Graeme Base - Illustrator
Australian Graeme Base has created much-loved books for children. His alphabet book Animalia has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide, and The Eleventh Hour was named the Children's Book Council of Australia's Book of the Year. His books often center around animals and wildlife, including The Water Hole, a counting book, and the upcoming Jungle Drums, about the smallest warthog in the jungle. Base is also a musician.
RIF: What's it like living in Australia?
Graeme Base: There’s a real sense of space. I live in Melbourne, which is a big city with lots of skyscrapers, but it doesn’t take long to get to the country. It’s very lush and green here, but we can get to the desert in a few hours. There’s a sense of isolation way down here in the corner of the world. To clear up some misconceptions, everyone doesn’t own a kangaroo, and there aren’t koalas falling out of trees.
RIF: You put yourself as a character in Animalia. Are you in any of your other books?
GB: No, and with Animalia, it was sort of an afterthought. I never really thought of it as me, to tell the truth. It’s just a boy in a yellow-and-red striped sweater. I did that before “Where’s Waldo?” by the way. I put a Graeme on the G page, and then I decided to put him on all the pages. I put him in there because I had 26 totally separate worlds with nothing to link them all together.
RIF: Animals show up a lot in your books. Which are your favorites to draw?
GB: I love snow leopards because they’re so luxurious looking, but they’re very hard to draw. My favorite thing to draw is something that I made up, like dragons. Discovery of Dragons was the most fun I’ve had drawing a book.
I love all wildlife. I’m as fascinated by snakes as I am by kittens. But I’m not a wildlife artist. Wildlife is my muse, but it’s not my reason for doing the work. It’s a characterization. I’m really talking about humans and their conditions. I translate the stories using animals. I create them as characters you can relate to with a human personality.
RIF: Kids and adults love your books. When you're creating a book, do you think about who will read it?
GB: Not much. I make sure that I’m having fun, that I’m inspired by it. I’m really a 46-year-old kid. My mind seems to be pretty young. As you get older, you find things that you want to say, but you can still say it in a childlike way.
RIF: Your work is always so detailed. How long does it take you to complete a drawing?
GB: I’m getting quicker. With Animalia, I was taking months to do a picture. Part of that was because I was learning a new technique. Now the technique is more refined. Also, the artwork for some of the books I’m doing doesn’t have the same need for complexity, like Animalia, The Water Hole, and The Eleventh Hour did.
I can now do a picture in three weeks. A lot of time is spent on design.
RIF: What were your favorite books as a kid?
GB: I was born in England, so I liked all the classic British stories like The Wind in the Willows. The Lord of the Rings really got me going. I read it at 12 or 13.
RIF: Do you read to your children now?
GB: I have three children, ages 13, 11, and 9. I always read to them, and still do even now. We’ll all go in the piano room and have a cup of tea and coffee with a piece of cake. My wife and I take turns reading. We read a chapter a night. Right now I’m reading The Once and Future King. Next my wife is going to read Huckleberry Finn.
My kids are voracious readers on their own. They all play music. I never forced practice on them. I just wanted them to enjoy it. I want them to grow up with a love of books and a love of music. Both books and music should be parts of life that are great pleasures and great joys.
RIF: What upcoming books do you have?
GB: Jungle Drums is coming out in September. It’s about the smallest warthog in Africa. Warthogs are endearing because they’re so ugly. They really got left out when it came to beauty. And this one in the book is even worse because he’s the smallest, and even his brothers and sisters lay it on him. Then he gets a hold of magic jungle drums that grants him whatever wish he has. The book is about what happens what he gets what he wishes for, even if it doesn’t go right.
RIF: From James, 7: When did you decide your stories were good enough that someone would want to read them?
GB: I wrote my first book when I was 8 or 9. It was called A Field Guide to Monsters of the World. Twenty years later, I produced Discovery of Dragons, which is the same book, just with dragons.
It’s hard to know if an idea is good enough.
Many people probably think they have a good idea for a book, but they don’t want to be told they’re not good enough. I’ve always had self-confidence. I have enthusiasm, confidence and perseverance. I’ve got a great job, but I work hard.
So, do it for yourself first. Then you haven’t wasted your time. After that, never give up. Listen to criticism. Nothing’s going to be perfect at first. Be committed to it.