Petr Horaček has a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Academy of Fine Art in Prague. He has been shortlisted twice for the Kate Greenway Medal, and his books include The Last Tiger, Song of the Wild, Silly Suzy Goose, and Puffin Peter (all Candlewick). Born in Prague, he lives in England with his family.
Visit Petr’s website at petrhoracek.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @PHoracek.
What made you decide to become a writer and illustrator?
As a student of art and later on a freelance artist, I used to earn money by making posters when working for an advertising agency. That was back in the Czech Republic. After moving to England I looked for a similar job. One of the first opportunities I had was illustrating a picture book. I hadn’t had any experience back then, but I enjoyed working on the book. It happened at the time my first daughter Tereza was born, so I think that helped as well. I thought illustrating would be something I could do. I started making up stories because it was much easier illustrating my own text rather than waiting for a good book to come to me. I guess I was lucky being spotted by Walker Books. They were the first publisher who gave me a chance. I have been with them ever since. This was in 2000.
What’s a typical workday like?
I am answering your questions at the time of the pandemic, and my day routine has changed a bit, but not too much. I wake up relatively early, these days mostly before six o’clock. First I go for a six-mile walk. This gives me time to think and get ready for the day. I have breakfast, my favourite meal of the day. If I have to do emails, or anything boring like that, I do it in the morning. If not, I paint or illustrate books. In the afternoon I take time off to go for a bike ride. It depends how busy I am with work. If I don’t go cycling, I may go out for another walk with headphones listening to music or some podcast later in the evening. I then work until late. I like working on the books in the afternoon and evening.
Where do the ideas for your illustrations come from?
The ideas are everywhere. I get inspired by things I see when I am walking, paintings, photographs in the galleries, music and lyrics. Interesting use of materials in somebody else’s artwork often inspires me too.
Do you have any advice for would-be illustrators?
Be truthful to yourself. We all may have some favourite illustrators, but trying to copy somebody else’s style, or trying to fit into a fashionable trend is not going to work. In the best case, you would only be “the second,” or the one whose work is “almost as good as…” There is no need to try hard to find a form, your own style. Work hard and the form will find you. I also think that trying different techniques, experimenting with materials, and getting yourself out of your comfort zone is very helpful. If nothing else, it makes you think and see your own art in a ‘different light’.
What characteristics do illustrators need most?
A good imagination. That is without a doubt. Also, not taking yourself too seriously, being open to criticism, but also standing your ground when it matters. The capability to work with a team is important because making a picture book is teamwork.
Can you tell us one thing people may not know about you?
I love writing and reading, but I am very, very bad at spelling. And it is not just in English. I am very bad at spelling in my own language too.
What is your favourite thing about being a writer/illustrator?
The fact that daydreaming is a part of my job, that I can work from home, and that with my work I am responsible only to myself.
What do you do to shake the rust off or get new ideas?
Every autumn I travel to the Czech Republic where I spend a couple of weeks on my own, in my friends’ summer cottage. It is the most beautiful place in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by woods and meadows. This is the time when I walk, paint landscapes, and write new ideas. I always come back home with an idea for a book.
What has been the highlight of your career thus far?
Being an illustrator is a rather lonely job. You are doing your best, hoping that there is somebody who will like what you do. It is always nice when somebody acknowledges your work. It could be an award, but also a chat with somebody who knows your books. I recently illustrated a book for Joyce Dunbar called Grumpy Duck. We won the “Best Picture Book of the Year 2020” in the Netherlands and were invited for a short tour to the Netherlands. The book was everywhere: on the television and radio, in shops and libraries, and posters were hanging everywhere. It was nice to see Joyce so excited, because she is such a good writer and such a lovely person too. She deserved it.
What is something you wish someone had told you when you first started illustrating?
Even if you make a great book, there is not much you can do yourself to get it in to the shops, sell it, and make it noticed. From the time the book is published, it is in somebody else’s hands. This could be a disappointing experience.
Tell us about The Last Tiger. What inspire you to write and illustrate this book?
This book is a rather different from my other books. The subject, or its message, is serious. It is a book about the environment and also about freedom, but I wrote the book in a way that children would enjoy it. They see it as a story about a tiger that is captured but manages to escape and lives happily ever after. I like it when a picture book works on two levels. It may provoke an important discussion between parents and children. Something can stay with the child and one day they may understand another level of the story. We are sometimes too protective of children and some publishers are scared to publish books with serious messages. They think the books won’t sell as well as “happy” books.
I am very grateful that the publisher Otter-Barry took this book on. I had the opportunity of read this book publicly in Shanghai and also in Hong Kong during the time of demonstrations last November 2019. It was a great experience talking to the members of the audience after the events. I could see why is it a good idea to publish such picture books.
What’s up next for you?
I have just started illustrating my new book. It is about two bears. The publisher liked the story and gave me a contract straight away without making me change anything in the story. This is rather unusual and it makes extra pressure on me. I want to do it well. I love drawing bears and I thought it would be an easy book, but I was so wrong. I have been changing the pictures again and again. It is so hard, but I am enjoying this painful process, and I do believe that all be fine in the end.
BUY THIS BOOK BY PETR HORACEK
When hunters invade the jungle, all the animals try to hide—except the tiger. He is strong, proud, and powerful; why should he flee like a bird or a monkey? But the humans are even more fearless than the tiger is, and he soon finds himself in a cage in the city. Will he ever see his home again?
Illustrated in glowing colors, The Last Tiger is a thoughtful fable about the dangers of pride and the value of freedom.