Campaigning for a Bigger Picture

by Sylvia Thompson

Published on Tuesday 18th December 2007 in The Irish Times.

Now finally doing the work she always wanted to, illustrator Jane Ray is an articulate advocate for the formís possibilities. She talks to Sylvia Thompson

The London-based children's book illustrator, Jane Ray, was to the Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire, at the weekend to see Can You Catch a Mermaid?, the first professional theatrical adaptation (by Martin Murphy) of one of her books. "I was thrilled," she says. "It was interesting for me to see how the story was extended with different elements; folk songs, dance and audience participation. Because, when you're doing a picture book, it's the opposite . - you're cutting back on the words all the time." Sitting in Hughes and Hughes bookshop in Dun Laoghaire after signing copies of Can You Catch a Mermaid?, Ray enthuses about her job. "I always wanted to do illustration, but I got waylaid a bit by studying Ceramics at Middlesex University." she says. "I started making books at the age of five and I grew up in a home where art and music were encouraged. I was the arty one in the family, but at first I didn't realise it was possible to earn a living as an illustrator." Her first published work was a series of greeting cards for Roger la Borde, followed by some book jackets and, eventually, black-and-white illustrations for an Orchard Books poetry anthology. Since those early days, she has illustrated more than 30 books, including a richly illustrated version of Oscar Wilde's children's story, The Happy Prince, and equally decorative versions of Bible stories such as Noah's Ark, The Story of the Creation and The Story of Christmas. "Ideally, a book will take between eight and nine months," she Says. "It's quite intense, but I work quite quickly and get really immersed in what I'm doing. I love it, and I'm lucky to be doing what I love." Bay works in a studio at the end of the garden behind the north London home she shares with her husband, conductor David

Temple, and their three teenage children, Clara, Ellie and Joe. Citing artists Paul Klee and Marc Chagall as particular influences, Ray says she spends a lot of time in the British Museum looking at folk art from various countries around the world. In recent times, she adds, illustration is being valued as an art form in itself rather than as something that is less important than fine art. "There are several galleries that sell illustration in London now. It is becoming more valuable and people are collecting certain illustrators' work." She also speaks highly of Seven Stories, the centre for children's books, in Newcastle Upon Tyne (www.sevenstories.org.uk), which is building up an archive of children's book illustration. Although she sells original illustrations from her books through an online gallery, the Illustration Cupboard (www.illustration-cupboard.com), she remains relatively unenthusiastic about computer-generated images in and of themselves. "I think there ate interesting computer-generated images, but I wouldn't find it satisfying to work that way," she says. Describing herself as a "bit of a purist", she also likes books to be books and toys to be toys and has campaigned for greater prominence for picture books in bookshops. "I was on the committee of the children's writers and illustrated books committee of the Society of Authors for four years," she says. "It's important that book stores stock lots of picture books by various illustrators because it is only when people can see and pick up picture books that they will know if they want to buy them."

She also mentions the current Book Trust campaign in Britain to promote picture books. Called Big Picture (www.bigpic-ture.org.uk), the campaign aims to expand the market for picture books and increase the supply on sale. As part of the campaign, the Book Trust is inviting publishers to nominate the best new picture-book illustrators (nominees must be resident in Brit-am and have had their first picture book published in or since 2000) for an award to be presented in February 2008. Encouraging illustrators to have an inclusive approach to children with disabilities in their work is something else that Jane Ray feels passionate, about. "I'm involved in an exciting new project called In the Picture (www.childreninthepic-ture.org.uk), where we are creating an image bank where illustrators can go to get ideas on how to include children with disabilities in their picture books," she says, She explains that the project is not about making more books specifically aimed at children with disabilities, but about the inclusion of, say, a child with Down Syndrome or a child with a hearing aid in the images within stories. "The important thing is that all children see something of themselves in their books and it's also important that children with disabilities are exposed to mythic stories and not just taught functional stuff on how to get by," she says. While most of her illustrated books are aimed at children, Jane Ray has also illustrated books for adults.

"Historically, from medieval times through Victorian and Georgian periods there has been a strong tradition of exquisitely illustrated books for very wealthy people," she says. "It is only recently we have stopped putting pictures in books for adults. I love the idea of adults having pictures in their books. It's a great shame that you're not allowed to have illustrations in your book if you're over seven."

Can You Catch a Mermaid? continues at the Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire, until Jan 6.

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