SCBWI-BI CONFERENCE 2017 Q&A with Author-Illustrator Alex T Smith

Award winning author-illustrator Alex T. Smith is one of the keynote speakers at the SCBWI-BI Conference 2017 and we at SCBWI are absolutely delighted that he will be joining us. Patrick Miller talks to Alex about his inspiration, illustration process and career.

Author-illustrator Alex T. Smith is the award-winning creator of the bestselling Claude series, which is published in 16 languages worldwide, as well as numerous picture books including Little Red and the Hungry Wolf, Hector and the Big Bad Wolf and Catch Us if you Can-Can. This year sees the publication of Mr Penguin: The Lost Treasure, the first book in a new series; Egg Box Dragon, the last book from Richard Adams, as well as collaborations with David Almond and Juno Dawson. Alex is also widely acclaimed for his work illustrating children’s classics: he won Children’s Book Winner of the World Illustration Awards 2016 for his illustrations in a new edition of Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmatians; he has created new art for books by Enid Blyton, Eva Ibbotson and Richmal Crompton. Alex has won the UKLA Picture Book Award and the Sainsbury’s Children’s Book Award, and been shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Award. He was the official World Book Day illustrator in 2014. Oh, and Claude debuts as a TV programme on Disney Junior in early 2018!

On inspiration…

Can you tell us about the artists or illustrators that you loved as a child?
I loved Quentin Blake’s scratchy lines and the lovely emotive pictures of EH Shepherd. I absolutely LOVED Janet Ahlberg’s work. So detailed and characterful and funny. My influences now are, amongst others, Hilary Knight’s fabulous illustrations for the Eloise books, as well as the work created for animated films by companies like Disney and Pixar and Laika.

And how about more recently; who has been the most recent artist you’ve discovered and love?
I think Twitter and Instagram are brilliant ways of connecting and finding new artists. Through both of these social media sites I’ve found lots of great artists, many of whom are working for large animation studios. Through Instagram, I recently discovered the work of Victoria Semykina. There’s a real liveliness and energy to her work.

On your career…

At what point did you realise that you wanted to write and illustrate for children? Or was that initially something that, as an aspiring illustrator, found you?
I’ve always loved books and reading, and have drawn from the moment I could hold a pencil, and being an author and illustrator was always something I wanted to be from the age of four.
I did consider many other careers and very nearly went to university to study costume and set design for theatre and film, but I always came back to books. I’m very lucky to be doing the job I always dreamed of doing.

What was the first commission you received that really meant something?
All commissions and jobs I work on mean something to me as I only really work on projects that I feel are special. My first book commission is obviously very special to me, as is when my publisher Hodder took on the first Claude books, as I was worried they might be too weird! After all, a main character who is quite a flamboyant sentient sock is a little odd...!

How has Claude, as a visual character, evolved? Has the process been similar for Mr Penguin?
Claude has really evolved from the first three books. His design has become streamlined and has altered as my style has developed over the years. I always try to keep my work fresh by developing and changing it while learning and challenging myself with each new job I do. As the Claude stories have developed and become more involved, the illustrations have become more detailed.

The process of finding a visual style for Mr Penguin was in some ways similar to Claude because it’s a character-based young fiction book and the pages have to be designed carefully around the text, and be both exciting and funny. But Mr Penguin has been an idea in my head for quite a long time so I’ve had a chance to have a really good think about how I wanted the book and characters to look.

I also work very closely with my incredible designer, Alison Still. We’ve worked together for ten years now and she has the most brilliant eye and always brings something so sophisticated, stylish and unique to each project we work on. I’m very lucky to work with her.

How do you see the range of children’s illustration developing over the next few years?
I think what’s really exciting about children’s illustration at the moment is how broad and diverse it is in terms of style. There’s room for all sorts of different ways of working and creating amazing artwork from the traditional to the very sophisticated and graphic-led. I also hope to see diversity itself being something that continues to develop. We are seeing more inclusivity in children’s books, but I really want to see more of this in the future. There’s room for all children to be represented in books.

Has there been a moment in your career that’s felt especially magnificent?
I’ve been incredibly lucky over the past 11 years of being an author and illustrator. I’ve worked on so many exciting books, including having the chance to illustrate one of my favourite books - The Hundred and One Dalmatians. I have to say that one of the most magnificent moments has been my Claude books being green-lit as a TV show with Disney. That’s an unbelievably exciting opportunity and I have been having an absolute ball working with the production company Sixteen South on the series, and seeing my characters coming to life on screen has been utterly magical!

Let’s talk process…

It’s wonderful seeing how your final artwork often closely reflects your sketchbook work. What’s your usual process from sketchbook to final? Do you take a specific sketch directly to final art, or do you redraw for the final artwork?
Thank you. I love drawing in my sketchbook. I’m really trying to make time to keep up with drawing in there as it often gets set aside with the business of day-to-day life. I sometimes take work directly from my sketchbook to final artwork, but mostly I try to keep the energy and freshness of my sketchbook work on my final artwork. I do that by doing really, really loose roughs and then working out most of the illustration whilst I’m drawing it out. It means I often have to start a few times, but it seems to keep the freshness I like. If the piece of work is to be in colour, I take my pencil work onto the computer and colour in digitally as I’m too clumsy and dithery about colours to work traditionally. It’s much too stressful! But all my line and tonal work is hand drawn and that’s the bit I love doing. The computer is a tool that makes the colouring in bit (and all my changes of mind) a lot easier!

Which part of the creative process do you find the hardest? Has there been a personal demon that you’ve now vanquished?
I sometimes find colour a bit tricky. I think that’s because I tend to do quite a lot of black and white work and then colour can be a bit of a tight swerve for my brain! I usually get there eventually though and really enjoy it. I love limited palettes so that tends to make life a bit easier!

What’s your average working day like? What’s the ratio of graft to attending to your gorgeous pups?
My days DO involve attending to my gorgeous (but naughty) pooches quite a bit. I’m essentially a live-in 24-hour butler to them, but they are such silly sausages I don’t mind it! I also have five rescue chickens who live in the garden and are always up to something so I have to keep quite a close eye on them.

In amongst all that, I tend to work on whatever is the most pressing job. I’m usually working on several jobs at the same time at different stages so it’s a case of working through my to-do list which often also includes emails and, whilst we are in production with the CLAUDE TV show, approving and checking bits that are sent to me by the production team.

I tend to work quite long days but try to switch off afterwards by going swimming or to a yoga class or lying on the sofa covered in snoring dogs. I do enjoy a good nap!

I tend to write best when I’m on the move. Writing on trains is always a good time to get on with the story side of things. Cafes and waiting rooms are also good places where I can get stuck into writing. I do all the editing in the studio though (‘helped’, of course, by at least one dog sitting on my lap!)

Do you dip in and out of different projects in one day or focus on one project at a time?
I try to focus on one project in a day, but often split my week so I will work on one project for a few days and then switch to something else for the other days. It really depends on what needs doing and by when!

And some final words for other illustrators…

We’re focusing on humour for this year’s conference; your work always looks like there’s a sense of humour at play, even when you’re being ‘scary’. Do you have any words of wisdom for illustrators on how you make illustrations invoke humour so well?
Ooh, that’s a tricky one to answer. I think you have to think about what makes you laugh - in books but also TV and film, etc. and see if you replicate that sort of thing in your illustrations. It’s difficult though as everybody’s sense of humour is different.

A good thing to do might be to really start people watching and noting down anything funny. Life, I think, is often absurd. People are brilliantly odd and bonkers and you only get to notice that if you keep your eyes and ears open.

Do you have any words of wisdom to the many illustrators (myself included!) finding it tough to get their work on the nation’s bookshelves?
I think one thing you can do is look for inspiration in places other than books. Obviously DO look and read other children’s books etc., but expand on that by watching films and animation and pull ideas from them and other sources of storytelling.

I think it’s very important to infuse your work with your own personality. Don’t create work because you think it’s what people want or because you see similar things being successful. Have the courage to create work that makes you happy or laugh. Obviously, as part of that you do need to listen to the opinions and thoughts of the people like designers/art directors/editors etc., but always try to retain your “you-ness” in your work.

I think another good thing to do is to not think “I want to be the next *insert successful author/illustrators name*”, but rather, “I want to be the first *insert your own name*”.

You can find Alex on Twitter @Alex_T_Smith and Instagram @mralextsmith.

*All images are credited to Alex T. Smith

Patrick Miller is an illustrator of middle grade chapter books and illustrated fiction. For this year’s conference, he has pulled together keynote speakers, workshop leaders and the 1-1 portfolio reviewers from the best of the biz to give illustrators and author-illustrators, unpublished and published alike, a fun and productive conference. His website is and you can find him on Instagram @patchmiller.


A. M. Dassu is a member of the Words & Pictures editorial team. She manages the Events team and SCBWI BI events coverage.
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