Writer and illustrator Martin Brown is one of the UK’s most prolific contributors to the children’s book industry. His drawings for the Horrible Histories series are like works of art: known around the world for their eye-popping use of colour, humour and sense of detail. In addition to Horrible Histories, he has also illustrated many other stories. These include the Coping With… series, Philip Pullman’s New Cut Gang reissue and the Harry & Oats series by John McLay. More recently, he has written and illustrated his own non-fiction work, Lesser Spotted Animals. Originally from Melbourne in Australia, Martin now lives in Dorset with his family.
A few weeks ago Martin came to visit our Dare to Write Library installation at the Eden Project and contributed a book to our collection of creative storytelling. Amy Barrett took the opportunity to sit down with him and ask a few questions about his life, career and of course, Horrible Histories.
How did you first get into illustration? What made you want to be an illustrator?
It was always one of those dream jobs for me – to be a cartoonist. I started out by doing greetings cards, and then comic strips for some magazines. I just started knocking on doors, asking for work. As luck would have it, I knocked on Scholastic’s door at the right time! I haven’t had to go back to designing cards since.
How did you get involved with Horrible Histories?
I was actually working on a Scholastic series with Peter Corey called ‘Coping with…’ which was different books about coping with teachers, parents etc. And they had a section in each of them about the history of parents, or whatever the book was about. One day we thought: maybe we could do a whole book called ‘Coping with History’? So we approached Scholastic who told us to ‘hold that thought’. As it turned out, they had just received Terry Deary’s manuscript for the first Horrible Histories!
Terry always says he’s not a historian, he’s a storyteller. In 2018 it’ll be Horrible Histories’ 25th anniversary, but we can’t tell you anything about that yet – it’s still in the top secret stage.
What are the challenges you face as an illustrator when working on the Horrible Histories series?
Drawing less blood! We used to publish in black and white so you didn’t really notice, but when we starting turning my drawings into colour we realised how much RED there was!
What do you like about working on children’s books?
The audience! Children are so enthusiastic, and they haven’t learnt to be gloomy yet. And they bounce off the walls when they get excited about something. At one point I was training to be a teacher but I realised it would be too hard so I quit before I finished the course. Now I’m going into schools to talk about drawing and writing, so I get the best of both worlds!
What other illustrators/cartoonists do you admire?
Chris Riddell, because he’s so fast and I’m terribly slow. Pat Oliphant, Jeff MacNelly, Emily Gravett, Axel Scheffler.
Do you have any new projects coming up? What are you working on currently?
I’m writing, bizarrely! And I’m enjoying it very much. It’s another non-fiction book like the one I wrote last year called Lesser Spotted Animals. It hasn’t got a title yet, but I’ll probably give it the very imaginative name of Lesser Spotted Animals 2.
If you had to give one piece of advice to budding authors/illustrators, what would it be?
It sounds trite, but have fun! Relax and don’t worry too much.
The key to anything is practice, and if you have fun you’ll keep going back to it. If you keep a diary every day you’ll become a better writer, if you doodle all the time you’ll get better at drawing. We know that it (practice) works for things like sports and learning musical instruments, so why not writing and drawing? And once you’ve put in the practice you can then start to learn the techniques, but you have to enjoy what you’re doing to stick to it. Some people think ‘you’ve either got it or you haven’t’ but that’s not true at all. Sure, there is such a thing as talent, but that’s just magical people who are amazing. Anyone can draw if they really want to and they put the effort in.
When it comes to drawing, people are so self-conscious – especially adults and older children. Drawing shouldn’t be a bowl of fruit looking like a bowl of fruit!