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.

Beastly Verse by JooHee Yoon

Feast your eyes on these energetic, emotionally charged and explosive illustrations. They have a vibrant punk aesthetic – the colours radiate out of the page.

JooHee Yoon has collated some of her favourite poems about beasts of all sizes and temperaments, written by great wordsmiths like D H Laurence, Lewis Carroll and William Blake. With her contemporary style, luminous palette and obscure compositions, Yoon brings their words to life for a new generation to enjoy.

The book is delivered with deliciously high production value. The combination of the type of paper, the binding adhesive and the printing ink gives off that glorious odour of new and old books. And then there’s the texture of the paper…

Published by Enchanted Lion Books

JooHee Yoon is an illustrator and printmaker. She contributes regularly to international publications, such as the New York Times, in addition to working on picture books, posters and other projects. Her original pieces have been exhibited across the globe, most recently in Berlin and at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy.

Little Bird by Germano Zullo Illustrated by Albertine

If you follow my blog regularly, you may have noticed that I’ve become a big fan of Enchanted Lion Books recently. They have impeccable taste when it comes to illustration, storytelling and book production.

Although I feel I am somewhat late for the party, as the Brooklyn- based publishing company have been publishing book lists since 2003. I owned a few of their books without making the connection. Some brilliant ones in fact, Waterloo & Trafalgar by Oliver Tallec is in fact one of my favourite picture books.

Here is a quote from their website that explains their passion for good books; I couldn’t have said it better myself, perfect!

‘We love books, well-told stories, and illustrations that open up the visual world and deepen a child’s sense of story.’ – Enchanted Lion Books

Little bird is by Swiss duo Germano Zullo & Albertine, who are the creative force behind picture books such as: Sky High and Line 135.

Little Bird – About the book

A man drives his truck up to a cliff’s edge. Unable to go any further, he opens the back door of his truck and a flock of birds flies out, but, as the man soon discovers, a small timid bird remains. Suprised and delighted, the man acts kindly towards the bird and an intimacy develops. After lunch, the man tries to show the bird that he should fly off and join his friends. The man’s comic attempt at flight deepens the encounter between these two very different creatures. Soon the bird flies off and the man drives away, but in a surprise twist the bird and his friends return, and in a starkly lyrical moment we see them all experience something entirely new.

Enchanted Lion Books

This almost wordless picture book with colour-saturated landscapes and personality-packed characters tell this beautiful and uplifting story about appreciating the small things in life with ease. The pages are bursting with joy and sunshine. I can’t stop picking it up. Highly reccommended. I dip my hat to all involved.

Bear Despair by Gaëtan Dorémus

Don’t ever take a bear’s teddy bear – no matter how cute you think it is! If you do, you’ll be in for trouble. Big trouble. For a bear whose teddy has been stolen isn’t simply heartbroken, but determined to get it back. So determined that he might just gobble up more than honey to do so! However, should he succeed in getting his teddy back, then there just might be a surprise in store. This is a book that all readers will relish, and one they will want to read again and again.

Enchanted Lion Books

Ballad, written and illustrated by Blexbolex

Blexbolex is a multi-award winning French book illustrator, who lives and works in Berlin. He combines his illustrations with industrial printing techniques and the outcome produces something of true beauty, layered with texture.

His approach to the artwork and storytelling of this book are equally experimental and playful.

What’s great about this book is that it works on many levels: it’s a coffee table book for adults; it’s a book of fairy tales for children and it’s a choose your own adventure story for everyone.

Ballad is a story, and like all great stories it deepens with each retelling. The story builds over seven sequences. The first has three images: school, path, home. The next gives us: school, street, path, forest, home. The following five sequences take up this story, but with new words and images that nearly double the previous sequence. Here a child takes in her surroundings as she returns home from school, and by telling stories about what she sees, she makes her world bigger and more complex. This story is as old as the world. It happens every day.

Enchanted Lion Books

Emma in Paris, written and illustrated by Claire Frossard, photographs by Christophe Urbain

Follow Emma’s story on her adventures in Paris, where she meets her cousin Amelie and begins an unlikely friendship with a cat named Edouard.

Christophe Urbain’s photography and Claire Frossard’s quirky illustrations go beautifully hand in hand. Reading this book feels like a stroll through the boulevards of Paris on a summer’s day. Emma visits historical landmarks, market stalls and cafes and takes us with her for the journey.

It’s a magnificent picture book.

Published by one of my favourite publishers of children’s books, Enchanted Lion Books.

Little Boy Brown, by Isobel Harris, Illustrated by André François

Illustrated by the famous graphic artist André François, Little Boy Brown has to be the greatest book about childhood loneliness of all time It is also a classic that is ripe for rediscovery because of the lost New York City that it invokes and its contemporary feel, à la Wes Anderson. Little boy Brown loves elevators, tunnels, and subways. His friends are doormen and waiters. This is his own account of the wonderful day that he spends with Hilda, his family’s maid, and her family in the country. The character of little boy Brown is completely real and moving, and his story lingers and lingers.

– Enchanted Lion Books