“The most magical things can happen even on the rainiest of days…”
When I received the text by Emily Ann Davison from my editor, I fell in love with it instantly. The Blue Umbrella (Andersen Press) begins when the blue umbrella mysteriously turns up at the door. The story evolves around the magical umbrella and the child who found it. She finds out the umbrella shelters everyone who needed it. In this post, I’m going to share the joy and challenges I had while illustrating this heartwarming story.
The story is narrated in first person and there was no description of the child, not even their gender. I chose an East Asian girl for the protagonist because I had never done a book with an Asian / female protagonist before except Little People Big Dreams: Yoko Ono. I strongly believe we need more INCIDENTALLY Asian protagonists in children’s books (you can read the eye-opening CLPE Survey of Ethnic Representation within UK Children’s Literature 2017-2022 here).
Around the time I started working on this book, I was binging Stranger Things again. I particularly liked the costume and production designs in the season 3 so the 80s summer vibe had a big influence on the look of this book, particularly on the colour palette and characters’ outfits. Having said that, purple and shocking pink aren’t my cup of tea so I used slightly more muted colours – salmon pink, orange red, yellow, sea green and of course blue.
The story is about community – people from all corners of the society coming together, so broad representation was essential. There are about 40 different people in this book. It was both challenging and fun to design so many different characters. Emily was particularly keen to see someone with a hearing aid and someone with a cane/blind dog in the book – her own father was blind, her mother wears hearing aids.
When I pick a text, I tend to go for something not just good but also that challenges me as an illustrator. The Blue Umbrella certainly did… Drawing human characters isn’t my forte (my comfort zone is animals and food). I think that’s why I felt compelled to take on this cumulative story that involved a big group of people. I ended up drawing roughly 230 human figures in the book! This drove me to the verge of nervous breakdown, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It gave me more confidence (I’m currently working on another cumulative story).
The premise of the story was simple – the more people take shelter under the umbrella the bigger it grows. My initial thought was “How can I make this visually interesting?” I didn’t want it to be visually repetitive so I consciously used various angles and perspectives to show the umbrella. I also liked using compositions to tell the story. One of my favourite spreads in the book is the low-angled one with people looking up at the inside of the umbrella (spread 6). I love the sense of wonder this angle brings.
The trickiest, if not hardest, bit in this book was probably the ending. The last three spreads went through the biggest changes. The original idea wasn’t quite working. My editor, art director and I bounced many ideas and at the end we decided to remove one of the scenes and add a new one to create better rhythm. Also, the communal space we see at the end was originally a big community centre, but after some discussions we changed it to a community garden with an adjacent cafe, which reminded me of my local park. I love when collaborative effort helps us see what we couldn’t see before and brings out something better.
To tell you the truth, at one point I nearly gave up on this book. The summer 2021 was hell. My full-time job was unprecedentedly busy, and my cat became seriously ill, had big operations and needed weeks of nursing. I was struggling to meet the deadline of this book. I couldn’t get through the summer, not to mention finish this book, without my friends, colleagues and agent Eunice’s support and kindness so it felt almost like fate that I was working on the story about community. Although it was challenging, I’m glad that I got to work on this beautiful story. I’m really proud of how this book turned out. Hope you will love it as much as I do!
EMILY ANN DAVISON worked with young children for many years before she finally fulfilled her childhood dream and began writing. When she isn’t writing picture books, she can be found tinkling on the piano or at her local primary school, where she helps with reading. Emily lives in Kent, UK, with her daughter and husband.