Amanda Hall
Amanda Hall

The rules of our Five Questions interview series are simple: we send each of our guests a long list of questions. Some are serious; some are . . . not so serious. They choose their favorites and respond.

Our guest today is Amanda Hall, an award-winning illustrator of many children’s books, including Brother Giovanni’s Little Reward. This is the second time Hall has joined us for Five Questions. In April she answered questions about The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau, and she’s also written about creating faraway worlds in her art. 

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Which books — or artists — have done the most to make you who you are today?

I have a long list, starting with my father John Hall, who was an artist, art teacher and theatre designer. He was also able to build and make things with his hands: furniture, costumes, puppets . . .

Illustrators I love: Maurice Sendak, Edward Gorey, Arthur Rackham, D.J. Watkins Pitchford — to name just a few.

Fine artists would have to include Henri Rousseau, Edward Burra, Eric Ravilious, Stanley Spencer, Leonora Carrington — I’m sure I have left out too many!

What were your favorite books when you were a young reader?

Many of my favorite books (and their titles) have been lost in the mists of time, but a few I do still remember vividly and have even kept on my bookshelves. One is BB’s Fairy Book: Meeting Hill, with wonderful illustrations by D. J. Watkins Pitchford. We had this book at home when I was little. It had been given to my older siblings, but when they grew out of it I probably kept it in my bedroom. I have never tired of losing myself in the magical illustrations and classic stories this lovely book contains.

When I was ten, I read 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith six times in a row! It was exciting, even frightening, and very atmospheric, with the wonderfully evil Cruella De Vil at the center of the plot. At that time there were people living in parts of central London who seemed to be something like her — or so I imagined. At that same point, I really got into reading the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis. I loved the many ways he devised, in the different books in the series, for entering Narnia. I found it deeply sad, though, that after a certain age — maybe the age I was reaching when I read the books — you could no longer return to Narnia. I mourned the loss of childhood, deeply.

How did you get your start illustrating children’s books?

Amanda’s “Happy Families” cards

While training in Cambridge, UK, on my Art Foundation course, the activity I found that I enjoyed the most was creating a book of medieval life in England. I painted a series of illustrations that I glued into the pages. That project gave me a taste for illustration. I went on to do a three-year diploma in Graphic Art, where I specialized in illustration and learned how to use pen, colored pencils and watercolor paints. While I was in the second year of my diploma I was lucky enough to be selected by a visiting publisher from Dinosaur Books to illustrate the pack of Happy Families cards they were producing for the National Trust here in the UK. That was my first professional commission. It gave me something published to put in my portfolio when I completed my diploma, moved to London, and embarked on my illustration career.

When I left college and moved to London, I also had the beginnings of a book illustrating the nursery rhyme Old Mother Hubbard, done in pen and ink, in my portfolio. These initial illustrations were picked up by Aurum Press, a London publisher. Someone I met running an antiquarian children’s book shop in Covent Garden saw the drawings I had done and called the editor at Aurum. I then had an appointment to see the editor and was commissioned to complete the work — my first published book!

One of Amanda's Mother Hubbard illustrations
One of Amanda’s Mother Hubbard illustrations

Around the same time, I began working in a small graphics studio for a wonderful typographer and graphic artist called John Marsh. I was employed on a freelance basis to do what used to be called “paste-up” work, which meant I was preparing the artwork for print. This involved using a lot of smelly glue in those days, as this was pre-computers. The project and publisher we were working for was ELTA/OUP (English Language Teaching for the Arab world, for Oxford University Press). As well as preparing the type for print, I also got bits and pieces of illustration work to do at home for these books. This was fantastic experience and taught me the basics of how to be an illustrator. I was also working alongside Elaine Mills, another illustrator and designer — and very talented — whom I still know. Elaine was a little older than me and much more experienced. She always very helpful and encouraging, and offered great support when I was just starting out. I worked with John and Elaine for several years on and off when they needed an extra pair of hands.

What are you doing when you’re not making art or answering questions for Eerdlings?

Sitting in a studio on your own all day is a solitary experience, although I wouldn’t want it any other way. Maybe because I spend a lot of time alone, I enjoy going out to perform as a musician. I sing and play the 12-string guitar. I have sung lead in quite a few bands, but am now singing in a duo called Little Black Dress with a fabulous accordion player called Dawn Loombe (who is also a music therapist). Our duo is a cabaret act and is great fun, and we perform in the evenings at parties and in local venues. We don’t do too many gigs as we both work full time during the day, but this is a great contrast to our day jobs. We cover all sorts of vintage songs from artists like Tom Lehrer to Eartha Kitt. Our website says:

Dawn and Amanda take a wry look at life from the female point of view. Their material moves between the passionate and lyrical to the wickedly funny.

Apart from that, I love being creative at home. I like to design and create spaces and I have constructed a small jungle garden that Henri Rousseau might have wanted to paint. My studio veranda overlooks this part of the garden. I also love cooking — not from books particularly, more from instinct: I think I am a “peasant cook”! I always cook too much — big hearty stews, that kind of thing. We have people over to (help us) eat, fairly often.

Amanda Hall - garden collage
Amanda’s jungle garden

What’s the best advice you can give to aspiring illustrators?

I think the best way to discover whether you would enjoy being an illustrator is to try it out for yourself. My advice would be to set yourself a brief:

  • Find or write a story (preferably one that hasn’t already been illustrated).
  • Work out how many pages this book will have and what size it will be.
  • Divide the text up so that there is an even balance through the series of pages and something interesting to draw on each spread.
  • Then start illustrating!

Illustrating isn’t for everyone, but if it is for you, it could be a great career.

You may find it useful to read the FAQs on my website as the pages you’ll find there are devised with exactly this in mind. When you are on my FAQs page, go to the left of the page and click on the page headings.

I am not taking new questions for the time being, but there are a lot there already — I hope you find it a useful resource!

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Learn more about Amanda Hall on her website, and click here to order Brother Giovanni’s Little Reward.