Stellarphant by James Foley
Inside the CBCA Shortlist
“So Stella gathered her friends … and together they studied and strengthened, and practiced and prepared … until finally, they were all ready.” (Stellarphant)
James Foley puts so much care, generosity, intelligence and talent into his books. His picture books reward multiple readings.
Stellarphant (Fremantle Press) is shortlisted in the 2022 CBCA Book of the Year: Picture Book category. It is a ‘stellar’ work about ‘the elephant in the room’ and is full of humour to entertain, remind readers about the importance of perseverance and subtly suggest important truths about fairness and diversity.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, James.
Thanks for having me!
Where are you based and what in your background has led to your career in children’s literature?
I’m based in Fremantle, Western Australia. My studio is out the back of the brilliant children’s bookshop, Paper Bird Books.
What led me to writing and illustrating books … I was a voracious reader as a kid. The library was my favourite place at school. And I was always encouraged to write and illustrate – by my teachers, my family, my friends. So it makes sense that I ended up doing this as a job.
What is the significance of your intriguing title Stellarphant??
As my long-suffering friends and family could tell you, I am a pun tragic. So what better to call a book about an elephant that wants to go into space?
I was so impressed that the Turkish translation managed to keep the pun; they called it “Yildizfilosu”: yildiz means star, fil means elephant, and yildiz filosu means ‘star fleet’.
Was the true fact that many animals and other creatures have been to space your starting point for the story, or something else?
That was part of the inspiration when I was writing the story, but the initial inspiration was a random watercolour sketch I made while I was sitting with some author-illustrator buddies in a cottage at our annual writers retreat. We were all doing random drawings, and before I knew it I had this sketch of an elephant and a penguin on a spacewalk. It felt like there was some kind of story there.
Stellarphant cleverly challenges situations where several different types of diversity and difference are ignored or disregarded. Could you please share some of these?
Stella is blocked from applying to become an astronaut on several grounds; they’ve never had an elephant before, they don’t have a spacesuit in her size, the training facilities are not set up for an animal of her stature, the other astronauts think she’s bad luck. These are all things that have happened to women in the space program at various points in history. So it’s a feminist text; but it’s my hope that Stella and her animal crew can represent many different types of diversity. It’s intentional that Space Command’s human employees are all white men; so to me, Stella represents everyone who isn’t.
How have young readers been responding to these ideas?
I think lower primary classes tend to see it as a book about determination and perseverance, which it definitely is as well, whereas upper primary students can delve a bit deeper and spot some of the subtext.
I attended a workshop with a focus on visual literacy you gave at the Brisbane Writers Festival. It was excellent and gave such a great insight into your books such as My Dead Bunny (illustrated by Sigi Cohen), which was CBCA shortlisted in 2016 as well as receiving other commendations. What is a tip you give illustrators and others to help them either create or interpret illustrations? OR a tip you use yourself?
I think about my illustrations in terms of the language of film and TV; I think about establishing shots, close-ups, wide shots, etc. Other illustrators think about their work in terms of theatre language, where each scene is like a stage. I think these are both really good approaches to thinking about visual storytelling. So one bit of advice is to watch a lot of movies and TV and theatre! Soak it all up; it all gets added to the well of inspiration that you can draw from later.
When and why do you change between picture book style full-page spreads and graphic narrative style in Stellarphant?
Partly it’s to have some variety in the way scenes are framed throughout the book. I’m also trying to show what’s happening in the most efficient, effective way possible. So for instance, I often used a series of small vignettes across a spread when Stella was working through a step-by-step process, or going through some training; these sections end up feeling a bit like montage sequences from a film. Then I used full page images and double page-spreads when the scenes needed to feel more epic and impactful.
Another little thing that might go unnoticed: scenes within Space Command tend to have quite rigid, square borders, while scenes of Stella preparing have more fluid, flexible borders; I wanted the border styles to be subtle reflections of the differing philosophies of Space Command and Stella.
How do you show subtle discrimination and reasons why people think others can’t do something through body language and facial expressions in your illustrations?
A lot of this is shown through the man at Space Command’s front desk – he’s Stella’s main gatekeeper. Reading the book and watching his expressions tells you everything you need to know about the work culture at Space Command. So for instance, when Stella first approaches the desk to hand in her application, the man doesn’t even look up at first. And then when he does, he’s looking at her over the top of his coffee in a very judgemental way. But then when he realises she’s an elephant, he spits his coffee all over his computer screen.
Which illustration in Stellarphant do you find particularly funny, and why?
There’s a fishbowl that makes a couple of appearances- it has a Moorish Idol and some guppies in it. They first appear when Stella is building the rocket, and each fish is wearing a hard hat. I thought it was too ridiculous not to include.
The fishbowl appears again in the mission control room; the fish have their own desk. I have no idea how they click the buttons on the panel in front of them.
Which illustration in Stellarphant are you particularly proud of, and why?
I hate to say this but I’m pretty proud of the whole book; I feel like I did everything I could with this one, it really turned out pretty much like how I imagined it in my head, which is quite rare in my experience. If it’s the last picture book I ever make I will die happy. (I hope it’s not my last one though, I’ve got more I want to make!).
But I’ve got a few standout favourite illustrations: there’s the ‘elephant in the room’ scene, with Stella squished up at the table with all the managers. It’s simple but it says an awful lot.
And I love the spacewalk scene, because it’s so quiet and triumphant and reflective. And the ‘Stellarphant Aerospace Hall of Astronauts’ foldout is so much fun. And the gallery of true animals in space was so fascinating to research and illustrate.
You illustrate your own books and also illustrate books written by others. How is the process different?
If I’m illustrating someone else’s words, then half the work has been done already; it makes my job a little easier. But I also like being able to write and illustrate by myself, because then I get greater control over the story. There are pros and cons to each approach.
One series you illustrate is Tim Harris’s Toffle Towers. (I’ve interviewed Tim on the blog here.) You are both funny men. What is the funniest thing about Tim, or working with him?
Tim has a great sense of humour – it’s absurd like mine, but also very warm and gentle. I get very odd, silly ideas too, but my humour can also go quite dark at times (see My Dead Bunny). So working with Tim was great; it gave me the chance to give my illustrations a lighter, warmer tone.
What impact has being shortlisted for the CBCA Picture Book of the Year award this year had on you or this book?
We’ve had to do a third print run of the book, which is fantastic. Personally it’s a great affirmation for the CBCA to recognise my work. I can’t wait to see if any classes do Stellarphant displays or activities or dressups in Book Week.
Could you tell us about some of your other books?
I’ve written and illustrated some graphic novels for kids: the S.Tinker Inc series follows Sally Tinker, the world’s foremost inventor under the age of twelve. Her baby brother Joe is a full-time professional baby, and often gets in the way of her inventions. The four books are called Brobot, Dungzilla, Gastronauts and Chickensaurus.
You’ve already mentioned the Toffle Towers series, which is about a 10yo boy who inherits a hotel and becomes the manager. You also mentioned the infamous My Dead Bunny, about a zombie pet rabbit; the sequel is called There’s Something Weird About Lena. My very first books were The Last Viking and The Last Viking Returns, both written by Norman Jorgensen, and In The Lion, which I wrote and illustrated.
What are you writing or working on now?
I’m working on a new graphic novel series for Scholastic which is due for release in early 2023. I can’t wait to share it. And I’ve got a few picture book ideas I’m kicking around. My wife and I have two young kids so there are never enough hours in the day.
What have you been reading that you would like to recommend?
I’ve been reading some of the other shortlisted books, and they’re fantastic as you’d expect. I just read a brilliant children’s graphic novel called Barb the Brave – it’s a comedic fantasy epic.
How can your readers contact you?
Thanks very much for your responses, James. I’m sure I can speak for many in saying that we love your book Stellarphant and how your character, Stella, doesn’t just whinge or give up when brushed aside but takes a positive, proactive approach forward.
All the best with Stellarphant and we greatly look forward to your next book as well.