Check the Featured Illustrator Gallery to see a broad selection of illustration from John's recent titles.
|from Crinkle, Crackle, Crack! (Holiday House USA, 2015)|
Where it Started
The truth is I've only reached this far down the path through luck.
|The shipwreck from Peer Gynt, on the left from my music study book aged|
around 12 or 13, on the right the same scene from the picture book Peer Gynt
(Hyoronsha, Tokyo, 1990), drawn when I was 30. Some things don't change!
When I was fourteen, my dad bought me for Christmas a set of the Adrian Hill "teach yourself" guides to drawing and painting, and I turned to sketching things directly from life, still entirely in ballpoint pen on old exercise books. 2nd bit of luck... one day the class bully threw my school bag across the art room, scattering the contents everywhere.... Out came all my sketchbooks and drawings, to the surprise of the art teachers, who barely seemed to have noticed me until then. I was "discovered", suddenly the class mouse became the class master artist. For some reason I never got around to thanking the bully.
|School exercise books turned into Biro sketch pads|
I was impatient, I wanted to be an illustrator, now. So I spent sixth form years writing a sprawling fantasy novel. It seemed a logical way to begin - write the book so I could illustrate it! After being sensibly rejected by two publishers, the manuscript was consigned to my dad's loft. I swore I'd never write a children's story again, packed my bags and set off for art school.
Manchester and London
My fourth bit of luck was being accepted onto the Illustration course at Manchester Polytechnic, run by Tony Ross. This was 1978, Manchester was a factory of iconic music that brought me screaming into the contemporary world. Tony and the other tutors did their best to shake up my illustrations too - out with goblins and fairies, in with urban streets, primary colours and strong character. They were right, I had to move on, develop, constantly refresh! On the last day of the degree course in an act of post-punk pantomime I threw most of my student work out of the college window.
Whilst dabbling with music journalism for a year I worked on a new portfolio, and so came another lucky break, my first ever commission from Jill Coleman at A & C Black, to illustrate Fatbag, a children's novel by then-unknown Jeremy Strong, a book which still remains in print in paperback with my black & white drawings today, 32 years later. Other book commissions for text illustration followed - Get Lavinia Goodbody! (Andersen Press) and A Canoe in the Mist (Jonathan Cape). By 1984 I was working in a communal art studio in London sharing a room with Jane Ray, being fed a steady diet of pen & ink editorial jobs and colour book jackets.
London opened my eyes to art from other eras and countries. I began researching styles that had influenced my illustration heroes, particularly Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints... a new world was sucking me in. Pam Royds at André Deutsch then gave me my first trade picture book commission, Val Willis's The Secret in the Matchbox.
|from The Secret in the Matchbox (Andre Deutsch/Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 1988|
A year off in Japan seemed like a great idea - zip out, study the culture and language, zip back and carry on in old London town. Clients would hardly know I was gone. Oh little did I know! After months of soaking up the atmosphere in Tokyo's downtown Yanesen area and watching my funds evaporate, in another stroke of luck I was introduced to fashionable Parco Department Store. Parco commissioned me to do a series of posters, which led on to other big advertising jobs. Suddenly I was the latest "thing" from London. A simpler stripped down graphic version of my children's book style seemed to hit a nerve with the Japanese zeitgeist, one year turned into two, then five - in the end I spent twenty-one years as the resident overseas illustrator in Japan (also fashion model/actor and sometime DJ, though that's another story!).
|At the peak of things in the early 90's you couldn't get on a train without seeing my drawings somewhere.|
|Various picture books for Japanese publishers|
|The Ball, from Cinderella (Hikari no Kuni, 1996)|
|Text illustration to the Japanese edition of Charlie Bone |
and the Castle of Mirrors (Tokuma Shoten, 2006)
|Cover and interior cut from the Japanese editions of The Deptford Mice |
(Hayakawa Shobo, 2004)
As times moved on, I shifted more and more away from advertising back towards children's publishing. The internet opened new avenues, I joined SCBWI in 2001 and soon after was persuaded to co-found the Tokyo chapter. I re-connected with Stephen Roxburgh, the US editor who had bought the rights to Secret in the Matchbox, who commissioned me for new titles. I found an agent in the States. Through SCBWI I had the chance to travel to many countries, doors opened and connections were made that have led to several book commissions.
|from The Boat in the Tree by Tim Wynne-Jones (Front Street Inc, 2007)|
editor Stephen Roxburgh
|My first commission from Charlesbridge in the US was Julie Danneberg's |
historical novel Family Reminders (2009), a connection with the publisher
first made through SCBWI at Bologna.
Then lady luck came knocking again, only this time it wasn't good fortune she brought.
Return to the UK
At the end of 2007 my wife died very suddenly and unexpectedly. Soon after, in the consequent fall out, I found myself with my 4-year old daughter on a plane back to the UK. Everything changed once again. I'd been away for 21 years, it felt like starting over again from scratch. Fortunately I had friends in children's publishing. I especially thank all my dear colleagues in SCBWI British Isles for the support I received since our return here, I'm indebted to you all.
Returning to the UK has had a very beneficial effect on my work. Largely freed from editors with stylistic agendas, my books in recent years are closer to my core as an illustrator than they've ever been.
|From Marion Dane Bauer's Halloween Forest (Holiday House, 2012)|
|from Stone Giant - Michelangelo's David and How He Came to Be|
written by Jane Sutcliffe (Charlesbridge, USA, 2014)
|from Crinkle, Crackle, Crack! (Holiday House USA, 2015)|
It's tough to maintain a career as a children's illustrator today. The key is to diversify, explore widely and think laterally. Identify where your work fits in and exploit opportunities.
Always maintain the integrity of your imaginative world. Developing your style to the requirements of the marketplace is important, but never lose sight of the essence of what it is that makes you draw or paint. Your personality should flow through your work. Like chameleons we match our styles to the market, but our DNA remains the same.
John's website is www.jshelley.com.
His English language blog is Shelley Scraps.