Croquet, Lindy Hop and Other Stories - Interview with Alexis Deacon

At the recent Picture Book Retreat Anne-Marie Perks had the opportunity to work with and interview award winning author illustrator Alexis Deacon, here's what she found out.

I have to start this interview with introducing Alexis Deacon's work in Jim's Lion written by Russell Hoban. I don't think I can say it better than John Lloyd in his book review here. His word was jaw-dropping, mine would be surprising, awesome and I don't think it too much to say, spiritual. The words were few but no less impactful in combination with the visual sequences that immediately put us into Jim's inner world. It was only with the second or third read through that I realised the only thing we see is Jim's world. Not the nurse, the doctors or even his parents. The best thing I can say is, read it.

Alexis playing a bit of croquet at the Picture Book Retreat last July.

Alexis Deacon is perhaps best known for his picture book Beegu, a New York Times best illustrated book of the year and shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway medal. His first book Slow Loris was shortlisted for the Blue Peter Award, and he has had many other books since including another book written by Russell Hoban, Soonchild. In 2008, he was chosen by Booktrust as one of the ten best new illustrators of the last decade. Fabulous accolades no doubt and he is approachable and generous with his students on the Cambridge MA Children's Illustration course, fellow illustrators and writer illustrators.

Well, time to get on with our interview questions!

The Image above and the following two images compare the composition and image choices at dummy book level and final print spreads.

1. Anne-Marie: Do you consider yourself an illustrator or an author illustrator?
Alexis: I aspire to being a storyteller, through whatever medium, be it performance, spoken word, drawing, painting, writing, really whatever. Having said that, I think that the majority of my experience and expertise is in illustration.

2. Anne-Marie: You have an amazing understanding of visual storytelling, how did you develop that skill?

Alexis: Ever since I have been working in publishing I have been trying to teach myself about the process of telling stories through images. Initially it was just a case of trying lots of different solutions before one felt right for the particular task in hand. More recently I have been a little more systematic about it. When I look at an image I ask myself how I feel about it, what information it is conveying to me, then I ask myself what cues in the image might be prompting those feelings or what specific content is delivering that information. I am also very interested to know how other people perceive images, to see where we agree and where we differ. Through asking questions such as these, I believe it is possible to better understand how images can be used to tell a story. In any given story there will be a blend of fact and feeling and being able to work with these two strands is essential to getting the story across.

Alexis keeps sketchbooks going all the time, doing innumerable observational drawings that eventually feed into his visual storytelling.

3. Anne-Marie: Can you tell us a bit about your working process? How do you get started?
Alexis: My process varies but it boils down to something like this:
First I will have a thought, that thought will be vague and for the most part formless, but there will be something about it that excites me or moves me in some way. For a while it will just swim around in my head until I feel I can see how it might become a tale and especially how it might end. In the meantime I might have been drawing characters or recording scraps of dialogue. As soon as I have an ending, I know I have the potential for something that might become a story someone else would like to read. At that point I try and complete a script, or a very rough dummy if it is a comic or picture book, where the images are going to be carrying a lot of the weight. The purpose of this dummy is just to work out what will go where, at what size and what approximate shape. As far as possible I try to leave all of the fun parts of the drawings to the end, the artwork stage. If I am lucky enough to secure funding for the project from the dummy, I will go on to produce the artwork, matching the technique used to what I feel is appropriate for the requirements of that particular story and whenever possible using the earliest acceptable version to avoid overworking.

From observational drawings to setting and character exploration.

4. Anne-Marie: What is your usual medium, or do you use a variety?

Alexis: I think I slightly answered this in the previous question. I do like to chop and change. I prefer water based media as you can use several of them in the same image, taking advantage of their different strengths. The fact that they are water based rather than oil based means they dry quicker, are easier to clean up after and don't smell so much, all of which are important considerations when you work from home!

Rough drawing for print spread below from Jim's Lion.

5. Anne-Marie: In terms of approach, can you briefly discuss the differences in illustrating for different age groups and types of books?
Alexis: I believe the fundamental difference in illustrating for older children and adults is that you can rely on them having a certain level of experience of the world. The joy of writing for the very young is that you know they have a much narrower frame of reference so everything has to be much more distilled and direct. Also it is worth considering how they might relate it to the stuff they may recognise: school, family and so on.

6. Anne-Marie: Can you tell us about breaking into children's publishing and your journey - briefly? Was there a defining moment?
Alexis: I'm not sure that I have broken in! I have had several things published but breaking in implies that once you are over that line everything gets easier. Actually I have to work just as hard to get stories accepted now as when I was first starting out. My typical ratio is about four 'nos' to one 'yes' although one difference is that these days I can do my own 'nos' for the most part! My first book was published after I sent a series of book dummies to Caroline Roberts, who was then an editor at Random house. Each one was rejected but with a little advice alongside. I tried to take on board what was said and interpret it in my own way and eventually it paid off‚

Above and the following two images are from Jim's Lion, dummy roughs to final print.

7. Anne-Marie: Are you able to share any new titles or projects you are working on now?
Alexis: I'm trying to build up a body of work in comics at the moment. I have two graphic novel projects that I am working on. One, charting the fortunes of Mr Punch's second family is all written and illustrated in rough; the other, which is about a sorceress hired to find a worthy
successor to a famous chief, is about half done.

8. Anne-Marie: Tell us about your studio or work space(s).
Alexis: I work standing up on an architect's drawing board or sat on the sofa. Both are in my living room at home.

9. Anne-Marie: If you could sit down and have a cup of coffee or glass of wine with three living illustrators or author illustrators, whom you've not met yet, who would they be? Do you want to say why?
Alexis: Well Sendak and Steig died recently otherwise they would have been top of that list, I'm going to say Iain McCaig, Christophe Blain and Joann Sfar. Not sure we'd be able to understand one another but it would be fun trying. Iain McCaig I would want to meet for one book alone, which I looked at so many times when I was a boy that by now all the pages are loose inside. The book was called Casket of Souls. I still think it is pretty great if you are into Fantasy, which I am.

The other two are French comic artists and major influences for me over the last ten years. I've heard Joann Sfar talk a couple of times but never really met him. Christophe Blain has been a huge influence, especially his Isaac the Pirate books. I would dearly love to meet them both.

10. Anne-Marie: What's the one thing most people don't know about you?

Alexis: That I dance Lindy Hop in a troupe called the Rhythm Rascals? That I am a huge pro wrestling fan? That I am one of only one thousand people in the world to own 1/6 scale replica of Jabba's Palace?

Anne-Marie: (I know I said only 10 questions) Consider this a bonus question:
11. How does teaching illustration influence your own work?

Alexis: Probably this requires as long an answer as any I've given above but as it is the last one I shall be brief. Teaching has changed the way I think a great deal but two lessons stand out. I don't think you truly know what you believe until you try and explain it to someone else. Never stop learning from what is around you, especially other people. There is more to learn in this world than you could ever possibly hope to understand‚ and that's a good thing!


Anne-Marie Perks is the Illustrator Coordinator of SCBWI British Isles.


  1. Oops, formatting ruined Alexis' answer in number 6! It should read:

    My typical ratio is about four ‘no’s to one ‘yes’, although one difference is that these days I can do my own ‘no’s for the most part!

  2. Thank You very much Anne-Marie - Alex's answer about visual storytelling is particularly interesting -
    "When I look at an image I ask myself how I feel about it, what information it is conveying to me, then I ask myself what cues in the image might be prompting those feelings or what specific content is delivering that information."

    Also I wonder what differences there are between the standing up pictures and the sofa pictures? Next time can you ask that!

  3. Hey, if I'd known Alexis was a lindy hopper, we could have had a dance at the Retreat!


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