Meet Stephen Michael King
Stephen Michael King is renowned worldwide for picture books like The Pocket Dogs and Where Does Thursday Go?. Several of his books have been shortlisted by the CBCA, and they frequently appear on children's own voting lists like YABBA. Stephen has previously illustrated The Magic Violin, Follow That Lion!, Duck Sounds and many more.
What were some of your favourite books when you were growing up?
A Busy Busy World by Richard Scarry, The Pokey Little Puppy, Astrix, Tin Tin . . . lots of books with lots of drawings. I also liked the classic English authors. I read the Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Nightbirds of Nantucket by Joan Aiken because I liked the cover art. I could pore over illustrations by E.H. Shepard and Edward Ardizzone etc for hours. I recently placed my hot little hands on a copy of Peter Pan and Don Quixote, illustrations by Edward Ardizzone. Wow!
My older brother had the 'Little Tim' books. He loved 'Famous Five', Secret Seven and adored Swallows and Amazons. We both loved Scuppers the Sailor Dog. My brother turns fifty this weekend and I still call him Scuppers or the Salty Dog.
Oh I should also mention Seuss. I loved him.
'Look what we found
in the park
in the dark.
We will take him home
We will call him Clark.'
When and why did you decide that you wanted to become an author?
Can’t remember. My mum will tell you I always wanted to be an illustrator. She tells a story about me re-illustrating a whole book when I was eight because I didn’t think the pictures suited the story.
I guess, later on. I read The Artwork of Maurice Sendak and felt inspired to write my own Where the Wild Things Are just like every other want-to-be children’s author. When some of my illustration work was published around 1990, I committed to the discipline of trying to write a picture book. Around that time my illustration style had developed into something that resembled what my brain was asking my hand to create.
From age 8-9 you suffered from hearing loss. How do you feel this experience influenced your work?
It sealed my fate. I wear hearing aids now, but my deafness was undiagnosed/misdiagnosed for years. School was painful and traumatic. I couldn’t play easily if there was talking needed. I was Ok at running around. Writing and drawing gave me a voice. Even though I couldn’t hear teachers or friends, I could write interesting stuff and draw well. It gave me a passable ‘kind of’ status amongst my peers that helped me to survive.
Introspection has given me a quiet confidence. I was once nick named “The quiet achiever’. Having hearing loss has given my life space. I don’t always need to talk, and I love to observe. I believe there are many ways to communicate, similar to Reggio Emilia 100 languages of children. Eckhart Tolle mentions that artists often understand his concepts because, through drawing, they awaken to the quiet and trust their intuition. They know how to switch off their noise and watch the leaves rustle in the breeze.
When you were growing up it was your dream to work for Walt Disney Studios. How did it feel when that dream came true in 1990?
My friends and family made me a cake. I’ve had a few dreams come true. Anytime it happened was good.
My dad was an insurance salesman, so I must have seen Walt as my creative mentor. One of Walt Disney’s biographies was the first biography I read from cover to cover. I would have been in my early teens when I devoured this. I’m still a Mickey Mouse fan. It has to be early Mickey . . . created, voiced and conceived when Walt was alive. Working with Walt Disney was a great apprenticeship. It taught me “the show must go on”. I learnt to draw happy characters when I felt sad, sick and tired. I learnt how to draw angry characters when my heart was filled with joy. Thanks to Walt, I no longer had to wait for the emotion to take me. I could tap into it anytime.
I watched Aristocats the other day. It’s so beautiful, fluid and tactile. The background art is exquisite. Computer animation is lifeless in comparison.
Where do you find the inspiration for your books?
I simply write. I write a thousand beginnings before I find the right end.
Writing helps me make sense of the world.
Family, friends and their pets all find themselves hiding in my characters.
Writing bad poetry to my wife is where it all started. I knew my poetry had to improve if I was going to win her heart.
Ultimately I’ve never grown up; I prefer books with pictures and I like making my own.
How did it feel when your first published picture book, The Man Who Loved Boxes, won the Family Award for Children’s Book?
Speech Pathology Australia considered me, the deaf guy from school, as worthy of an award. They saw my text as something that might improve literacy skills, speech and language in children. There’s only one, maybe two teachers from my past who would have expected something like that to happen. I hope they heard and gave themselves a big smile on the inside.
I think they’re the nicest moments. I had a lady, an origami expert from Brazil, write to me because she was reading to children with lung problems in hospital. One child’s breathing exercises weren’t working until she read him ‘Leaf’, which inspired her to fold a small paper plant for him to blow onto. She wrote to me with tears and joy about her happiness that his lungs had improved quickly because he wanted to read ‘leaf’ over and over again.
In my first book The Man who loved Boxes, the characters were drawn without mouths.
With my second book Patricia, the main character’s mouth appears mid book and she screams.
By my third book Henry and Amy my characters had mouths drawn from beginning to end.
I’d found my smile (my scream) and my self esteem again.
What can you tell us about your new book, A Bear and a Tree?
I love its quietness. I love how it meanders and takes time to arrive at its destination, and that its destination even held a surprise for me. It was one of the hardest books I’ve worked through because its emotional heart is deeply personal. My dad was diagnosed with cancer before I wrote this book. He had full-blown cancer when I painted the pictures, and he died a week after I completed it. Every time I look at A bear and a Tree I see my dad as Bear, stopping to take time and check to see if I’m doing all right. I also see a book sprinkled with joy and even a ting of Christmas. My dad would have liked that. I think I can honestly say I’m proud of this one.
Can we look forward to another book soon?
Hope so! Lot’s of writing going on! I’ve illustrated a few books since A bear and a Tree and I’ve shown a few stories to my agent. She liked them.
What kinds of themes or ideas are central to your work for children? Are there any particular messages that you want to get across?
I’m always trying to write a book with a simple problem and a simple solution, something like Mr Magnolia by Quinton Blake. That never happens! I don’t like to impose values upon anyone, but ideologies sneak in. I guess the main themes are creativity, freedom, trusting your intuition, wherever you go always take an animal friend with you . . . a rolling windy hill is a great place to be . . . and dancing in the rain isn’t only for Gene Kelly . . . it’s for all of us.
Do you have any advice that you’d like to offer to aspiring writers and illustrators?
Writing is like sitting on a psychiatrist couch with only yourself to talk to. It’s not easy because you have to tap into something true. And when you do tap into it, you have to act upon that truth. You can’t just brush it off and start anew. Following through, I think, is the hardest part. This is when you tie your ideas down. They can no longer escape and transform. All the books I’ve created, if given a chance, I’d have taken to different places . . . just to see where they could go. But there’s a point where you have to mix the paint and lay it down. When you begin with the first hint of an idea you need to be prepared to never be satisfied with the final bound book.
I’ll finish by saying it’s all worth it because drawing and writing are fun and making a beautiful tactile object, that is a book, is very satisfying.
P.S. it’s a job you can do from home, barefoot and in your pyjamas. You can tap out a tune, sing and do brushstrokes all at the one time. Nobody ever comments that you might be going a little mad and if they do, they celebrate the fact.