Bookshelf talked with Mini Grey about her new picture book, Ginger Bear (Knopf).
You dedicate Ginger Bear "to cookie lovers everywhere." Did your own love of cookies inspire the book?
I love food and I love drawing it particularly. My first book was about an egg [Egg Drop, a Humpty Dumpty picture book published in the U.K.], then came The Pea and the Princess, from the pea's point of view. This third book is about a biscuit, and biscuits give you the opportunity to draw all the ingredients you use to cook with. I'm very fond of biscuits, you know, and you have to research these things properly. I'd put them on my scanner and have a jolly good look, and then afterward I would have to eat them. In the past, I would have photographed them, but the scanner makes things much easier—you just have to keep the scanner from getting too many crumbs on it.
Ginger Bear originally appeared in the U.K. as Biscuit Bear (Jonathan Cape, 2005). How did the book come to be retitled and re-released by Knopf?
Biscuits are sweet things in Britain, and apparently in America a biscuit is something like a scone, something savory that you'd have with soup. My editor at Knopf, Janet Schulman, was keen to publish Biscuit Bear, but our choice was to call it "Cookie Bear" or "Ginger Bear." The story sort of comes from "The Gingerbread Man," and Ginger Bear is only one letter away from gingerbread.
Unlike the Gingerbread Man, the animated Ginger Bear finds a home in a pastry shop window, surrounded by cakes made of cardboard and plaster. How did you find him "a safe place to be"?
In the first draft, he doesn't go to a safe place. He goes back to bed in the tin on the pillow, and you're left wondering whether Horace will eat him in the morning.
My editor said, quite rightly, "That's no ending." So I kind of gave him a happy ending. But in the end, he's kind of denying his biscuity-ness. He's in the window, but not living life to the full. When you're a biscuit you do end up being squashed or eaten. If I'd been brutal he would have been eaten. We let him live.
Even though Ginger Bear escaped, a dog devoured his cookie friends. In The Adventures of theDish and the Spoon, the Dish broke. And in Traction Man Is Here!, an action figure did silly stunts with household products. Do you try to incorporate pathos and dark humor in your books?
Traction Man did keep his trunks on though. I think that was the line. He kept his dignity intact!
Of course, danger is fascinating. A picture book needs to have a bit of a rollercoaster ride, with moments of danger, moments of excitement. I'm drawn to sharp knives and smashing things. Quite a lot of my characters are defined by what they're made of—an egg, a pea, a dish. Their existence is fragile.
But I think destroying Biscuit Bear would have been too much, partly because that story came from something that happened when I was three or four. My mum would give me some pastry, and I'd roll it on the floor until it was all dark gray and hairy, then force her to bake it. One time she gave me this little bear-shaped cutter, and when the biscuit came out it was golden brown. I didn't want to eat it—I wanted it to be my friend or pet or something, and I kept it for weeks. Obviously it didn't come to life. But with Ginger Bear I think there was some wish fulfillment. The killing of Ginger Bear would have been a little too sad.
You incorporate elements of nursery rhymes and fairy tales in your picture books. When you create a sequence, which comes first: the pictures or the text?
I think it's quite different every time. The Dish and the Spoon came from sitting in bed thinking, "What could a dish and spoon do together?" They could flick peas, put on a cunning disguise, go across the ocean. It came from drawing little pictures of what a dish and spoon could do. With Ginger Bear, the question became, "If you baked a biscuit bear and it came to life, what would it want to do?" I came up with some rough sketches, and cut and glued pieces together. Cutting and glueing things together is always good for thinking.
Ginger Bear's kitchen and party scenes slightly recall Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen and Where the Wild Things Are. Do you read children's classics as preparation?
© David Fleming
I love those books, but I don't think they're a massive influence on me. But other things are an influence—when I was a teacher [of elementary school in the 1990s], I came across The Stinky Cheese Man and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. Lane Smith is a big favorite illustrator of mine.
Like Smith, you fill your pages with painted details, collage and visual jokes. How did you develop your signature artistic style?
I always kind of think I don't have a style, just whatever seems to be appropriate for the story. I do tend to use watercolors—I love the splatter sort of thing you can do with watercolors. As for the collage thing, with Ginger Bear, I would make a model, print things out, cut them out, stick them to the page. My problem is I tend to clutter things up. I'd love to do spacious spreads! Sometimes it is because you only get 32 pages—I could have done with a lot more, but they like you to stick with the 32.
You recently had a baby. Has this changed your outlook as a children's author and illustrator?
It makes you realize that time to mess around is quite valuable! Illustrating is one of those jobs, a really ridiculous kind of job, when time starts to be at a premium—especially if you're a person who does things anally, as I tend to. You can spend 27 hours doing one picture. So it's always a race against time. Herbie is only nine months old, so he's into lift-the-flap and put-your-finger-into-the-hole type books. But if you have a baby, you're sort of talking constantly, you have a rambling story going on all the time. Give it one or two years.
You must be weary of journalists repeating the fact that you were born in a Mini Cooper and thus named Mini. But I must ask about Herbie's name. Any significance there? Is his nickname "#53"?
Well, before Herb was born I read that speedy births run in families and wondered if he would have to be called Rover (our car at the time). [Then] we were going to call him Henry because that was a traditional name in my partner's family. It seemed a bit formal, so to lighten it up we called him Henry Herbie and the Herbie took over. But then realized it may be nice to have the car reference too!
You've illustrated Lyn Gardner's middle-grade novel Into the Woods (Random/Fickling, June). What else are you working on right now?
I did a book with Dick King-Smith, The Twin Giants [Candlewick, Feb. 2008], published by Walker in the U.K. And I'm doing one of my own picture books, a sequel to TractionMan. [I can't give the title yet, but] something terrible happens to Scrubbing Brush…