London-based illustrator Paul Thurlby is having a good year.

Just before the recent release of his newest picture book, Paul Thurlby’s Wildlife, which Kirkus gave a starred review, he was awarded the Opera Prima Award at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, an honor given to debut artists. Paul Thurlby’s Alphabet, the 2011 book behind the award, is sleek and sophisticated. Both books are treats for those who appreciate robust design, clever concept art and retro styles.

And, as Paul notes below in our chat today, they’re books aimed squarely at adults, as well as children. I got the sense during our chat that he’s feeling his way around this brave new world of children’s literature, but I, for one, am glad he’s arrived and creating books for readers of all ages.

Congrats on the Opera Prima award! How does it feel?

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Thank you! It was not something I was expecting or knew anything about, to be honest. In fact, I had no idea that Alphabet had even been put forward for the award. I missed a phone call from Mike Jolley, the art director at Templar Publishing, and all I got out of my agent was that I had been nominated for the Bologna Ragazzi Opera Prima award.

The next day, I was having a coffee in a café in London when I got another call from Mike, expecting him to say that I was nominated. So, it was a great surprise to be told that I had actually won it!

I was especially proud and pleased, because Alphabet was a personal project, and it was this project that had really brought me to the attention of my peers.

You write at your site that mid-century design and illustration are big influences for you. What is it about those styles that inspire you? And who are some of your favorite illustrators from that period? 

What I particularly like about mid-century design and illustration is the graphic simplicity. To quote the great British graphic designer, Abram Games: “Maximum meaning, minimum means.”

Games is someone I admire for his ideas. Ideas are an important part of my work and, possibly, the most enjoyable part of the process for me. More important than style.

My favorite illustrators and designers from that period include Abram Games, Hervé Morvan, Raymond Savignac, Bernard Villemot, Herbert Leupin, Miroslav Sasek, Paul Rand and Jim Flora.

                      Paul Thurlby Interior

What's been your favorite thing about making children's books? What's been the most challenging?

It’s funny you should ask me about children’s books, because Alphabet is not really just a children’s book. In fact, one reviewer, amusingly, referred to the title as “kid-unfriendly.” Clearly, they haven’t understood that this book is not only for children, but appeals to adults as well.

For example, it has a nostalgic appeal to people who grew up in the mid-century because of the vintage feel. Then, it also appeals to designers who appreciate the typography and design. Templar understood, very intelligently, that if they gave it a purely child-friendly name that it may limit the audience to just children. They also, wisely, printed it on un-coated paper that maintained the vintage aesthetic.

Alphabet was a project that did start off being intended for children (a friend advised me that, if it was an alphabet, I had to aim it at children), but I quickly forgot about that constraint and just enjoyed the process. I decided to challenge myself by illustrating the word, using the letter. There are so many alphabet [books] already out there that it would be pointless going through the motions doing “A for Apple,” etc.

It wasn’t until Wildlife that I made a book more targeted towards children. Maybe I’m not so comfortable with this. The good thing about working on a book for children is that they have incredible capacity for imagination and sense of fun. In the dreamlike world of a child, everything is possible. Children really do have the best books and so, for those reasons, I enjoy it. I think I am still quite childlike in many ways, which definitely helps.

What’s next for you?

I’m very happy with the way my work is going at the moment. After years of struggle (and being a proper, authentic starving artist), I am finally making a decent living from it and enjoying working on some more interesting and exciting commissions.

I’m just finishing off a set of four prints for the Southbank Centre shop here in London, the only constraints of the brief being that the subject matter needs to be the Southbank. These prints may, subsequently, be turned into products. I’m also working on 12 greetings cards for a major UK charity (that I can’t tell you about!).

Meanwhile, something I am very excited about: My UK-based merchandising agent, Art House Licensing, has recently secured me a new collaboration with design-led gift wholesaler Wild & Wolf. They will be launching a range of products this autumn and early next year here in the UK, using the alphabet, numbers and wildlife illustrations.

Book number three? Yes, why not. I’ll be working on that with Templar this year. I can’t really tell you much about it, other than it’s going to be something to do with people.

PAUL THURLBY’S WILDLIFE. Copyright © 2011 by Paul Thurlby. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Templar Books, London.

Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.