Jo Weaver is an illustrator living and working in London. She holds a master’s degree in children’s book illustration from Anglia Ruskin University, and her books have been translated into seven languages. Her previous books include A Story Like the Wind (Eerdmans), Little Whale (Peachtree), Little Tigers (Peachtree) and Little One (Hodder), which was long-listed for the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2017.
What made you decide to become an illustrator?
Illustrated books were always items of wonder and fascination for me from a very young age. My grandmother had some beautiful old books illustrated by Kay Nielsen which I was mesmerized by. The stories were wonderful but the artwork really brought them alive. I loved to draw as a child, I painted in my teens, doodled in my 20’s, but illustration as a career didn’t occur to me until my late 20’s. I was working as a homelessness support worker and living in north east London when my brother found a leaflet in a local cafe which said have you ever dreamed of illustrating children’s books?. It was a genuine light bulb moment! I realized immediately that I had indeed been dreaming of illustrating children’s books for most of my life but hadn’t realized it somehow. I signed up for the evening classes advertised on the leaflet (run by the brilliant illustrator Claire Alexander) and I loved it. My work was pretty low quality, but thankfully Martin Salisbury saw some promise in my portfolio and gave me a place on the MA programme in Children’s Book Illustration at the Cambridge School of Art. The course completely transformed my artwork and introduced me to my first editor.
What makes you most passionate about your work?
I really care about creating stories that inspire and inform even if in very small, quiet ways. Stories that connect children and adults to our world and to each other and help to inspire a sense of wonder. Stories that might ignite someone’s imagination or encourage a love of books.
On a personal level, every day my focus is on improving my skills as an illustrator. It’s important to me that I am always learning. There’s a long way to go yet!
What’s a typical workday like?
I have two young children, so the day starts with lots of loud chitchat, feeding our chickens, often a bit of Lego-building, and getting them fed, dressed and cuddled before school/childcare. I’m usually at my desk with a coffee by 9:30am. My studio is a room upstairs at home. It’s a bit of a sanctuary away from the chaos of life with small, wild things.
I’d love to say there was some structure to my day, but I basically just sit down, procrastinate, find a good podcast or some music or a storybook and start drawing until 5pm when I pick up the kids. I live very near a beautiful coastline so I might try and sneak out for a walk along the beach if there’s time.
Where do the ideas for your books come from?
All of my own book ideas come from natural environments and animals. For example, grey whales migrate 12,400 miles every year. Young calves make this epic journey alone with their mother. My book Little Whale is the story of this journey, told from the perspective of a young whale and her mother. Another book Little One is a very simple story of a bear cub and his mother experiencing the world for the first time through each season.
What is the process of illustrating a book? How does it go from an idea to a finished work on sale in bookstores?
I start with research and sketches. If I have the opportunity I will try and do lots of sketching from life, and trawl through photographs or my subject to build up a mind bank/sketchbook of visual ideas. Finding the look of the characters is important, so I’ll spend some time drawing them in different ways until they emerge on the page. I usually end up with lots of drawings on random bits of paper. I work in charcoal and it doesn’t lend itself well to being smudged, so it’s safer to work on individual pieces of paper rather than a sketchbook.
I then storyboard them with the text. I draw a page full of rectangles, each representing a page of the book. I add extremely rough, tiny little thumbnail sketches into the rectangles. They are so rough that they wouldn’t make much sense to anyone but me, but they give me a sense of an overall layout and visual rhythm for the book as a whole. Once I’m happy with how the storyboard flows, I’ll do a scaled rough pencil drawing for each page indicating layout and incorporating room for the text. These roughs are shared with my editor and art director. When we are all agreed that the roughs are looking good, I make a start on the final artwork.
I work mainly with willow charcoal on textured paper. Each page takes me at least 2-3 days to complete as the drawings tend to be quite intricate. Charcoal is very delicate so I have to wrap them up very carefully and deliver them to my publisher who then scans them and sends me the digital files. I add any color digitally and send them back to my art director. Then there are various stages of proofing to make sure the printed version looks right, to tinker with the color, etc. I provide the drawing for the book cover, but an art director usually designs the layout and look of it. Then it’s over the publisher to get them printed, published, marketed, and distributed.
The whole process is more intricate and time-consuming that you might imagine!
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
It was such an honor to illustrate Gill Lewis’s wonderful book A Story Like the Wind which tells the story of a young refugee boy adrift at sea in a dinghy. Gill is a wonderful writer and this beautiful, important book captures a sense of the power that music and stories have to build hope and community in even the most desperate circumstances. I really loved being a part of it’s creation and seeing the response from readers.
It’s also just the very fact that I get to do this as a job. I am so grateful that I can spend my working days squirreled away in my studio drawing pictures and listening to music and stories all day. It’s not without its frustrations and deadline stresses, but for the most part it’s the loveliest way to spend time.
Can you tell us one thing people may not know about you?
I didn’t really learn to draw until I was in my late-twenties. I learned after I had decided to try and become an illustrator!
Purchase A Story Like the Wind, illustrated by Jo Weaver