Cranky Chicken: Party Animals by Katherine Battersby
Author / Illustrator Interview
Congratulations Katherine on Cranky Chicken, your graphic novel for children being so successful that there is now a sequel, Cranky Chicken: Party Animals (published by Lothian Children’s Books/Hachette Australia).
Thank you for speaking to Joy in Books at PaperbarkWords.
I have loved your picture books such as Squish Rabbit and Little Wing and have kept them in my collection. And I’m sure we have met in the past at the Brisbane Writers Festival. When and why did you move away? How does living outside Australia change your creative work?
Thanks for you kind words! I’m certain we’ve met, too. I moved overseas because I met a beautiful Canadian who changed my life – would you believe we met at the Brisbane Writers Festival? We were both feature artists at the 2013 festival (he’s a poet) and we met at the opening night. We returned to the festival several years later, but this time as a married couple – it was pretty special.
Living here in Canada has influenced my work in subtle yet significant ways. What’s most important to me as a storyteller is being awake to the world, and change keeps you wide awake. There’s nothing quite like being in an unfamiliar place with new sounds and smells and landscapes and seasons to make your senses tingle. I’m always seeking out new experiences because it keeps my storytelling eye observant.
Cranky Chicken & Cranky Chicken: Party Animals
I’ve been a big reader and supporter of graphic novels for many years and it is excellent to now see your graphic novels for children, Cranky Chicken and Cranky Chicken: Party Animals. They fill an important niche. After a strong background in picture books, why have you used the graphic novel form for these books?
I’ve always loved graphic novels – I collected them as a kid and read the pictures long before I learnt to read the words. I was drawn to Asterix & Obelix, Footrot Flats and The Farside (their humour has clearly influenced CRANKY CHICKEN). I’ve always dreamed of making my own graphic novels, but had been waiting for the right idea to come along. When I met Chicken I knew I’d found my lead. She’s so much fun to draw and she just oozes quirk. But when Chicken met the irrepressibly joyful Speedy (the worm) in my sketchbook, that’s when the story really came alive. Together they made me laugh and reminded me so much of childhood and growing up, and the graphic novel format seemed the perfect way to unroll their ridiculous adventures.
Which character was it easier to initially decide on in this series: Cranky Chicken or Speedy the worm? Once you decided on these two characters, how did you develop their personalities in words and pictures?
Chicken appeared quite suddenly and almost fully formed, I think because she’s a lot like me. We’re both introverts – we need lots of time to think through things quietly in our heads. My friends understand that when I’m confronted with something new, my first response is to frown (thinking takes a lot of energy!). I also have an anxious chicken brain – in any situation I am always anticipating what could go wrong. Just like Chicken, I can see the potential flaws in any plan. Speedy worm, however, reminds me a lot of my childhood best friend. She was quite extroverted and lived in a quiet house not so suited to her big energy – so she always came to my busy household instead!
I often feel less like I develop my characters than discover them. These two goofs were always so vivid to me – once I stumbled across them, they followed me around and wouldn’t stop talking to me. Some stories are tough to capture and take years (SO many years), but this is one of those rare ones that unrolled so fast I just had to try to keep up.
How have you used facial expressions, body language and other techniques to bring your characters to life?
Kids are always laughing about Chicken’s cranky unibrow (it gives me great joy to draw eyebrows on unsuspecting birds). When illustrating, my most important job is capturing the emotion of my characters. Part of how I do this is keeping my characters visually quite simple – I challenge myself to use as few lines as I can, so their emotions jump out at you. Chicken’s body language is often understated, but a simple flick of her eyebrow says a lot. I love the challenge of capturing Speedy’s body language. As a worm, they are essentially just a line, but I can use that line to wiggle and twist and convey all sorts of expressive motion. Speedy is perpetual movement (and emotion). The two play off each other in fun ways.
How has the second book evolved from the first?
In book 2, it was a lot of fun getting to explore three new stories now that the characters are already friends. But they’re still new friends, so while they do know each other they still have plenty to learn. I love the different stages of friendship, and exploring them with these two is always a laugh. I think in this book I was also able to push the quirk a bit further, which I really enjoyed.
How have you included humour?
I never imagined I’d be writing funny books. I don’t see myself as particularly funny, but I do have a very wry, dry sense of humour, that seems to work in CRANKY CHICKEN. Luckily, the humour developed quite naturally as I watched the two characters in my mind and noticed how they contrasted and bumped into each other. I rarely write with an audience in mind – at first I’m just playing with ideas that make me laugh, and then in ways I am also interacting with my childhood self and what intrigued her. I think this is maybe why the books seem to appeal to both children and adults – there’s no greater compliment than getting to sign one of my books to an adult who finds it funny!
The structure of the books is interesting and unexpected. Could you please describe the structure?
Unexpected is a fun compliment. I love to think my books are a bit surprising (although Chicken doesn’t like surprises and neither do I). The book is made up of three stories, or chapters, with mini comics in-between that allow you to get to know the characters better. The stories unroll in panels, which shift across the page and change shape depending on the emotional energy of the story. Chicken’s panels are often straight and orderly, a bit like her, where Speedy’s are rarely contained by the bounds of the page. The entire story is told in speech bubble dialogue between the two characters. I like to think of it as the Seinfeld for kids – not a whole lot happens … the entire story is a conversation between Chicken and Speedy! It’s what happens between personalities that has always fascinated me.
Your colour palette is surprising and distinctive. Why have you used these colours?
I love colour. I’m always collecting it in my day to day life and squirrelling it away for future books. I had been dying to make a book with a limited colour palette and decided CRANKY CHICKEN was the perfect book for it. I wanted it to have a classic kind of feel but with a twist, so I used the primary trio of red, yellow and blue, but shifted the blue to more of a moody teal (with a few others thrown in for highlights). It’s a fun challenge to pull a scene down to such simple colour combinations, and then to push that colour to see how far you can take it. It’s also quite a bright book, which is a fun contrast considering it’s a celebration of crankiness. My art director says flicking through the books is like opening a bag of candy.
Your illustrations are rendered digitally using custom chalk, pastel and watercolour brushes. What does this mean? Could you please explain your process?
I made these books on my iPad, using a program called Procreate. Typically I use a combination of traditional media and digital art, but I knew I had to work fast for these books (I make two a year!) so I enjoyed the challenge of going completely digital. I worked with brushes that others had made, then adjusted them so they were more like the real world tools I like to work with. The characters are outlined in a chunky chalk style brush, which replicates the thick scratchy pencils I love to draw with on paper. I love texture, so I used an adjusted pastel style brush and digital watercolour for the backgrounds.
The font looks handwritten. Please tell us about it.
It is! It’s actually my handwriting. A number of years ago I decided to make my own font from my handwriting, using a simple online tool. When I was working on CRANKY CHICKEN I just knew this font would be perfect for it – and I’m glad my publisher agreed. They helped me finesse the font and I really love the way it’s worked out in the books. The font makes the books feel more like me than anything I’ve ever made. Flicking through them, filled with my handwriting, reminds me of the visual diaries I kept as a kid.
What is something that readers don’t seem to notice about these books?
Hmm, good question. There’s not much that gets past kids – they’re incredibly observant. I am surprised at how many kids love the jokes that I think of as a bit more adult, though – the ones that I assumed more parents and teachers would enjoy. For example, the movie posters in PARTY ANIMALS – I’ve already had a parent share that her kid’s favourite part is the Pride & Prejudice joke (I renamed it Poultry & Prejudice and cast Chicken as both Elizabeth and Darcy). I truly thought I’d be the only one on earth who’d find that funny.
What’s next for Cranky Chicken?
I’m wing deep in the final art for Cranky Chicken 3 and having such fun. These characters are an utter joy to draw. Book 3 has got plenty more crankiness, quirk, and mismatched friendship fun, but I wont give away any spoilers. I’m also writing book 4 as we speak…
Please tell us about some of your other books.
PARTY ANIMALS is my lucky book #13, so I have plenty of others out in the world. SQUISH RABBIT was my first book, which is now a series of three books about what it’s like to be small in a big world. My picture book, LITTLE WING, is about birds, books and belonging, and uses my favourite mixed media collage style illustrations. I also illustrated a series of five books with the wonderful Shelly Unwin (YOU’RE ONE! etc.) which celebrate ages one to five in playful ways. My picture book, PERFECT PIGEONS, is about a bunch of quirky pigeons who come to understand the true meaning of togetherness. And finally there’s TROUBLE, a picture book inspired by my move to Canada and my fear of bears – ultimately it explores my belief that we all deserve to be seen and celebrated for who we truly are (yes, even bears).
What have you been reading that you would like to recommend?
So many graphic novels! I just finished the gorgeous The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag. I’m just about to start the second book in the Lightfall series by Tim Probert. I’m also a big fan of Tilly Walden, Kelly Barnhill and have just finished the delightful Kate DeCamillo’s latest novel.
How can your readers contact you?
You can find me at all the usual online haunts:
Thank you for your very generous and entertaining responses, Katherine, and for continuing to delight us with your books.
Thank you for a truly delightful interview! So many insightful and intriguing questions. Also, I adore your name – did you notice how often I use joy in my answers?
I love that, thank you!