*Not too long ago, I worked at Tigerprint, a creative studio in the heart of Bradford. There, I met Neil Clark, an illustrator. Since then, Neil has written and illustrated a children’s book and app called Rusty the Squeaky Robot. I caught up with him to find out all about it!
Hi Neil! First things first, tell us about Rusty The Squeaky Robot. What’s he all about? What does he like and do?
Well Rusty and I have spent a lot of time together recently. He’s a great robot, but he isn’t a very happy one. We all have something we don’t like about ourselves, and for Rusty it’s his squeak! Luckily, he has some pretty cool friends on Planet Soundbot who can help him out. You’ll have to read the book to find out more!
Where did the idea for Rusty The Squeaky Robot come from? Are you happy with how it turned out?
It was a project that started when an old friend of mine, Tom Forth, showed me an app he’d made. Tom runs a great small business called Imactivate, designing apps that let physical objects tell stories in a digital world. Tom had created this amazing technology that combined image recognition, sounds and language learning. Perfect for a children’s book! Tom knew I was an illustrator and he trusted me to write and illustrate Rusty. I was hugely thankful for the opportunity and we’re so pleased with how it’s turned out.
What were your favourite books as a child, and why?
I loved comics as a kid. From Beano to 2001AD and Marvel classics. The story books I remember at a younger age are Pigeon Street, Cockleshell Bay, Funnybones, all the Mr Men, and anything by Roald Dahl. The Jolly Postman by Allen Ahlberg was one I used and abused until the pages fell apart. It had letters, notes and postcards that you could pull out and deface! As a kid it really took you on a journey. I guess that whole interactive thing is something that stuck with me, and something that links with Rusty.
What do you love about illustrated books? Is the story as important as the illustration?
For me the illustrations come first. That’s the reason I’ll pick up a book. Imagery draws you in, and it’s those images that can stick with you for life. There’s still illustrations from my childhood reads that pop up in my dreams now! But then the story plays a huge part and needs to be right. And it’s often the story that will entice you back in again and again!
I’m the same with music (a lot of people will hate me for this!) but initially I’m fully focused on the instruments, the sounds, the effects. They say so much on their own. Then I’ll go back and take in the lyrics another day!
When did you realise you wanted to be an illustrator? What made you choose it as a career?
I don’t think I ever planned it. It all just fell into place, one art class at a time. The only thing I ever wanted to do, as well as play music, was draw pictures. I always knew it was something I could do- my mum and my grandad were both artists. I guess the encouragement from my parents played a huge part- my mum got me onto a great uni course by ringing them up and demanding an interview, and years later she got her friend to put a good word in at Tigerprint where I got my first job as a designer. I’ve just realised I’d probably be picking strawberries for living if it wasn’t for my mum! I feel pretty lucky to be able to make a living from illustration.
Tell us about the app for Rusty The Squeaky Robot.
So this was all Tom’s idea. This was the starting point. The app is so impressive- as you turn the pages it can read out the words to you, it recognises the characters and let’s you play with their sounds. You can switch language, enabling kids to learn as they go. Great for multilingual families and schools. It’s totally unique. So my task was to create a story that worked great as a stand alone kids book, but could really come to life when married with the Soundbots app! I was so excited by the idea of combining an app with something real, something physical. That physical connection with something is so important. I still buy books, magazines and vinyl. The print industry isn’t going anywhere! It’s been great to see so many kids enjoying flicking through this book, and then getting creative with the app. The best of both worlds!
How long did the whole process take? Would you encourage others to do the same?
It’s been a slow burner. It’s almost a year since I started sketching ideas. Once I’d drafted story ideas, the character design and illustrations flowed quite quickly- it was so enjoyable! Since then, there’s been so much work behind the scenes- a huge amount of thought went into the technical side of things. Tom & his team did a lot of trials and testing, with children and teachers. Once the book was printed and approved, we began getting the all important website and social networks up and running. It’s been a fully independent project. So proud of that. It’s massively rewarding. I’d recommend that approach to anyone!
Are you planning for a series of Rusty The Squeaky Robot books?
I hope so! It’s still early days, so we’ll have to see how far we can push this one first. I love the idea of getting fans of the first book to suggest ideas for what Rusty will get up to next! Who knows what else could go down on Planet Soundbot! In the meantime the app is being updated and improved all the time, and we’re focusing on getting books into stores as well as online.
What’s next in the pipeline for Neil Clark?
I’ve got all sorts going on. I’ve done a series of graphic prints that should be available soon. There’s a couple already up on Society 6. And I’ve started illustrating another story. I’m exploring an underwater/outerspace world, where jellyfish float through the stars, and stingrays fly alongside rockets and whaleships.