About Helen Craig
An Interview with Helen Craig
More About Helen Craig
Helen Craig is the joint creator, with Katharine Holabird, of the enduringly popular Angelina Ballerina books.
Born: London, August 30th 1934
Jobs: Photographer’s apprentice, photographer, freelance potter and sculptor, children’s book illustrator, Chinese wallpaper restorer
Lives: Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire
First Book: A Number of Mice, 1978
Helen Craig was born in London but moved, with her family, to the country just ahead of the outbreak of World War Two. “The illustrations for the Angelina stories are based on my childhood memories,” Helen says, “when I lived in the country in a cottage with no electricity – just oil lamps and candles to light us to bed!”
Even as a child, Helen realised how important children’s books were to her. “I would almost enter the pictures and become so absorbed that I would wait, expecting the figures to move. Now I am an illustrator myself, I try to make my pictures live for the children who look at them.”
Helen comes from a very artistic family: her great grandmother was the celebrated actress Ellen Terry; her grandfather was Edward Gordon Craig, the famous stage designer and innovative wood engraver. Helen’s first job, at the age of sixteen, was as an apprentice to a commercial photographer in London. She went on to set up her own photographic studio, later working as a freelance potter and sculptor.
After the birth of her son Ben in 1965, Helen began experimenting with ideas for children’s picture books. One of her chief inspirations was a book she had bought for Ben – Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. After taking her drawings to a publisher, Helen was on her way to becoming a published artist. The first book she illustrated was Wishing Gold by Robert Nye (1970). Helen’s first book as author and artist was A Number of Mice (1978).
When asked why she likes drawing mice, Helen is keen to point out that “I also draw other animals and humans. But I do like mice and I think there’s more than one reason”. One reason, she says, is that mice can mimic human postures and emotions:
“They can stand on their hind legs like a human and they have clearly defined hands and feet that can hold things in the same way as a human can, and then there is the added bonus of a tail that can express all sorts of emotions – drooping for sad – straight out for shock – waving in the air for happiness and so on.”
Mice have long had an influence on Helen’s life. Her father’s pet name (no pun intended) for her mother was “Mouse”! What’s more, Helen’s mother “had a lovely collection of little mice figures made of china, wood and metal, and I was allowed to get them out of their box and play with them on special occasions.”
Books from Helen’s childhood, including those by Beatrix Potter, also contributed to her fondness for mice, as did comics that she read with her son Ben. “There was one group of characters that I especially liked. I can’t remember their name, but they were a crazy family of mice – a bit like The Bash Street Kids and I loved the way the artist had given each one a different personality.”
Helen has to date worked on over 60 children’s books and received several prestigious awards. Three of her books have been chosen for the British Book Design and Production exhibitions, of which Angelina Ballerina won a category award in 1990.
The award-winning Angelina Ballerina books are a great way for children to explore important issues such as friendship, jealousy, loyalty and dedication. The books have been translated into 6 languages.
Autumn 2001 will see the eagerly anticipated TV debut of Angelina Ballerina,in an animated 26-part series, created by HIT Entertainment. Dame Judi Dench provides the voice for ballet teacher Miss Lilly, while her daughter Finty Williams plays Angelina herself.
Helen Craig lives and works in a three-hundred-year-old cottage in Buckinghamshire.
WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT HELEN CRAIG AND ANGELINA BALLERINA...
“A white mouse with a penchant for pirouettes is poised for stardom.”
“Angelina has charmed readers with her sensitivity and tenderness without melodrama… Helen Craig’s art reveals unusual attention to tone and detail.”
School Library Journal
“Text and illustrations work together beautifully.”
School Library Journal on Angelina’s Birthday Surprise
“Craig’s cheerful pastel scenes are delicate but not sentimental.”
Kirkus Reviews on Angelina’s Christmas
Society of Authors (USA) Award 1977 for The Mouse House ABC
Kentucky Bluegrass Award 1985 for Angelina Ballerina
British Book Design and Production Award 1990 for Angelina’s Birthday
Child Study Association’s Children’s Book of the Year 1990 for Angelina’s Christmas
PLACE & DATE OF BIRTH:
London – 30.8.34
Higglety Pigglety Pop! by Maurice Sendak
‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’
MOST TREASURED POSSESSION:
‘A crystal pendant that belonged to my great grandmother’
The Wrong Trousers
When did you start illustrating?
Although I loved drawing when I was a little girl and always wanted to be an artist of some sort – I was 40 years old before I had the courage to try and illustrate a children’s book. It takes a long time to produce a book and an even longer time before you start earning enough to live on. I had to work at another job to support myself and my young son and so I did my illustrating in the evenings and at the weekends. After a few years when I had enough books in print I was finally able to give up the job and work on illustration only.
Where do you get your ideas?
I don’t really know! When I read a story I always get pictures in my mind but they are quite vague. They are probably based on all the things I have seen in my life and are stored as memories. The illustrations for the Angelina stories are based on my childhood memories when I lived in the country with no electricity – just oil lamps and candles to light us to bed! But once I start drawing, the picture becomes pure invention and takes on its own life according to the needs of the story.
Can you give your top 3 tips to becoming a successful illustrator?
1) Don’t get hung up on success – you can’t control it, just do the work because you love doing it.
2) Never stop working at your drawing skills and never give up, even if one of your books is not so successful – keep on trying.
3) Don’t be too lazy or proud to re-do something if you know it is wrong – there’s nothing worse than knowing a wrong image is out there in hundreds of books!
Giving birth to my son – watching and holding him in the first days of his life.
Favourite place in the world and why?
In the quiet of my studio in the garden with the birds singing outside – when the drawing is going well!
What are your hobbies?
I don’t have much time for hobbies as I am drawing most of the time and drawing would be my hobby if I wasn’t doing it professionally. However I love reading and I enjoy relaxing by watching TV – all sorts of programmes and I do eventually want to find the time to do more sculpture and etching.
If you hadn’t been an illustrator, what do you think you would have been?
Find Books by Helen Craig
A musician – or maybe a racing driver!
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