Goodbye Hobbs Q&A with Emma Bettridge and Josephine Birch

With only a few weeks to go 'til the publication of Goodbye Hobbs, we had the chance to pick the brains of creators Emma Bettridge and Josephine Birch to find out more about the picture book process, collaboration and their favourite spreads. Take a look below to find out what they had to say.

How did the idea for Goodbye Hobbs come about?

EB: My Hobbs passed away in 2018 and the echoes of him in every part of my life were so loud at first I found it pretty tough to not miss him with every step. In my mind he was still there on the sofa in the corner of my eye, still galloping through the same woods we always went to - I could almost hear his tread on the stairs. I wanted to articulate that cold, heavy feeling of grief, so I just started writing. My protagonist, Merlin, is my dear brother’s dog - a dog who lost his owner Holly (my brother Matt’s wife) in 2014 to breast cancer and I think I wanted to honour his journey somehow. His and Matts - that they kept walking. So it’s the imprints left by those we loved so fiercely and how we carry them with us. I also always loved a thing my ex-girlfriend used to say when we walked the dogs - this idea that when they were sniffing and chuntering along, they were checking messages! It really stuck with me and I wondered if I could put the two things together. To convey that feeling of going from despair and not being able to go anywhere, to moving our body and getting outside and to exploding into the landscape around and feeling the power of that natural world. Josephine has harnessed that so completely - the familiarity, the comfort and the magic of that landscape. Of just keeping going, one paw, one foot, at a time.

Spread from Goodbye Hobbs

Can you talk us through your writing process?

EB: Those closest to me might accuse me of not really working, that I’m usually to be found thrashing through a forest, dogs up ahead of me. I always have a notebook, so I write loads and loads of notes, scraps of thoughts, one liners, and then I make sure I have short sharp periods of computer time. I have a writers club with my friends Emma and Vice where we agree to sit down for an hour in the morning and just write prose. This hour is for writing. Not research, not notes, not googling Liz Truss curtseying; WRITING. Because I spend a lot of time thinking about the characters, about the story, about perspectives, when I sit down to tell the story I manage to get loads down. I also really love it. It still feels like a treat to just disappear into a story I’m making up.

So, in summary, loads of getting outside, loads of random notes, some sitting still at a computer but not too much.

Can you talk us through your illustration process?

JB: My process always begins with rough pencil sketches, in sketchbooks and on scraps of paper. In the case of Goodbye Hobbs I began drawing directly on the word doc Emma sent to me. I then start colour testing, and I find it really useful to go on location to collect colours. It was important for this book to have this transitional feel between the warmth of autumn and the cool of the rain and winter. That was a visual analogy of Merlins grief. Once I've got the roughs fixed I’ll begin more final designs. I might make two or 6 depending on how well they go. Again with Goodbye Hobbs it was a little unusual as I was working closely with Emma, sharing the works and discussing progress, shifting and developing the text and so on. 

I also think of my process as being quite physical, I really get behind the brush strokes, the motion of the thing. So, drawing from location really informs that, moving around in the landscapes that then inform my Imagination. 

Early storyboard for Goodbye Hobbs

              Early sketch for Goodbye Hobbs

              Early sketch for Goodbye Hobbs

Early sketch for Goodbye Hobbs

What is it that makes Goodbye Hobbs such an important book?

EB: I think it’s hugely important to address issues of grief and loss for children because those things come back to haunt when we’re old right? We are all going to go at some point. I think there’s such a fear of death because so much is hidden from us as we grow up that it becomes an embedded fear. We use all these euphemisms for where our beloved animal has gone - ‘next door’, 'to the farm’ and on. I think children only ever want to feel safe, to feel connected and to feel like you’re being honest with them. They know much more than you realise from a very young age. Also it’s part of the cycle of life to celebrate and honour and miss that one who has gone. It’s how we process and live our life the very best we can. Grief is also this body of water which sits in us all just waiting to be topped up with the next loss. It keeps us connected to ourselves and the better we know who we are, the more robust we are at dealing with life I think. But what do I know? I cry at things all the time.

JB: Every single one of us will experience grief at some stage in our lives, in so many different forms, be it the loss of a pet, a family member, a relationship, even a dream. It's important to remember that children experience these things too; it's easy to think of grief as an adult theme, but it is just human. So talking about grief in picture books, can help to introduce the topic, so that we might empathise with others experiencing it, or to contemplate our own losses; it's really important. 

            Illustration from Goodbye Hobbs


           Illustration from Goodbye Hobbs

Tell us about your favourite spread

EB: This question is DIFFICULT!  I think for me it’s the very last spread - Merlin at rest by the tress under a big moon. It’s an incredible painting in its own right, yet the peace it brings at the end is like a big sigh. We’ve been on this journey with Merlin, how he’s gone from not really being able to face getting up, to heading out in the rain, to finding Hobbs is still with him in his heart, to finding a place to rest again.

JB: This is a hard one. I find different moments in it really moving. The first, ‘Rain on head’ because I think we can all empathise with Merlin here. I love the rain and the feeling of autumn drawing in. I tried to make the homes behind feel cosy and warm, so that although we know Merlin is really miserable here, we have a sense of hope. The other favourite is the last spread where Merlin lies gazing up at the moon, the stars and the clouds that take the form of Hobbs. It rounds off the story, a moment of reflection and calm that explores the complex feeling of comfort and solace in remembering and missing someone you love. Hobbs will always be with Merlin.

Spread from Goodbye Hobbs

Spread from Goodbye Hobbs

Artists often talk about little rituals to get into a creative space. Do you have any rituals?

EB: I am very easily distracted so I have to sort of reward myself for doing what I should be. I’ve mentioned the dog walks - I walk them A LOT. In lots of different places, with our favourite being any large woodland or forest. So an ideal writing day would be to walk for an hour, then come home, do 10 minutes of stretching and breathing (yoga inspired), then a cup of coffee, then probably 20 mins of just writing, then I’ll ‘treat’ myself with a chapter of a book I’m reading and then repeat.

JB:  I do have some. I have to fool myself into relaxing about starting work, so I always have a cup of tea, and then I will lie on the floor with my dog and start to draw. Or take it out, down the garden, or elsewhere.

Is there anything you’d like to add for the people who will be receiving their copies of Goodbye Hobbs this week?

EB: I would LOVE to know what you thought of it! How it made you feel, what your own experiences of grief and losing a loved one has been. If you would like, get me on instagram @emmitmole and let me know your thoughts!

JB: I just hope that readers connect with Merlin the way I did, and carry his joyfulness with them the way I now do. 

Emma Bettridge is a theatre producer, director, festival curator, and a children’s picture book writer. She is currently working with the likes of Pins and Needles, Vic Llewellyn, Bea Roberts, Laila Diallo, Katy Owen, Jen Bell and Elisabeth Westcott and is an associate lecturer at Bath Spa University, on the M.A. Creative Producing course.

Josephine Birch is a print maker with a first class B.A. in Illustration and a postgraduate scholarship from The Royal Drawing School, after which she achieved a first class M.A. in Children’s Book Illustration at CSA. She is also a workshop leader and lecturer in Illustration.

About the book:

Merlin won’t go out. Not without his best friend Hobbs. Join Merlin as he goes on an adventure to learn how to say ‘Goodbye Hobbs’.

A story of what it means to love and lose a friend, and to find reasons to go for a walk again.

'Goodbye Hobbs is an absolute joy to read aloud and a joy to look at – the design, the text layout, the illustrations… this book has a wonderful rhythm to the words and Josephine’s artwork is full of movement and fluidity like the wistful smells the main character chases.' Clare Helen Welsh, Books That Help

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