Picture This: Catch up with John Devolle

September 2022
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Author-illustrator John Devolle surrounded by Picture This cartoon cutouts at the Children's Books Ireland International Conference 2022
Author-illustrator John Devolle, surrounded by 'Picture This' cartoon cutouts at the launch of the guide, Children's Books Ireland International Conference 2022. Photo: Vincent Corcoran

Launching today, Children's Books Ireland's latest reading guide, Picture This, is a celebration of illustration, graphic novels, visual texts and every combination of words and pictures you can think of. 

Featuring over 230 recommended reads for children and young people aged 0–18, Picture This encourages children and young people to engage with reading in a whole new way. The guide focuses on books with strong visual narratives, including wordless or silent books; graphic novels and comics; picturebooks for all ages and graphic diary-style texts. It aims that reluctant readers or those who face language barriers can enjoy brilliant books without the need to break down a wall of text. 

To celebrate the launch of Picture This, we caught up with John Devolle, creator of the guide's playful cover artwork.

Hiya, John. Tell us a bit about yourself!

Hello! well I was born in the UK near Birmingham, I studied fine art at university in London before having a career in graphic design whilst secretly harbouring ambitions to be an illustrator. It took me til the age of 30 before I finally managed to make the switch from graphic design to full time illustration. I got there in the end!

What was your favourite book growing up? Did it have any influence on your own career as an artist? 

When I was very young, I enjoyed having picture books read to me, I remember two that I really enjoyed, Flat Stanly (illustrated by Tomi Ungerer) and Little Jack and the Wolf People (Illustrated by Jill McDonald) but growing up I was not a reader! My mum was pretty worried about it. I showed no interest in reading / books at school. I think it was because I didn’t really like the books we were made to read there. There were a few books i did like, Roald Dahl, The Twits, Georges Marvellous Medicine particularly. I think every kid loved Roald Dahl books. But I didn’t really discover reading for my own pleasure until I left school and then it was things like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which maybe piqued my interest in science and comedy. Later as an adult i got into reading a lot more, George Orwell, Steinbeck and popular science writing, not much fiction a lot of biographies and currently I have enjoyed reading Rutger Bregman’s books. 

Which contemporary illustrators do you admire? 

Al Murphy is a great illustrator of kid's books and he has just put out his first self written book, A Duck Called Brian. I also really like Chris Haughton.

Tell us how you approached the brief for Picture This. 

My first thought was how to get across all the amazing and exciting things that are in books as a way to try and entice kids who might be reluctant readers (like myself). I initially had the idea of showing lots of different animals reading from a book looking excited, but then i thought about showing characters from classic kids books: Knights, Dragons, pirates, Astronauts etc all reading from a book and looking very excited at what’s inside.

As an illustrator, how important do you think visual texts are in encouraging reading for pleasure? 

Very important, and particularly book covers, I have agonised over the cover illustrations for my books because books definitely are judged by their covers, it’s often your way in to being interested enough to read a book and give it a chance.

Tell us about ‘Atoms’! And we hear you have a new book coming out next month… ? 

Atoms was inspired by the amazing scientific facts i read and learned about as an adult. This made me think, ‘what if you could get some of these across to much younger readers?’ and spark an interest in science for kids. As i said I was not a good student at school, and I only discovered my interest in science as an adult.

I had read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything years ago and I remember being blown away by some of the things he manages to get across (with humour) in that book, particularly some of the stuff about atoms. I was watched a BBC documentary about astrophysics, which talked about the fact that we know that all the planets and stars etc in the farthest reaches of the galaxy are made of the same elements we have identified in the periodic table.

We know that there cannot be any other elements.

In fact, when the periodic table was first conceived there were spaces left empty on it for elements that we knew would exist in theory, but hadn’t yet been identified. It was only later that scientists actually found these elements. This idea blew me away. The fact that we could know this and that the same building blocks of matter existed, in the same way, at the edge of the universe as here on earth. So I tried to put myself in the position of a child and see if I could get that kind of mind-blowing fact across to very young kids. Atoms attempts to do this.

My second book Planets is out in September 2022. It attempts to get more of these mind-blowing facts across to the very young. It focuses on our solar system and it’s also a kind of ‘Goldilocks’ story about planet Earth being ‘just right’, the perfect planet for us to live on. 

Picture This is now available for free in every library authority in Ireland and in sixty participating bookshops island-wide. The guide is also free to download from the Children’s Books Ireland website at the link below.