Adam Stower studied Illustration at the Norwich School of Art and Narrative Illustration at the University of Brighton. Ever since then, he’s been illustrating professionally, collaborating with authors such as Timothy Knapman on books, or writing his own.
Which book changed your life?
The Hobbit by J R R Tolkein. Although it’s not so much that the book itself changed my life, but more the experience of reading it. It was read to me by my mother as a bedtime story when I was a little boy. When I am making picture books and writing for children, that memory is a touchstone for me. It reminds me of how precious, important and wonderful the experience of sharing a story can be. It’s a memory I return to often when I write for children. It helps me see my stories from the child’s point-of-view.
What are you working on at the moment?
My latest book picture book, Grumbug!, has just been published so I am busy promoting that. Next, I am about to begin work writing and illustrating the first chapter book of my own for older readers. As a picture book maker, I am used to only having 700 words at my disposal to tell my story, so I am excited by the prospect of what I can do with a few thousand. The details are under wraps just now, but watch this space.
Describe your workspace.
Cluttered. I am slowly becoming hemmed in by piles of books. The shelves filled up long ago. I crave more space, but I think deep down I find the clutter comforting. I love being surrounded by gorgeous books and bits and pieces I have collected. I find it inspiring. I share my space with two other illustrators. We have a room in a large ugly building, which is filled with a wonderful collection of people doing all sorts of things from ceramicists to bakers, fashion designers to carpenters. It’s an interesting building to be a part of. My window looks out over Brighton, and when the conditions are right, I watch the thick sea mist roll in and slowly engulf the city. It is very beautiful.
The key ingredients for a great picture book?
I think the most important element to a picture book is the main character(s). It is so important that the reader connects with your characters from the outset, as it is through the characters that you will tell your story. I often have more than one main character as I enjoy exploring the relationship between them. I like my books to be greater than the sum of their parts if at all possible. For example, in my book Silly Doggy!, Lily finds a bear in her back garden but she thinks it is a dog – something she has always wanted. There is no mention of a bear anywhere in the text. The reader can see it’s a bear, but Lily is oblivious. I like using pantomime like this in my books. It empowers the reader to know something the character, and seemingly the narrator, does not. It is in this tension between the words and the pictures where the humour and drama resides.
In Troll and the Oliver, again it is the relationship between Troll and Oliver that is at the heart of the book. The traditional pecking order is turned on it’s head. As the story unfolds it becomes apparent that Oliver is very much in control of their situation and the reader’s sympathy swings to the Troll…
If you can manage to get originality, longevity and a twist in there too, then you’re onto a winner.
Oh, and don’t forget a punchy cover. These days it needs to work at the size of a postage stamp, as many customers buy their books online.
The most important instrument you use?
A sketchbook. Not an instrument as such, but it is where all my ideas begin. It is also where I draw purely for the pleasure of it, from my imagination and also from life. I am rarely without one. I even have a sketchbook that can be used underwater. I can’t wait to try that one out while snorkling this summer.
What’s your most productive time of day?
It depends on what I am doing. If I am painting, or inking up a bunch of illustrations for a large fiction job, then I am most productive late at night. This is largely because the phone stops ringing and the email stops pinging. I plug myself into an audio book and I can work right through till dawn.
What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?
I try to do something else. I’ll take a walk, go for a swim, or sit and sketch at a café. It’s like trying to remember something that is on the tip of your tongue. As soon as you stop trying to remember it, it will pop into your mind.
How do you relax?
I do what most people do – exercise, see friends, go to the pub, watch a movie. When I have time I like to walk on the South Downs or swim in the sea, but that is a rare treat. I tend to keep very busy hours. Often, I will just play the guitar (badly) or doodle in my sketchbook.
Who and what has influenced your work?
My mum worked as a librarian for most of her career. She instilled in me a love of books. My grandfathers were both accomplished artists too so I grew up in very inspiring and supportive surroundings. The illustrators who inspire me are too many to mention them all. They span from the likes of Heinrich Kley, Ronald Searle, Arthur Rackham and Heath Robinson, to illustrators of today like Chris Riddell, Quentin Blake, Shaun Tan and Oliver Jeffers. And that’s just illustration. I love fine art too – John Singer Sargent and David Hockney spring to mind. And I have to mention animation – The Illusionist, The Incredibles or any early Walt Disney movie. Inspirational material is abundant. It can even become overwhelming looking at all the talent out there through websites like Pinterest.
What were your favourite books when you were a child?
I liked strange stories like In the Night Kitchen by Sendak, or Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor by Mervyn Peake. I was a huge fan of Tintin books too, and Asterix & Obelix – I grew up in Switzerland and my dad would bring home the latest book from the airport each time he returned from a business trip. My brother and I would fight as to who’d get to read them first. My brother won, mostly.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
When I was a first year student at the Norwich School of Art, a third year student looked me square in the eye and said very earnestly: “While you’re here, learn to draw” It seems so obvious, but it can be easy to go through college without taking full advantage of your situation. I worked hard at it and I still practice every day. It is the fundamental foundation of all my work.
Your favourite ritual?
I don’t really have rituals, unless you can count aimless procrastination as one?
What’s the hardest thing about illustrating/making a children’s picture book?
The most difficult thing for me is choosing what to leave out. There is never enough space in a picture book format to include everything you want to. You can’t afford to be precious. You often need to cut out scenes that you are very fond of for the sake of the whole. This distilation process is the only way to end up with the purest and most efficient narrative, but you have to make sacrifices along the way. That can be tough.
What do you dislike most about yourself?
Easy. My bad eyesight.
What are you afraid of?
Bad things happening to people I love.
What advice would you give to people starting out in a career that involves creating kids’ books/illustrating?
The harsh part of my advice is to be honest with yourself from the outset. Are you good enough? It is a competitive and difficult industry. You need passion, tenacity and a thick skin to make a go of it. But, if you are ready for it, then go for it! It is a wonderful way to spend your time and it is hugely rewarding. Find your own voice, be true to yourself, and most importantly for illustrators…learn to draw. It is easy to let technology take the strain with the digital equipment available today, but computers are just another tool. If you base all your work on a strong ability to draw, then that will shine through no matter what your medium. Good luck!
What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?
(Cheesy answer alert.) Being a dad to my daughter Mary. But from a work point of view I would have to say having had books of my own published. I never lose sight of what an honour, thrill and pleasure it is to have your own work published. Long may it continue.
Grumbug! is published by Templar.