Angelina Ballerina illustrator

 13 December 2011

Children's illustrator and author Helen Craig, known for her 'Angelina Ballerina' drawings, discusses her mid-life move to illustration and learning skills to improve her writing.

Starting a creative career

"I come from a family with a grandfather who was an artist and a stage designer. My father was the same, my brother was a brilliant artist. I really felt overwhelmed by the talent around me, didn't think I could ever be as good as any of them.

"My father suggested I should go and join a photographic studio, what was called a commercial studio up in London where they did advertising photographs. We photographed ladies in fur coats and ladies' knitting patterns and things like that. Very dull and very boring.

"Then I started a studio on my own, which was quite frightening but fun. I learned a lot about making compositions and looking at things, so in a way it wasn't a waste of time, but eventually I didn't want to do it any more."

Getting into illustration

"You just had to go around asking people to look at your work."

"I started to think about illustration, which is what I always wanted to do.

"I was going to make a poster of mice making the alphabet, and I was going to sell it at the craft fairs where I sold my pottery. But in the end I turned it into this [concertina book], and I started to look for publishers.

"You just had to go around asking people to look at your work. So that was the first thing.

"It's a little mouse with her bottom in the air – very ungainly – putting her shoes on, and then she glides onto the stage. That's one of the first ideas for Angelina, from my point of view.

Getting extra skills for writing

"Although I enjoy and love illustrating other peoples' work, because they have ideas I can't possibly have, I do also like to do my own, but I find it really quite difficult.

"I wanted to do a book which was a rewrite of what they call the nursery stories. But then that would mean the words have got to be stronger.

"I decided to do an A-level English course because I had never done one at school, I left school at a very early age. So I went and did adult education – two years of English A-level, which was one of the nicest things I've ever done.

"It really was a great help. Then I wrote 10 stories and illustrated them, which was very satisfying.

How to illustrate a book

"If there's no pleasure in your drawings, that transmits itself into the book."

"When a publisher gives me a text, first of all obviously I have to read it and make sure I like it.

"Then, unless the designer insists on dividing it up for me, I prefer to do it.So I will read it and then I will cut it up. I will decide which bits I like. The publisher will tell me how many pages I've got. For a usual picture book, it's usually 12 double pages, 24 single pages, or a combination.

"It's not a good idea to illustrate a book you don't like, because there won't be any pleasure in it. And if there's no pleasure in your drawings, I think that transmits itself into the book.

"My mother always said I didn't have any patience when I was little. If she could see me now..."

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