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Benji Davies ‘ The Storm Whale ‘ and his new book ‘ On Sudden Hill ‘ by Linda Sarah

August 22, 2014

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Benji Davies is no stranger to Fishink Blog. He happily answered a Q&A session last year and very kindly donated a signed copy of one of his books to feature in a competition. Well I’m delighted to say he’s back and initially I’m here to tell you about his latest achievements. Benji now lives with his wife Nina in Walthamstow, where he wrote his first self illustrated and self penned book ‘The Storm Whale’, which came out this time last year.

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This is an enchanting story about a lonely little boy called Noi, who finds a washed up whale on the shore after a storm and decides to take care of him. As the story develops both animal and boy develop a relationship in which Benji’s captivating illustrations convey the warmth and affection of their relationship. ‘The Storm Whale, was the winner of the inaugral Oscar’s First Book Prize in 2014, and is shortlisted for Booktrust’s Best Book Awards. 

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Some of the scenery and feel of the setting is based on Whitstable. Lovely to see these early sketches too.

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Benji’s latest book is due to be released at the end of August, called ‘On Sudden Hill’, and this time written by Linda Sarah. I started researching this post by contacting Linda to find out more about how the story came about.

” It was actually first written as a much more angry, adult story – one of my first clumsy attempts to try and write longer stories for older readers. In the original, the main protagonist is quite a bit older – and when he gets mad, he goes wild, setting fire to the box. You can tell more in the original book idea, that the relationship with his dad is pretty poor for him. So it was much bleaker. Then, months later, I adapted a story in my notebook into a picture book and re-found ”On Sudden Hill.’ It seemed that this was maybe a story that young people could relate to if re-written – so I tried and it tumbled out as is.

When I first saw the finished book illustrations it was just magic. Like the story in my head, but Oh! So much better, brighter, bigger, magnificent! The little boys, their expressions, the landscapes mirroring feelings and Benji’s gorgeous depiction of ‘Mr ClimbFierce’ etc. – pretty swoony (as you can tell I am a very big fan of Benji. I have no idea how he creates such awesome visual coolness!)

And maybe there is a tiny bit of me in the book too, those left-out feelings when small – when you feel kind of yucky and unwanted, alone and all wrong…and hide away turtle-like…

The title just came out, I’m not sure from where ” Sarah has already written and illustrated another book ” Mi and Museum City ” available here.

I was also lucky enough to track down Benji again for some feedback and questions on his new work.

Hi Benji, It’s been a year since we last ‘spoke’ and congrats on the success of The Storm Whale, it’s done amazingly well.

Thanks Craig, great to be featured again on Fishink Blog.

Was it a different experience composing the illustrations for your own story, as opposed to working with another author’s script ? Was one harder than the other ? and generally which came first the story or ideas for images ?

I’ve been asked this before and I keep changing my mind on which is easier. Sometimes I think its illustrating someone else’s words, because its all there on the page, you just have to see where its takes your imagination. But on the other hand that can often be easier said than done, and some texts appear more obvious than others.

Writing stories is harder in essence, but easier in other ways because you have created the whole thing and can often see exactly where it needs to go. Its quite clear when something is wrong for the story – you always have your original idea and motivations to write it, that you can refer back to.
With someone else text it could be that you’ve totally misjudged it and because you didn’t write it, its harder to see where you might have gone off track with the imagery.

When writing my own stuff, the words and pictures come hand in hand. Neither truly comes first because essentially its a thought, an idea in my head. So I suppose it is visual but almost immediately there are words describing the beginning of a story to go with that image – otherwise it wouldn’t be a idea – if that makes sense. The task is then to describe it on paper. I can either write something and make a note, or do a sketch whichever feels more appropriate to capture the idea.

For your new book ‘On Sudden Hill’, is the landscape taken from a real place or a mix of ideas from your mind / photographs etc ?

Really its a mix as you describe, taken from my own memory of times and places, backed up with visual references here and there. I spent many summers at my auntie’s house in rural essex when I was younger, and there’s a lot of the atmosphere evoked by that time period that I’ve been able to put into the imagery.

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Birt and Etho are best friends, they play on Sudden Hill, making marvellous contraptions out of cardboard boxes. But then a new boy, Shu, wants to join in too. Birt isn’t sure that he wants Shu to join them. Eaten up with jealousy, he goes home and refuses to come out to play. Until Etho and Shu come to his house with the most marvellous cardboard contraption so far…A compelling story about accepting someone new.

I read somewhere, and wondered if it was true that one of the boys appearance is loosely based on your wife ? Do you tend to use people and places you know as inspirational material ?

Hah! That was a bit of speculation by a journalist. A visual similarity to a haircut was made. Although that wasn’t the case here, I think sometimes it can help to visualise a character through an existing person as a starting point, it helps to give you something to work with. It can be a quite a playful approach to take someone well-known and turn them into a child in your own style. It gives them added character and something to draw from and develop even if it becomes unrecognisable by the end. I often take photos of places, buildings especially, that I find interesting and think could feature in an illustration – again it gives added depth and character to an image, a bit of truth. The way the light falls on some brickwork, the odd angle and shape of a chimney pot that you could never have made up without seeing it – that makes it more believable.

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It looks very summery in feel, full of long shadows and beautiful sunsets. How did you decide what the feel of these illustrations would be ? (i.e. talks with the author or trying out different seasonal/ colourful ideas ?)

Really just by reading the text and seeing what imagery that evoked in my mind. There is so much atmosphere in Linda’s words, a lot of it came to me very quickly, how it should look and feel. The characters were harder to get right and I even swapped two of them at a late stage in the process.. like switching the actors to play each others parts. This was the editor and art directors idea, because they felt the strength of the characters personalities wasn’t ringing true, and although it was at odd at first to re-artwork them, it made perfect sense.

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As a special treat if you order a copy of the hardback directly from Benji’s site, you can not only get your copy personally signed by the man himself, but you also get a free, limited edition print (above) too. My copy is already being prepared, get yours here whilst stocks last !

How long may it take you to create a 2 page spread for instance ?

It takes a couple of days for each spread, but maybe take place over a week or longer, interspersed with other things, so that I can walk way from it and come back with fresh eyes.

Do you have any other self penned stories up your illustrators sleeve that you can tell us about or indeed plans to do more in the future ?

I have just finished writing my second – it will be out with Simon & Schuster middle of next year, although thats all I can say for now. And yes, excited to say, plans for more to come!

Benji very kindly sent some of his initial sketches for the book, which can be seen here for the first time.

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I believe that Simon and Schuster (the publishers) have arranged a blog tour for next week from the 25th to the 30th so do look out for that.

Many, many thanks, to both Linda and Benji for their time and thoughtful responses to my questions. Great to see another british masterpiece in the making, keep up the great work both of you

6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 22, 2014 9:47 am

    Love Benji’s illustrations, so evocative. My son and I had The Storm Whale out of the library a while ago and loved it. We’ll have to look out for the next one too!

    • August 22, 2014 12:08 pm

      Evocative is a great way to describe Benji”s illusrations. Thanks for your comments Sam

  2. August 22, 2014 9:49 am

    LOVE Benji’s work! It’s great seeing the sketches also.
    I’ll be ordering my copy asap!!
    Wonderful post – thanks Craig.

    • August 22, 2014 12:05 pm

      Cheers Craig. Much appreciated, yes worth getting a copy ordered to avoid disappointment. I’d hate there to be tears before bedtime ! : )

  3. August 22, 2014 12:47 pm

    Brilliant and beautiful – I love your blog!

    • August 22, 2014 12:56 pm

      Ahh thank you Linda. Fine praise indeed. Have a good week’s promoting and keep me posted re new books too.

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