A World of Colour: Elena Arevalo Melville, Queen's Knickers Award 2020 winner

Elena Arevalo Melville, this year's Queen's Knickers Award winner, talks about creating Umbrella, inspiration and colour.

Congratulations on winning the inaugural Queen’s Knickers Award! How did it feel to win?

I was over the moon. It was only during an SoA event the day before the winner was publicly announced that I began to fully appreciate what the Queen’s Knickers Award stood for, and I was honoured and delighted that Umbrella won for its subversion and risk-taking. The comments from Nicholas Allan, who generously funds the award, and judge Alexis Deacon have been topping up my self-esteem ever since.

It was also a pleasure to discover the other books in the shortlist. With book events, festivals and school visits disappearing, and the need to invest time in adapting to it all, the award money couldn’t have come at a better time.

Umbrella was described by judges as a ‘story that deserves to be found and opened’ and one that ‘talks to you in a clear voice, like a friend’. What was your inspiration behind the story?

I like finding patterns in the world and the opening and shutting of an umbrella seemed to have many parallels with the opening and shutting of a book: when it is open you are inside it, it surrounds you, it shelters you from what is beyond. And when it’s shut the world that was within it vanishes. I wanted to incorporate an umbrella opening and shutting in subsequent pages: open-shut-open-shut.

Of course, that’s not a story, just a play on form. This is where my cat comes in: Schrody is our sweet black cat, slinky and elegant and chatty, who used to bring all sorts of unfortunate creatures through the cat flap. Most of them where half eaten or mostly dead, but some would make a run for it and somehow one sad little mouse ended up inside our umbrella by the front door. And days later there was a bit of a smell around the entrance and when I opened our umbrella out plopped the mouse, dead. Really bad news for the mouse, but in my head – which had been concerned about openings and shuttings – this was a lightning bolt moment! The fusion inside the what ifwhat if when you opened an umbrella a living creature came into our world? And what if it was not one, but millions of butterflies – and why were they there? Who needed them? And if they were there because somebody needed them, could this umbrella fulfil everyone’s needs? And if there was such a powerful thing in the world, wouldn’t somebody want to hoard it all for themselves?

Perhaps if Umbrella comes across as a friend it’s because the process from initial mouse casualty to publication took about four years, and that time allowed me to let the gentleness come through its sharp edges. 

What was the process of writing and illustrating like? And what came first for you – the illustrations or text?

Play and community are at the centre of my creative process. I am fortunate in being part of a very supportive group of writers and illustrators, who I can trust with my half-baked ideas before I put them in front of any commissioning editor. I only had a few isolated scenes to start with (an extraordinary umbrella, butterflies fluttering out, a lonely girl finding a friend, a park bench, Mr Fox stealing the Umbrella, some kind of comeuppance) and I guessed where they sat in a sequence but not how or why. 

As I worked on those gaps, the isolated scenes grew logically and slowly connected until there was a version of the story as a silent book. So in a way, the pictures came first. At this stage it was almost coherent (the how was somewhat resolved) and very flawed (the why was still nowhere to be found) and it really needed words. Once I added some text (helpfully nudged by a sudden deadline) even though it was still a bit clunky, there was enough in that version for Sarah Pakenham to recognise Umbrella as one of her first four titles on her list for Scallywag Press.

Once I had the backing of the publishing house the book became a real team effort, a small and perfectly formed team that allowed me a lot of breathing space and time, while also giving my work more focus. I did a lot of research – from the look of park benches to what sort of accident Mr Roberts would have had in middle age to be in a wheelchair, and which type of wheelchair he would use, considering his fitness and personality. Working out what characters looked like from different angles involved making some 3D models (any excuse to play with clay!). Technically speaking, the artwork finals were a mixed media of meticulously composed acrylic layers and fast and intuitive compressed charcoal drawings. Depth and light were achieved with more layers of compressed charcoal to work out volumes. And all of these were combined in Photoshop.

Colour is key in my work, so alongside the developing story I began to develop a deliberate chromatic pace. If you put all saturated bright colours in every spread none will speak. The book deliberately starts in cool shades and gradually heats up; the double rainbow towards the end of Umbrella has power because it contains colours that have not been seen in the preceding pages. The last page deliberately goes into almost monochrome to elicit a different way to read that moment, an invitation to build your own colours into what happens next. 

Key to the evolution of Umbrella was meeting, nurturing and developing my working relationship with Sarah (publisher), my editor Janice Thomson and Sarah Finan (designer). Deep conversations followed when we honed into what the story was and what it was doing. A lot of love went into this book, and from the judges’ comments I can see that that love comes out the other end. 

What is it you love about children’s book illustrations?

If you pick a picture book from any part of the world, you can read the pictures. Illustration is another language, it is a way to look at reality, at ourselves, at ideas. Children’s illustrated books give the opportunity to explore in this visual language a reality as it is understood by the illustrators, through a craft that is unique to them for a complex and intelligent audience for whom the world is almost new. I love the immediacy of illustration, I just wish that it was valued more. 

What advice do you have for writer-illustrators who want to get their books out there and heard? Any top tips?

1. Have a party, call it a book launch. Your book now has a place in the world, and as it emerges there is a moment of excitement that you must prepare for because just like your book, thousands more will be published this year. Celebrate what you have achieved but also what you are letting go. Support your local bookshop and host your party there or somehow get them involved. Book events need a lot of adapting and digitising due to the pandemic, but you can still create a buzz with social media campaigns, and you can still support and engage with your local bookshop and library online.

2. Don’t be shy – celebrate your collective achievement. You have been working on your book for a long time and a lot of it happened inside your head; it has all been private and precious. Now your book is out. Practice speaking about it out loud and tell everyone you know. If you manage to get an interview, put together a cheat sheet and stick to it – otherwise the interview will be over without you mentioning even the title! You need to become your book’s ambassador and remember that you are promoting your book in its published form with the help of a team around you. 

3. Don’t take any attention for granted – reply to every email, and if somebody reviews your book or draws attention to it on social or traditional media, engage and express your gratitude. 

4. Do not compare yourself or your book with the publicity or prominence of other books and other authors, but stay connected and engaged with your colleagues and their output and your audience. Use social media consistently, wisely and most of all with kindness and respect. 

5. If you write/illustrate for children, reach out to schools and try to get invited to school visits, but don’t underestimate the work (either in fees nor time to prepare). Read the SoA Guide to Virtual Events and remember to use your skills creatively and be proactive and patient when it comes to reaching out to schools and putting your event together.

What do you hope this award will do for you and for Umbrella?

It has undoubtedly had a positive effect on my self-esteem and a clear message to me as an author: keep going, you are doing what you are supposed to do. For Scallywag Press it is a first win too, and I’m equally delighted for them. I can’t wait to share this joy with the next winner of the Queen’s Knickers Award in 2021!