Farren Phillips is the Author/Illustrator of WHEN I’M NOT LOOKING, an interactive detective story with fun fill-in-the-blanks and laugh-out-loud details. The English and simplified Chinese edition are published by Yeehoo Press in the U.S. and mainland China. Humour is a primary subject in Farren’s work but she also feels strongly about philosophy and frequently uses morals and ethics as themes in her stories. Today, we had the opportunity to speak with her about her inspiration for books as well as receive a preview of her new picture book.
When and why did you start to create books?
I’ve always been a bit of a story maker, even as a young child I used to make my own little books with printer paper and staples, and as a teenager I would spend hours drawing comic books and keeping them together in little folders. I started making picturebooks when I was in college, I was working in a library at the time and my favorite part of the job was organizing the children’s books and doing story time, I loved the kind of fast paced, hilarious stories told through a combination of visuals and words, somehow created in the small space of a twenty four page book and decided this was exactly the media I wanted to dedicate my life to making.
Did you like writing or illustrating better when you create a new book?
Both are really fun for different reasons, but I’m definitely more an illustrator than a writer at heart. Drawing is my favorite thing to do and always has been, I love making up characters and sketching silly scenes and fun environments, and being able to write the stories behind them too makes it even more enjoyable and exciting!
Why is the girl named “Legs”, and why did you decide to make Legs a philosopher?
When I was in the very early stages of coming up with the story and still designing the characters, the book was going to be a bit more surreal. The first character design I had for the main character was a little child wearing a big box on their head so you could only see their legs – So I called them Legs. The book changed a lot and later on, Legs lost the box and became an easier to recognize child character, but I thought the name was funny so it stuck.
She is a philosopher because all children are little philosophers! Kids never stop questioning everything about the world around them, and their endlessly creative and curious minds come up with all sorts of fascinating speculations. At it’s very core, that’s just what a philosopher is; someone who questions everything about the world and dreams up possible answers to unanswerable questions.
People are used to having a pet dog, cat, parrot, or pony, why did you design a pet duck in this book?
Again in the early stages of the book’s production, the drafts were very different to the finished book. At first, the story was actually called Paraducks, as a word pun on paradox. It was all sort of based on the concept of the Schrodinger’s cat paradox – the idea that you have no idea if the cat is dead or alive inside the box (which is why Legs originally had a box on her head, as a nod to this as well as a silly joke on the phrase ‘thinking outside of the box’). I had thought about using a cat as the main character at first, but I remember reading an article about a made-up phobia called anatidaephobia late one night, the fear that somehow, somewhere, a duck is always watching you. It made me laugh so much that I was inspired to put a duck in the book instead. The cat of course still made her way into the book too.
A duck is a pretty weird pet, but then again Legs is a pretty weird kid. I think they make a very good pair of friends.
The ending is quite unpredictable. What will happen to the rat?
Legs poor innocent lab rat will probably be the focus of her investigation until she either finds a new suspicious subject to snoop on, or gets distracted when dinner is ready. In fact, if you take a close look at the final end pages of the book you’ll find some funny little details showing some of her rat based discoveries and experiments.
Not to worry, all of Leg’s animal friends are very well looked after and loved – they’re all quite used to her scientific escapades, they probably even help out sometimes.
How long did it take you to make this book?
It’s hard to say exactly. The original version of the book was made during my final project at university and took somewhere between six and twelve weeks to design, write, make and print. It wasn’t until years later that it was picked up to be published, and by that time my illustration skills had changed and improved so I ended up re-creating all of the imagery and editing the story to make it more interactive. The re-design probably took at least another few months. So it’s been a long process! But it was absolutely worth it.
There is so many details in this book. How did you arrange the pages?
I started by sketching places from life – messy, lived in spaces in my house and other peoples. It felt important to me early on to make illustrations depicting messy homes, anyone with a young child will know the chaos of trying to keep the house tidy when you have a tiny whirlwind running about all day hopping from game to game and leaving toys and books and food everywhere. Real homes are chaotic, and the mess tells a story, I like that.
When it came to laying out the pages I made up the basic rooms in a CAD program to figure out where the furniture would go and used that as a reference. Then once the empty rooms were sketched I spent days drawing in all the fun little details and clutter – it was my favorite part of the process. Thinking up the kind of toys and crafts and books that Legs would have around, the kind of silly traps and experiments she’s made up the things she’s broken or made a mess of, it all really helped me understand her more as a character. I worked hard to squeeze silly details into every corner so that hopefully you can spot a little something new every time you read so that the story never stops being an adventure.
What difficulties did you come across when creating this book?
Probably the most difficult part was coming up with the interactive elements. It’s rare to find picturebooks that encourage you to draw in them – it makes it more difficult to distribute them to libraries or schools where lots of children would be sharing the stories, so there wasn’t many pre-existing books like this for me to look at for inspiration. There’s also an accessibility issue, you want kids of all ages to be able to have their input, but younger children or children with mobility or sight impairments could struggle with the drawing or writing. I wanted the story to be able to be enjoyed by everyone, but to still be something you could make your own.
In the end I settled for a mixture of activities which are left quite open to the reader. There are pages where you’re asked to point to objects or count things, pages where you can write to fill in the gaps or draw pictures or glue in objects, so there’s at least something for everyone to be able to have a go at. The story is still completely readable and enjoyable without doing the activities if you chose not to – the child can still come up with ideas to fill in the gaps that the reader can add in or read out for them.
What’s up next for you?
I’m actually working on a non-fiction book series right now, I’m currently illustrating the third book. The series is called Second-in-the-World and should (hopefully) make it’s debut in 2022. Each book covers the history of a lesser known second person to achieve something; such as the second person to ever sail around the world, and the second person to discover something amazing like evolution. The stories are cram packed with funny facts, goofy illustrations, and little interactive games. It’s been really fun (and quite challenging!) to research all of these more obscure historical characters, I’ve definitely been learning a LOT of history this past year, but it’s been keeping my nice and busy throughout the pandemic. I like the message the series gives across – that you don’t have to be the very first or the very best to still make history and change the world.
After I finish up these books, I have no idea what I’ll be up to next – and isn’t that just the most exciting part of being a creator?
What advice would you like to share with aspiring author-illustrators?
Do you remember being younger, telling a teacher or a parent or a friend that you wanted to write stories or draw pictures, and being told in return that you couldn’t make a living doing that? Well that’s just silly – of course you can. Lots of people do, why can’t you?
Never be afraid of failing something; if you want to achieve something then just keep doing it and you’ll get there, if it takes you a month or forty years. You’re going to do great.
Also look at picture books. Go to your nearest library or book store every week, sit on the kids book train (trust me, no one is going to look at you funny), pick out a bunch of random books that catch your eye and read them all. It takes five minutes to read a picture book, you can get through loads. Some of them you’ll like, some of them you won’t – none of them are a waste of time to read because you’ll always be picking up ideas and inspiration and learning interesting new ways to illustrate or new ways to tell stories. Let yourself love the stories like you’re a child again, volunteer to do storytime for children so you can practice the voices and see what children respond to and laugh at. Love the media you’re trying to create and the things you create will reflect that passion.