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Talking worms and words with author and illustrator Coralie Bickford-Smith

Welcome to the first instalment of a series of interviews with some amazing people doing brilliant and creative things. We decided that since we are lucky enough to get to talk to so many inspiring individuals and teams on a daily basis, we would start a Talking series to share a little of this luck around. Our first interview is with Coralie Bickford-Smith, award-winning author and illustrator and collaborator on a new jewellery collection with Just Trade.

What made you want to write your own books as well as designing illustrations and covers?

I’d had the desire to create a book since I was a child, but the basic concept for The Fox and the Star occurred to me while studying at university. The story bubbled around in my head and surfaced at various points and then I would think “don’t be so silly, this will never happen” and put it away again. Then, after 14 years working as a cover designer at Penguin, an editor took me out for coffee and asked me if I wanted to publish a book. It was a weird mix of being in the right place at the right time and remembering a long forgotten dream. And it was perfect timing for me—if I had pursued the story any earlier I do not think I would have had the skills to pull it off. The understanding of book production that I got from designing covers at Penguin was so important to the richness of my own books.

Where did your inspiration come from for the designs and story of The Worm and The Bird?

When I was writing the story I couldn’t help but draw on my own experiences. I integrate my life into everything I create, otherwise it feels meaningless. I, like everyone, have gone through some really tough times. Sometimes I wanted to make life easier for Worm but this wouldn’t have been an honest depiction. I felt it crucial to portray the essence of my own story in order to help the book resonate with others.

I’ve noticed that you often use animals and nature in your illustrations and stories. Is there something about working with them that you particularly enjoy?

I am heavily influenced by the fables and fairy-tales I grew up with. I have always anthropomorphised animals in my mind. There is something about writing a story with animals in that surpasses any cultural boundaries and historical eras. It means the story has a timeless quality that I love.

Can you describe a little bit about your writing and design process—do the story or the images pop into your head first or do they both develop together?

All my ideas come to me by drawing on paper. This means that the text and the pictures arrive together as they are very much intertwined in my mind. They each have a very important part to play in the telling of a story. When something strikes me as exciting, I draw it to scale and use colouring pencils to create energy and excitement. I draw and draw until I get things right and then I take it into the computer so that it can be coloured and made ready for press. I love the fact that I control every aspect of the process, from the writing to the drawing to the intricacies of pre-press designing.

One thing I loved about your stories was how they don’t shy away from tackling more difficult aspects of life, such as loss and anxiety, but also portray life in all its richness and beauty. How important to you was it to create a story that could be read and enjoyed by children but that dealt with life as complex rather than black and white?

I tried to make it a story for everyone. I have stepped into the world of children's illustration but the aesthetic and words of The Worm and the Bird are complex and nuanced. I want to blur the boundaries between children’s books and more design-led adult work to tell universal fables rather than pander to a particular audience or age group. The desire to portray nuanced stories that will, I hope, encourage adults and children alike to consider possibilities of how to live and invite them to think about different perspectives that we have about the same situation. Also that we all go through tough times and that learning resilience in this complex world is a wonderful skill to have.

What excited you about seeing your designs transformed into jewellery and about working with Lizet and her team in Peru?

Just Trade is an amazing company. They support people and their crafts, they pay a fair wage and use well sourced materials. I love the work that Lizet and her team have done, bringing my illustrations off the page and making them into real objects. I am honoured that they are working with my illustrations. My books champion nature and the world around us as Just Trade champion the world around us. It felt like the right collaboration for me as we both compliment the desire to draw attention to the beauty of the world around us and the lives within it.

What do you hope your stories bring to people? Do you have any particular hopes for what the jewellery will bring to people too?

The stories share a little bit of wisdom, hope and beauty. And I hope the jewellery symbolises this. A tiny piece of magic, a symbolic reference to the stories I have written, a timely reminder that the world around us is a beautiful place.


Coralie Bickford Smith is an illustrator and author, currently working at Penguin Books. Having studied Typography and Graphic Communication at Reading University, she has since worked on the Penguin Classics clothbound series which has attracted worldwide attention. Her book covers have been recognised by the AIGA (NY) and D&AD (UK) and have featured in numerous international magazines and newspapers including The New York Times, Vogue and The Guardian. Her book The Fox and the Star was published in 2015 and garnered several awards, including Waterstones Book of the Year 2015 and winner of the 2016 Academy of British Book Design children’s book. Her latest book, The Worm and the Bird was published in August 2017 and has led to collaboration in jewellery with Just Trade.




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