The Secret Behind the Bear… With Katie Blackburn & Richard Smythe

Header1Fatima Anaya

When you’re having trouble getting your kids to sleep, or introducing different foods and finding that you are up against it at every turn, help is always welcome. In search of reading materials to help her own little boy, Katie Blackburn decided to take on the challenge herself, and so the comforting, rhythmic, ever so gentle, Dozy Bear stories began. Katie will be joining illustrator Richard Smythe at The Bright Emporium on Sunday 18th June for a storytime double-bill, featuring Dozy’s adventures into sleep  — not to mention the wonders of food!
Here’s a bit more from Katie and Richard…

Katie, what made you decide to write a series of books like this?

The first Dozy Bear story – the Secret of Sleep was inspired by my son. I don’t think any parent has it easy at bedtime. It can be a bit of a battle, and just when you are both most tired and fractious! I found many of my favourite picture books were quite rousing reads, so I would try to adapt them to make them more relaxing. The Rabbit Who Wanted to Sleep was something I considered trying, but I found it very long so I decided to write my own! Dozy Bear and the Secret of Food followed on naturally because the next biggest challenge for parents is getting your child to eat solids ….Argh! 

Richard, how did you begin the process of illustration?

Whenever I get a manuscript  I like to read through it several times, with a cup of tea usually. Each time I make quick notes or very simple sketches. The idea is to record those initial ideas and thoughts that pop into my head as I read through the text. Once I have this I can then start to expand the ideas that I like, and begin to develop them some more. For Dozy Bear and The Secret of Sleep, it struck me that the colour palette ought to be dream-like and soothing to complement the text. The challenge was creating an atmosphere that suited night-time without being too dark and gloomy.  


Richard Smythe’s illustrations from the Dozy Bear books, published by Faber and Faber.

Katie, as someone who has a great deal of experience — from publishing and commissioning works by artists and authors, what is it like to now be an author as well? Would you say that your experience in picture books has helped in understanding the workings behind a successful children’s story?

It is different seeing the world from the other side, yes. But to be a good editor I think you have to be aware of what authors are going through, in any case. That said, I have now enjoyed first hand the experience of someone creating brilliant art to sit alongside my words – and it really does give me such a buzz. 

I still find it hard to define what makes a good story – it’s easy to say what does and doesn’t work, but it’s not a checklist you can easily tick off. I am still in awe of the authors I work with – every great book is threaded with magic. 

Richard, can you tell us a bit about your creative process? How do you begin to illustrate the words — and what types of media do you use?

Most of my work is done using mix-media and scanned in to the computer where I can place it into the format of the spread. I use pencils, crayons and watercolour normally. With the two Dozy Bear books I wanted it to look naive and gentle but also compelling to children. Both books have a collage element to them, particularly the second one. I thought that this approach would allow shapes to remain simple and recognisable, as to avoid getting bogged down with too much detail.


Your artwork for Dozy Bear has a lovely collage feel about it, along with a naivety that is reminiscent of artists like Eric Carle (The Hungry Caterpillar) and John Burningham (Avocado Baby). Can you tell us who influenced and inspired you into becoming an illustrator? 

Interestingly I don’t think it was other picture books as much as other childhood experiences that made me want to express things as drawings or paintings. I found that classical music seemed to produce such a rich and varied visual imagery. I certainly loved picture books as a child, but I found things like music, film or running around outside with friends, would encourage me to draw and create things from my mind. 


Katie, in the same vein – who do you love to read? Is there a favourite picture book you read to your own little boy, and what did you enjoy reading as a child yourself?

I love fiction, non fiction …crime, historical, contemporary, all sorts!  … I’ve just finished Conversations with Friends (by Sally Rooney) which blew me away. The books I pick aren’t always the ones my son likes most – but we do both love Julia Copus and Virginia Lee Burton at bedtime. My favourite children’s book was Where the Wild Things Are – and I still remember the wonderful Mrs Pepperpot!   

Katie's fave books

Katies faves 2

Richard, did you have a favourite picture book as a child?

I loved anything by Brian Wildsmith, Quentin Blake and particularly Raymond Briggs. The Snowman was always special to me because I grew up in Sussex, not too far from where it was meant to be set. 

Richard's faves

From left to right: Artwork by Brian Wildsmith, Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman, and a self portrait by Sir Quentin Blake.

And Lastly, Katie, can we look forward to more Dozy Bear stories?

I’m not sure! With my publisher hat on: I hope so, but let the market tell us! As author: oh yes, Dozy Bear has lots more to explore and discover.

With huge thanks to Katie and Richard!

 If you’d like to work with Richard Smythe, you can contact him via his agent, Arabella Stein here.

And if you’d like to meet Katie and Richard, you can! Join us at The Bright Emporium for storytime Sunday. 
Book your tickets here.