If you have ever been into a library, classroom, or maybe your child has the books themself, you may recognise the large eyes of a black rabbit, or the bowler hat balanced on a pigeon, which appear in the illustrations of artist John Bond. This children’s book illustrator, author and artist creates charming animal characters, and gives them humanistic qualities. In turn, his stories are captivating and familiar, all about building connections between his readers and mundane narratives.
We begin our conversation with a run down of our weekend plans, and Bond had just spent his Saturday morning doing a draw along with children at Worthing Library. This is where Bond is currently living, after growing up in the Cotswolds, and I ask how location inspires him creatively. He responds by telling me he enjoys the quiet of nature. “I get glimpses of wanting to be back on a farm in the proper rural countryside, but I have lived by the coast since 2004 and the longer I have lived by the sea, the more grounded I feel.” This is where Bond finds safety and security. “Having the sea and the [South] Downs, I get the best of both worlds,” he says, as he looks out of the window in his studio which overlooks the sea.
He enjoys living in an area that allows him to enjoy the peaceful nature of looking for creative inspiration in waves and park walks, a lifestyle he can lead for his children too.
“I have been in lots of busy situations, living in London for a bit,” he explains, “but it is not for me. Not creatively.” Bond says that the hustle and bustle is great for observations and people watching, but processing his creative ideas is done away from the desk, in nature. He says the best thoughts come when he is isolated from everything else: “that’s where the actual concepts come and having the beach on my doorstep is very helpful for that.”
While children’s book illustration is what Bond finds himself doing now, he graduated from university in 2002, and had a long artistic career before this most recent venture. He tells me, “a lot of people say ‘what do you do?’ and if I say ‘illustrator,’ the majority of responses would be ‘oh do you do cartoons or books?’ but for many years, that is not at all what I did.” Bond first worked in animation doing digital content, and had dipped his toes into most avenues that illustration could be applied to.
The Mini Rabbit series, featuring his debut book Mini Rabbit Not Lost (2018) was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books and began as a self initiated project.
The rabbit was, at first, nothing more than a small feature on his Instagram feed. Then, it got noticed by a few publishers, “and they asked me for a small meeting because they thought it had ‘picture book’ written all over it – the character and sense of adventure.” Bond explains it was an opportunity that he could not turn down, and felt very grateful for. “It was a field of work I was made aware of,” he says while thinking back to being in university, “but not an avenue of illustration I thought I would be going down.”
What Bond loves about creating picture books is the physical element of his products. The longevity of being able to hold and keep his narrations was not something he could experience with his digital work. With this, he holds up one of his picture books and I ask if he can describe the style of his illustrations. “I am generally a character based illustrator and artist,” he affirms, “my characters are 99% of the time animal based, and probably 90% of that time they are dog based.”
His Instagram feed is bloated with dogs in different colours of the rainbow, all with some sort of shocked or inquisitive expression. Despite his love of dogs, he does not have his own family dog: “I feel like not having one means I can draw them to fill a void.” He describes his drawings as witty and featuring some word play – the Pretzel Dog being one example of this.
Bond also enjoys turning inanimate objects into a character because “at the core [of his drawings] is creating things that are fun and can engage the viewer.”
The scenes created around his charming, animal characters, tend to be referent to day to day life. Bond refers to an illustration of a cat and a dog underneath a blanket at this point, declaring, “it is a visual representation of my life.” Also considering, “I loved books when I was a kid where animals were doing human activities. To me, that twist never gets old and that is how I enjoy telling my stories.”
The most recent children’s book that Bond published was Much Too Busy, released in March of this year which features a very busy pigeon, and not so busy mouse.
However he reveals a bit more about his debut book, Mini Rabbit Not Lost, which follows the character on an adventure through the seasons. At first, mini rabbit was just a fun illustration, “and then people were asking ‘is it a game, is it an animation, what is it?’ and it was around that time publishers started getting in touch.” The following books in the series: Must Help and Come Home can also be enjoyed as stand alone stories. The series’ essence came from observations of Bond’s own children and his memories of childhood, “growing up in the countryside, and the stubbornness of children.” He tells me that parents recognising the strong minded and independent characteristics of children he incorporates into characters is exactly what he wanted from each of the stories.
Interested by this concept of his own children inspiring the characters and narrative within his books, I wonder what type of recipients they are to his work. Big fans? Harsh critics? “It is all of the above,” Bond confirms with a laugh. He continues, “sometimes kids being brutally honest is what you want to hear, especially when that is the target audience.” In general, kids just say things as they are! Sometimes, Bond also finds his own children’s thought processes useful: “they can just say something in the moment which strikes me as a nice thought,” sparking inspiration for new, collaborative ideas. He tells me,“I am always just observing and seeing things like, how the emotions of children are very temperamental.” This sense of children being in the moment and processing things like emotions and thoughts is something Bond finds himself quite envious of in his adult life. “Having the children there to remind me that that is what it could be like, and inspire attributes to give to characters so that they are relatable, is helpful.”
Since Bond’s organic introduction to the world of children’s books, the praise has been non-stop.
From having over 140k Instagram followers, to his debut being nominated for best picture book in the 2019 Waterstones Book Prize, he has found himself well acclaimed. Plus, his book Dogs in Disguise (with Peter Bently) was read by Rowan Atkinson for CBeebies Bedtime Stories. This is defined as a career highlight for Bond, where his children exclaimed “Mr Bean just said your name on telly!” On this sense of accomplishment and success, Bond describes “any kind of positive feedback on your work goes a long way.” Especially when the work is personal, as Bond says the books were to him. “To then have the Waterstones pick it up and be nominated for something like [best picture book], it’s humbling to say the least, especially because it is such a competitive field.”
Continuing this conversation on the positive reception of Bond’s work, he describes the publicity of even being nominated was incredible. From that, he has received even more praises from audiences, which is equally as rewarding. “Such a prestigious prize makes the book even more accessible,” he states, “so the book enters schools and libraries.” The feedback he receives from parents consists of approvals like, “yes that relates to me!”. “These are the nicest bits of feedback,” John states; “I get letters or fan art sent to me.” Then, he proceeds to tell me how, at the weekend, he had a child ask him to sign his copy of a book which was so well worn where it had been read so much – “to have that is the highest praise possible.”
So how can other illustrators and creatives find success in the field of children’s books in particular?
“I feel very lucky that I was in the right place at the right time,” Bond disclaims, acknowledging his unusual entry into the world of publishing. He continues, “but I think the reality of that is I created an engaging character and a sense of story.” “There was intrigue which engages the viewer” in each poster, advising, “you want each page turn to not be obvious.”
One way to make your story writing engaging, Bond suggests, “is making it personal to you.” “I think your message comes across more genuinely if it is something you’ve experienced or observed first hand,” he considers. For example, even parts of Much too Busy are a reflection of his own childhood. This is why he enjoys recreating the mundane in illustrated, comical worlds, “because people relate to that.” Putting your own stamp on things is also key, no matter how much practice and failure and experimenting that may take. His conclusive advice is to “pair clever observations of day to day stuff with nice visuals and a bit of humour, and that can go a long way.” For instance, Mini Rabbit Not Lost is all about baking a cake, and there is an instant appeal to the fact that so many people love cake: “This is what will allow you to connect with the audience.”
Finally, with the audience now at the forefront of our attention, I ask Bond for his advice on how we can encourage children to engage in picture books and read more.
The key, according to Bond, is not just having lots of books (ideally in multiple rooms of the house) but also lots of types of books. He explains that in his own case, he enjoyed non-fiction books on history and wildlife and castles, which are just as exciting and curiosity inducing for children. Remembering, “the words were too much for me at that age, but the pictures really stuck out,” he highlights the importance of exposing children to all types of books. He encourages books’ ability to “get the mind working on narrative, entering other worlds and empathising with characters.”
Once you have all of these materials for children to look at, physically getting them to engage is the next challenge. Bond found that a nook area in the children’s bedrooms really helped. The ethos of this safe, cozy corner harks back to our initial talking point of not being distracted by the outside world. Even if it’s just for five or ten minutes a day, Bond suggests creating a space for you and the kids “where you only have to focus on what’s in front of you, and just get lost in other little worlds.”
To get lost in the world of John Bond, Mini Rabbit, his prints and more of his children’s books, go to iamjohnbond.com/. His next picture book with Peter Bently, Hamster Heroes, will be published on Thurs 6 July by HarperCollins Children’s Books.
Book recommendations from The Feminist Bookshop HERE
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