Gabby Dawnay - A Lion & Dragonfly Interview
I cannot express how thrilled I was to connect with Gabby Dawnay. I am convinced that her adorable "If I Had..." series will go down in history as some of the classic children's picture books of our time. She was kind enough to answer my questions from her home in London. Her answers brim with wisdom, wit, and, as she puts it, a dollop of humour - I hope you enjoy getting to know her as much as I did!
Tell us about how you came up with the idea for your books.
Books come about in all sorts of different ways - there’s inspiration everywhere! In nature, conversations, events, children… Sometimes story ideas just pop into my head and write themselves. The If I had series of books began with imagining what it would be like to own a pet dinosaur - a little feature Alex drew for Okido Arts and Science kids magazine. I expanded it into If I had a dinosaur and away we flew!
How did you come to collaborate with Alex Barrow on these books?
Alex and I have been working together on Okido magazine for about 14 years. We’d already collaborated on several books together before If I had a dinosaur.
You have published four books in this series - do you have a favorite?
This is going to sound really corny, but with each book we do I think ,’This one is the best - this is my favourite book (…so far)!’ Dinosaur was special because it was the first. Then I fell in love with Sloth the more I learned about how wonderful sloths are… then we went completely wild with Unicorn, and Octopus was so beautiful, and then came the documentary, My Octopus Teacher… But If I had (tee-hee) to choose, maybe Unicorn, because the TV spread in that book is my absolute favourite piece of Alex’s artwork (so far…!!)
Have you always wanted to be an author?
Yes, I think I have…an author or an actor. As a child, I thought I’d be either of those. Art, English and drama (oh and biology) were my favourite subjects. I was an only child for 10 years and spent a lot of time on my own, reading and drawing and creating and performing. I grew up and took a rather circuitous route to get here, but found my way to becoming a children’s writer eventually!
Who has most inspired your writing life?
As a kid, I was obsessed by CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe books. I loved Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass… I loved any book I could escape into. All Roald Dahl’s books (including his fabulously creepy & clever Tales of the Unexpected). Oh and the brilliant comic poems of Ogden Nash! I don’t think these writers are particularly popular at the moment (some for good reasons) but their books took me to magical worlds when I was young.
What’s been the most surprising thing about being a children’s author?
When you write about things like unicorn poop or the practicalities of day to day life with a kangaroo… or the easy, jovial friendship between a duck and a cat, or what frogspawn sounds like or how a tardigrade would talk… you do have moments of thinking, “I can’t believe this is my job!” But is that surprising? … Possibly not. More surprising is that I like deadlines and I’m very strict about things like structure, metre and grammar etc. That this IS a job requiring discipline and focus, just like any other. That you do get better the more you work. And that it’s not easy. Ultimately, getting paid to use your imagination is strange but wonderful! I’m sometimes surprised by how quickly my goalposts have changed. At first it was amazement at getting published, now I feel driven to write more and more…
What do you think are the ingredients for a great children’s book?
A great idea, executed in the best way possible, with engaging characters, a big dollop of humour and a bit of something special and different that you can’t quite put your finger on. There are some beautiful, brilliant and hugely innovative children’s books out there - so many more than when I was a kid, or even since my own kids were little kids - and they can be about anything and everything. So much more diversity and inclusivity - it’s wonderful. I feel hugely proud to be part of this great industry, and I don’t take it for granted or carry my responsibility lightly.
What is your hometown?
What is your favorite place to write or illustrate?
At home, at my desk/around the house on my laptop. Without anyone else there, preferably - unless they bring tea and cake at regular intervals! (It’s been a bit ‘full’ of our grown/growing-up kids since the pandemic… much as I adore them.)
Do you have a favorite indie bookstore? What makes it amazing?
I have a few. My kids grew up in Tales on Moon Lane, a beautiful children’s bookstore near where we live. The owner, *Tamara, is inspirational and was always a warm and supportive presence in the store, along with her always-enthusiastic and knowledgeable team. Tales has blossomed into a few children’s bookshops, including a new store in China. And for grown-ups, I love tiny Herne Hill Books because in spite of being so mini it always seems to have what you need (and will get it in the next day if not). Daunt Books for Travellers on Marylebone High Street (no longer strictly ‘indie’) but so very beautiful, it remains a magical place to visit. Plus my husband used to work there when he was young!
(*Tamara McFarlane is a successful children’s author herself.)
Do you listen to music while you are working? If so, what’s currently on your playlist?
If I’m illustrating, (for a children's magazine called Eco Kids planet) then I do listen to music (current fave tracks are: So Good At Being in Trouble/Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Summer Sun/Ruen Brothers, Song For Zula/Phosphorescent, Settle/Hurray for the Riff Raif, Immerse Yourself/Marlon Dakota Becker, Some Velvet Morning/Nancy Sinatra, Lee Hazelwood, Solitary Man/Neil Diamond, Darkest Light/Jono McCleery and He Lays in the Reins/Calexico & Iron & Wine, Thinking of a Place/The War on Drugs and Jealous Guy/ Donny Hathaway from my never-ending ‘Lockdown’ playlist… plus anything by The Grateful Dead, Sufjan Stevens, Beirut, Bon Iver and dreamy, folksy Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling…).
Note from MB: I was so intrigued by this playlist, Gaby shared her Spotify version of it for us all to enjoy!
I can’t listen to music when I’m writing!
What was your favorite picture book growing up? and/or What picture book do you never tire of reading to children?
I adored all the Beatrix Potter books - particularly the terrifying Tale of Samuel Whiskers… still makes me shudder. I also really loved the Ladybird Fairytale series (not strictly ‘picture-books’, but the illustrations are imprinted on my soul) and the quirky details of Richard Scarry’s lively illustrations always made me smile. The one (and only?) picture-book that’s stuck in my head is Two Can Toucan by David McKee. I remember thinking it was such a clever, funny story!
Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is a keeper. Probably my favourite children’s book of all time is Would You Rather? by John Burningham. Neither I nor any of my own kids ever got tired of its brilliant silliness and hilarity!
What children’s book (other than your own) are you recommending to friends at the moment?
Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love because it is pure and utter joy. I love everything about it.
It’s summertime. We have to know: What is your favorite ice cream flavor?
Peanut stracciatella (from ‘Minus 12 degrees’ a craft ice cream place in Herne Hill, London).
Which superpower would you most like to have?
Flight. No question.
What’s the last book you couldn’t put down?
Girl, Woman, Other by the brilliant Bernardine Evaristo. Clever, funny, wise.
What museum would you most like to spend the night in?
Sir John Soane’s Museum, London. I’d just pretend I lived in the house and would stay up through the night, hoping to see a ghost or two by candlelight…
If you weren’t an author or illustrator, what would you most like to be? What is your (other) dream career?
An actress (see early career ambitions!)
What would you want your ten year old self to know?
Take opportunities when they present themselves. Believe in yourself and don’t be afraid of anyone. We’re all just human beings and everything has a habit of working itself out.
What are you currently working on?
More books in the If I had… series for Thames & Hudson, I’ve just finished a book I’ve loved every minute of writing for Magic Cat publishing, and I’m about to finish a collection of stories and poems for Wide Eyed Editions/Quarto. I’m also writing for the third series of CBeebies preschooler show, Messy Goes to Okido (based on Okido magazine). Plus I always have a secret project or two on the back-burner (!)