Ask the Expert – Author Nick Butterworth
Ultimate Library have had the pleasure of interviewing Nick Butterworth for this edition of Ask the Expert. Nick is an award-winning children’s writer and illustrator. He worked for various major graphic design companies before becoming a full-time author. Among his wonderful collection of picture books are Thud!, QPootle5, Jingle Bells, Albert le Blanc, Tiger and The Whisperer, winner of the Nestlé Gold Award.
But he is perhaps best known as the author of the Percy the Park Keeper series, which centres on the wonderfully kind, animal-loving Percy, who has captivated the imaginations of children across the world for the last three decades. This series has sold more than 9 million copies worldwide and Percy has also appeared in his own television series.
1. What do you think inspired you to become a children’s author?
I wouldn’t say I was inspired to become an author. It was more of a drift into writing! But I have always loved stories, as far back as I can remember, but on leaving school, I worked as a printer and graphic designer. I had an aptitude for graphics and in my twenties, I established an independent design practice. During this period I started to write, mainly writing copy for ads, posters, promotional stuff. Such writing had to be concise and communicate clearly – good discipline for my eventual foray into picture books. I would often use my own illustrations in my design work.
Eventually I decided to specialise in illustration, in particular, children’s books and it was then I realised that if I wanted to control what I illustrated, it would be better if I could write myself rather than hope someone would offer me my ideal text to illustrate.
2. Where do you begin when starting to write one of your books?
When an idea presents itself to me for a story, I’m usually up to my ears doing something else so not able to spend the necessary time developing it. But it goes on the back burner, simmering away, and I find myself thinking about how it might be shaped-up. By the time I start to write, I’m usually raring to go and bursting with possibilities for the story. They won’t all make the final version so the process is often one of sifting and honing, as I plot my way from beginning to end.
3. How important do you think it is for children to enjoy stories?
Very. Stories are time-proven in the way they help us make sense of the complex world around us. It’s true for adults too. Stories, whether in books, films TV or theatre, offer versions of reality in bite-size chunks, small enough for us to consider and assess without being overwhelmed by the inter-relatedness to every other aspect of like. Of course, they entertain us as we laugh, cry, become angry or shocked. Stories put us in other people’s shoes. They help us empathise with those in different circumstances from our own.
4. Your Percy the Park Keeper series, and also your other books feature lots of wonderful animals and creatures – do you think that books should inspire young people to engage with nature?
A writer’s values will always be discernible in their work. That’s as true for me as anyone else. The Percy the Park Keeper stories are often seen as promoting an interest in nature, and I’m pleased about that. People who grow up loving the natural world will want to care for it. I don’t want to preach. Some say my stories are about friendship, fairness and the value of kindness but those things don’t feature in the titles of my books. They’re just embedded in what I write.
5. Which 3 books would you say have had the biggest impact on your career?
This is the most difficult question! It’s hard enough to pick three favourite books, but which three have impacted on my career. Oh, so many…but I’ll try:
Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne. (OK, I know that’s two books!) for the wonderfully inventive way these stories effortlessly engage both children and adults. For the characterisation. For their insight into children and human nature.
Mr Gumpy’s Motor Car by John Burningham. For the economy of style and the richness of language.
The Book of Giant Stories – for the illustrations by Philippe Fix. When I was beginning to focus on illustration for children, I came across this book and others illustrated by Philippe Fix. His detailed, nailed-down representation of imaginary worlds encouraged me to ‘go for it’, in depicting my own.
A huge thank you to Nick for being our expert this month and also for hosting one of our brilliant book salons at the end of February. One Springy Day – Percy’s newest adventure with a fresh host of wonderful creatures that celebrates 30 years of the series, is available from any good independent bookshop.