Whoooo? Whooooo? Who is Rebecca Elliott?
The creative mind behind the wildly famous Owl Diaries! That’s who! If you have a kiddo between the ages of five and ten, you are most likely already aware of these gorgeous and highly addictive chapter books. I had to know how it all started, and even more pressing – why owls?
Rebecca, I’m so excited to catch up with you! The best-selling Owl Diaries in Scholastic’s Branches series is a favorite in our house! It has so many aspects that make it stand out–the characters are easy to relate to; the town and situations are comfortable and easy to imagine; and the colors and patterns make the pages really pop!
I love the amazing (and talented) Eva Wingdale! Can you tell us a bit about how she came to be? Why an owl?
With Owl Diaries I really set out to write the kind of books I would have wanted to read when I was a pre-10 year old. I always loved animal stories but equally wanted characters I could relate to so this is what prompted Eva and her world. It’s escapism (Owls that wear berets and attend Treetop ‘Owlementary’ etc.) whilst at the same time, I hope, it’s relatable to a, say, 8 year old as it’s about friendships, family and being a creative kid. And why owls? Well obviously with their big eyes and fluffy feathers they’re pretty adorable, but also their nocturnal living and the fact that we rarely see them in our day to day lives yet we know they live around us gives them this verging on mythical quality, we could almost believe they might just live a secret life in the woods where they speak to each other on their Pinecone phones and have bats as pets!
You mention the similarities between you and Eva in your book bios, but do you have a Lucy and Baxter (and Sue Clawson) in your life as well to draw inspiration?
Yes, Eva is definitely based on me in that I was always drawing and making things and started the odd club in my time too (and had a cool, if occasionally annoying older brother who was in a band!). Lucy is kind of a bit quieter and a bit more sensible than Eva so is probably a mixture of a few fun but slightly more sensible people than me I’ve known over the years and Eva’s pet bat Baxter is probably a mixture of my pet cat Bernard and my two sons–cheeky and lovable but always flying off somewhere they shouldn’t! As for Sue, Eva’s “Meany McMeanersson” classmate, well I think we’ve all known a few Sue Clawson’s in our time, haven’t we? Though actually she’s one of my favourite characters, yes she’s blunt but I don’t really think she means to be, she’s just a bit misunderstood!
I love the mixed media textures, layers of shapes, and lined paper backgrounds. It’s kind of part graphic novel, part collage, and part sketchbook. It is very different from your illustrations in Just Because, Zoo Girl, and the Cub books. How did the Diary style evolve and how does the workflow differ from your more traditional illustrations?
I’ve illustrated books for many years now and to keep things interesting I’m always changing my style to suit the next project (I’m easily bored!). I’d been using the layered patterns digital style in a few picture books and it seemed to really fit the Owl Diaries, almost as if Eva has scrapbooked the illustrations herself. There is also the fact that there are 80 fully illustrated pages in each Owl Diary (and I’m currently working on book 11!) so I knew I needed a quicker style than my painterly one if I was to keep my sanity and keep up with the workload! I’m proud of how the books look though and think the style suits the format well.
How about your character creation process? Each character has its own patterns, colors and attributes, but without a ton of unnecessary detail. How do you decide who gets what and how do you know when a character design is finished?
I think it’s quite an instinctive process, as I both write and illustrate my books the character design and story writing process go hand in hand. I’ll start with sketches of the characters, then start writing the story with those characters in mind, then as the story progresses on paper that often changes the way I see the character so I go back and change the design, and so on. I think you feel rather than know when the design is finish ed. Or occasionally you hit the deadline and that decides for you!
When you decide on a theme for a book, what is your next step? Are you an outliner or a jump-right-in writer?
I’m definitely an outliner, though I like to give the story space to breathe and shoot off in an unexpected direction if it wants to. I let the story grow, starting with a title or concept, then a paragraph or two, then a full chapter by chapter breakdown of the plot and finally the finished manuscript which then goes through many (many!) rounds of edits with my extraordinary editor at Scholastic Katie, and together we pound and prod the book in to shape.
There is an interesting quote from Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” How do you handle self-discipline in your creative life?
I totally agree with that statement–there’s another quote, (attributed to a few different writers!) that I live by which is: “I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.” The point being that to every writer there is nothing more daunting than an empty page, and often one would rather do ANYTHING else rather than have that thing stare at you, yet this is what I’ve chosen to do for a living so I force myself in to it every morning, and sure enough, eventually, stuff pours out of me and I start enjoying myself! I don’t think inspiration does ever “strike,” I think you have to chase it down and wrestle it to the ground.
Tell us a bit about your awesome pod studio and how that came to be your work space.
Ah, my lovely pod. My “sheshed.” I absolutely love working from home but with two noisy sons and a husband who plays electric guitar. Loudly. A lot. Well, it was mildly difficult to concentrate on that empty page in the house so I had a hobbit-esque pod built for me at the bottom of my garden next to my chickens and it’s now pretty much my favourite place in the world. I also think it’s important to be able to close the door at 5 pm and leave work behind for the evening. It’s a nice short commute to work too!
It looks like you get to do tons of school and library visits! Any surprising comments or questions from Owl Diary fans that have stuck with you or shaped the evolution of the stories?
One of my favourite exchanges was with a five year old boy when I did a school visit, introduced myself and, whilst holding up some of my illustrations asked the class, “so does anyone know what an ‘illustrator’ is?” The boy shot his hand up and asked, “Does it mean you live in a tree?”
I live in the UK where Owl Diaries is not so big but this summer I did a book tour in the USA and the fans I met were INCREDIBLE! Meeting really enthusiastic kids clinging to their copies of my books was just an absolute joy. It was a fairly big shock, however, to discover that the noise us Brits give to owls is unheard of in the States, when I mentioned that owls go ‘Too-wit, too-woo’ I’ve never seen so many bewildered and open-mouthed faces staring back at me!
Your Instagram page says you’ll have a YA book coming out soon! Can you tell us a bit about that?
Writing an actual novel has been my dream for many years but I finally got around to it and after a long search for a new agent, and then two years of re-writes I am now, amazingly, having my first YA novel published by Penguin Random House in early 2020! It’s a TOTAL dream come true. But I’m not sure I’m allowed to say too much about it at the mo so come back to me in a year or so on that one! I also have a new Unicorn Diaries series coming out at a similar time with Scholastic so 2020 should be a fun year.
And of course, any words of advice for our young Story Monsters working on getting their own ideas down on paper?
Yes–just keep writing, and reading, and drawing if illustration is your thing, not because of any long-term career aim but purely for the joy of it. The creative life is it’s own reward and if you keep at it you can only get better.
For more on Rebecca Elliott, check out her website www.rebeccaelliott.com!
Julianne Black DiBlasi • http://www.KrakenSky.com