An interview with Elise Hurst in partnership with Compendium, Inc.
The Children’s Book Review
Elise Hurst is an Australian fine artist, illustrator, and author specializing in books for children. Some of her most recent books include the illustrated edition of The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman and Girl on Wire by Lucy Estela, which was shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia 2019 Awards. She lives in a house full of books and paintings.
From her studio, where black pens and oil paints spill across the desk, magical worlds leap into being. Like something out of Beatrix Potter or Narnia, her friends are rabbits and bears, lions and tigers—and they all have a story to share.
All of the above leads us to this conversation about Elise’s newest stunning book, The Storyteller’s Handbook: 52 Illustrations to Inspire Your Own Tales and Adventures.
Bianca Schulze: The Storyteller’s Handbook is an incredible one-of-a-kind experience that is sure to ignite the inner storyteller in young and old. It is no ordinary book. What would you like readers to know about your creation?
Elise Hurst: I want to take you on a journey with this book. I want to help you make discoveries on every page, but also to discover stories inside yourself. I know from my own experience that it is so much easier and so much more fun to be creative when you have something to respond to, something that fires your imagination and floods your mind with questions. So, this is a book of story ingredients where you will travel in and out of new worlds with every page turn.
What inspired you to create this book?
Elise Hurst: I have been creating narrative illustrations like these for myself for a long time. Every time I have shown them to people, I have been inspired by the flood of spontaneous storytelling people would give me, and how often they said that they wish there was more time for creativity in their lives. During the Covid lockdowns, I thought of all these people with their lives turned upside down and I thought now is the time to give them a doorway to step through. I wanted to give them something that would allow them to step out of their normal lives for a while, help them to connect with their creativity and maybe give them confidence to share their own stories with the people around them.
Even though there are no words in this book, it contains an infinite number of bedtime stories and creative writing prompts—fantastic conversations will abound! The reader gets to be the storyteller. Who do you imagine using The Storyteller’s Handbook? And how do you see them using it? Can a reader open this book to any page to begin?
Elise Hurst: This book is for everyone! It is for storytellers of any age. It is for people who have never written a story in their lives. It is for artists, writers, 5-year-olds and 95-year-olds, parents, teachers, and, of course, people who want to snuggle on a couch with the screens off and just spend time laughing and imagining together… And because we are tapping into people’s own creative minds, how you use the book is up to you. Open it to any page, look at the details, ask questions about what you think is happening and think up answers to those questions. As soon as you begin to say what you think is happening you are storytelling!
What do you hope readers, young writers, and storytellers will take away from the experience that The Storyteller’s Handbook provides?
Elise Hurst: I want to help people connect with their imaginations. Our minds are so powerful and we have so many ideas and possibilities locked within them. But our lives are so busy, with so much crowding for our attention. I hope that by spending time with this book they will really spend time with themselves and give that utterly unique imagination a chance to thrive. We all have something to say but sometimes we are afraid no one will hear us. This gives you the chance to take control, find your voice and practice using it. How that change could affect the rest of your world is an exciting thought!
Inside the book are 52 whimsical, detailed illustrations depicting strange lands, mythical creatures, curious animals, and intriguing characters. How did you decide on which art pieces you wanted to include?
Elise Hurst: Every piece of artwork was created especially for this book. I thought about all of the varied locations that could be inspiring and the creatures and characters that could live there. I also love to mix up the world, taking things out of their normal place and playing with size and expectations. I also love to have things interacting strangely – you might see something extraordinary happening like a giant fish floating down the street but only one person is noticing!
Choosing these scenes was really about thinking where did I want us to go next! Where haven’t we been? A desert, a gallery, an old town, a city, under the sea, at the edge of the stars, deep in a forest, or a temple? And sometimes the scene was all about creating a space for an emotion or a connection, and devising a way to bring it to life. And of course, I wanted these images to be beautiful and intricate, so the experience is as pleasurable as possible!
Do you have a favorite spread?
Elise Hurst: So many! A big favorite is the scary angler fish page. I love the feeling of danger, the assumptions we have to challenge, the intimacy of reading a book and sharing stories, the moment of two seemingly different creatures bonding, and the way they need each other for this moment to work. And I love the questions I have no answer to, like how did this happen? Has it happened before, what comes next, can they communicate any other way, and what are they reading? Or are they actually writing? As I sit here thinking about it I’m wondering about new possibilities that hadn’t occurred to me before!
A picture like this sums everything up for me that I love about this style of art — the way we are brought into a picture by its strangeness and challenged to think about it.
What was your process for creating the artwork?
Elise Hurst: I begin with a single idea. It might be a location or a creature or an emotion or a scenario. I then find photographic reference to help me draw something believable and accurate because I want these worlds to feel plausible.
This style of drawing takes a long time so as I am shading and cross-hatching, I have time to think and plan. As I create each image bit by bit, I am asking myself the same questions that the reader will ask, allowing the story to grow before my eyes. It’s a magical and intuitive process.
Award-winning and #1 New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman wrote the inspiring foreword. Can you tell us how his words in the opening pages of your book make you feel?
Elise Hurst: I have loved Neil’s style of storytelling for many years, and the way that his stories connect to the myths and legends of our past. He is someone who seems deeply interested in story itself and how we connect with it, the archetypal characters that inhabit it and the powerful themes and ideas that recur. We worked together on an illustrated version of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and when he heard I was creating this book, he wanted to be involved. What he wrote was the most joyous surprise and so completely perfect. He understands these worlds and wants to help people dive into storytelling, just as I do. I couldn’t be happier.
As a fine artist, illustrator and author specializing in books for children, what motivates you to create work for the young?
Elise Hurst: I love to create true stories. The setup of the story may be an invention but in its heart is something that is real and true, like the need to belong or the fear of failure. What I absolutely love is that when you create a story about something like that, everyone can connect with it. Although picture books are usually for children, I know that they will often be read with adults. I have had many adults contact me about the books and say how emotional they were. That’s amazing, and wonderful to think of the way that children and adults will be able to connect over these stories. I feel very lucky to be a part of that.
For parting words, is there anything else you feel we should know about The Storyteller’s Handbook or yourself?
Elise Hurst: I feel very inspired by the people I have met over the years and their unique storytelling minds. I have watched people who didn’t think they were creative at all suddenly feel compelled to invent stories and tell me about characters. I have watched them look at my art and cry or laugh, at the same pictures! It is so exciting to bring these worlds and experiences to life in a beautiful book. We need people’s voices to be heard. There is only one of each of us in all the world and our minds are precious and unique. If this book helps people to find their path, or even if it makes them smile for a while, then I am happy.
For more information, visit: www.live-inspired.com
Publisher’s Synopsis: What happens when story time begins with a little glowing doorway under a bridge, a pair of koalas floating on an autumn leaf, or a giant mantis returning a library book? Absolutely anything!
Inside this book are an infinite number of stories, waiting for you to bring them to life! You’ll find 52 magical hand-drawn illustrations—of strange lands, mystical creatures, curious animals, and intriguing characters. But there are no accompanying words, because you, the storyteller, are the missing ingredient.
Open this book at any time, or on any page and let the rich details of each illustration become the beginning of an adventure you create. With countless possible stories living on every page, The Storyteller’s Handbook is like having an entire library in a single book!
- Includes 52 stunning illustrations to use as story prompts, with the number of tales being as endless as your imagination
- Sophisticated, layered imagery invites the creativity of children and adults alike
- An engaging bedtime read, road-trip activity, or creative writing exercise
- A beautiful gift for birthdays, back to school, or just because
- Includes a foreword by Neil Gaiman, gold foil stamping on a hardcover, and lay-flat binding
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This interview—Elise Hurst Discusses The Storyteller’s Handbook—was conducted between Elise Hurst and Bianca Schulze. For similar books and articles, follow along with our content tagged with Fantasy, Picture Book, Storytelling.