Ten Terrifying Questions (featured on Booktopia blog, October 2016)

1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself - where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

I am a children’s book author and illustrator based in Sydney, the town where I was born. I have been illustrating and writing books for twenty years. I grew up on a farm in the New England area of New South Wales near a town you’ve never heard of nor visited called Ben Lomond. It’s a very small, hilly place where people talk mostly about how cold it is or whether or not you’ve noticed a tawny brown goat, about yea high, wander by. I spent most of my schooling in Armidale. It was here that I acquired a knack for daydreaming and bewilderment.

2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

When I was twelve I wanted legs long enough to not require jean alterations. I also hoped I had the drawing skills necessary to draw pictures for a living. Aside from a good book, drawing was the only thing that could hold my attention longer than the time it took to devour a loaf of bread after school. I could draw for hours at a time without a single thought other than ‘where is this line going to go?

At eighteen I grew tired of everyone telling me that I should be an artist (how frightfully clever they all were) so I decided that I would abandon any artistic pursuits, move a long way away from everyone and ride a horse for twelve hours a day on a cattle station the size of Belgium. I drew (and wrote) in secret at night.

At thirty, I still wanted legs long enough to not require jean alterations but had learned enough from art college anatomy to know that this bird had long flown. Some things however, had changed. My clandestine activities were long discovered and I was now what everyone told me I should be: an artist. By this stage I was illustrating children’s books in Sydney and wanted nothing more than to keep the lights on, maintaining a living doing something I loved.

3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

I had the misguided, naïve belief that everything was going to work out just fine without any of my actual involvement, outside of me starring triumphantly in the role of central character. Like a leaf on a stream I was happy to float aimlessly on ahead without a plan or direction. Once I worked out that I needed to plot a course, things became clearer and I arrived upon the idea of ambition and how it could be helpful. That and a belief that REM were going to keep making good albums.

4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer/artist?

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham was a book I discovered young and never left behind. This multi-layered novel has had a profound effect on the way I write and is also the reason why my characters are always anthropomorphic.

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. This is one of those rare books where I remember how I felt reading it. I felt excited. Mark Twain was really good at lifting the story off the page and into your being. It is very much a boy’s book and consequently I have many childhood memories that are associated with it in some form. It was easy to imagine myself as Tom Sawyer or Huck floating down the Mississippi with hours to kill. It was the first book where I can recall being aware of the writing and recognising that this was a valuable skill.

Harry The Dirty Dog written by Gene Zion, illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham. I read this book as a child but it wasn’t until I started to write and illustrate picture books that I truly appreciated how good a book this is. It’s pretty much a perfect story. I mean, it hasn’t left the bookstore shelves since it was written in 1956!

5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write?

I was an illustrator first although I have written stories since I can remember (as a child I wrote stories that related to the characters I was drawing). However, it would be years, and many illustrated books later (seventy), before I mustered up the courage to show a publisher a story that I had written. At the time I felt frustrated; stuck in an endless loop of illustrating multiple variations of the same story like a bit part actor saying the same five lines in different voices. I knew the only way I was going to be able to work on the stories I wanted to work on, was to write them myself. So that’s what I did and it was the best career decision I ever made.

5. Please tell us about your latest book…

My new book is called Somewhere Else. It’s about a travel-averse duck named George Laurent and his friend Pascal Lombard, who happens to be a bear. George is a renowned baker of fine pastries. His friends regularly drop by to sample his latest offerings. They tell George of their travels afar and invite him to fly away with him but George always has an excuse, ‘I’ve got too much ironing to do.’ It’s only later we find out the reason why George never leaves home. Somewhere Else is essentially about travel, stepping outside your comfort zone and exploring the world. It’s also about the importance of home (and fine pastries).

6. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?

I hope children (and adults) find my books memorable. That’s pretty much it. The most satisfying thing to hear is when they’ve finished the book and want to keep coming back to it, over and over again.

7. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?

There are a ton of authors I admire for all sorts of reasons in both the children’s and adult literary fields including; Louis de Bernières, Martin Cruz Smith, Mark Twain, Sebastian Faulks, Ernest Hemingway, J.R.R. Tolkien, Enid Blyton, Jules Verne, Roald Dahl, Jan Ormerod, William Steig, Markus Zusak, Tim Winton, Julia Donaldson etc etc.

I’m particularly attracted to authors who write blindingly visual narratives, full of rich characters, without feeling the need to write dissyingly thick layers of detail; respectfully allowing you to fill in the gaps and immerse yourself in the story. Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago) was an expert at making the reader earn his bread.

Picture book authors are the cleverest of them all, of course.

9.  Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

I just want to write stories without the annoying distraction of wondering if I have enough fish fingers in the freezer to feed everyone.

10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?

I would say the most valuable thing you could do is read, read, read. Write, write, write. Nothing beats the basics of working out how your words fit together. Your style or ‘voice’ will naturally develop without you realising you had one. Also, don’t be too analytical. Just write what pleases you the most – it’s your head, they’re your stories.



Meet the Illustrator Q & A (featured on Kids' Book Review, September 2016)

Describe your illustration style in ten words or less.

Eclectic, multi-layered, naïve, whimsical, curious and introspective.

What items are an essential part of your creative space?

Good light, good coffee, enough room to lay-out picture book storyboards and some wide drawers for my pads, collage papers and found things.

Do you have a favourite artistic medium?

Yes, collage. In many ways it’s a medium almost too clever for it’s own good. It has the ability to add layers of narrative within narrative.

Name three artists whose work inspires you.

William Steig, Serge Bloch and Laura Carlin.

Which artistic period would you most like to visit and why?

The Post-Impressionism movement. Most of my favourite painters were working in this period, including Van Gogh, Pissaro and Toulouse-Lautrec. These guys broke new ground, not only with their broad brush strokes but with their subject matter, painting common farmers, street people and landscapes when previously painters of the day painted mainly scenes portraying religious, historical or fictitious settings. Toulouse-Lautrec was an amazing storyteller.

Who or what inspired you to become an illustrator?

I think I was enormously fortunate that I grew up in a household full of mad keen readers. We had bookshelves in almost every room. We were surrounded by books and some of these books had pictures in them. At some point I guess I realised that someone had to draw the pictures that accompanied the words in these books and I was already an eager artist, so why not me?

What is your favourite part of the illustration process?

The final stage when I’m pulling all my preliminary work together to (hopefully) make the story sing. It’s the most fun stage. Time to turn up the music!

What advice would you give to an aspiring illustrator?

Work hard, hang in there and always back yourself. Every illustrator who has worked hard has something to offer.



Gus Gordon's memories of library time (a feature for Schools Catalogue Information Services, SCIS website) 

When I was a kid (this feels like last week but unfortunately I'm talking a little while before this), I found solace in the school library. I took this for granted at the time but looking back I now know why I felt so comfortable there. For one, I could cosily disappear into the world of books and feed my exceedingly active, and at times counter-intuitive imagination, without any repercussions or annoying questions. This was the only time in the day where my daydreaming and short attention span could run down the same alley without veering off down distraction lane and into trouble. I usually had a spot in the library, my spot, where I would sit with my head hidden in a book, my mind swimming with detectives and war pilots and the abominable snowman. Rather rapidly, I would become unaware of my surroundings for long periods of time and as a result I was often late for class, having not heard the bell nor realised that there was now not a soul in the room. In the library I was as focussed as I could possibly be.

I got to know the librarian so well that she would put books that she thought I'd enjoy aside for me, ready for my next visit. I learnt librarians know things about their book readers that they themselves don't know yet. This is a super power. I enjoyed being led in new reading directions. It was entirely possible to go from a book about missing jewels to an undersea adventure to cold war spies to spontaneous human combustion - in that order. It was also exciting knowing that another book awaited, and it sat in my library bag with an apple core and my maximum allowance of books I was able to borrow for the week. Librarians also know a lot about the Loch Ness Monster. That's just one of the many things they know.


Herman & Rosie – Two for the Show, featured on The Picture Book Builders blog (interview by Jill Esbaum, October 2014)

Even though hundreds of character-driven picture books are published every year, great ones are still a relatively rare thing. They need a likable/relatable main character, a compelling story, emotional resonance, a distinctive voice, etc., etc., etc. It’s only occasionally that lo, those many elements magically mesh to create something special.

So how about that rarest of birds, a well-written picture book story with TWO characters driving the plot? Enter Herman and Rosie, a friendship story by author-illustrator Gus Gordon.

This type of story requires a masterful balancing act. Gordon has to give us enough information about each character that we immediately know who they are – and care. But not so much that either takes over the story. 

On the left, we meet Herman:

He liked potted plants, playing the oboe, wild boysenberry yogurt, the smell of hot dogs in the winter, and watching films about the ocean.

On the right, Rosie:

She liked pancakes, listening to old jazz records, the summertime subway breeze, toffees that stuck to her teeth, singing on the fire escape … and watching films about the ocean.

Only 53 words here to characterize these two quirky souls, just enough that – wait a minute! – our minds are immediately making a connection: Hmmm, they both like music and films about the ocean. See how Gordon did that? Made us start linking them inside our heads? Then he drives us crazy as they keep coming oh, so close to meeting, but–

I’m not going to review the entire story – which, take my word for it, is lovely – but since Gus illustrated my I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo!, and I know him (virtually, anyway, at least until Penguin decides to send me on an Australian book tour not holding my breath), I thought I’d go straight to the source and ask him a few questions about creating this book. You are in for a treat, peeps. And rare insight.

Writing a book with two main characters seems as though it would be restrictive. After all, you have only half the word count and actual physical page space to devote to developing each character. Yet this story never feels as though you’re limiting yourself. What sorts of challenges did you encounter while working out the story details of this book?

Thanks for the kind words about Herman and Rosie, Jill. Yes, writing a dual narrative was a crazy challenge and there were many times to be honest where I felt that I didn’t have the writing chops to pull it off – still don’t know that I did. In fact, when I realised that the story required the writing of two equally balanced narratives I was immediately taken with a sense of dread. In order to make the story work I knew I had to somehow figure out a way to way to tell two stories side by side so that the cadence felt smooth and it wasn’t confusing as I jumped back and forth between Herman and Rosie’s stories. I decided early on that the way to do this was to make sure that the two were connected in some way – in a way that wasn’t overly convenient but reflected the character’s personalities. Having interests in common, namely their love of music, really helped I think. Music was definitely the glue.

At the beginning I needed to introduce the characters very quickly as I didn’t have the normal room to introduce the characters to the reader given I was telling two stories essentially and also because I had decided, rather unusually I suppose, to begin the story from the perspective of the city – the environment in which the characters lived. To do this effectively I chose to describe their personalities in a list-like fashion – almost in point form, rather like you might see on a dating site (so I’m told). I actually stole this idea from one of my favourite movies, the French film Amélie. In the opening monologue of the film, the narrator lists the likes and dislikes of the main characters:

Raphaël Poulain doesn’t like peeing next to somebody else.
He doesn’t like noticing people laughing at his sandals,
… coming out of the water with his swimming suit sticking to his body.
Raphaël Poulain likes to tear big pieces of wallpaper off the walls,
… to line up his shoes and polish them with great care
… to empty his toolbox, clean it thoroughly, and, finally, put everything away carefully.

Amélie’s mother, Amandine Fouet, was a Primary School teacher from Gueugnon.
She had always been unstable and nervy.
She doesn’t like to have her fingers all wrinkled by hot water.
She doesn’t like it when somebody she doesn’t like touches her,
… to have the marks of the sheets on her cheek in the morning.
She likes the outfits of the ice-skaters on TV,
… to shine the flooring,
… to empty her handbag clean it thoroughly, and, finally, putting everything away carefully.

This is just a snippet of it but I loved how focused, and obsessive, and quirky each of the likes and dislikes are. You get an instant sense of the person, as peculiar as they might be. On a side note, a writer mate of mine (Markus Zusak) reckons there’s a hundred stories in that opening.

Anyway, this way of getting to know the characters seemed to suit my story, especially as I needed to condense their introductions somewhat. It was a nice way to set it all up and it helped paint them in an endearing light, albeit slightly idiosyncratic. Now I could get on with the business of telling the story.

Throughout the story I was very conscious of symmetry. I didn’t want Herman nor Rosie’s story to outweigh the other. I was careful to make sure that the reader didn’t empathise with one over the other either, even if it was subtle. Every moment was agonisingly considered. I wanted the reader to recognise that the characters were leading parallel lives, good and bad, and that hopefully the tension was enough that they felt compelled to read on in the hope that Herman and Rosie’s worlds would eventually come together (which of course was always going to happen). In a sense, the rooftop meeting was the reader’s reward.

Was devising the physical layout of this story challenging – deciding which scenes needed full spreads, for instance, or where you had to condense – to control the story’s pacing? Or does that come instinctively, at this point in your career?

Nothing really comes instinctively in picture books – at least, not for me. Every time I think I have something worked out I hit a wall and need to find another angle to approach the problem. Picture book making is basically problem solving isn’t it.

I did so many storyboards for this book. Thankfully I had a lot of help from my editor at Penguin, Katrina Lehman. It’s a constant battle working out what I should say in the text, verse what I should show in the illustrations.

Beginning with the map of New York city in the endpapers, I then (kind of like Google Earth) panned in to a full spread of the city and then focused in on the characters and their stories. It’s a frustratingly tricky process, (please, just give me one more page!!) trying to work out the story’s pacing and find enough room for everything. Once I’d established that they lived close to each other and that they could potentially bump into each other at some point, I pulled them apart teasingly, giving them their own full spreads and revealing a little more of their personalities. At this point, having heard each other, but importantly not having seen each other, I felt it would be fun to tantalisingly bring Herman and Rosie close together again, so I opted for small vignettes to tease the reader and build the tension. Using small vignettes are a good way of telling story quickly in those moments that are key to the story but aren’t pivotal, whereas a full page or double are reserved for an occasion in the story that requires more gravity; where you may need to pause a little to take it in.

For me, the moment when they finally meet needed to be perfect. It had to echo both their journeys in a tremendously satisfying way. That was the goal anyway. I was also set on this spread being wordless, quiet; like the city has paused to honour the occasion – a real ‘oh’ moment. I wanted the reader to feel enormously sated – like they helped unite Herman and Rosie in some way (you can see how much thought I’ve put into such things. A scary amount of over-thinking too!)

I wanted to ask about your illustration style, but my grasp of art lingo wouldn’t fill a 2 x 2 sticky note, so I asked my blogmate, illustrator Jennifer Black Reinhardt, what she’d most like to ask you.

Jennifer: When did you start using mixed media and why does it appeal to you? Do you see all the layers in your illustration from the beginning and set off with a plan? Or is it something that just builds and morphs as you go?

I started using mixed media years ago but it’s only been in the last five or so years that I’ve used it with any confidence. The thing I love about collage is what it offers in the way of helping to tell story. Unlike other mediums it has the ability to contribute to the storytelling. Used cleverly it can add layers of narrative, both visually and contextually and thereby strengthening the overall narrative. As long it’s weaved seamlessly within the pages and doesn’t distract the reader from the story. That’s the tricky part. The last thing you want is the collage to pull everything apart.

Generally speaking I start out with a plan. I usually try and seek out collage that relates appropriately with the theme/s of the story. Maps, paper, old advertisements, postcards, vintage engravings that speak to the theme. I really enjoy sourcing all my materials and when I have something particular in mind I have to find it. Aside from anything, good collage is a visual treat for the reader to take in over and over.

One last question that kids ask me at school visits: Why do books published in the U.S. with one cover often have a different cover when published in another country? (Note to readers:  Because the U.S. cover of I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo! is very different from the Australia/NZ cover.)

Beats me! I’m told that it’s always about catering to a publishers market – to the people who buy books in that country. Sometimes, as you know, there doesn’t seem to be any logic to it. I think some publishers like to change the cover because they can. But who am I to judge!



Thursday Talk & Tea With Gus Gordon, featured on The Sunshine House Blog (interview by Zanni Louise, October 2014)

Gus Gordon’s book Herman and Rosie fell into our hands last year, and we fell in love immediately. After reading I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo! which Gus illustrated for Jill Esbaum, I was curious to know what inspires Gus, how he works etc. He’s sharing some insight with us today for Thursday Talk. Lucky us!

Hi Gus. Welcome to the Sunshine House! Australia (and the world) fell in love with your book ‘Herman and Rosie’ , which won the Honour Book award last year. Can you tell us where the idea for this story came from?

For a long time I had wanted to write an urban tale. I really enjoyed, as a child, the whole ‘city mouse, country mouse’ story – the juxtaposition of two worlds. In many ways I was just waiting for the right idea to come along. Then one day, for some reason that can’t be explained (nor should even be attempted), I drew in my sketchbook, an illustration of a suited crocodile playing a musical instrument on a rooftop in the moonlight.

I like those drawings that beg you to ask questions – that are intriguing. ‘What’s going on here?’ ‘Why is he in a suit?’ ‘Does he have a job?’ ‘What does he do?’ etc. It’s a weird thing asking one of your sketches ‘what are you all about?’ but that’s how it goes. You keep drawing until you figure it out.

In a different sketchbook around the same time, I had drawn a deer playing records in her apartment. It wasn’t long before I decided that the two characters should be in the same story, as music (something I am hugely passionate about) seemed to be the important link. Pretty quickly I realised that the two of them were unhappy, lonely in fact, which in itself is a fascinating idea – that they could conceivably be lonely surrounded by so many. This premise became the motivation behind the central narrative and music was a way of connecting the two.

How did your creative journey begin, and how did you end up where you are now?

That’s kind of a big question but I guess it all began with my mother who was incredibly encouraging and also quite a good artist in her own right. I was a compulsive drawer as a child and I also enjoyed writing stories – anything that involved using my imagination and I was up for it. Basically I was a huge daydreamer.

After school and some years in the wilderness chasing cows, I moved to Sydney and started drawing cartoons for magazines and newspapers. It wasn’t until I was offered my first children’s book to illustrate (about 18 years ago!) that I really decided what I wanted to do. I had forgotten all about children’s books – specifically books with pictures in them, and all of a sudden I was excited. For whatever reason it seemed to suit me.

I began to focus all my attention on illustrating books with the aim of eventually writing them. Throw a bunch of dumb luck in there too.

What are you working on now? What’s next on the horizon for you?

I am currently working on a book about Drop Bears by James Roy. I have also written and just storyboarded my new book, which may be about a duck. As far as the future is concerned, I am more than happy to continue telling my own stories and perhaps choosing to illustrate the odd story that moves me by someone else.

Where do you work? Can you describe your studio, or favourite place to sit and be creative in?

I work from home in a studio that used to be a garage a long time ago. It has a lot of natural light coming in which is nice. I have two main workspaces. One is a long desk where my computer, scanner and printer sit. It has a long bookshelf above it where my precious book finds live. The other workspace is an architect’s desk where I draw, paint, create messily and daydream a good deal of the day.

An old miner’s ‘trouble light’ I bought in Paris recently hangs above it. There is also room in the studio for a large corkboard (where I work out if my stories are making any sense), a list board full of deadlines, a layout table and my collage shelves. It’s a good space.

Gus Gordon's work space

What inspires you?

Geez, all kinds of things. Here are some in no particular order: travel, children’s drawings, Badgers, positive people, good music, vintage engravings, old advertisements, postcards, interesting collage, Serge Bloch, Richard Scarry, JJ Sempé, William Steig, George Booth, Leigh Hobbs, Jim Henson, Middle Earth, New York city, France, dark woods, the ocean, cheese, clever friends, my wife, our kids. I’ve probably missed something really important.

What’s your favourite children’s book?

That’s an unfair question. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame would have to go close though. Harry The Dirty Dog by Gene Zion, illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham is another great one. It does everything right – picture book perfection.

Have you got any tips or secrets you can share with people interested in illustration, or writing their own book?

I don’t have any secrets. It’s mainly hard work and if you love what you do you’ll do that anyway. Having said that, here are a few things I’ve learned.

–       Write for yourself

–       Read a ton/draw a ton

–       Surround yourself with ambitious, positive people

–       Plan your day, month, year (otherwise it won’t happen)

–       Teach yourself to approach problems from another angle

–       If you love it, stick at it (learn to be stubborn)