William Grill’s career kicked off just two years ago with the release of Shackleton’s Journey, for which he won the 2015 Kate Greenaway Medal, which at 24 made him the youngest recipient of the U.K. award for children’s book illustration. His follow-up, The Wolves of Currumpaw, continues his interest in the natural world – and man’s fraught place in it – but with a new location, and in a new palette. The book is based on Ernest Thompson Seton’s short story about a wolf who evaded human capture for years. Based in London, Grill met with PW in between impressive signing lines at this year’s Children’s Institute and ALA conferences in Orlando, and spoke about growing up on a farm, what kind of materials he’s working with these days, and the wild, wild (American) West.
Why are you drawn to write for children, or do you think of yourself as a children’s book author?
Personally I don’t, when I was at uni, there were lots of people making children’s books, and I just really didn’t have an interest. But the drawings I was doing, my tutor said, “Oh, you should put that in a book and see who likes it,” and I kind of landed in that area without thinking about it.
There are stories and animations, like Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman, that can be enjoyed by adults and children, and I hope that I can fall into that category as well.
Were there any books as a child that you loved when you were younger, that you remember? Or that you draw on when creating your own books?
There are some children’s books I really love but I don’t know if they’ve influenced my books, people like Richard Scarry. He had that imagination, and the way he interpreted a really simple question. I read a bit of Shaun Tan when I was younger. I like his unique narrative style, where he uses different techniques to tell a story.
Did you always draw?
Yeah, I drew quite a bit as a kid, because my brother was into drawing and quite creative, so I copied him a bit, but I can remember enjoying it and losing time doing it.
Do you feel like your artwork has have a distinct style?
I try to have a signature look in my drawings, but I think it’s hard, and you want to develop things as you evolve. But something I do look at is not so much other artists, but things like cave paintings, folk art, scrimshaw when I was doing Shackleton. When I was doing Wolves I had a folder of images and I’d think, “I like the quality of that line,” to bring that freshness to my drawing. I think that’s part of the reason I tried to get location drawings in New Mexico, to try and get that immediacy in drawing, which I find tougher behind the desk. To get that landscape shot of Currumpaw, I actually sat on a hill, and that was the basis of the sketch. I try and keep it loose, like my sketch, so it doesn’t change too much, where other artists might try to redraw or flatten the image.
Do you work primarily with colored pencils?
Yes, and sometimes chalk pastels. I’ve actually tried recently to do papercuts to occasionally get a nice, hard edge. It’s nice to get that contrast with that soft lithograph type line compared to the hard edge.
Are you thinking of doing a book in papercuts? Or is that just for fun?
It’s just something I’m evolving at the moment. If it works out then I might try to do a book that way.
In both of your books you alternate between sweeping spreads and pages of tiny sequences. How do you make those choices?
It just makes sense to punctuate a book like that, to have changes. For me it goes back to documentary. A montage can be quite a useful device to employ in a picture book, and it means you can eliminate words as well. You can skirt around words but just have more pictures, diagrams, maps.
Both Shackleton’s Journey and The Wolves of Currumpaw are man versus nature stories. What draws you to tell these stories?
It’s just a theme that interests me. I grew up in the countryside, and I was always very interested in how we shape the countryside around us. I’m interested in how we leave a footprint where we go. I used to watch quite a lot of natural history documentaries. It’s just something that I was naturally drawn to over fiction. I worked on a farm when I was younger, and did some hunting as well. As I’ve grown older my opinions have changed, and my outlook has changed.
I worked on the weekend when I was 13, until I was about 18, on a really great farm. And we used to do quite a bit of hunting, with the animals, and I just kind of changed my mind.
We used to hunt with dogs, “coursing,” catching hares and deer. I do really respect it, but eating meat isn’t that necessary, so I’ve gradually changed my mind about it.
How did you hear about Ernest Thompson Seton, who wrote the story Wolves is based on?
I found his book in a bookstore. It was a 120-year-old copy, and I was just really captured by the title, which was Wild Animals I’ve Known. I thought, wow, that’s really interesting, and I just started reading. “Lobo” was the first story, and the most famous story. I just thought it would be really interesting to adapt for a modern audience.
Your palette in Wolves is a bit of a departure; what inspired that?
This book had a definite change of tone, change of feel. It’s a bit more grim and bloody [than Shackleton’s Journey]. So I wanted to change that. And the landscape was rather different, too. Northern New Mexico in winter is quite brown and deep blues and gray, so it’s quite muddy brown. I was looking at some Native American tapestries and rugs, and they use these sort of earthy colors, and that influenced me as well.
Did you do research in New Mexico?
Yeah, I spent a month camping out and drawing there, last summer. I went to a wolf sanctuary for a week, and I did some weeding in return for drawing for them. It was nice, a good trade. Then I drove north to the valley where the story took place and retraced some of the steps of the story. I feel drawing a story on location is much better than ones that you get from Google Images or whatever, because you have your memory of being there as well.
Though I imagine for Shackleton you probably didn’t go to Antarctica?
No, I wish.
Were you interested in writing a book specifically about America?
It’s definitely captured my imagination. I’ve been to the U.S. a couple of times, and I really like coming back [here]. I like the really diverse landscape, and the wild West, too, the myth of the wild West, and the fact that there are so many stories that aren’t completely true. I think [Seton’s] story was one that was really authentic about the West, that it is quite brutal. He was essentially a hired hand, like a cowboy, [but] hired to do a really nasty job. He was actually the villain of the story, and I liked that. It’s almost like Shackleton; [Seton] set out to do something that didn’t quite work out, and the outcome wasn’t quite what he intended. I quite like stories like that, which don’t go the way you think they will go. That story felt perfect for me at the time that I found it.
Are you working on anything new?
I think there are loads and loads of new stories out there waiting to be retold, which I’d like to keep doing. I’m working on a new book for Flying Eye. In England, I think the format of picture books is undergoing a change at the moment, so there’s a lot of large nonfiction books coming out, and it’s kind of a trend now, so it’s good to be a part of a new, emerging scene.
The Wolves of Currumpaw by William Grill. Flying Eye/Nobrow, $24 July ISBN 978-1-909263-83-3