Emily Gravett is a dog person, despite what her latest picture book, Matilda's Cat, might indicate. She owns a Saluki (who appears on the "fast dogs" page of her book Dogs), a breed that resembles a "feathered version of a Greyhound," as Gravett puts it, with a long flowing tail, and also a lurcher, a cross between a whippet and a Bedlington.
So how does a dog person like Gravett have such an uncanny sense of a cat's attitude and behavior? Her illustrations would make one think that the author-artist is surrounded by cats all day long. Kirkus' starred review notes that Gravett is "a master of animal countenance,” and “pairs an expressive cat with a busy kid and winks at the difference between textual and visual message." The young heroine Matilda dresses like her cat (which Gravett admits is a nod to Sendak's Max), moves like her cat and is inseparable from her cat. "Matilda's cat likes playing with wool," the book begins, in penciled handwriting. But when the girl, wrapped in single strands of multi-colored wool, lobs a wool ball her pet's way, the cat ducks for cover. On the next page, "playing with wool" is crossed out, and Matilda has moved on to "boxes," peeking out from inside a corrugated fort, with only her eyes, and her costume's pointy ears and tail visible. The feline movements and expressions capture precisely its behavior in nature. "My mother's a cat person," explains Gravett, and the tabby costar is "a bit like my mother's cat."
Much of the humor of the book stems from Matilda's wish to engage her cat in various activities (and the cat's complete disinterest). Add to that the fact that many of the activities Matilda says her cat would like, cats usually do like. Yet her pet remains unmoved—or even runs away. Matilda finally finds an activity her cat does enjoy: to snuggle beside her for a nightlong nap. (Note the dog-patterned pajamas and slippers.) "I went to stay with a friend of mine who had a 4-year-old," Gravett explains. "She'd done all these wonderful drawings of her cat wearing ball gowns. Her cat never comes inside, and is never involved in any way." Just as Matilda makes a list of activities in the book, so did Gravett. "Some are definitely cat-like things to do," the author-artist said. "The picnic I thought would be funny. A cat could never eat a banana. When I work out how to do a book, I make lists. I thought, 'Oh, I could have that be the narrative and she could cross these things out.' "
Gravett said she chooses her books by the animals she can showcase. "Even with Meerkat Mail, it wasn't the story. I wanted to put meerkats in it," she says. The Odd Egg started with the Indian Runner duck: "They run and they're squeaky and they stand up and run like people. They're fantastic," says Gravett. The elephant is her favorite in Monkey and Me. She often plays with the book as a physical object as part of the plotting in her books. "I did a lot of that in college; we had a bookbinding department," Gravett recalls. "Before I was thinking I could fill them, I'd play with the format. I like getting my hands dirty, doing my own page layouts, figuring out where the text goes." Her first book, Wolves, began as her final six-week project in college. "I'd been thinking about wolves, and I had this little rabbit character I was playing around with. I was going to use it as a portfolio piece, and I saw this competition, and submitted it, along with Orange Pear Apple Bear." Wolves won the Macmillan Prize. According to Gravett, she submitted Wolves exactly as it is. In the finished book, there's "no difference except for the endpapers," she says. It went on to win the Kate Greenaway Medal and the Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor Award for Illustration.
To make the cover of Wolves appear as if it had been eaten, she made a fake cover, the same as the cloth cover. "Then I tried to get the dogs to chew it and they wouldn't," Gravett says, "so I chewed it and ripped it with nails and then scanned it back into the computer. I made a collage of the wolf damaging the book." With Orange Pear Apple Bear, she also played with the physical attributes of not just the book but the objects within it. "I did that in about 12 hours. I worked all day on Mother's Day, a Sunday," to meet her deadline in college. "Do you know the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves? I'm not good at grammar so I'd been reading it. I had a dream about an orange, a pear, an apple and a bear."
In that book, as with Dogs, Monkey and Me and even Matilda's Cat, Gravett restricts her palette to a few colors—the latter three primarily red, tan and black. "I'm not confident with color," Gravett admits. "Part of it, especially at the beginning with Wolves, it was very intentional. Limiting the palette helps me tell the story, conjures the mood." Gravett draws first, then applies watercolor paints, then uses Photoshop to manipulate the elements and characters. "If I try to draw the whole page in one go, I make mistakes," says Gravett, "so I try to collage it on the computer, fiddle about with it." She offers a wonderful window into her process on her Web site with a video of making an illustration from The Rabbit Problem.
Asked why she's attracted to making books for very young children, Gravett says, "I want to pare everything down to the simplest form, even if I'm writing an email to somebody. I think it's the immediacy of it. You know they're going to understand."
Jennifer M. Brown is the children's editor of Shelf Awareness and the director of the Center for Children's Literature at the Bank Street College of Education in New York City.