SCBWI Bologna 2008 Author-Illustrator Interview: Jana Novotny Hunter

Jana Novotny Hunter was born in Czechoslovakia and grew up in the U.K. She has written more than 50 books, including the award-winning Read My Lips. She lives by the River Thames with her dog and a piano. She was interviewed by Anita Loughrey in November 2007, as one of the speakers at the SCBWI Bologna Conference 2008 (scheduled for March 29 and March 30 in Bologna, Italy).

Are you a writer as well as an illustrator? If so, which comes first the images or the words?

JNH: As an author, I have about fifty books published, but I have not had any of my illustrated books published yet–my first series was canceled right at the last minute! I have illustrated for children’s TV. As an illustrator, the words usually come first.

Do you have favorite medium you work in? If so, did the medium choose you or did you choose it? Can you elaborate?

JNH: I like to use acrylics to get a broad painterly stroke and then continue working in Photoshop. I like the strong graphic feel, and I enjoy the freedom of speed and experimentation working with technology brings.

What are you currently working on?

JNH: A picture book concerning the anxieties and bonding of step-families.

If you were to illustrate yourself, what would you look like?

JNH: A young, slim gazelle! (I just love fantasy, don’t you?)

What is the hardest thing about being an author-illustrator?

JNH: My pictures don’t always live up to my expectations.

Did you always want to be an author-illustrator?

JNH: I started off wanting to illustrate and went to art school to do just that. But the writing somehow took over.

What were your other career choices, if any?

JNH: I was a textile designer and an art teacher. Now, I’m an editor. I love them all, but writing books has to be the best.

Do you have a favorite children’s book that you wish you had written and/or illustrated? Why?

JNH: I wish I’d written Where the Wild Things Are. It’s such an amazing example of dealing with childhood feelings and Sendak‘s drawing skills are superb.

How far ahead do you work? Six months? A year? Longer?

JNH: Usually about six months, depending on the format I’m working on. A chapter book is usually full-steam ahead from conception to finished draft, but a picture book can hang around in my head for years before it gels.

Tell us about Bear Studios.

JNH: The illustrator Sue Porter and myself felt that authors and illustrators worked in such isolation, it would be wonderful to have a meeting place to discuss work in progress and share ideas. We were soooo right!

What inspired you to write Read My Lips?

JNH: My brother and sister are both deaf, yet chose opposing ways of communication, with profound repercussions. I wanted to explore this division further in the deaf community and saw the war within a school for the deaf as a parallel to other marginalized groups that break down into minority factions.

Can you tell us briefly a little bit about your views on the relationship between illustrations and text in picture books?

JNH: The two elements should act like different instruments exploring the same music, sometimes one playing the main theme and then the other taking over. Both are of equal importance and can work in harmony or as a reaction to one another.

What does your work space look like?

JNH: Crammed with books and very cozy. It used to be a whole building, but since I moved to London, space is a premium.

What’s on your wall over your desk or drawing table?

JNH: Bookshelves with dolls and toys and colorful objects, jostling with the books. And often the story sentence of the book I’m working on.

How has your childhood influenced your illustrations and writing?

JNH: Like many people involved in children’s books, I didn’t have an idealized childhood, and I am always seeking to redress that balance by creating a secure world for children.

What was your favorite book as a child or adolescent?

JNH: I loved Anne of Green Gables for her imagination, lack of traditional prettiness, and use of big words. I admired the way she always tried to be good and failed. I suspected she was me.

Do you work with the television, radio, or stereo on? In cafés, nursing a half-cup of lukewarm tea, or in isolation?

JNH: I’m quite strict about silence and a good work ethic. But then I confound myself by coming up with my best ideas on the train or while I’m driving.

Do you have a blog or website to showcase your work, and if so, how often do you blog? Do you get a lot of feedback from readers? Has it proved to be useful?

JNH: I share a lovely website with a small group of illustrators/authors which is fairly new. It’s called Wiggly Pencil. Visit it, and give me feedback, please!

If you could be a character from one of your illustrations, who would you like to be and why?

JNH: I’d like to be Kendra, my dreamy little brown girl who dresses as a cat. She is so wild and different.

Is it difficult to illustrate somebody else’s writing? Has it ever caused any problems?

JNH: It is, but I can answer this better the other way around and say I have sometimes been aghast at how an artist has illustrated my writing. It doesn’t help that I have such vivid pictures in my mind of how it should look. How can they ever get it right with such a premise, poor things?

Cynsational Notes

Anita Loughrey writes teacher resources and children’s non-fiction. Her books have been published by A&C Black, Hopscotch and Brilliant Publications. She also writes regular features for Writers’ Forum in the U.K. about authors and the writing industry. She recently interviewed all 32 speakers for 2008’s Bologna Conference.

The SCBWI Bologna 2008 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations.

To register for the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2008, please visit and click on SCBWI@Bologna. Queries?