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An interview with the illustrator of Dare

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Polly Noakes with Dare

We’re celebrating Disability Pride Month! All children need and should be able to see themselves, their friends and classmates in their books! In 2019, we interviewed Polly Noakes, the fantastic illustrator of our poetry book Dare! She told us why it was important to represent deaf and BAME characters in children’s books. Read below!

What does the message of the book mean to you?

For me, the essence of Dare is – dare to be yourself, be your best, be courageous, authentic AND dare to anything you want to be! These are very much some of my guiding rules for life and how I brought my own children up, because it is how I was reared. I am eternally grateful to my mother for instilling this sense of ‘dare’ into my sisters and me. My mother was an advocate that everyone, no matter their background should be able to reach their potential, especially children whom she championed.

When I saw the text for Dare I was immediately drawn to it and of course it reminded me of my inspirational mother.

Polly Noakes with her dog Bertie

Can you tell us about the process of illustrating Dare? How did you translate each verse into an image?

My process always started with a bit of limbering up, a brisk walk with Bertie my dog (where a lot of my ideas start), putting the kettle on, reading and rereading the text. Then out came my cheap paper and I would start with loose scribbles which became ideas with no preciousness attached to them. I had a few brainstorming meetings at Tiny Owl, which I always valued, as it gave insight into how others translated the verses, offering ideas which I hadn’t considered. Although I did resist some of them, it was very much a team effort.

When I had a concept I would draw my characters in pencil as a guide and then redraw them very loosely on a light box using a bamboo dip pen and ink. I did loads, many not quite right, again using cheap paper, this stopped me tightening up for fear of wasting paper. My studio floor and walls were covered with kids! I then added colour separately, using gorgeous think textured watercolour paper and combined the line and colour digitally. Then I created texture from anything I found by using very fine paper and crayons and added this digitally onto the illustrations. It was important to work loosely for this project, so i could inject the energy of children into the illustrations. I love working like this too.

The children in the book are from a range of ethnic backgrounds. Why do you think this is important?

All children need and should be able to see themselves, their friends and classmates in their books. To truly reflect society and those living in it.

Lots of the characters in Dare are based on my friends when I was growing up in London and Cambridge. My best friend’s family were originally from Hong Kong and I formed a close friendship with two Vietnamese sisters who were refugees, although at the time I didn’t realise it. Later I went to school with children originating from Iran, France, Nigeria and South America. I loved it, all those wonderful cultures and customs, it was amazing. I feel lucky I was brought up in a culturally diverse environment, so it feels natural to draw children from different ethnic backgrounds.

One of the main characters in the book uses a hearing aid. Why did you choose to depict her this way?

Again it was based on experience, I know quite a few babies and toddlers with a hearing impairment and using aids. And at school I had a classmate who wore one. It was important that the focus isn’t on the character’s hearing aid but on what she is doing, creating a protest poster! It doesn’t define her, she just happens to wear one.

What was it like working with author Lorna Gutierrez?

Sadly we haven’t met yet due to living in different countries. But we chat via Twitter post and hopefully one day we will meet. It would be great to illustrate another of Lorna’s books as we have a lovely connection now with Dare and probably have the same outlook on life.

Polly working on the illustrations for Dare

What is the most daring thing you did when you were a child?

Tough one as I was quietly feisty and very wilful. So, I did quite a few daring things but not to gain attention, just to express myself. Some I couldn’t repeat here, as it not setting a good example! However, at 7, I remember a girl being repeatedly bullied, so I told the teacher, and didn’t worry about the outcome for myself socially. We became good friends, I didn’t care that I was also excluded by playing with her. Later, as a adults she got in touch with me and told me how much my friendship meant, which was so lovely to know. Therefore, looking back I dared not to care what others thought of me, I liked her and disliked the way she was treated for being different. I dared not to run with the crowd and to stay authentic to myself, not try to fit in by compromising my beliefs.

How do you feel now the book is finished?

I feel really proud of my contribution to Dare. And being part of what Tiny Owl are doing in terms of being different, creating books and a list that is different. I also love the fact my illustrations from Dare are being used to head their campaign for Diversity Now.

  • Watch a sneak peek reading of Dare by Lorna Gutierrez
  • Read a blog about author’s visit to London
  • Enjoy a sneak peek reading of Dare by the author!

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