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To a fine art: Katie May Green (BA 1999)

Katie May Green (BA 1999)

Katie's History of Art degree has informed her career as a children's author and illustrator

Seen and Not Heard (Katie May Green illustrations)

Seen and Not Heard tells the story of children in portraits from different eras coming to life

Snow Angel (Katie May Green illustrations)

Katie travelled to Paris to research illustrations for Stone Angel by Jane Yolen

17 November 2015

History of Art graduate, Katie May Green (BA 1999), is a children’s author and illustrator, and published her first picturebook, Seen and Not Heard (Walker Books), in October 2014. She is now working on a sequel, due to be published in spring 2017.

I first visited Bristol on an open day. I was shown around by a very enthusiastic student – she obviously loved the University. I remember walking up Woodland Road – I just thought it was beautiful, and I really liked the idea of studying in those surroundings. At the age of 17, I was very creative but didn't know what I wanted to do career-wise. All I knew was that spending three years studying History of Art sounded fascinating. I didn’t have the confidence to pursue my own practical art at art college but, as it turned out, studying great paintings in depth ended up informing my later career as an illustrator – in more ways than I realise, I expect.

I was a conscientious student (I am still pretty conscientious, I have to be). I did find time for extra-curricular activities – I designed costumes for two University productions. It was a creative outlet, and indulged my interest in the history of dress. I remember a production of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride: we had to create Czech folk costumes on very little budget, so bought lots of waistcoats from the market, and made colourful skirts and headdresses.

During my degree, I really developed my eye for composition and my sense of colour. Through looking at lots of paintings in detail, I was absorbing tips from the Old Masters (which is never a bad thing!) as well as inadvertently planting seeds for my own creative projects later. I particularly enjoyed a semester on Renaissance portraiture, taught by the inspirational Dr Tania String. I had no idea that, years later, I would write and illustrate a book, Seen and Not Heard, in which children in portraits from different eras come to life! In my final year, I wrote my dissertation on the role of fashion in 19th-century art in Paris. Costume research is now a big part of my job. It's lovely that my interests are all merging together, and last year I was sent to Paris on a research trip for Stone Angel by Jane Yolen, which I illustrated, and which is partly set in Paris.

One of my sources of inspiration for Seen and Not Heard was a painting in the Fitzwilliam Museum in CambridgeThe daughters of Sir Matthew Decker, by the 17th-century Dutch artist, Jan van Meyer. The children in the painting looked so angelic and well-behaved, but I found myself wondering what they would be like behind the scenes, as well as what it would be like to be stuck in a painting. I also started thinking about the expression ‘children should be seen and not heard,’ and this led me to imagine stiffly-clad, silent children climbing out of their picture frames to enjoy fun and freedom.

I came up with the idea for Seen and Not Heard in about three weeks. I just had a feeling it was better than another project I’d been working on for months, and sure enough, it was the project Walker Books went for. At that stage, it was only a collection of characters and a setting – an introduction to a book rather than a fully formed narrative. I then worked with Walker Books to finalise the story before I was offered a contract and got to work on the final illustrations. It was quite a long process – about 18 months.

There were certainly some long hours: my work is rather detailed. There were times when I questioned what I’d let myself in for, and asked myself why I didn’t have a more simplistic style! I had to remind myself that the detail of my work is what the publishers liked and, importantly, I now see that it's one of the things children like too.

You certainly have to have stamina to be a successful illustrator, but at no point during work on Seen and Not Heard did I feel like giving up. Towards the deadline, I had some pretty late nights and early starts – I’m sure my characters started to wink at me when I was still drawing at 2am!

The wonderful thing about writing and illustrating a book is that it’s entirely your baby. There’s a real sense of integrity: the tone of the book, the voice, will be totally in synergy with the pictures. But it does come with pressures and responsibilities. It was nerve-wracking, wondering whether people would like this strange creation that I’d put out into the world, for children. Thankfully it has been well-received by big people and little people alike!

I do enjoy illustrating other people’s stories too. It’s an exciting process, discovering the right visual language to interpret the words, particularly rewarding when I feel a real affinity for the text. It’s not always as collaborative a process as you might think: publishers sometimes keep authors and illustrators apart, as an author can have quite a specific vision that might not be right for the publisher or intended market. A storybook or picturebook idea might be a writer’s brainchild, but there are actually lots of creative people involved in the process of making the finished book.

Seeing the first edition of Seen and Not Heard in print was wonderful, although I was on my own in my flat when I opened the post, so it was just the book's characters and me to celebrate! (I had a launch party with real-life people soon after). What was even lovelier was seeing children with the book in their hands, and watching them respond to the story.

My pictures were selected to be shown at the Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair this November, and my book was recently reviewed in the New York Times now that it's out in the US. I also won Book Factor 2015 in Stockport earlier in the year –I was up against some big names, but the children voted Seen and Not Heard their favourite!

I've run a lot of workshops with children in schools, galleries and museums, including one at the National Portrait Gallery in London earlier this year. The paperback for Seen and Not Heard came out this October, and because there’s a slightly spooky feel to the story, I was extremely busy over Halloween/half-term week. It’s great to see the children create their own drawings after reading them the book: it gives the story an even longer life.

The sequel to Seen and Not Heard is already in its early stages. I’ve got it planned out it in rough, and the words are pretty much nailed so I’ll be starting final artwork soon. The book takes the children outside Shiverhawk Hall this time. All I’m going to say is that there’s a maze…

Further information

Seen and Not Heard (Walker Books) is available to buy in paperback now, from all good bookshops and online. You can see more of Katie’s work on her website, katiemaygreen.co.uk, and read more about the inspiration for Seen and Not Heard on the Picture Book Party websiteStone Angel by Jane Yolen is published by Philomel/Penguin USA and is available in US bookshops and online.