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Meet Old Bear author Jane Hissey

The illustrator and mother-of-three talks new beginnings, fancy dress and the colour pink

Posted: 27 February 2013
by Alex Lloyd

Author Jane Hissey
Jane Hissey with her new character, Ruby

It’s more than 25 years since your first book, Old Bear, came out. Do you still feel pre-publication nerves?

“Of course. My new book, Ruby, Blue and Blanket, is a complete departure from before - new characters and text in verse. It’s nerve-wracking waiting to see what people say. It’s a bit like starting again. But I really enjoyed doing it and I think that is half the battle. It makes you feel confident.” 

What have you been up to since your last new book came out in 2003?

“I haven’t been sat twiddling my thumbs! I wrote a new TV series and got a new publisher. We’re working on re-editing and re-launching the Old Bear series. I’ve read them so many times in schools and for children that I knew exactly what needed to be changed. It’s a long time since I originally wrote the text, so it was easy to be objective. I wanted to give more space for the illustrations. The books were just a bit more wordy than they needed to be.”

Ruby, Blue and Blanket features a new cast of characters – a mouse, a rabbit and a horse – who have a dressing up contest. What inspired it?

“Often children ask, ‘Have you done a horse or a mouse?’, and I’d always wanted a horse in my books because they are nice to draw. I chose them for the illustrations really. And the topic of dressing up is an illustrator’s dream! It was something I’d always wanted to do. Also, I was aware when I visited schools on World Book Day that most children were dressed in off-the-peg costumes. There were hundreds of Snow Whites! As a child, I had princess things but I was Robin Hood and a cowboy, too. Fancy dress should be creative and not about gender. Surely not every child’s favourite literary character is Snow White? The individuality has been taken away.”

Do you worry about the culture of everything being pink and feminine for girls?

“Yes. I have a little granddaughter now, who is 15 months. When she was born, I was out looking for things that weren’t pink – but there is an awful lot of pink! Some little girls must grow up thinking that is the only colour they are allowed. With the book, I tried to make it a non-girly, pink book, just neutral and fun.”

Do you feel a real responsibility as a children’s author with the messages your books convey?

“Absolutely. Children take guidance from the stories, you are affecting their decisions, so you have to think carefully about it. For example, I’m quite concerned about this idea of rewarding children with sweets for everything. So in Ruby, Blue and Blanket, I made jewels the prize for the dressing up contest instead.”

The book is dedicated to your granddaughter, Isabelle, and the teddy that inspired Old Bear came from your own grandmother. Does that family link make it extra special?

“Dedicating the book was a lovely thing to be able to do. I more or less started it when she was born. Old Bear was my teddy bear when I was a baby and he was her father’s for a time, as a child. He also had Little Bear so I gave her a Little Bear, along with a drawing of him and Bramwell Brown [another of Jane’s bear characters]."

You are known for your beautifully detailed, coloured pencil illustrations. How long does it take you to create one book?

“The new one was actually quite a rush job. Coloured pencils are quite slow and the old books took a year but this was probably done in half that time. My children – Owen, Alison and Ralph - are grown up now but when they were little, I used to work on Old Bear at night. This time I was doing it 15 hours a day. It was quite intensive but really enjoyable. Luckily my husband, Ivan, is used to it. He is an illustrator himself and takes over when I am really busy.”

What comes first – the words or the pictures?

“I wrote the text first, in a flash of inspiration, then I planned out the book. As I do the illustrations, I usually fine-tune the words. This was the first time I’ve used rhyming text and the great thing about writing in verse is it enable me to do quirky things with the illustrations that would have felt contrived otherwise. It added a new dimension.”

Are there plans for another book with these characters?

“I have already got an idea for the next one and am working on that. Then I am going back to look at another Old Bear. It will depend on what people want. I think I need to have another book with these characters and I will see what’s the best thing after that.”

Ruby, Blue and Blanket by Jane Hissey is out now (£10.99, Scribblers). An exhibition of original artwork from the book takes place at Illustration Cupboard, 22 Bury Street, London, until 16 March 2013.

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