to realise it doesn’t work. It’s part of the process, and one can learn a lot from it. But oh, I really needed those two weeks! I took a deep breath and carried on with the colour art.

Funnily enough, a robin started peeking in my studio window – which I hoped was a good omen!

Bringing the illustrations to life

It was wonderfully absorbing to choose my colours. I wanted the palette to be very restricted. This would allow the characters to come to the fore. I wanted nothing to detract from the simplicity and the profundity of the story. I took the natural colours around me: the stone of my house; the rosy winter skies, heavy with the threat of snow; the sculptural stalks of the wildflowers in the paddock. I drew my characters using 8B graphite pencils, which I love for their texture and softness.

I took the natural colours around me: the stone of my house; the rosy winter skies, heavy with the threat of snow; the sculptural stalks of the wildflowers in the paddock.

I wanted to ‘nod’ to the original ink line drawn characters and juxtapose them against a graphic background. I wanted to contrast the two together. Working digitally, I used tools that are the most like using a hand tool – pencils, pastels and chalks.

Having to work quickly made my drawing more spontaneous and instinctive. I prefer to work this way. I actually believed my crazy deadline was achievable! Unfortunately, when I was in full flow with the artwork, I fell ill with pneumonia and pleurisy. I was hospitalised for a week, and for once, I wasn’t worried about deadlines.

Back home, it was a relief to start drawing again. I worked on Mrs Claus, trying to get a feel for a traditional characterisation. I concentrated on the moment where she knits the red vest for Little Robin, of the tenderness of the scene and took things from there.  

Sometimes, I have to pinch myself. What a privilege it is to celebrate Robin’s 20th Anniversary! I am incredibly grateful to Nosy Crow for this wonderful opportunity, for using beautiful paper, binding and foil and for the hardback edition. I hope that Little Robin and his message of selflessness will find an enduring place in reader’s hearts. Merry Christmas.

Jan Fearnley

Jan Fearnley is the award-winning author-illustrator of Mr Wolf’s PancakesHarry and the Jaggedy Daggers and Milo Armadillo among many others. Jan lived in London for many years and now lives in the French countryside with her writer husband, two cheeky donkeys, five irrepressible rescued goats, two cheese-obsessed Limousin hens, five naughty cats – and any other waif and stray who appears at the kitchen door.

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