Q&A with Emma Bettridge and Josephine Birch

Over here at the Graffeg office we are so excited to see our upcoming picture book Red is Home hit the shelves of libraries and bookshops next week. We recently got to chat to the iconic author-illustrator duo, Emma Bettridge and Josephine Birch about the publishing process of their second picture book together and here's what they had to say.

Where did the idea for Red is Home come from?

EB: A lot of my inspiration comes from finding ways to relate behaviour between children and animals. My ex-girlfriend’s son Joseph has had a huge impact on my life. I’ve known him from a very young age and was fortunate to have lots of excellent adventures with him. He was 5 when I got Red and they were both very energetic and bouncy beasts, and so the bond that struck up between Joseph, Red and the routines they had are what inspired Red is Home. 

JB: Red is Home was a concept Emma brought to me, fully written. To illustrate the book, get a feeling for who Red was and why he felt the way he did I drew on my own childhood experience of a single parent home, memories step-parents that came and went, and on my experience now as a step-parent. My partner's children moved between two homes, and then more recently just to ours, so I knew personally and from observing, the feeling of fitting into the rhythms of different homes and how long it can take to settle. Red is a really joyful character, but his energy spills over sometimes when he becomes anxious. As a kid I was diagnosed with ADHD, so I tried to channel that energy into Red. He needs to bounce and let off steam physically, but he needs safety, routine and comfort to settle – as most of us do, actually. 

Last year we published Goodbye Hobbs. Was the writing/illustration process different this time around? If so, how?

EB: I think we had a better idea of the way we worked and what to expect from each other. We knew how to communicate and how to combine the story and images to what we think is the most powerful way. 

JB: We actually worked on Red together just after finishing the roughs for Goodbye Hobbs, so it was quite a seamless transition. We always stayed in touch with each development, swapping and sharing ideas. I think, because of Emma’s experience as a theatre producer, she’s great at giving me room to create in my own way, making space for my ideas too, both around text and image. The text leaves space for the conversation between word and image. There is always room to interpret. Its very collaborative.

What can readers expect from Red is Home? Why is it so important?

EB: I’ve always been keep to represent different lives in the stories I want to write and I’ve always fought against the notion of a standardised 'normal'. I think Red is Home does a quietly decent job of experiencing life through the lens of a bouncy, brilliant dog called Red! It looks at anxiety in young lives and what that can feel like and how it affects them. Surface behaviour often means masking something else entirely inside, so when I child is feeling very shy and awkward but is crashing around the house bashing into things, the ‘normal’ version of shyness is challenged. It’s so important to look beyond that first impression of someone’s reaction as it helps us to be kind and understanding.

JB: Readers can expect another gentle story, that takes you on a very personal journey; I think children and adults can relate to it in many ways. Whether it's blended families, complex family relationships or just thinking about how we look after ourselves emotionally. As with Goodbye Hobbs, I don't think the books are only for families or readers who share that particular experience, though they will be very useful and hopefully comforting in those contexts. It's about representation in a seamless way - neither are ‘issue books’; the couples happen to be same sex, the back drop happens to be blended families, both introducing or validating experiences of home life and relationships, depending on the readers experience. 

What is your favourite spread in Red is Home?

Illustration from Red is Home.

EB: It has to be the anxiety swirl spread. It’s so completely perfect at capturing his stress and rapid anxious movement, I can’t imagine a better way to convey it. 

JB: I really like the spread where Red lies on his back, cradled in the long grass, with butterflies flying above. He is happy and relaxed and he has found that comfort by himself and in nature. I really relate to that. The need to bound around outside, but then just stop and take it all in. I can smell the grass and hear the breeze in the leaves; I’d like to spend an afternoon reading a good book in that drawing. 

Illustration from Red is Home.

Are there particular individuals in your lives that inspire you to create?

EB: I love watching how my animals interact. The way my dogs Nell and Red communicate is just so beautiful. Either quietly side by side dashing through the woods or pretending to bite each other’s faces on the sofa. I have mentioned Joseph who has been a big inspiration right from the start. But of course, my family and people around me - they all crop up in ways through my stories - how we relate to each other and how we are in the world. People are complex, weird and silly. So to understand each other as best we can is all we can really do. 

JB: Many people. My mum and sister are both painters and have always inspired me creatively. I am very lucky to have lots of supportive and creative friends who inspire me both in their commitment to their own work and in their support of me and mine. Sally Dunne, Beth Waters, Puck Koper, Angela Cogo, Esther Cooper Wood are amazing illustrators and wonderful friends. You need these people to keep you going when you loose confidence or celebrate with you when its working. My dog, Maggie and all the animals my partner and I keep at our home often feature in my work, and characters are usually based loosely on friends and loved ones.

More broadly I'm very inspired by writers and artists; I love Adam Beers' book Solo, Sydney Smith and Jordan Scott's book I Talk Like a River, and one of my absolute contemporary favourites is The Longest Letsgoboy by Dereck Wilder and Catia Chien – a brilliant book! 

  Early illustration from Red is Home.

An illustration of Josephine's dog, Maggie.

What do you both enjoy the most about working together?

EB: I’m always staggered by Jose’s first sketches. That moment the words turn into pictures. The intention rarely changes from first sketch to final draft, because Jose gets what the story is trying to be seemingly through osmosis but obviously because she is excellent. She helps me fully realise it. I will never forget tentatively sending the rough draft for Goodbye Hobbs and the overnight delivery of a roughly illustrated draft, it is one of the greatest moments of my life. For real. Jose is also a wordsmith herself - so I don’t hesitate to take on her thoughts around losing or adding words. 

JB: The collaborative nature of picture book making. It's a full idea once it has words and pictures. For many it is very hard to let go of your words and let someone else interpret them, but this was never the case The story is developed, constructed and told through pictures as well as words because there was an understanding that it is synergistic. Emma’s words always just conjured up visuals kind of instinctually- almost magically. It just works. 

If you could describe Red is Home in three words, which would you use?

EB: Joyful, relatable and colourful.

JB: Joyful, brave and comforting

Emma Bettridge is a theatre producer and writer. She has worked for several major theatres and festivals including Bristol Old Vic, Pulse festival at the New Wolsey Theatre, Caravan2014 (Farnham Maltings/Brighton Festival) and the Pleasance London and Edinburgh Theatres. Emma has always worked with children and animals, through training young horses and dogs, to PGL residential camps and as a riding school teacher for many years.

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:

This is Red. Red lives in two homes and has special things he does in each. 

But Monday is moving day. What if the new house isn’t like the old one? What if there aren’t special things to do there?

Follow Red on his adventure to discover his new home.

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