Author-illustrator Mandy Foot shares the creative process behind her gorgeous picture books

Mandy Foot has illustrated dozens of picture books with Hachette Australia. But when she decided to write her own story, she knew she had to gain new skills. After completing the Writing Picture Books course at the Australian Writers' Centre, Mandy published her debut picture book as an author, Joey and Riley

Mandy’s second picture book, Lucy and Copper, is out now. It’s another beautiful book exploring the relationship between a child and a beloved animal.

We sat down with Mandy to ask her about her process. This is a wonderful insight into the life of a writer-illustrator (a rare breed!) and anyone interested in picture books is going to love it.

Tell us how the story of Lucy and Copper came to you?

My editor and I wanted to create a companion story to Joey and Riley, another farm story but with different characters. We decided upon a girl and a horse because of my experience with and long time love of horses. 

At that stage I was trying to move forward from losing my own beloved horse but I couldn’t make that the focus of the story; it was just too hard. Plus I had touched on the thought of losing an animal family member already in Joey and Riley

Whilst thinking about what angle I was going to tackle it from, I was talking to a good friend of mine and she was telling me how her daughter was struggling with the reality of not being able to ride her Shetland pony any more because she had outgrown her – that pony was named Smudge and the idea was born. In a way, both stories tackle the theme of grief, just a different kind of grief.

You spent a year with the Shetland pony Smudge and his owner, to observe their relationship and take reference photos for this book. Is that how you usually develop a picture book? 

I put a lot of time into the research of my stories – it allows me to form a connection with the characters and to consider things from every angle. From observing how Smudge and her owner interacted, I picked up on little things that were unique and special in their relationship, like hiding the carrot in one hand and presenting both for the pony to choose – that is a real thing. 

These moments can only be captured through observation. It allows me to present a vulnerability that I hope the reader will feel privileged to be a part of.

Most of your picture books feature animals. Plus, you also produce work for the Adelaide Zoo Education Service. What is it that you love about drawing animals? 

I’ve always had a connection with animals and been a big animal lover. To be honest, most of the time I prefer their company. They are honest and what you give to them they give back tenfold. 

I remember back in high school, in English class, whenever we had creative writing or free writing time, I would research and draw different animals from all over the world. I think this frustrated my English teacher a bit as she wanted me to write more fiction, but I was always intrigued by different animals and so wrote more non-fiction – kind of my own encyclopaedia. 

At the end of my university degree, our last project was to find a real client to produce a piece of work for. I bee-lined for the Adelaide Zoo and asked them if they had anything I could produce for them. They directed me to the Education Service there at which time they needed someone to create an A4 information leaflet called a ‘Zoo Note’. This basically comprised drawing the animal and laying out some information about them (provided by the Education Service) to be able to hand out to the school children when they came through – pretty much what I had been doing in English class. Perfect! I completed the first one and they continued to give me more. I think I completed around 60 Zoo Notes, plus posters and brochures and the list goes on. This spanned 12 years of work for them and I absolutely loved it! 

Like your first author-illustrated picture book, Joey and Riley, your new book focuses on the bond between a child and an animal. What draws you to this theme? 

I think because children tend to throw themselves in heart and soul into relationships – they are less guarded, more open, more committed – it allows me to use this to bring empathy to the animals' situation and a vulnerability. 

The idea of breaking that bond within a story is more unbearable, so I’m trying to encourage the reader to look at things from a different point of view. In a way I’m basically saying ‘hey, what about what the dog or horse needs and wants?’ But without being so blunt. I think these messages sink in deeper if the reader is allowed to connect the dots themselves. Hence, my stories tend to have a lot of layers.

You were an illustrator for many years before writing your own picture books. How does the process differ between being an illustrator and an author-illustrator – and which do you prefer? 

I really enjoy both, honestly. 

I love illustrating books written by other authors because I learn so much from their writing and what they leave out. When I’m presented with a text, I feel like I am entering a world which I have not created, but through my images I can bring it to life, expand upon it and bring part of me to it and make it mine – and that is really exciting. 

The boundaries are kind of already set in a way but I will push them to see how far I can make them bend. 

When I write my own stories I will tend to see them in pictures first; so most often it will start from a sketch or a storyboard concept. I then try to find the words to support it and it is a real process of switching hats between author and illustrator to find the balance. It’s frustrating at times because I have no boundaries at that stage and that makes for quite a lengthy process for me – I’m continuously going back and forth and changing things. 

It’s a fabulous feeling though when the visual literacy evolves from my own words and that magic starts to come together.

You're a prolific children's book author. How does writing and illustrating fit into your life? Do you have a set routine? 

The hard part is fitting life in, because I absolutely love what I do!

I don’t really have a set routine… oh, shiny thing! I do try, but distraction is always a problem especially with social media these days. 

I do prefer to paint during the day though as the light is better, even with the advantage of daylight lamps, and I like to draw at night time. In fact I really struggle to draw during the day unless I plonk myself down in a coffee shop or a deadline is really pressing. I think because in the early part of my career when I also had a full time job, I would have to draw at night – it was the only time I had. It became so ingrained in me that that’s just what I do now. 

When I’m writing, however, I need quiet time. So generally that will be very late at night after everyone in the house has gone to bed and I can sit there in my own quiet bubble. Sometimes, lines I have been trying to resolve will come to me while I’m driving and I’ll have to pull over to write them down. 

Being a night owl means I am not a good morning person, so after school drop off it’s generally take the dogs for a walk or fit in some pony time, coffee, emails and any other computer work that I have to do, then the painting begins. Day and night, seven days a week.

What do you love about the world of children's fiction? 

Oh what’s not to love?! It allows us to delve into other worlds, to share stories, create stories and I just love that connection it brings between people – especially that of a child and parent or grandparent when they are discovering these worlds together for the first time. It’s priceless. 

As an industry, we are so passionate about stories that foster this and it really is beautiful when you hear of such moments because of a book that you have created. To be able to help nurture a love of literacy in children and open up their world to explore and learn from, it’s worth every single one of those late nights.

What did you find useful about the AWC Writing Picture Books course when you began your writing journey? 

It was the turning point; it kickstarted my writing. It taught me how to think: about the structure, story arc, rhythm and so, so much more. So much knowledge and information in one course, so many pages of notes that I could, and still do, refer back to time and time again. 

It was also very helpful to be part of a community within the course, to learn from the feedback provided to other participants as well as your own. Everyone was on the same path, wanting to learn, to improve their writing but at different stages. 

I was right at the very beginning of my writing journey but the material provided gave me the confidence I needed to realise, yes I can do this. Just get the first draft down and go from there. Plus, to have the expertise of such an experienced editor as Cathie Tasker to work with, was such a privilege. 

I recommend this course to anyone and everyone who wants to write picture books. 

Finally, and this one is a double question, but as a multi-talented person you have a unique insight, so:
What do you think illustrators should know about picture book writers? 

They don’t think like we do. They see words not images and they all think we are crazy but that’s ok. That’s how we make the books look so good!

What do you think picture book writers should know about illustrators? 

We are crazy… lol! 

Don’t put every little descriptive detail in, we’ll do that for you in the images; leave that to us. I can not say this enough – leave room for the illustrator. That’s when you get magic.

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