Nicola Colton is an Irish illustrator and author. Her new story Jasper and Scruff is the first in a hilarious, heart-warming series of books for 5-8 year olds. Here she talks about her work, which includes A Dublin Fairytale and Zim Zam Zoom!
I wondered if you could start by introducing us to Jasper, the main character in your new book Jasper & Scruff? Who or what inspired him?
Jasper is a sophisticated cat who has it all, a fancy apartment, a collection of bowties, a library and an art collection.. He likes the finer things in life and wants friends that match his lifestyle. He really wants to join The Sophisticats, a snooty cat club who get invited to all the glitziest parties. Jasper is quite materialistic and upwardly mobile at the beginning of the book and thinks that having upper crust friends will complete him. He organises a lavish dinner party to impress The Sophisticats but it doesn’t quite go as planned. Scruff the puppy keeps showing up and The Sophisticats aren’t what he thought they were. Through Scruff’s friendly insistence Jasper makes a new friend and learns not to judge others based on appearance or perceived status. Jasper started as a sketch of a cat sitting in a chair reading a book and he really felt like he needed a story. He looked suave and I wondered where he might live and what else he might be interested in. He’s also a little inspired by my uncle who likes to collect art and books and is also part of a club which takes him on trips around the world. He’s not entitled like Jasper is at the start of the book as he has never forgotten his working class roots. I was always fascinated when we would visit his house as it was a treasure trove of curiosities and colourful objects. When he visited, he would always bring presents and they were usually art books, which introduced me to movements like the Impressionists and Surrealists from an early age. I didn’t totally understand them but I loved the colour and creativity on each page.
Jasper and Scruff are very different. What do you think they each bring to their relationship?
I thought Scruff would be the ideal joyful, messy character to disrupt Jasper’s ‘perfect’ life. It was important for their personalities to jar initially, as the main thing Jasper learns as the story progresses is to not be so judgemental. Where Jasper is narrow minded perfectionist set in his ways, Scruff is very open, friendly and spontaneous. Jasper can learn a lot from Scruff while Jasper offers some stability and order to Scruff’s life and a safe place to be.
Who are you more like: Jasper or Scruff?
I’m probably more of a Scruff! I’m easily amused and make a big mess when I’m in the middle of a project. Though I can be a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to artwork so that is more of a Jasper trait. I’d love to be as neat and orderly as Jasper is!
How is Jasper & Scruff similar to your debut A Dublin Fairytale, which was nominated for an Irish Book Award in 2015? How is it different?
The stories are quite different but one similarity is that the main character in A Dublin Fairytale; Fiona, is rewarded for her kindness and she receives help when she needs it most. All of the friends that she makes on her journey are quite different to her but have something unique to offer, just as Jasper and Scruff compliment each other with their opposing traits. Jasper isn’t initially kind to Scruff, but Scruff’s unwavering friendliness and cheer win Jasper over and Scruff comes to the rescue in his own particular way.
I know you illustrated a collection of poems by James Carter called Zim Zam Zoom!, which was longlisted for the CLiPPA and UKLA Book Awards in 2017. Can you tell us about that experience?
Zim Zam Zoom was really interesting to work on as each spread was completely different with new characters and scenes on each page. It was nice to approach a picture book in a different way, as the poems demanded a specific type of layout and the illustrations had to compliment and work around that. It was brilliant that it was nominated for a CLIPPA award and wonderful to work with such a talented poet and writer.
I always think writing short chapter books for children aged 5-7, who are beginning to develop their own reading stamina, is very difficult! What challenges did you face when writing Jasper & Scruff? How did you overcome them?
I think the first stumbling block was the word count. I rewrote it several times to get it just right. The next difficulty was the pacing and ensuring there was enough happening on each page whilst also balancing that with quieter scenes and more minimal imagery. I think this new wave of illustrated fiction is the perfect stepping stone for early readers to bridge the gap between picture books and chapter books. I really enjoyed writing a longer story and having more room to develop the plot and characters.
“Picture books are very difficult to write and appear deceptively simple. You have to pick and choose your words very carefully while making sure the words and illustrations are in harmony.”
Paul, the art director and Katie the editor at Stripes had a really strong vision for ‘Jasper & Scruff ‘and how the layouts and text should work together. They were amazing to collaborate with and were really experienced in what would engage readers in this age group. They took the story and illustrations to a whole new level with their direction.
There’s a lovely illustration at the end of the book, where Jasper and Scruff are snuggled in a den, surrounded by books. Why do you think books provide us with so such comfort?
I think a lot of children’s earliest experiences of books are of being read to at bedtime. That in itself can be a really important bonding experience for both child and parent. The memory of that comfort stays with you. It’s a specific time set aside for just that activity. Books can be wonderful doorways into new places and different lives and sitting with a book can be very relaxing. I think books go hand in hand with forts and dens because you take time to yourself to read and in a place that you have built to have your own space.
What are the main themes you would like readers to take from Jasper & Scruff?
I think the main themes are about friendship and acceptance. It’s wonderful to be yourself, but you should also to be open to others who approach life in a different way. Being too judgemental can close you off to new experiences and in Jasper’s case, a true friend. You can learn a lot from seeing things from another’s perspective and trying new things.
What advice would you give to young children who would like to pursue a career in illustration and writing?
For illustration I’d say draw every day as it’s very easy to get rusty and trust yourself when coming up with your own style. There is no right or wrong way to draw. Ten illustrators could draw a bear and each one would look completely different. We all have varying approaches and that is the beauty of illustration. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, it’s how we learn and don’t worry if something doesn’t turn out as you hoped, turn the page and keep going. Illustrators often draw their characters lots of times before they are happy with them.
For writing I’d say read as much as you can as this will improve your writing. Always remember that writing is a process. Things may not come out as you wanted first time, as with drawing. Stick with it and your story will emerge. Some days the words will flow easily and other days it will be dribs and drabs. Be patient and have fun seeing where the story is taking you.
Can you tell us a bit more about what you’re working on next?
I’m working on a Christmas themed picture book at the moment and writing some more adventures for Jasper and Scruff.
Finally, can you describe Jasper & Scruff in three words?
Sophisticated. Scruffy. Silly.