After attending the launch of The Amazing Animal Atlas (Flying Eye) in September, NNFN 2017 Coordinator Chris Routh took the opportunity to ask Dr Nick Crumpton (author) and Gaia Bordicchia (illustrator) more about their collaboration.
- Nick, having worked at the Natural History Museum and as a journalist for the BBC, you’ve been recently working as a zoologist at the Zoological Society of London and have just celebrated the publication of your second book for children, The Amazing Animal Atlas. How did you come to be a children’s author?
[Nick] You make it sound so fluid! But I ended up working with Flying Eye in a pretty round-about way – I was beginning the initial stages of writing up my PhD. It’s a time which, as every PhD candidate knows, is the procrastination sweet-spot. I’d found that Twitter was a wonderful source of distraction and decided to follow Nobrow for updates on ELCAF – the now annual celebration of comic book art and illustration in East London. I’d been a fan of Nobrow for a while – I loved how bold their works always seemed, and how brave they had been with some of their publications.
It just so happened Alex at Nobrow was looking for a palaeontologist to bring on board a project which would turn into Triassic Terrors. He phoned me out of the blue and we talked for thirty or forty minutes – him in Shoreditch, me outside the zoology museum in Cambridge. I had a history of presenting at science festivals and educating children about animals, which I think Alex liked – it’s easy to get sucked into an echo-chamber of esoteria and jargon when you’re in an academic environment, but I’d been careful to nurture my ability to talk to kids about zoology. Anyway, a couple of weeks after that we met at Flying Eye’s fledgling studio, and the rest was an organic development of ideas and the start of a collaboration.
- Can you tell us about the process involved in writing The Amazing Animal Atlas – how did you choose what to include, how much research was involved and how long did it take?
[Nick] I was lucky at the time I started working on the Atlas as I happened to be working at the Natural History Museum, London, which was a huge boon when it came to researching the book. No matter how many times I walked around the exhibitions or asked to see inside cabinets behind-the-scenes I was always talking to biologists, curators and librarians who were passionate about their favourite particular branch of the Tree of Life. Just talking to as many scientists as I could was inspirational in terms of which species I thought could present certain areas. I would bury myself away in the Museum’s library and pore through references – making certain I wasn’t relying on second-hand information. But this all took time – that was a few years ago now.
- I understand that you met illustrator Gaia Bordicchia for the first time at the launch of the book September? In spite of living in different parts of the world, how much were you able to collaborate during the development of the book?
[Nick] Ha. Yeah, it was pretty weird actually meeting her – in the nicest way. I can’t speak for Gaia, but I found it very easy working with her, despite us only contacting through email. Because she was working often from my text, wherein I’d already defined the animals that I thought would capture the area best, we developed a rhythm around how her illustrations grew. I was usually blown away by even her initial sketches, so I usually just helped her define certain details – the curve of a beak, or the colour of a shell.
- Gaia, we would be interested to hear about how you created your beautiful illustrations, the research you had to do and how long the process took.
[Gaia] The time I spent on each spread varied. I usually started with the map, which was my least favorite part and the longest. When the map was ready, I had a good idea of how much space was left for the animals, how I could arrange them and which I wanted to feature on the landscape at the bottom of the page. If I was working on a large gatefold, I tried to show as much variety of environments as possible and sometimes alternating the different views and shifting from water to land was quite tricky. All of the spreads felt very much like solving a little puzzle so the layout stage was both frustrating and exciting. By the time I could start with the color I was more relaxed – it was the fun part!
The internet is a fantastic tool to research not only photo references, but also the descriptions of each species. Some animals have different colors depending if they’re male or female or very young. I don’t have a zoology background and reading a description helped me understand the photos I found. I used 3 to 5 references for each subject and this gave me enough information to draw them in a way that felt natural. Animals are incredibly expressive, especially mammals, and failing to capture that subtle aspect usually means failing to draw them entirely, even when the anatomy is correct.
The illustrations are all digitally created in photoshop, and at the color stage I did two or three animals a day. Less if one was a critter with scales!
- Can you tell us about the other people who were involved in the creation of the book and how they contributed to the final publication. I am guessing that both your editor and designer played an important part in the process.
[Gaia] Harriet Birkinshaw (the editor) and Camille Pichon (the graphic designer) worked really hard on this book with me and Nick. Harriet followed the whole editorial part and was coordinating everyone’s work. She helped me organize the workload and stay on schedule. This is escpecially important when you work together for three years. Camille did a fantastic job on the layout! She added so much to my work with the book design and also checked that the colors would print well, which is something illustrators are always afraid of. It’s great when you can rely on someone else to look at the work with fresh eyes and bring up a problem, if needed. After many hours on the same page, it’s easy to miss if a color is too dark for print or a contrast might get lost in the process.
I think the Atlas was on the whole a really big team effort and it felt special to me for this reason. I was both relieved and sad when I sent the very last spread.
- As the book was being developed, did you have a particular audience in mind? How did this influence the content and design of the book?
[Gaia] I knew Nick’s text was rich of interesting facts and informations. I wanted the Atlas to look like the books I loved and kept going back to as a child, always discovering something I overlooked the time before. Hopefully it will appeal to different age groups and parents will find it interesting too.
- Which is your favourite double-page spread and why? (a question for both of you)
[Gaia] I like the big gatefolds like North America and Asia because they’re packed with details. Oceania is also a personal favorite because it was one of the most colorful pages: after using greens for weeks, I could really play with colors on the barrier reef!
[Nick] Wow, favourite is hard, but I’m a huge fan of the Oceania spread too. I love the Asia pages. Indonesia is one of my favourite places on Earth and it was so much fun thinking which animals to point Gaia towards. Although I bet she hated drawing all those islands. I think our least favourite spread to work on was the Tree of Life. The idea of condensing all the world’s animals into one diagram was daunting enough, but there just so happened to be a whole bunch of research that came out right as we were putting it together which meant I had to keep updating Harriet and the team at Flying Eye four or five times a week with redesigns based on how scientists’ understanding of how the tree should look was changing. I was terrified about us putting any out-of-date facts into the book!
- What was the most fascinating fact you discovered and/or included in the book?
[Gaia] There were plenty of animals that were new to me and I have a favorite on almost every page. I was especially intrigued by the fact that some were recent discoveries for the scientific world as well, like the Olinguito in South America or Brookesia micra, the smallest chameleon in the world.
I love the cutest critters like wombats or penguins and I admire the elegance of big cats, but the oddest creatures are always the most fun to illustrate. The thorny devil, the pink fairy armadillo and bats in general were amongst my favorite in the book.
[Nick] For me, discovering facts about animals I didn’t already know too much about was the most fun. For instance, I had no idea that spiders could live at incredible altitudes, so to find out that Himalayan jumping spiders made their living up at the top of the world was a surprise for me. And I knew Gaia would enjoy drawing them – they’re the cutest arachnids.
- What do hope young readers will get out of reading the book?
[Gaia] I hope they will enjoy the variety of animals and that it will leave them wanting to discover more. I also hope it will inspire them to travel and be aware of how strongly we can affect our environment.
[Nick] This is a question I kept asking myself whilst writing, so forgive me if ramble. There are a certain number of objects I remember from growing up that are intertwined with my realisation I wanted to be a biologist – my dad’s binoculars, my brothers’ dinosaur poster – but the weekly-bought encyclopaedia my parents collected, specifically the first volume on animals, physiology, and the world – had arguably the biggest impact on me. Everytime I went back to it I found out something new, even if I had turned to a certain page tens of times – I can still reach back and call to mind two or three of the illustrations instantly. I think, I hope, the Atlas is going to be similar. Something kids will want to open again and again, seeing new details everytime they open it. What’s so wonderful about the Atlas is that, because of it’s size and Gaia’s beautiful work, it’s kind of immersive. You just fall into her images, be it the middle of the Pacific Ocean, or the tips of the Andes. So, I suppose, inspiration, fascination, and also escape. That’s a lot but, yeah, that’s what I’m hoping young readers will get out of it.
Many thanks to Nick and Gaia who have provided such a fascinating insight into the time and care taken in the creation of an amazing information book and their infectious enthusiasm about the topic.
We are delighted that the publishers of The Amazing Animal Atlas, Flying Eye Books, have offered to give away a copy of the book to each of the first five readers to comment on the blog. The offer will be open until Tuesday 5th December 2017.