K.G. Campbell is the author and illustrator of the gorgeous picture book, The Mermaid and the Shoe. He also illustrated the extremely popular middle grade novel, Flora & Ulysses. We had the opportunity to speak with him about his inspiration for these books as well as receive a preview of his new middle grade zombie novel that will be released next year.
When did you start drawing and writing stories?
So young, I can't remember. It was something I innately picked up before my memory can even recall.
What was the first story you remember writing?
I can't really remember any specific stories, but I went to this really old school in Scotland that had a lot of ghost stories. It was apparently the school that inspired Hogwarts. So I can tell you from as far back as I can remember, most of my stories have involved ghosts or something a little bit dark.
I was very much inspired by the somewhat gothic tales of this old school. There was one in particular that sticks out. Our school had these four turrets where a lot of the classrooms were arranged. The turrets had a very small, spiral staircase. The school had been founded for boys without fathers in the seventeenth or eighteenth century and the children used to live there. There was a boy whose job it was to wake everyone up by drumming. And he was the most hated boy in school. One day, he got pushed down the stairs from one of the turrets and his head smashed open on one of the steps. To this day, it is considered unlucky to walk on that step. So all of the steps have been worn away except that one. That is the kind of thing that inspired my stories.
Although you were writing and drawing from such an early age, you didn't go to art school or study creative writing. You studied art history at the University of Edinburgh. Then you had several careers from tax consultant to Hollywood interior designer. What made you turn back to writing and illustrating full time?
It was something I never left behind in my heart. I went on loving children's books all through my adulthood. I got to a point in my life where I realized I maybe made some mistakes in terms of my career. Not that my life was a disaster, but I realized I wasn't being fulfilled. I knew I really wanted to write stories. Especially for children, because I do have an artistic streak and kids lit is really the only place where you can combine both of those things. So it was a conscious decision.
I was probably in my mid-thirties when I decided I really wanted to do this. I started pursuing it more aggressively. Like many people I thought writing picture books was an easy thing to do, in that they are fairly short. I did have some innate sense of how it should go, and unusually, got quite positive feedback from publishers. But it never really went anywhere. It wasn't until I started taking it more seriously that things started to move. I started taking creative writing classes at UCLA. I took an illustration class at the ArtCenter in Pasadena. Once I sort of packaged myself as a professional illustrator, that’s when things started to move.
So you've answered this a bit, but is there anything else that drew you to children's literature?
I was an only child and, at some point, quite a lonely child. Reading was everything to me—particularly very intensely through the ages of roughly eight to fourteen. The books I read at that time were the most influential of my entire life. I don't think I've read many adult books that have left quite the same impression on me. Partly because I was a child and I was very malleable and impressionable. But the impact of those middle grade books are a big part of why I wanted to do what I wanted to do.
Maybe I’m skipping ahead, but the picture books have been somewhat of a prelude to my career. As I said, I started with picture books because they were relatively less time consuming than a novel. So that's where I started. I got my foot in the door as an illustrator, and wound up getting a bunch of illustration gigs as well so that sort of occupied the first years of my career. But my goal has always been middle grade. I actually just completed my first middle grade novel. It’s a trilogy and the first book is coming out next year. I am right now hitting the point of my career that I wanted. It's very exciting.
And what is the first book?
The title is A Small Zombie Problem. So it’s the zombie genre. It’s a bit of a southern gothic. It's dark, but also very moving. It’s not the whole zomb-pocalypse sort of zombie story. It’s not gore at all. It’s a little ghoulish, but it’s also very sad and quite beautiful actually.
Are some of your illustrations in there as well?
Yes, it’s going to be fairly heavily illustrated. I think its older middle grade. There is a very fuzzy line between older middle grade and younger YA. Harry Potter is the perfect example of how it went from probably younger middle grade all the way to upper YA. So I think we're marketing it as older middle grade.
Backing you up a little bit, you were saying the books you read during the ages of eight to fourteen were really important to you and I was wondering whether there are certain books that stick out.
Absolutely Roald Dahl. James and the Giant Peach was my favorite book. There is a British author, Alan Garner, who wrote a bunch of fantasy books based on British mythology. The Owl Service is probably his most famous one. The Narnia books were obviously a big deal. Enid Blyton is a famous English author writing during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s ,but is probably still being read today. A lot of it isn't PC so I don't think they are really pushing her anymore, but everyone who was a kid in the second part of the 20th century read Enid Blyton. And the Mary Poppins books.
Which is very different from the Disney version. I remember reading Mary Poppins to my son before we saw the Broadway play and thinking she was much darker than Julie Andrews portrays.
Moving on to discuss some more of your work. The Mermaid and the Shoe is one of my favorite picture books. It’s beautifully illustrated and very poignant. As I am the youngest of nine girls and a boy, I can very much relate to the youngest child syndrome. How did you come up with the idea?
Well the idea started very simply with a mermaid finding a shoe, not understanding what it could be, and going on a journey to find out. To be honest, the emotional aspect came second because I wanted it to have some source of power to it. I wanted the story to be more than simply discovering what this object was. And it became a metaphor for finding out who she was. The multiple sibling thing happened conveniently in that I was plundering mermaid lore to furnish the book and discovered the story of Neptune who had 50 daughters. That’s where the 50 mermaids come from. And then it all fell into place.
And how did you come up with how to draw her. I’ve read that since you live in Hollywood, you sometimes find inspiration there. Or were these illustrations based on mythology?
There is a little of my Scottish background in there as we have the legend of selkies. They aren’t mermaids, but seal people. I kind of wanted to place the story in the waters around Great Britain. All the fish and sea life you see in the book are North Atlantic fish. And in order for it to visually pop, I wanted a dark background and light figures. I imagined these mermaids living at the bottom of the sea off the coast of northern Scotland. They are not going to get a lot of light. Like fish that live in caves, they would be very pale and not have much pigment. And I thought that would be visually quite stunning with the light figures against the dark background. In terms of Minnow’s face, I think I just went onto Google images and found a little girl who kind of fit the bill and used her.
Another one of your books is Dylan the Villain. There, Dylan is convinced he is the very best supervillain. Until he starts school and meets Addison Van Malice, that is. Competition between the two kids ensues. Some people have compared it to the Incredibles or Despicable Me. Did you refer to either of those movies in creating your characters and drawings?
In short, yes I did. Not in creating the story, but in creating the visuals. I suppose both Despicable Me and The Incredibles were in the back of my mind when I was creating the story, but I wasn’t consciously trying to work in that genre. The creation of Dylan the Villain was a much longer process. He was originally just a gross little boy who puts boogers in the cookie dough. I was working with an editor at Viking on this project. We went back and forth for years and years. I would send a new manuscript and she would send it back. I was always struggling with finding a motive for him to be bad and yet making him likable. And you know we are living in a zeitgeist where superheroes and supervillains are very much a part of the fabric of our media. It suddenly clicked. We said let’s make him a supervillain and then he doesn’t need a motive. That’s just what you are born to do; be bad. So that’s how he was born as a character.
Visually I had trouble. Obviously once he became a supervillain, he had to have a mask. You can’t be a supervillain in a picture book without a mask. But I struggled with showing the expression in his eyes, because eyebrows are a huge part of showing expression in simple illustrations. So The Incredibles was the influence there because I looked and they basically just turned the mask into the eyebrows to show expression. I basically did that. So it was an influence in the visual.
Were you a big fan of superheroes growing up?
I actually was. I went through a comic book phase. I was just like the guys on the Big Bang Theory. From roughly the age of twelve to sixteen, I was one of the kids hanging out at the comic book store with my best friend. I was a DC guy and loved Batman. Which, if you think about it, actually fits into my gothic thing. Batman was by far my favorite. I loved the fact that he didn’t actually have any super powers. It felt more believable to me. Superman was too bubblegummy. If you can do anything, where is the drama? Where is the conflict? Where is the challenge? So Batman was definitely my go-to-guy.
Batman has always been my favorite superhero as well for basically the same reasons. With the Mermaid and the Shoe and Dylan the Villain you were both the author and illustrator. On Flora & Ulysses, another one of my favorite books, you were the illustrator. After you received Kate DiCamillo’s manuscript, how did you come up with inspiration for your illustrations?
I did receive the manuscript with art notes. So I had some guidance as to what they wanted illustrated and where they wanted it to be illustrated. There were no visual clues other than what is in the text. In the beginning, Flora is described as having a very round head. When Ulysses first falls in love with her, he falls in love with her very round head. So I had that as a clue. To emphasize the roundness of her head, I gave her short hair because if she had long hair it wouldn’t be quite so obvious. So you use these little clues in the text to work with.
I cast Flora and Ulysses. I looked around for mostly television celebrities who had the kind of features I wanted. While they are not exact portraits, they are types. And they do help give the character a bit more distinctive character. I do that all the time. It’s a nice way to really bring some real personality to the illustrations, because I can imagine how that person is going to react to different situations and I have some facial features to work with.
What materials do you use for your illustrations?
I tend to use the same materials. It’s normally a watercolor wash with colored pencil on top, which gives me more control over the shading. Flora & Ulysses though is 100% colored pencil.
It was great speaking with K.G. and you can rest assured that A Small Zombie Problem will be included in our Kid Curated Books boxes next year.