Petra Brown has been a children’s book illustrator since 2006 when her first picture bookIf Big Can…I Can, was shortlisted for the Booktrust Early Years Awards for Best Emerging Illustrator. Since then she has been illustrating for a range of publishers in the United Kingdom and abroad. Petra comments, “I love drawing animals with human expressions. I find it such fun creating, for example, a thoughtful fox, a happy hippo, a shy sheep, or a caring bear! The other thing I like is creating landscapes, places where my characters can run about and have adventures. Living in a magnificent place like Snowdonia helps a great deal.” Petra lives with her partner in Wales.
I’m so thrilled to have the opportunity to talk with Petra Brown today about her early love of children’s illustration, her photography in and around her hometown of Snowdonia, Wales, and a ghost-filled house…. Jakki’s boys, Steve and Jack, also had a couple of questions for Petra.
Steve would like to know: Do you have a pet rabbit?
Hi Steve! I don’t have a rabbit. I once lived with seven cats, but that’s another story. I always say hello to the rabbits that live in the wild near our house, but they never stop for a chat. I think they’re a little shy.
Jack was wondering: We like to work outside with our dad. What do you like to do with your dad?
Hello Jack! My dad is very, very old and he likes to sit in his chair and read and doze. But when I was very young my dad made a model railway in our garden and he let me help sometimes… that was fun.
Daddy Loves You is part of a series of sweet books about family love. I love reviewing these books. Can you talk a little about how these books came to be and how you approach the illustrations?
The first book in the ‘Loves You!’ series was ‘Grandma Loves You!’ written by Helen Foster James. Sleeping Bear Press offered me the illustration project back in 2013… and so it began! Five love-packed books were born! The cast list so far: Grandma, Grandpa, Mommy, Daddy and Auntie. Rabbits galore! I’m not sure who came up with the bunny idea, but it worked. There’s another book starring two members of the same rabbit family: Grandma’s Christmas Wish.
The Rabbit family is semi-wild… no clothes, they live in burrows without furniture, but they can make things. Grandpa made Little Bunny a kite using leaves, twigs and grasses. Daddy made a swing, using ivy vines. Auntie makes herself a daisy-chain crown and collects seashells to decorate Little Bunny’s bed. And in ‘Grandma’s Christmas Wish’ Granny has a Christmas tree, complete with decorations in her burrow. I like the idea that they use the natural things around them to have fun.
There are lots of side characters in the books too. A jolly mole pops up in a few of the books and smiles avuncularly at the rabbits’ antics. There’s also a recurring hedgehog.
There are never any rabbits in the title pages, instead there’s always an assortment of other little wild critters, all eagerly checking out the name of the book to see who’s up next.
The endpapers are always decorated with things from the rabbits’ world. My favourite endpaper is the one in Auntie’s book. She’s a lop-eared rabbit who lives near the sea and so the endpapers in her book show a rock pool and rabbit footprints in the shell-littered sand.
The ‘Love You Series’ are all ‘Keepsake Editions’—each book has a frontispiece designed for a gift inscription and date, and at the back there is a space for a personalised “Special Letter to My Favorite Bunny” and a space for a photograph. These pages are decorated with little creatures, flowers, leaves, berries, and various pretty things from the rabbits’ environment. I always have huge fun creating the rabbits’ environment with all its little details.
You say that even as a child you were fascinated by the illustrations in books and copied them. Who were your favorite illustrators and how did they influence you?
The first book I actually chose to read for myself was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. There was something about Tenniel’s illustrations that really intrigued me. I tried to copy them over and over. I guess the idea of my illustrating books was born from this. One of my favourite books was The Children’s Treasury of Literature in Colour published by Hamlyn in 1966. It was jam-packed full with the work of fabulous illustrators! Favourites were Robert J Lee, Gordon Laite, Richard Scarry, J P Miller, William Dugan, Adrienne Segur, Lilian Obligado, Grace Dalles Clarke, Hilary Knight, W T Mars, and The Provensens.
My other favourite book to lose myself in was The Illustrated Treasury of Children’s Literature published by Grosset and Dunlap 1955. That was also crammed full of tasty illustrations! There were many books filled with inspiring illustrations that I studied again and again. The list of illustrators that inspire me is very, very long. I feel both excited and frustrated by their brilliance.
Did you always want to work as an illustrator for children’s books? Would you talk a bit about your journey to publication?
From quite an early age there was never any doubt in my mind that illustrating was what I wanted to do. At school the careers advisor advised me to think about an alternative career, just in case the whole artsy thing crashed and burned. But I folded my arms and told him, “There is no plan B!” Looking back, that guy was right, really. It took me a long time to fulfill my dreams. I had to work in a shop for years, whilst attempting to lure a publisher to take interest in my work.
In 2005 I had almost given up hope of ever being published. Sick of sending off portfolios and collecting rejection letters, I took courage and joined the internet, (ah, the days of dial-up!). I made myself a website showcasing my art and I sent out an introduction/invitation to view my work in the form of an email to absolutely every children’s book publisher on the planet… hundreds! I say hundreds, I’m not sure how many, but it was a very long list. Out of all those emails sent, I received back just two interested publishers, one was Gomer, a welsh publisher, and the other was Meadowside. At that time Meadowside’s art director was the wonderful Mark Mills, who went on to found his agency ‘Plum Pudding’ and I’m really proud to say that I was among the first plums in that fabulous punnet! At the grand age of 40, my life as an illustrator began!
I added up how many books I’ve done since then and it shocked me! It’s fifty two! Amongst all those books there is a very special one for me… the one that I wrote myself: When the Wind Blew published by Sleeping Bear Press in 2017. It’s always been my deepest wish to actually write and illustrate a book. Thank you, Sleeping Bear Press!
Your portfolio is full of adorable animals and scenes that can’t help but make a person smile. Two of my favorites are an illustration of a pig getting a shave and one of a crocodile getting his teeth brushed. Your style is very distinctive, with gorgeous colors, lush, detailed backgrounds, and characters who are so expressive. How did you develop your style? What mediums do you work in?
All my work up until the end of 2013 was done conventionally, usually colour pencils, watercolour paints on thick watercolour paper. But after that date everything I did was made solely in Photoshop. But on my latest project I’m working slightly differently. I’m drawing in detail onto paper, scanning that image, keeping it on a separate layer set to ‘multiply’ and working the colour underneath, with a few tweaks on a top layer.
I use Derwent studio pencils when drawing conventionally. I start off with a ‘French Grey 70’ to work out the rough shape, and then work over the top with the darker ‘Chocolate 66’. Just lately I’ve been working on Daler – Rowney Smooth-Heavyweight paper, it has just enough tooth for happy pencil-work, but smooth enough to scan cleanly. Once I’ve finished the sketch I scan it into the computer to work the colour up in Photoshop. I absolutely love making Photoshop brushes, and often I spend hours fiddling about making the perfect brush for the finish that I want.
You live in Snowdonia, Wales which, with its mountains and beaches, is as pretty and magical as its name. Can you describe one or two of your favorite places and why you love them?
My partner Iain and I love to explore the hidden places in our area, the quiet mysterious places where most people never go. Landscapes woven with tales from the Mabinogion. The lonely hills marked with abandoned quarries, dripping damp mines; remote ruined homesteads… cold hearths, empty barns, and rusted relics. Haunted, lichen coated, and weather worn. They are the places I love. I always take my camera with me and try to capture that special atmosphere that fills my cup.
The picture above shows Llwyn-y-betws. The sort of house you might find in a welsh village, or perhaps at the end of a bumpy farm track. A house of fair proportions, a two up, two down. But Llwyn-y-betws sits in the middle of a moorland hill, with no road running to it or near it. It’s as if one night it had decided it’d had enough of man and his noisy roads and had, like Baba Yaga’s house, stood up on two strong legs and marched itself up into the hills to sit quietly amongst the reeds and the sheep and slowly rot away.
Perhaps the fabulous view of the Nantlle ridge reflected in it’s windows gave the house a sense of deep satisfaction. It could settle here. It had brought Hawthorn Tree with it, they had been friends forever, and they would murmur to each other in low voices of their past life in the village and how this was what they had always dreamed of for their retirement together and wasn’t it fine!
You can see some of my photos on my photography website ‘Hinterlands’.
I can’t let you get away without asking about the house you moved into when you were ten. I’m sure most kids would be envious that you got to live with “ghosts and draughts” as you say in your bio.
Ooo, that house! Never before or since have I felt so spooked! It was a large, granite block-built hospital for the local quarry. It had a mouldy, damp, creepy morgue, where you could still make out the marks on the wall from the old slate shelves where they stored the bodies. There was the grey ghost of an old man who used to care for the hospital grounds. You could hear his wheelbarrow squeak on cold, dark early mornings. The ghostly nurse who would stand over you, should you fall asleep in the east wing. And the ghostly footsteps echoing across the wooden floorboards in the abandoned cottage in the hospital grounds. Bumps and knocks and shivery feelings… it was thrilling but… I’m so glad we moved!
I’m currently working on a picture book written by the ‘Loves You’ series author, Helen Foster James, to be published by Sleeping Bear Press. No rabbits, this time it’s squirrels.
Also, I’ve recently signed a contract with Sleeping Bear Press to work on another book that I’ve written myself, and I’m so excited for that!
You can connect with Petra Brown on
National Family Month Review
About the Holiday
The weeks between Mother’s Day in May and Father’s Day in June have been designated as National Family Month. This time gives us the opportunity to honor everything that makes a group of people a family. Shared experiences and memories—and especially love—create that unique feeling in the heart that defines family. This spring’s stay-at-home orders have given most people an opportunity to get to know their family members in a whole new way. To celebrate today’s holiday, share a word, a hug, or even a special note to let your kids know how much you love them.
I received a copy of Daddy Loves You from Sleeping Bear Press for review consideration. All opinions of the book are my own.
Daddy Loves You
Written by Helen Foster James | Illustrated by Petra Brown
A daddy rabbit, cradling his bunny in his paws, gazes lovingly into his little one’s eyes and says, “You are your daddy’s sunshine. / I’ll love you every day.” He promises that he will always be by his bunny’s side, teaching, protecting, and playing with them. They take a walk, and as the curious bunny points out things along the way, Daddy names them all.
Daddy and his little one spin and twirl, hold hopping contests, and fall in a heap giggling and laughing. Next it’s on to a special swing-making project where they “build and fix together” then have fun as Daddy pushes his “lovey-bug” on the ivy-covered swing. Daddy makes his child a cape of leaves and flies his eager bunny through the air as he reveals some advice—and an admission felt by all parents: “Do your best. Be bold and kind. / Be all you want to be. / You’ll be a superhero / …especially to me.”
Night falls and the two snuggle up as Daddy tells a story to his adoring child. Then nestling his baby into a soft, straw bed, he gives a kiss and says goodnight with the assurance that “you are my little angel, / and, moonbeam…I love you.”
The unique relationship that fathers have with their children is tenderly shared in the newest addition to this lovely and loving series of family member relationship books. Helen Foster James’ lyrical language—sprinkled with endearments—is part lullaby, part hug, and completely charming as a father takes his little one by the paw and reveals the depth of his feelings. Little ones will love snuggling up with their dad to spend some one-on-one time reveling in memories and promises of fun spent together.
A highlight of this series is Petra Brown’s glowing illustrations of the natural world this family of rabbits calls home. Here, the rabbits wake to a pastel dawn shining on a springtime green and yellow field, where butterflies flit among tall grasses and puffs of dandelions. The adoring looks shared by Daddy and his bunny portray a love as new and glorious as the day itself. Adorable images of this proud father teaching, protecting, and exploring with his child, are enchanting and give adults and kids an opportunity to share more than a few “remember when we did…?” or “remember when we went…?” moments of their own. The sweet ending is one that little ones will want to hear—and do—again and again.
A perfect pick for Father’s Day or as a new dad gift, Daddy Loves You will be a heartwarming favorite for any child.
Ages 3 – 5
Sleeping Bear Press, 2020 | ISBN 978-1534110595
To learn more about Petra Brown, her books, and her art, visit her website
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