x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

'I'm trying to make children laugh'

q&a Una Rawlinson is a children's author, and illustrator of Cherry Loving Leila and The Camel That Got Away.

Una Rawlinson's new book, <i>Fishcakes and Jelly</i>, features marine life from the region.
Una Rawlinson's new book, Fishcakes and Jelly, features marine life from the region.

Una Rawlinson is a children's illustrator and author. She has illustrated Cherry Loving Leila and The Camel That Got Away. Her new book, Fishcakes and Jelly, which she wrote and illustrated, will be launched at Atlantis Hotel, Dubai, on Oct 22 and 23. She lives in Dubai.

It was by fluke. I did a painting of a camel, a saluki and a falcon for my business card and put it in a frame shop within weeks of getting here. The guy that runs the saluki centre in Abu Dhabi found it and rang me up. He took me along to the saluki centre and introduced me to the children's author Julia Johnson.

I'm self-taught. I wanted to be an artist when I was younger but because I was academic I wasn't allowed. My mum used to have kindergartens in Hong Kong and when I was studying history of art at university, I used to come back to Hong Kong every holiday and paint murals there. So I've always spent my time painting.

When I'm just illustrating, I'm drawing somebody else's ideas. I enjoy that but I also wanted to have a go at writing my own. I watched my mother create a series of over 100 books, which began with a small English village full of badgers and moles and grew to a whole alien empire.

I was sitting outside Starbucks in Dubai Marina and a whale shark went past, so I started working on a story called Sarah's Sea Adventure. I gave it to a very honest friend, who said it was terrible. I then thought about using my daughter as the main character and started drawing her as a mermaid. Then I couldn't stop. Luckily a friend offered to sponsor it and [the publishers] Jerboa took it on.

I'm not very subtle. I love colour and I'm always trying to make children laugh by putting a sparkle in the animals' eyes. I use a lot of reference photos and try to paint the animal or child as realistically as possible.

A lot of kids can't believe you actually paint these pictures. They think they're all done on a computer. I do art workshops with them, so they can see how it's done. I show them how you put a book together and how I collect reference photos. They seem to really enjoy it. I held a competition at my daughter's school to design the inside and outside front covers of the book. I'd love to do more of that because it gets them really involved and excited.

Jerboa want to make books about the Middle East and about people who live here. Fishcakes is less so, but is about an expatriate family and features fish from this area.

Younger kids probably look at the pictures more, but the story still needs to back it up. I think if you took a story and had four different illustrators, your impression of the book would change radically. Whereas if you had one illustration, you could fit several stories to it.

I often get ideas when making up stories with my daughter. The other day I found a story online about two cats who grew wings in China. They had these feathery stumps because of malnutrition or something. I told this really elaborate story about a cat who could fly and when I asked my daughter if she believed me, she said no. When we Googled it and saw these pictures, she was so shocked. Then she made one about a dog with five legs. We Googled that and, of course, there was one.

I would like to write a story with a boy as the main character. I've got a couple of ideas in mind for new books and have two illustrating jobs in the pipeline. Also, my father-in-law was a novelist and he gave me a lovely story about pirates before he died, so I'm thinking about how to develop that.
kboucher@thenational.ae