Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Willow Dawson, Graphic Novelist with the Most-est, Chats with Susan Hughes

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Self-portrait by Willow Dawson

All this month, Open Book celebrates the amazing graphic novels and comics published in Ontario. I’d like to add to the hoop-la by introducing you to one very special kid lit graphic novelist, WILLOW DAWSON. The Toronto-based creator of books such as HYENA IN PETTICOATS (Puffin Books Canada) and LILA AND ECCO’S DIY COMICS CLUB (Kids Can), and the illustrator of NO GIRLS ALLOWED with Susan Hughes (Kids Can), Willow has been writing for 20 years and drawing for as long as she can remember. Willow is recently home from touring Prince Edward Island for TD Canadian Children's Book Week.

ME: Willow, you and I worked together on the non-fiction graphic novel NO GIRLS ALLOWED -- I wrote the text and you did the visuals. Ian Daffern created a video with us dicussing the book which readers can check out as well. Readers will want to check it out (see below) because it features many of the wonderful drawings you did for our book.

Since then you've published two other books which you both wrote and illustrated yourself. Can you describe which you prefer, doing only the visuals or having creative responsibility for the whole book, and why?

WILLOW DAWSON: You know, it’s funny because I think most people would assume that I’d prefer having full creative control, but I actually do really enjoy collaborating. I love seeing inside other people’s minds and learning about the processes they use. I love getting feedback I’d never have thought of because I’m often too attached to the work to see it objectively. It’s so wonderful when someone else can pinpoint something that isn’t working and offer thoughts on how parts of the story or an illustration could be improved.

I think collaboration really helps people to grow. I’ve learned so much about writing and the creative process with you and some of the other wonderfully talented authors I’ve had the chance to work with. I do also love planning and seeing my vision out on my own, but even then, I always give it to other people to look over.

ME: Can you explain your process in creating a graphic novel when you are both writer and illustrator? (For example, did you write the text first and then do an outline of the panels, etc?)

WILLOW DAWSON: I do write a script first and there’s a lot of cutting and revising and editing that happens before it goes to the art stages and then even after, too. Then I start breaking the panels down from words in the script into images. Then I tighten up these roughs … which we call the pencils stage. And then everything gets lettered and inked. In comics, because of how interconnected the words and images are, the script can’t be finalized until the inks are handed in.

ME: I love your graphic novel HYENA IN PETTICOATS, the story of suffragette Nellie McClung. After reading it, I really felt like I knew her and cared about her. I was so impressed by the choices she made in her life. You did a wonderful job sharing the details about her that made her come alive to me. Could you comment on how you did that with your words and your visuals?

WILLOW DAWSON: Thank you, Susan. Well, it was quite a challenge fitting all her most important accomplishments into only 100 pages. Nellie, as you know, wore a lot of different hats, from school teacher to best-selling author, to working in the suffrage movement, which included getting women the vote and helping them become legally considered "persons". She also became an MLA and of course, we know she was a wife, mother, and eventually a grandmother.

I felt it was important to give little bits of background information throughout so that the reader wasn’t left with a stack of facts and no context. That’s what text books are for. Some of that info comes out through the images in varying degrees of subtlety, like the borders at the bottoms of the pages which reflect the visual aesthetic popular at the time on farming implement catalogues and almanacs. Nellie felt that it was her rural upbringing and the hardships her family faced on the land that formed the underpinning to her success in politics. She often made reference to different animals, plants, and flowers that she loved and which were indigenous to the provinces she lived in, and so that’s what you see set into the page numbering.

I wanted Nellie’s voice to come through in the writing, too, since she was considered a master of words as both a public speaker and an author. Though the editor and I spent some time modernizing the language in the narration and dialogue, I did rely quite heavily on her autobiographies for the wording.

ME: Both NO GIRLS ALLOWED and HYENA IN PETTICOATS are books about real women in history. What are the challenges you face in illustrating people that once lived -- or are still living?

WILLOW DAWSON: Well, people who are still alive is a much harder question to answer because it’s so personal. I did base Ruby, the little sister in LILA AND ECCO’S DIY COMICS CLUB on my little sister and I think she was okay with that, but I tried to make the character silly in a sweet kid sister kind of way and still be respectful. I also gave her a different name.

In terms of people who once lived but are no longer, one of the hardest things is finding adequate visual reference. The further you go back historically, the less you can rely on actual photographs and the more you have to rely on artists' representations of the subject. We featured Hatshepsut in NO GIRLS ALLOWED, for instance, and obviously the camera hadn’t been invented yet when this pharaoh was around. So, to draw her, I had to refer to wall reliefs and sculptures of her, which were often more highly stylized than even remotely accurate.

ME: You have a very distinct style of illustration. It's easy to look at a piece of work and determine whether or not it was Willow Dawson who drew it. Did you deliberately work to create your own style, and if so, how did you develop it?

WILLOW DAWSON: I think that the style I’ve built probably comes more out of the limitations of my artistic abilities than a specific style I was trying to pursue. I can sit down and spend some time and draw a pretty realistic looking human with shading and good musculature, but I must admit, I do sometimes get a little lazy and take shortcuts.

Cartooning is all about shortcuts, anyway, since it’s so laborious and cartoonists historically tend to be under the pressure of not being paid what we’re worth in terms of both time and talent. Shortcuts are a staple in any cartoonist’s toolkit. Having said that, I’m always trying to push myself further and improve my skills while still maintaining the style that has developed out of my hand.

ME: What tips would you suggest to an artist just starting in the world of children's graphic novels or comics?

WILLOW DAWSON: Draw. Draw. Draw. Write. Write. Write. And read, and watch movies, and play different kinds of video games, and listen to good music, and eat foods from all over the world, and travel if you can but always be safe, and talk to people. In short, let yourself be curious and try to experience more of the world every day.

ME: Finally, could you share with us some of your favourite graphic novels or comics for kids?


THE ADVENTURES OF RABBIT AND BEAR PAWS by Chad Solomon, Christopher Meyer, and Tanya Leary
BONE by Jeff Smith

And for teens and up:
SKIM by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
THE PLAIN JANES by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg
AYA by Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie
PERSEPOLIS by Marjane Satrapi

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Susan Hughes

Susan Hughes is an award-winning author whose books include The Island Horse, Case Closed?, No Girls Allowed, Earth to Audrey and Virginia.

Go to Susan Hughes’s Author Page