James Mayhew is a Norfolk-based author and illustrator. Here, he explains why it’s such a privilege to be a mentor for a two-year course designed to engage emerging illustrators that are underrepresented in children’s publishing
The creative industries are full of highs and lows, and it is hard work. But it is work I love, which is why I am still doing it after over 30 years. I think you learn to grow a thick skin and keep the cup half full!
What led you to becoming an author and illustrator and what was your first book?
Until I was about 21, I was undecided about my career path. It was always going to be art, but what kind of art? I’d considered studying Fine Art, or even Theatre Design. But in the end, I settled on Illustration, and it was while I was a student that I wrote my first book, which was published in 1987 – Katie’s Picture Show – about a little girl’s adventures in an art gallery. I then realised I also really enjoyed writing.
You’re also the illustrator of Zeb Soanes’ Gaspard the Fox books?
Yes, I’ve greatly enjoyed collaborating with Zeb, and we’ve been very surprised to discover how much we have in common – we even went to the same high school, 12 years apart!
And combining music and art is a great passion of yours?
I love music, and lots of great music is based on myths, legends, and folk tales. I started to use some of these stories in my books and loved illustrating them. One of these is The Firebird, immortalised in the music by Stravinsky. This led to an orchestra suggesting I paint illustrations LIVE on stage with the orchestra playing the music. The art was projected up onto a big screen. It was so successful I’ve now been working with a variety of orchestras for 15 years! I love it – and it inspired my recent book, Once Upon A Tune.
How have you got involved with Pop Up Projects Pathways to Children’s Publishing and what are its aims?
To begin with, some years ago, I was invited to participate in Pop Up Book Festivals at various locations – great fun and a huge amount of work! Subsequently I visited many schools and then during the pandemic, online mentoring. I’ve always loved the ethos and passion at Pop Up Projects. They are inspirational!
What does your role as mentor for the Illustration Programme entail?
I think the most import element is really getting to know the mentees, understanding their background, their ambitions and their unique gifts. Then I can guide them in a meaningful way, with all the knowledge I’ve gained over my many decades in the industry. This is achieved through regular Zoom meetings and the sharing of work on screen, or by email. It’s always such a privilege to see their work.
How important is it to you that children’s publishing becomes far more representative?
It is essential. It’s important for everyone to see themselves in books! I grew up a frightened and worried young gay man, as I’d never seen any representation of anyone like me in books. It’s a lonely feeling. This “othering” is damaging to all kinds of diverse groups, and it has to change – not just so they see themselves, but so others see them, too, and learn to empathise and care.
Similarly, how important is it to you to be an ambassador when it comes to children’s culture in general?
I’ve always believed in the power of books and stories and illustration, to help shape lives. The experiences and stories we experience as children stay with us all our lives. Book creators have a huge responsibility to nurture and include people of all kinds in their books. The best way to do that is with authentic voices in publishing, from race, gender, and sexuality to economically disadvantaged creators, refugees and migrants. We all have stories to tell, and I’m proud to support all kinds of people and help their voices be heard.
Any future publishing plans you can share?
I’m currently creating a book with my husband, the Spanish artist Toto. We have both written it and will both be illustrating it – a pretty unique situation. We are very excited – I think it’s going to be pretty special. But you’ll have to be patient, it’s not published until June 2023.
James Mayhew is an author and illustrator, and a mentor for Pop Up Projects’ Pathways into Children’s Publishing programme, which is open for applications until 29th July. Find out more here.
Featured image of James Mayhew picture credit: Respira Fotografia