I grew up on the southernmost tip of Africa close to the sea where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean. As a child I loved books and drawing and making up stories. I studied to be an art teacher and I've travelled throughout Africa and to the States but also through China, Siberia and Vietnam. Now I live in London – which I love but I think my heart is always a little in Africa so I go back there often.
I used to write novels and won two IBBY Honour books but now I write mostly picture books which are translated into many languages. One story was adapted into a play with a huge almost life-size giraffe.
If I'm feeling really energised I get up early and go to a yoga session. But if I've an idea forming & I'm quite excited about it, I grab a cup of coffee and a bowl of fruit & yoghurt and sit down at my desk. It means I'm sometimes still in my PJ's quite late in the morning... as I forget about time. My room is opposite a lovely square with beautiful trees so there's plenty of time for dreaming.
If I'm stuck in my writing, I go off to the Victoria & Albert Museum or the Natural History Museum, which are both around the corner and full of displays that can spark an idea. If I lived in New York I would rush over to the MoMa.
Writing for picture books is very different to writing a novel. Sometimes I can be working on 5 different projects all on the same day... that's when I need lots of cups of coffee!!!
I think because I come from Africa, I want readers to be excited and curious about nature and animals they might never see. I love being in what we call 'the bush' which is the wilds... really, really far from other people.
Here it's not just the large animals like elephants that intrigue me, but small moments like watching a cluster of butterflies drinking from the mud next to the huge Chobe River alongside paw-prints of lions that've passed through in the night or the newly sloughed skin of a snake. I hope to create a sense of awe and to capture a reader's imagination without giving them a blow by blow account.
Of course without having great illustrators to illustrate my stories, I'd be nowhere.
I think I'd like to be a photographer or a film-maker. Both of those professions are also about storytelling.
To begin with I write on scraps of paper. Finally when I feel I'm getting somewhere with an idea I write on my laptop and then I can't leave the story alone. I change words and then the next day change them back again and on and on... all the time reading the piece aloud. I try to tell the story as a storyteller would... without the printed word just from my head. I search for pictures that will help me visualise the story. Because I used to be an art teacher, the visual is important to me. I start making a scrapbook... I make one for each book... of the pictures and of my ideas and of things I'm trying to explore in the story.
Finally after many, many drafts I send it off to my agent and she sends it off to a publisher.
Sometimes I suggest an illustrator. If the publisher agrees this is great as its wonderful collaborating with illustrators you know well. And often when the rough dummy of the book is made the text changes and words fall away. I love this when words become less and the story tighter.
Yes a new book TIGER WALK has just been published. In it I've tried to explore childhood fears and used ones that I can recall being scared of... like darkness, or being on a high ride at a funfair, or swimming in unknown water where creatures could lurk. Inspired by seeing Henri Rousseau's painting of a tiger, the boy in the story draws a tiger that steps out of his drawing that night and invites him to go for a walk with him in the dark.
Of course at the MoMa there is that wonderful painting called The Gypsy with a lady sleeping in the moonlight as a lion sniffs at her. This could also have been the inspiration for a picture book about fear.
I like all my books. Usually its the last one I've written that I like the most. But I think I would have to choose ZERAFFA GIRAFFA which is based on a true story about a giraffe that was uprooted from her home in Africa and taken to Paris in the early 1800's when no one in Europe had ever seen a giraffe. It was made into a play that ran for 9 weeks in London. And it was magical to see how the story was transformed with music and actors and life-size puppets of 'my' giraffe!