The Blue Whale by Jenni Desmond (Q & A)

I am an artist and a picture book writer and illustrator, based in Hackney, London UK.  My first book Red Cat Blue Cat won the 2013 Cambridgeshire Read It Again Award, and my books have been translated into twelve languages.  I was the 2014 illustrator for the National Portrait Gallery Family Trail, and have exhibited my work at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, London Design Week, and London AAF.

Jenni Desmond


As a nonfiction picture book, The Blue Whale aims to draw children into the life and world of this enormous whale by situating facts within a familiar context that is fun and engaging. We get the actual size of an eye right on the page, and we understand this whale’s body size in relation to trucks, cars, milk bottles, and hippos! With an accurate and engaging text, fully vetted by a blue whale expert, and lyrical, lovely illustrations, The Blue Whale is a book that will invite children in and hold their attention. Its tempo is like a pleasing melody, which means that the information never becomes too weighty or exhausting – a key thing when it comes to young readers and their enjoyment of a book!

– Published by Enchanted Lion Books

Q&A with Jenni Desmond

I believe this is your first nonfiction book, although it has a narrative that guides the factual information. Can we expect more books like this from you in the future?

Yes it is my first non-fiction, and it was an entirely different beast to give birth to.  It was tough, and a huge learning curve.  I am currently doing a lot of research for the second one in the series, so yes! There will be more!

I’ve always been mesmerised by the way you create atmosphere in your landscapes and how you convey mood through weather and skies.  Can you tell me how you create this?

Thank you.  I love creating big expanses of sea, sky and land in my work.  Living in London I crave space and wilderness, so it is therapeutic for me to paint these things.  I will tell you about how I created the image of the ship on the stormy sea.  Firstly I did a rough in pencil so that I knew where the text would go and what I wanted the spread to look like.  I then had this rough on my wall for a while whilst I wondered how I would paint it.  One Sunday I went by water taxi along the river to the ‘Turner and the Sea’ exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and I spent the day surrounded by water and by Turner’s beautiful atmospheric paintings.  The next day I was so inspired and touched by what I had seen that my whole painting just fell out of my head in a frenzy of about two hours, using ink, watercolour and acrylic.  It was slightly different to the rough as I didn’t realise the sea and sky would be so important until I painted it, so I shrank the boat to give room to this new vision that I had for the spread.  This is normally how I create emotion and atmosphere.  I can spend days banging my head on the desk not being able to paint anything very good, and then suddenly something touches me, an emotion, or a piece of music, or excitement, or boredom, and I will suddenly get into this frenzy and splash it all onto the page.  I find that it is important to be feeling very energetic and very engaged to be able to do this, if I’m tired then nothing good will come out.


Have you always been interested in Blue Whales? What made you choose this particular animal for the book?

I adore blue whales, I just think they’re so majestic.  I’ve never seen one in real life, which adds to the mystery and fascination.  Seeing one in the wild would be a dream for me.

Enchanted Lion Books are one of my favourite publishers of children’s books. Who approached who and what was it like working with them?

Mine too!  My wonderful agent at the time (and still friend) Kirsten Hall was based in New York and she introduced me to Claudia at Enchanted Lion Books.  I got a job with her at the time illustrating the cover and interiors for a book called Mister Orange, which went on to win the Batchelder Award last year.  When I was in New York the next year I went for coffee with Kirsten and Claudia and I showed her some quick roughs that I’d done, which was a VERY simple version of The Blue Whale.  Claudia bought the book as a multiple book series right there on the spot, which was nice!  Working with her has been absolutely amazing, she helped me shape the book into something far more complex and interesting than it started off as, and because she does not settle for anything other than the very best, she has pushed my work further than it has ever gone before.  I am very grateful to her.

Can you describe your creative process from idea to publication?

Normally things start from a sketch that I’ve done from watching a nature documentary, or a film, or something I’ve seen, or something I’ve thought about, or some kind of childhood feeling or trauma.  I can’t even remember how the blue whale came about.  I think I might have read something about them and thought, wow.  I then very quickly, in a moment of inspiration, drew the whole book with big graphic images and very simple facts, and then I put it in a drawer and forgot about it, until I showed it to Claudia.  It then took a while to work out how to make the book a bit different, and to put a subtle narrative through it.  I saw a film called Village at the End of the World, and I wanted the book to be set somewhere that looked like this beautiful remote seaside fishing village in Greenland, but Claudia wasn’t sure this worked, and then she suggested anthropomorphising the whale, which I wasn’t sure about, and we just batted ideas back and forth until we agreed and were both happy.  The facts got more and more complicated the more research I did and the more questions that Claudia asked, so eventually I found a blue whale expert on the internet who checked everything that I had written was correct, for I was feeling a little out of my depth, (not being a blue whale expert myself!)  When we were happy with the rough pencil images I coloured them all.  We then went back through the text again and again until everything was right.  It all took at least two years.

What were the last 5 children’s books you bought?

Where My Wellies Take Me by Michael Morpurgo, Clare Morpurgo, Olivia Lomenech Gill

100 Great Children’s Picture Books, Martin Salisbury

Enormous Smallness, Matthew Burgess, Kriss Di Giacomo

The Lion and the Bird, Marianne Duboc

Home, Carson Ellis

You’ve been busy since the release of your debut picture book Red Cat Blue Cat, can you give us an exclusive on what’s coming next?

I have just finished my next authored and illustrated book with Walker Books which will be out next spring. It is top secret. But takes place in a forest.

Check out these images Jenni sent me – they give a real insight into Jenni’s creative process.

3 thoughts on “The Blue Whale by Jenni Desmond (Q & A)”

  1. Dear James,

    absolutely fabelous pictures ♥ I love your photo posts so much. Whenever I’m here on your blog, I discover some new books for my wishlist, even if my child can’t understand the english words. He only understands the german language so far, but he loves to look at picture books and telling his own stories. Some nights he’s sitting in front of his sister’s bed to tell her a bedtime story 🙂 he’s four years old!

    Thanks for this awesome blog ♥

    Many greetings from Germany
    Sandra, Blogger & Mom

    1. Thank you very much & thank you for sharing my site on your blog. I google translated it and it kind of made sense. Thank you for the kind words.

      Can you recommend a really good German picture book?

      1. Dear James,

        your welcome. Oh, it’s quite hard to name just one good picture book. I really, really appreciated ‘Lindbergh – Die Geschichte einer fliegenden Maus’ (engl. edition ‘Lindbergh – the tale of a flying mouse’) from Torben Kuhlmann, published at NordSüd here in Germany. It’s a good example for an absolutely beautiful heartfelt illustration combined with a good story. Torben is a very talented young man. At the moment he’s travelling around Japan to promote his second book which is called ‘Maulwurfstadt’ (engl. edition: ‘Moletown’).

        The second book I want to recommend is ‘Die kleine Hummel Bommel’ (translated ‘A little bumblebee called Bommel’) from Britta Sabbag, illustrated by Joelle Tourlonias. It’s a story about a little bumblebee with a simple message: Be yourself, believe in yourself. Maite Kelly from ‘The Kelly Family’ has written a song according to the book, so cute.

        I’m a fangirl, you see 😉

        Kind regards

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