In light of the wonderful reception "Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World" has been receiving, we thought we'd catch up with author and illustrator Kate Pankhurst to learn more about the book and just how it came about. Kate illustrates children’s books from her studio in Leeds, where she lives with her partner and two house rabbits, dalmatian Olive and baby Otto.
What initially inspired you to begin working on the book?
It’s always been important to me that I include strong female characters in the book that I write and illustrate but it was Mark (PP Associate Director) who planted the idea that a really beautifully designed and illustrated non-fiction book about great women from history (featuring of course my distant relation Emmeline Pankhurst) would be a fantastic thing to put out there.
The conversation was started when Mark saw this character, Lady Winkleton, from my Mariella Mystery Investigates series. In the Curse of the Pampered Poodle Lady Winkleton is a lady explorer and philanthropist who opens the museum featured in the story (and is the owner of a famously cursed stuffed poodle). My inspiration for her was Amelia Earhart in her wonderful aviator attire and the bright red biplane she chugged across the Atlantic in. Amelia’s spread was the first one I designed and the one that got Bloomsbury’s attention.
How did you go about deciding which Fantastically Great Women to include?
It was a tricky process and there are lots of women I had to leave out but I decided it would be easier to narrow the women down if we looked for a selection from a wide range of talents and walks of life. So we have a scientist, artist, designer, writer etc. I also wanted to include a great girl and Anne Frank’s story was one I felt couldn’t be overlooked.
Do you think your link to Emmeline Pankhurst made the whole concept and journey more personal for you?
Definitely, the Pankhurst connection is something that’s followed me all my life and although she isn’t a close relation I suppose knowing about her has perhaps made me stop and consider how I represent girls and women in the books I create. It’s also been real eye opener to find out more about her and what she and others sacrificed to get their voices heard.
How did you go about developing the individual characters? They’re so full of personality!
I did lots of little doodles of the great women alongside my research notes. I’ve also collected as many old images of the great women that exist. I got a really good sense of their personalities from those images. Marie Curie always looked quite serious and was always working in her photos. Coco Chanel looked like she was having a wild time living it up in Paris and some of my favourites were of Frida Kahlo – the traditional dress and beautiful colourful hairstyles she wore are just so fascinating. She was a work of art, just like her paintings.
The book is so beautifully put together, from the characters to individual colour schemes and calligraphy. What was your creative process like?
Once I had a good selection of facts about each woman it took a while to edit that down into a snapshot of each woman’s life, there really was loads of information I had to leave out, like that Picasso gave Frida Kahlo the hand shaped earrings she’s wearing in the book, just because he thought she was cool!
I tried to use the design of each spread to give a feel for the time and place the great women came from, so Rosa Park’s spread uses 1950’s colours, typography and ephemera like bus tickets and maps. Mary Seattle’s spread was coloured using tones I picked from a map from the time of the Crimea War and I used a cross section of the British Hotel so readers got a sense for the conditions she nursed soldiers in.
I’d rough out each spread on layout paper and combine that with words in InDesign – I found I could move objects and fiddle around with composition so everything flowed nicely. I really enjoy working with type and see it as part of the overall illustration, the better the two work together the more coherent the spread is.
What was your favourite part of the whole process?
Being allowed so much creative freedom by Bloomsbury was a lot of fun! When I feel I can work like that I get my best ideas! It’s also been lovely to see images emerging of children, girls and boys enjoying the book. And basically that it’s a real privilege to get to interpret such amazing real stories of achievement, bravery and hard work!
The research for the book must have been pretty comprehensive, did one Great Woman’s achievements stand out for you at all?
I loved that Mary Seacole went to such extraordinary lengths to help soldiers in the Crimea. Nobody would give her a job as a nurse (possibly because she was from what would have been an unusual background at the time being half Scottish and half Jamaican), so she just set up her own hospital instead! That would be amazing today, but at that time it really was a remarkable thing for a women to go out there and do.
Do you have any advise for author/illustrators just starting out?
That you never know where a small doodle can take you. Both this project and my fiction series, Mariella Mystery happened because sketches I had done sparked conversations that gave me the inspiration to develop the ideas. Also, with most of my projects I start off thinking I’ll never be able to do it and that whole thing will be a disaster! You’ve got to ignore that advice and try new things or you’l never know if you can do it!
What’s next?! All we can say is we desperately hope it involves more Fantastically Great Women!!
More Fantastically Great Women for sure! I’m currently researching the starring ladies for the next book which I’ll be working on next year when I return to work properly from maternity leave with my little boy. He may only be ten weeks old but I’ve been reading the book to him!
We hope you enjoyed finding out more about Kate and how this Fantastically Great book came about. If you want to see more of Kate's work, you can visit her PP portfolio here!