An interview with children’s book illustrator David Litchfield
The Children’s Book Review
In this episode, I talk with multi-award-winning illustrator and author David Litchfield about his artwork in Cress Watercress, a novel written by Gregory Maguire, the author of the incredibly popular books in the Wicked Years series, including Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which inspired the musical.
David started to draw when he was very young, creating comics for his older brother and sister. Since then his work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, and books and on T-shirts. His first picture book, The Bear and the Piano won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. He is also the illustrator of Rain Before Rainbows by Smriti Prasadam-Halls and War Is Over by David Almond. David lives with his family in Bedford, England.
Listen to the Interview
- About David Litchfield
- About Cress Watercress
- The influence of classic books, such as Wind in the WIllows
- The significance of using both dark and light artwork
- David Litchfield’s creative process and character development
- The characters of Cress Watercress
- Staying motivated creating books for children
- Advice on becoming a children’s book illustrator
- The art teacher and life moments that have inspired David Litchfield
- Writing for the middle middle-grade audience
- Identifying as a reader
- David Litchfield’s hopes for Cress Watercress
Read the Interview
Bianca Schulze: Hello, David. I am a huge fan of your illustration work, and I just want to take a quick moment to welcome you to the growing reader’s podcast.
David Litchfield: Oh, hello, Bianca. That’s very nice of you to say so. Thank you very much.
Bianca Schulze: Many of our listeners first got to know your work through your award-winning picture book, The Bear and the Piano, which you wrote and illustrated. And they may have also recognized your creative style on some middle-grade book covers like Laurel Snyder’s Orphan Island. But now, your artwork appears not only on the cover of Gregory Maguire’s Cress Watercress but also on the pages throughout the novel. So, I just want to know what it means to you to have been given this opportunity to illustrate Cress Watercress.
David Litchfield: Oh, it means the world to me. I was hugely, hugely honored to be asked to draw this book. And like even before I read the manuscript, I just knew I would say yes to it. I admire Gregory and his work and just him as a person, you know, he’s a great character. And I just knew I wanted to be involved in this. And luckily, when I did read it, I absolutely loved it. I completely fell in love with Cress Watercress and all the characters. And I wanted to live in that forest. So, it means a lot to be asked. I’ll forever be honored to be part of this book because it’s really magic.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, it absolutely is.
I don’t know if this happens to you when you’re reading a book, but I’ll often latch onto a feeling I’ve had while reading another book. So, for me, the books that entered my mind while I was reading Cress Watercress were some true classics like A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Peter Rabbit, and Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows. And I would go as far to say that I think Gregory Maguire has raised them all one. I mean, this book is outstanding.
But does that ever happen to you? When you’re reading a book, do you suddenly have comparisons to other books? And if you do, did that happen to you the first time you read Cress Watercress?
David Litchfield: Oh, it totally does happen to me, even more so when I know I’m to be drawing the book because I’m looking for influences and sort of seeing what I can take as a starting point for the artwork. And yeah, it was instantly Wind in the Willows. And you know, the fantastic artwork of E.H. Shepherd was really in the forefront of my mind while I was reading it and absolutely while I was making the artwork.
So yeah, it does happen. I think it’s quite good that that happens from a professional point of view because it’s always good to have an influence with your work and then try and build on that influence.
But you know what else? I don’t know if you had this in America. I’m assuming you did. But we had a great TV show when I was growing up. We had The Wind in the Willows stop motion TV show every week, which was absolutely beautiful. It was made by Cosgrove Hall, who were kind of a big deal over here, one of our biggest animation companies. And, you know, in the eighties and early noughties, I remember this being a massive, massive deal, this show. And that was very much in my mind.
This might be a bit sacrilegious what I’m about to say now. But that kind of imagery from that show was probably more in my head while I was reading the manuscript for Cress Watercress than the original Wind in the Willows book because that was my first exposure to Wind in the Willows that TV show.
David Litchfield: You know, it’s funny you say that because I grew up in Australia, and I don’t know if it’s the same thing, but I was going to ask you about it because I first came across Wind in the Willows through the television and not through reading it. And, you know, it feels terrible to say that, but it’s true.
David Litchfield: It’s quite a big book. You know, it’s a series of books that are quite daunting to read when you’re really young. It’s quite daunting to read a book like that. Yeah, it was a great step into that world for me.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. I always remembered it as a movie, so I don’t know if I saw a movie version.
David Litchfield: I mean, there were a lot of movies. There was a couple of animated cartoons. One was hand-drawn or clay animation, at least. And then the other one, the one that I loved, was this beautiful, classical stop motion kind of style.
Bianca Schulze: So, I have to say that your artwork absolutely glows. And the main character, Cress, is grieving the disappearance of her papa. There’s this feeling that she’s carrying the world’s weight on her shoulders—that the world tends to do the opposite of what is expected and desired. And so, even though your artwork glows—I mean, it really glows—it also demonstrates this contrary feeling by alternating between light and dark. Your ability to create lighting is incredibly transcendent for creating both time and tone.
Will you talk us through your creative process and even how you decided which parts of the novel to illustrate?
David Litchfield: Well, thank you very much for noticing that because, I mean, that was a conscious decision to have this big contrast between dark and light for a number of reasons. One, you know, that’s forest life, from what I can gather, there’s all this amazing color of beauty and lights. And then, if you dig a little bit deeper, it’s very dark and very scary. And, you know, there are a lot of bad things that happen in the forest and nature. And I wanted that to come across, but also from the point of view of using that kind of style as a metaphor for how Cress feels in that story. Where she’s very much got this kind of veneer of being strong and not letting anything get to her. But if you dig a little bit deeper, you’ll see that there are a lot of bad things that she’s going through, and she’s feeling it more so than most.
I always love using light in my books. It’s something that I’ve really tried to push in my books. But for me, this was the one that I really wanted to be a noticeable contrast between the light and the beauty and then the dark and the scariness and the kind of the horror of what Cress—horror is too strong a word—but the sadness of what Cress has been going through in this story.
But in terms of process, I put aside a big chunk of time with all my books. And sometimes my publishers don’t like it, but it’s a big chunk of time that I set aside to sort of experiment and, you know, sort of try out different techniques and different materials. And most of that is spent with paint and inks and stuff and just start throwing them together and make it a mess and stuff. But I also take lots of photographs. So, for this one, I took lots of photographs—close-ups of the bark of a tree or a leaf. And then I’ll throw it all together, scan it all inside computers, throw it all together, and experiment with all these different layers on Photoshop. And I’ll sort of blend in and stuff.
And it’s hard to describe it because it’s a trial-and-error thing. It’s a big kind of experiment where sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, or sometimes, you know, you create this texture where you’ve put all these different textures together and created a new texture. You think, oh, that might work as a background for a scene, or it might look like a nice sunset for a scene. And yeah, that’s where a lot of the light and dark happens because I’ll throw paint, light watercolor paint with dark watercolor paint, and see the mix together. And ‘it’s great fun.
It really goes back to being in art class at school in the art room and just making a mess and just trying things out. But unfortunately, I can’t just do that. So, if I could just do that every single day, I would. But I can’t because I have a publisher saying, could you maybe finish the artwork soon? So, I’ve sped that process up a lot. But yeah, that’s still a big part of my technique of how I create
Bianca Schulze: Oh, that sounds incredible. Do you have any videos out there where people can see you? You should do some of that. It’d be so fascinating.
David Litchfield: I’ve had a company get in contact—I probably shouldn’t name them—but they’re a company that does online tutorials. And I think that will be the time to share my secret a bit more with the world about how I kind of create this artwork.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. That would be fabulous. It’d be so great to see you getting all messy.
David Litchfield: We’ve just moved house a few months ago. And so, I don’t have a proper studio at the minute. I’m a spare room. And I feel a tiny bit guilty about making so much of a mess in this room because this will eventually be one of my son’s bedrooms. We’re converting my garage and it’s taken a little bit longer than I thought it would be. But eventually, my garage will be my art studio, and then I can throw as much paint around and make as much of the mess as I possibly can.
Bianca Schulze: All right. So, Gregory Maguire has created an incredibly witty bunch of characters, and I often found myself smiling just at his cleverness in creating them and the dialogue he gives the characters. But is there a character you like the most, or even more so, a character piece that you feel most happy about illustrating?
David Litchfield: Oh, I really love Agatha Cabbage, the skunk character. I just had so much fun drawing her and she just seems like she could have only come from the mind of Gregory Maguire. She’s just got this beautiful nature. You kind of think, when you first meet her, you’re a bit wary of a bit scared of her. I would imagine she seems a little bit underhanded. And then as you get to know her because she keeps kind of cropping up in the book and returning. And as you get to know her, you realize that there’s a really soft soul underneath the characterization she’s portraying.
As an Englishman, there’s something very beautifully American about Agatha. And I don’t know what it is. She reminded me—and again, this is going back to my childhood and for all the eighties kids out there—but she reminded me a little bit, or the first image I had in my head when I read the character was a Blanche from the Golden Girls.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, yes.
David Litchfield: It’s like, you know, Southern charm. And I don’t know, that is very weird probably to say that. But that’s kind of what I was thinking. I was thinking she’s going to be a skunk version of Blanche. Yes. The Golden Girls. Just some of her turn of phrases and stuff.
Bianca Schulze: Absolutely. Yeah. When you first meet her, she’s kind of a little bit like a Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians. Right? But then she totally is a Blanche. I see that all the way.
David Litchfield: That’s a good mix. Maybe she’s Cruella De Vil mixed with Blanche from the Golden Girls.
Bianca Schulze: Funny.
Tell me about Mr. Titus Pillowby Owl. What are your feelings about him?
David Litchfield: Oh, Mr. Titus. I mean, he’s probably the most fun one to draw. The beauty of n this book is that there’s so much development in these characters. The initial reaction you have for these characters is like, oh, he’s terrifying. Let’s not get on the wrong side of him. And, you know I don’t want to spoil anything. But as you read the book, you really see these characters grow. And I think Mr. Titus the Owl is one of those characters that really grows. You grow to love him. You grow to respect him and see the real side of him.
But oh, wow, what a great character to draw. With him, I was more thinking about some of the great Disney Owl characters. I’m trying to think of one specifically, but you know how kind of like the seventies, Disney artists would draw these great woodland characters. So, I really had that kind of drawing style in mind when I was drawing him. You know, this very kind of stern-looking authority figure. But deep down, there’s a kind of cuddly old granddad in there somewhere.
So, yeah, I like Mr. Titus and, obviously, his hotel, The Broken Arms. I mean, that was this giant, beautiful, crooked-looking tree. As an illustrator and especially an illustrator who likes drawing forests—and I’ve drawn quite a few forests in a lot of my books—drawing this very menacing, unusual-looking tree, I was just so happy drawing it. I just really, really enjoyed drawing those scenes with that tree and with the owl in it as well.
Bianca Schulze: Both you and Gregory, the characters, and the setting, it’s almost like that onion analogy of peeling off the layers. When you meet someone for the first time, or you come to a place for the first time, you see them at face value and the setting at face value. But by the time you get to the end of this book, there is so much more to all of it. To every single character, there’s more depth.
David Litchfield: What an achievement as an author. There is a huge cast of characters in this book—and to delve into the inner workings of pretty much all of them. It’s just amazing, really. And yeah, as I said, I just feel really proud to be a small part of helping to tell that story. It’s such a great book.
Bianca Schulze: It really is. I 100% agree.
All right. So, you mentioned before your experimentation with dabbling and taking your time to decide on which textures. How long does it typically take to nail down a character’s look? For example, Lady Cabbage, who I reserve my right to change my mind, but I think Lady Cabbage is my favorite side character. But how long does it take you to nail down a character’s look?
David Litchfield: Well, it varies from book to book. In this particular book, I remember the first focus was getting Cress to be as perfect as possible. And the first few drawings I did were not hitting the mark for anyone. And I was dealing with the art director at this point. I hadn’t spoken to Gregory at all. Very early on, I’d had the book. I read the book twice which is quite an achievement for me. I’m a very slow reader, but I really loved it. And professionally, I felt I really needed to get into this book and get to know the book as much as possible. So, I read it twice in a couple of weeks.
Initially, I wasn’t speaking to Gregory; I was speaking to the art director, a lovely lady called Amy Berninger at Candlewick Press, the book publishers. And yeah, I was sending her all these drawings. I was sort of thinking, okay, let’s take this very kind of—even though I had been thinking about The Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh and all these kinds of great books, I decided to make it quite stylized initially, and almost cartoony. You know, draw the rabbits with these big, elongated noses and wide sort of almost manga anime, kind of stylized. And looking back, I’m not sure why I did that, but nonetheless, that was all part of the creative process, I guess.
I think I wanted to do this in a slightly different style initially to what I’m used to doing, and I thought pushing it that way might be interesting for me as an illustrator. And then, yeah, talking to Amy, we realized, oh I don’t know if this is going to be the right direction to take it in.
And then I just went completely back the other way, and I just drew rabbits. I just drew very traditional watercolor kind of artwork of rabbits. And, you know, the first sketches were the sort of things that you maybe see paintings framed in your granny’s house or something, or it’s like these very kinds of classical watercolor paintings. And it was almost like I had to go through that to really nail what I wanted to do and what was best for the book and stuff. So, it’s almost like we ended up with this combination of these classic animal characters that could fit in Wind in the Willows but then pushed it a little more.
I think that comes in with some of the colors and the lighting where we’re pushing it in this slightly different direction from the kind of E.H. Shepard kind of style artwork into something a bit more modern, a bit more unique looking. But it took me a while. It took me a good, maybe even a couple of months, to get the look of Cress and then the overall look of all the other characters. Because once I got Cress, I could see, okay, that’s the kind of style we’re going for—let’s do that with the other characters.
And then I think it was Agatha Cabbage that I drew next, and she just kind of came fully formed from what I remember. I remember the hand gestures being very important. And I think that’s from Blanche in Golden Girls, you know, a hand on her hip. Once I got the style down, Agatha Cabbage came fully formed.
I think Titus the owl came quite fully formed because I could see what kind of mannerisms he should have. And to be honest, most of that comes from Gregory’s beautiful texts. You know, there’s much in those phrases that those characters use. If you read them and close your eyes, you can see the kind of characters and the mannerisms that those characters are using. And it’s all there in the text, really.
Bianca Schulze: What would you say it is about creating books for children that keep you going? What guides you and drives you in creating books for children?
David Litchfield: I mean, finding the motivation. It can be a number of things.
Sometimes I’m just like, why am I moaning about the fact that I can’t draw this giant the way I want to draw it? Or, you know, I can’t draw this out the way I want to. You know, what an amazing problem to be having. This is a job that I’ve wanted to do for most of my life. And now I’m able to do it every single day and get paid for it and stuff. I sometimes have to check myself and just sort of step back and think, oh, my goodness, I’m getting frustrated about the fact that I can’t draw a rabbit completely correctly at the moment. You know what? I would have given five or ten or maybe not five, but ten years ago, what I would have given to have that problem.
Bianca Schulze: Right.
David Litchfield: So, there’s that always in the back of my mind. But I also think, particularly drawing and writing for children, there’s just such a great feeling to be doing that. It’s such an honor to be doing that. You know, childhood is a very unusual time for most people. There’s a lot going on. It’s scary, it’s lovely, it’s sad, it’s hard, it’s boring. You know, it’s a confusing but hopefully very thrilling time. And just to have a book that is a small part of someone’s childhood, you know?
I love getting letters from children who have read my books. And, you know, it’s always an amazing thing to say. Your book is one of my favorite books, or I love your book, you know, to have that honor of being a tiny, tiny part of someone’s childhood, you know, I hope that always humbles me. I hope I can always take that for the amazing thing that it is.
So, you know, that. I always kind of think about that sort of stuff when I’m getting frustrated or when I’m kind of lacking motivation, knowing that if you push through that and by the end of this process, you’re going to have created a book that someone hopefully will find and love, and particularly a book like this one—Cress Watercress— where it could really actually make a difference to someone reading this book when they identify with Cress and some of the things she’s going through. Yeah, that sort of stuff gives me motivation, really.
Bianca Schulze: That’s beautiful.
So, I have a call-in question that I feel like I need to slot in right now since you’re talking about what an honor it is to have this as your career. So, I’m just going to line it up and hit play.
Melissa Taylor: Hi, Bianca and David. This is Melissa Taylor of the Imagination Soup Blog. David, how did you get into children’s book illustration? My daughter is an artist and I’m particularly curious to learn more about your journey so that it can inform hers as she figures out what she wants to be when she grows up.
David Litchfield: Thank you. That is a lovely question. Thank you very much, Melissa Taylor. I will try my best to answer it.
When I think back to how this all started, I can see how lucky I am. You know, it’s happening at all. But yeah, it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I became a professional book illustrator. It’s always been something that I wanted to do. I went to art school; I did graphic design at school, and I was interested in illustration and it’s something I’ve always been interested in. I’ve been drawing since I was very young. But it wasn’t until I was quite old that I thought, oh maybe I could do this and make a career out of this.
I’d always drawn stories and comics for my brother and sister. And when I had my first son, I drew little stories for him and stuff. But yeah, it wasn’t until I was, well, not old, but probably older than most people who know they want to become professional illustrators. And it was lucky because I was working as a full-time art tutor at my local college here in Bedford—so Bedford College.
I absolutely loved being in that environment, being around students, and helping them with their own artwork. But that was more focused on graphic design and then a bit of fine art and a bit of everything, really. And yeah, as I say, it wasn’t until we had our first son and me and my wife were saving for our first house, and all these grown-up things were happening. But I handed in my notice, and I was like, no, I’m going to try and become a professional illustrator.
Which, you know, that I do not advise purely because, you know, it was a scary—and probably at the time—very irresponsible thing to do. But I just knew that at the time, it felt like it was riskier not to do it because I could feel myself kind of getting very bitter and twisted that I wasn’t an illustrator. I didn’t want to grow up to be this bitter and twisted dad to my son and just be miserable. So, I gave myself a year. And I say I gave myself a year—my wife gave me a year. And she said, yes, let’s see how this goes. If nothing happens after a year, we might have to rethink and maybe go back to your tutor job, which was fine.
January the first, 2014, was officially my first day as a freelance illustrator. And, you know, not much was happening. You know, I was coming up with these projects—self-starting projects. I was doing a few editorial illustrations here and there, but nothing too concrete. By April of that year, I was kind of panicking.
One bit of advice, I would say if you did that and it’s a ridiculous thing to do, make sure you save some money beforehand. So, we saved some money so that my family wouldn’t starve and whatnot, but that was starting to run out. And then, thankfully, I put a piece of work—and this is where the luck comes in—I put a piece of work that I was working on at the time on Twitter. And it was an illustration of New York City with this giant hiding in the buildings.
And it was kind of a prep piece for a book called Granddad’s Secret Giant that I was developing by myself, you know, as a sort of self-starter project. So, I put it on Twitter, and it got shared around and seen by lots of people. And one of the people that it got seen by and shared by was a lady who is an illustration agent for Bright Illustration, a fantastic illustration agency. And from that stroke of luck that she happened to see it on Twitter that night, we got chatting and then I went for a meeting with Bright. They signed me up and that was really the starting point for this incredible career that I find myself in now.
So, I guess the advice is to share your work as much as possible. As artists, it can be quite scary to share our work, especially online, when all these terrible things happen, where your work can be stolen and used for other purposes. But you weigh the risks up at that point in your career. And obviously, you can watermark your work as well. So, share your work, but also approach agencies.
You know, illustration agents are fantastic. A lot of people don’t like agents because they take a bit of your money. But the jobs that will, speaking from experience, the jobs that they get you do generally become the higher paid jobs and jobs that you probably wouldn’t t on your own—or not everyone would get on their own. So yeah, an agency should be your first point of call. So, Melissa, maybe that is my main bit of advice and it’s probably not the most exciting bit of advice.
From a practical point of view, approach agencies and illustration agents because, again, speaking from experience, I had no links to the publishing world. I’d never spoken to a book editor; I’d never spoken to anyone in publishing, really. Bright very much opened those doors that wouldn’t have been open for me if I’d approached the publisher first and tried to get in myself.
The first-ever meeting I had with an editor in publishing which, Bright set up for me a couple of weeks after signing for them. Katie is another important person in my life because she signed me up to make The Bear and the Piano, which is another great steppingstone in my career. But that all comes from being signed up to a fantastic illustration agency.
Bianca Schulze: That’s fantastic advice.
David Litchfield: It’s a bit of my life story.
Bianca Schulze: I love it, though. I love it. That’s what we want to know.
Ultimately, what you’re saying is to trust your gut and listen to yourself. And if you really have this drive and passion that’s pulling away at you, that you are going to become a twisted soul if you don’t follow it, then you must follow it. And then, ultimately, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. You must do the work and put yourself out there so that you can be discovered, right?
David Litchfield: Totally. It was very much a leap of faith, kind of leaving my regularly paid job. But it was a risk that felt worth taking at that point. I was getting good feedback from a lot of people, and I was starting to get clients. But yeah, so it’s kind of a risk. It’s a scary thing to do. But as I said, it felt a bit scarier not to do it at that point because I didn’t want to be someone who would look back and think, oh, if only I, if only I had tried it.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, that’s when you know you must do it, right?
David Litchfield: Yeah.
Bianca Schulze: So, out of everyone you’ve known leading up to this point, who taught you the most about being an artist?
David Litchfield: Wow. To be honest, and this is probably a cliche, it was my art teacher at school, Mr. White. In fact, it’s a bit timely, really, that you ask that question because I recently found out he passed away. He was a huge influence. Mr. White, his name was Richard White. And yeah, he was my art teacher in Hastings upper school in Kempston, in Bedford, my little hometown. I was quite naughty as a child and as a teenager. And he was the one who said to me, look, you’ve got a talent that hardly anyone in the entire world has.
A very small percentage of people in the world can do what you do with your artwork. And if you knuckle down and focus on this, who knows where it can take you and what you could do with your art. And, you know, at that point, the future for most of my friends and me was maybe we would go and work in the local Sainsbury’s something, you know, there’s nothing wrong with working in the local Sainsbury’s, but that was kind of as ambitious as we got at that point in our lives. He showed me that your talents could take you places if you really focus on them.
He was also a fantastic artist and some of his techniques—he showed me the power of using light and shade in your artwork, you know, how that can take an average drawing and turn it into something dynamic and dramatic. And so, yeah, little techniques like that. And even now, when I’m stuck and when I’m getting a bit of artistic block or when I’m really struggling to draw something, a memory will come of a technique that he showed me. And it’s sometimes something silly, like how best to draw a piece of pavement.
I know that sounds random, but recently I was drawing a street scene and the pavement just didn’t look right and the perspective of the pavement didn’t look right. And Mr. White’s advice suddenly cropped up in my head while I was doing it, and I nailed the pavement straight away. That’s a random thing to say and bizarre, but sometimes little things like that can make you realize what an influence certain people were.
But you know, I’ve had a lot of great art teachers. When I went to university, I had some fantastic art teachers there. But I think when Mr. White got me at a certain point in my life, the teenage years, which are obviously hugely traumatic, usually for most people. But I also remember when I was 16, my dad died. So, it was an unusual time anyway
Those years were when I was making the choices of what to do over here. It’s called the sixth form, where we choose what subjects to specialize in. And at the time, you can specialize in two or three subjects to study for the rest of your schooling—so for the last two years. One of them was obviously going to be the thing you were the most interested in. And I chose art, obviously, and I chose English, and randomly I chose a thing called leisure and tourism, which is where you’re learning to be kind of travel agents—it was just one of those tick boxes.
I knew I wanted to do art, and English was something else that interested me. Mr. White sat me down after my dad. I just really opened up to him about what I wanted to do with my life. And my dad dying showed me about priorities in life. You know, you’ve only got one life and you really want to do the best there. And I think at that point, I really felt that. And the only time I felt that again was at the point that my son was born. And I thought this was the kick-up the bum I needed again to make me pursue this creative career and lifestyle that I now find myself in the middle of.
So yeah, going back to the original question, White is always the one that springs to mind.
Bianca Schulze: That’s beautiful. I mean, I feel like sometimes a mentor comes to us at the exact time that we need it, and we don’t always know it until we’re able to be removed from that time and be able to look back and reflect.
David Litchfield: Exactly. Well, it’s very funny, really. So, I’ve recently finished a book by author Nell Cross Beckerman titled When the Sky Glows, and it’s one of my favorite books I’ve ever done.
Bianca Schulze: Okay, wait. Sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt you, but your artwork already matches that title. When you said glows, I was like, yeah, perfect. It’s a marriage.
David Litchfield: Yeah, exactly, exactly. Well, this book is perfect for me. I really enjoyed doing it. And it was all the same technique of using textures and stuff. But it’s all about the sky and it’s all about how the sky glows differently at different points of the day in different countries all around the world.
When I was making it, I was thinking about Mr. White and I was thinking, yeah, this is exactly what he’s taught me. You know, to look at the things surrounding us and find beauty in them. And Kempston, where I was living when I knew Mr. White, which is just outside Bedford, is probably not the most interesting town. It’s very small. We’ve got one beautiful river and some beautiful kind of countryside surroundings, but it’s not the most exciting place. But he would help me look at the places we were living in and find the beauty. And then look at the sky, the clouds, and the sunsets and all those kinds of things.
So, I dedicate that book to him. There’s a dedication to Mr. White in that book. And, you know, I’d lost touch with Mr. White because at that point, the late nineties, early noughties, you kind of, you know, you just lose touch with your teachers.
And he was very old-school, so he wasn’t on Twitter, he wasn’t on Facebook, and he wasn’t anywhere to be found online. So, I lost touch with him. But I decided to dedicate this book to him. And then, a word got to me a couple of weeks ago that he passed away. And I just thought, wow, that’s incredible that I literally just sent my dedication off to the publisher. And it’s going to be in this book in April. And I don’t know; it seemed like a very strange thing that I’d been thinking about Mr. White a lot. And I’d been dedicating this book, and then sadly, he passed away.
I always think, oh, I wish I’d had a chance to tell him what I was doing. Or maybe he knew what I was doing; I don’t know. But I wanted to say, you know, the advice that he gave me practically as an artist, but also just in terms of like, you can do this if you really put your mind to it. I just want to tell him that it worked out and I’m very grateful for everything he taught me.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, I have goosebumps. Oh, man.
All right. Well, we have talked a lot about your artwork, but I think it’s important to know that you’re an amazing writer. And I feel like I will leave it up to you if you want to tell everybody. But you are working on some writing, and we know you as a picture book author. But I think you’re writing something that isn’t a picture book. Am I correct?
David Litchfield: Well, I’m in the very early stages. And I mean, it’s terrifying for me, but I’m working on my first middle-grade novel. I’ve had it at the back of my mind for the last few years, and it’s about wrestling. At the moment, the working title is Hattie the Victorian Wrestling Girl.
It’s about wrestling in Victorian times, and it’s about this young girl named Hattie who becomes this world-famous wrestler during this kind of male-dominated time and in male-dominated sports entertainment, to give it its more modern-day term. So yeah, I’m really excited about it. I’m in the very early stages of it. I’m mapping out the story now and sketching out designs and stuff. I’m already having great fun.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the world of wrestling, but over here, when we first started to get snippets of American-style wrestling with these huge, larger-than-life characters and all that kind of stuff. I mean, you know, it was kind of pantomime, really. But as a young boy, I absolutely lapped it up for a while and I was really taken in by the type of storylines and the characters and stuff. And I’m getting an element of that into this book, set in Victorian times. So, the characters will still be larger than life, but they’re going to have this kind of interesting kind of Victorian feel to them. So, it’s almost like a sort of a traveling circus kind of feel to it.
And yeah, I’m absolutely loving it. But as I say, it’s terrifying because it’s very much out of my comfort zone writing at that level for a slightly older audience. But, you know, it’s a challenge that I’m really looking forward to focusing on full time. Hopefully, at some point this year, I can get the first draft written down, and then, possibly next year, it will be published. I won’t say definitely. We’ll see how we get on this year.
Bianca Schulze: Well, it sounds fascinating and super fun. And you’re right about those world wrestlers and their characters. I mean, I feel like, yeah, with that in it, it will be so fun.
David Litchfield: It should be. I’m really looking forward to it. And, you know, I’m intrigued to see the reaction it’s going to get because it’s going to be very much larger than life. Kind of a little bit bonkers, I think. But yeah, hopefully very entertaining.
Bianca Schulze: I love it.
Well, a question I always love to know with book creators when they first became a reader. You have a fun story about riding the tube in London and discovering that reading books is pretty cool. Do you want to share it quickly?
David Litchfield: You know, I’d always been a reader. I don’t know if it’s something to do with the town I grew up in, but I was always a little bit scared to show my love of reading and my love of books and comic books and novels and stuff. I would lap them up. But I think it is because I was such a comic nerd when I was younger. And, you know, we become easy targets sometimes for bullies and things if you’re carrying a comic under your arm around school or the park or whatever. So, I got into this habit of hiding it away and hiding in my rucksack.
And then, I moved to London for the university Camberwell College of Art in South London. And, you know, it was a whole new world opening up. And I kind of had this whole new identity that I didn’t have to hide my loves and stuff. But there was this one moment where I remember getting on the tube. So, the underground train and this incredibly cool woman got on the tube and sat opposite me. And I don’t know whether she was a model or in a band or something, but she just looked incredibly cool, like with these cool glasses, dark shades on, and stuff.
She was reading Easy Riders, Raging Bull—Peter Biskind, I think is the author—this big chunky book about films from the seventies. It had this cool kind of cover that was a bit Andy Warhol-inspired. You know, kind of screen printing and stuff and that whole kind of thing. Just looked cool. The woman looked cool, and the book looked cool, and she was reading it so proudly on the tube. And I just thought, what have I been doing for the past decade or so? Hiding my books away? I need to be out and proud as this reader of books. Yeah, that was a big moment of light.
And then every time I would go out, I would take my book out of my rucksack, and I’d just hold it. And I kind of felt a bit armed with my book, especially like a big book like Easy Riders, Raging Bull, which I absolutely went straight out and bought after I saw this cool person holding it. You know you feel like you’re armed with this book.
Bianca Schulze: That’s fun. I guarantee you, everybody that’s listening to this podcast right now is part book nerd. And so, I love what you just said. Like out and proud people. Out and proud. Grab your books.
David Litchfield: Readers are the coolest kind of people.
Bianca Schulze: Absolutely.
All right, David, before we go, will you finish the sentence for me?
When kids and families read Cress Watercress, I hope
David Litchfield: I hope that they have a fantastic time. I hope that they are entertained. I hope that they feel a number of different emotions. The main one is I want them to feel happy because it is a very happy book. But you know, I also want them to feel the true emotions that are in that story. It’s a rollercoaster.
It’s a cliche, what I’m saying now, but it’s a roller coaster of emotions that just from reading it and then drawing it, I went through every single emotion I think I’ve ever had. You know, I was laughing. I was crying. I was sad. I was happy, and I was empowered. I identified with Cress. I identified with Mama, her mum.
I want them to be entertained, but I also want them to see themselves in these animal characters. There’s a lot of human traits in these wonderful animal characters that Gregory has created. I hope they feel all that.
Bianca Schulze: I’m glad you said Mama because I felt seen by the mama character. I felt seen by her. And so, yes, I think this is a book that all kids will enjoy. But let’s just say that the grown-ups who choose to read along with their kids or read aloud to their kids will love this book just as much.
Thank you so much for talking with me today, David. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
David Litchfield: Oh, it’s been really, really fun. Thank you very much, Bianca.
About the Book
Publisher’s Synopsis: A lavishly illustrated woodland tale with a classic sensibility and modern flair—from the fertile imagination behind Wicked
Gregory Maguire turns his trademark wit and wisdom to an animal adventure about growing up, moving on, and finding community.
When Papa doesn’t return from a nocturnal honey-gathering expedition, Cress holds out hope, but her mother assumes the worst. It’s a dangerous world for rabbits, after all. Mama moves what’s left of the Watercress family to the basement unit of the Broken Arms, a run-down apartment oak with a suspect owl landlord, a nosy mouse super, a rowdy family of squirrels, and a pair of songbirds who broadcast everyone’s business. Can a dead tree full of annoying neighbors, and no Papa, ever be home?
In the timeless spirit of E. B. White and The Wind and the Willows—yet thoroughly of its time—this read-aloud and read-alone gem for animal lovers of all ages features an unforgettable cast that leaps off the page in glowing illustrations by David Litchfield. This tender meditation on coming-of-age invites us to flourish wherever we find ourselves.
Buy the Book
- When the Sky Glows
- Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder
- Cosgrove Hall
- The Bright Agency
- Camberwell College of Art
- Easy Riders, Raging Bull by Peter Biskind
Thank you for listening to the Growing Readers Podcast episode: David Litchfield Discusses Cress Watercress. For the latest episodes from The Growing Readers Podcast, Follow Now on Spotify. For similar books and articles, you can check out all of our content tagged with Animals, Coming of Age, Community, David Litchfield, Gregory Maguire, Loss of a Parent, and Moving House.