Posted on March 08 2017
This week's Wednesday Woman is the talented Kate Pankhurst, illustrator and author of the awesome Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World and the Mariella Mystery book series. Here's her story:
Natalie Bardega: Can you tell us a bit about your background? What were you like growing up?
Kate Pankhurst: As a child I loved drawing and took much inspiration from the Beano, spending a lot of time making my own comic books.
I also had a short-lived phase of wanting to become an archaeologist after watching the Indiana Jones films and repeatedly reading the chapter in Encyclopaedia Britannica on Ancient Egypt. I think I was put off when I realised most archaeologists don’t do chase scenes on moving trains as part of their everyday work.
My parents would probably have described the young me as a daydreamer, scatter-brained and extremely messy! (Not sure much has changed and I really do have an inability to be tidy!)
Bardega: What first sparked your interest in illustration and writing books? And how did you make that dream a reality?
Pankhurst: When I visit schools I get asked that question a lot by children and my interest definitely began in childhood. My dad is a lifelong library user and took me to the local library every week. I loved everything about it, the smell of the books, the quiet thinking space and the fact you could take home whatever book you wanted, for free!
I enjoyed books with illustrations full of incidental details, like Fungus the Bogeyman by Raymond Briggs and Richard Scarry books. I remember finding the illustration of Fungus’ breakfast table, piled with morning treats including ‘Golden Waxy Bits’ and 'Flaked Corns’ cereal boxes disgustingly hilarious. My work has definitely been informed by the books that I read in childhood – It’s the small details that bring a character to life and I love including lots of added detail for readers to get lost in.
Growing up I had no idea that becoming an illustrator was a valid career choice, all I knew was that I wanted to do something that involved drawing and I was lucky enough to have parents that never told me to pursue a ‘proper job’. I studied illustration at University and had a tutor who was very into children’s books – he helped me to see how my tone of voice and drawing style would be well suited to the field.
Lauren Child was just becoming big at the time and I remember looking at her work and thinking it was so fresh and funny, and that I wanted to create books like that. I managed to win my first publishing contract after coming second in the Macmillan Prize for Children’s Books in 2002. It took a number of years and various part time jobs to make ends meet before I could then call writing and illustrating my ‘official’ full time job though.
Bardega: What has been the biggest challenge you have faced and how did you overcome it?
Pankhurst: I think the biggest life challenges have come from periods of feeling uninspired, and like my creative efforts weren’t getting me anywhere. My ideas are an extension of me (I think that’s how a lot of creatives feel) and so putting them ‘out there’ and getting no response can make me feel like I’ll never think of another decent idea/will never work again. Of course, you can always think of another idea but the voice in your head saying you can’t can feel very loud.
Once I get into that frame of mind, it’s hard to get out of it again but I think it’s happened enough times now for me to have a word with myself and to try and find some new inspiration and a bit of perspective! It just feels good to be working on projects where everything ‘clicks’; being in happy creative flow is such an awesome feeling!
Bardega: We love your book “Fantastically Great Women" - what inspired you to write it, how did you select the women and who was your favourite of the women you featured?
Pankhurst: The idea for Fantastically Great Women came when my agent, Mark at Plum Pudding, saw this photo of Lady Winkleton – a character from my fiction mystery series Mariella Mystery Investigates.
I've always worked in schools and inspiring children's creativity and future aspirations is a massive part of my school visits, no matter what book I'm talking about. I loved the idea of creating a book jam-packed with inspirational stories – for girls and boys. And of course, the Pankhurst connection (even though Emmeline is a very distant relation) is something that has followed me all my life. I would want to create books featuring strong female role models, whatever my surname, but being very deliberate about doing it has perhaps been informed by the Pankhurst connection.
In The Curse of the Pampered Poodle, Lady Winkleton is an Edwardian lady explorer and philanthropist responsible for setting up Puddleford Museum, and accidentally getting her pet poodle cursed. Her lady aviator look was inspired by Amelia Earhart, who would later be a starring lady in Great Women. After seeing Lady W, Mark pointed out that there really isn’t a lot of non-fiction children’s books about women and wouldn’t my Pankhurst connection make me the best author/illustrator to explore that book? (Excellent idea Mark, and I love it when a small doodle grows into something else very unexpected.)
It’s hard to say which was my favourite Great Woman – they all have such amazing stories. However, I did feel very warmed by Gertrude Ederle's story – the first woman to swim the channel. I love the pictures of her ready to take on the icy waters slathered in grease with an air of 'bring it on’!
Bardega: Which women inspire you and why?
Pankhurst: There are so many stories of great female achievement I could choose from but actually I think there is greatness in the everyday, so I’m going to say mums! Mums are super heroes and deserve more credit for bringing up small humans! (I have recently become a mum myself so I might be a bit biased/ have a new found appreciation for the job.)
Bardega: Finally, what advice would you give a younger Kate, just starting out in her career?
Pankhurst: I think the main thing would be: STOP HOARDING YOUR WORK IN DRAWERS WOMAN! If you want to turn those ideas into published books you’ve got to deal with criticism and rejection. Most of the time that criticism is constructive and helps move your work and approach to it forwards. That, and stop procrastinating so much!