Friday, January 22, 2021


~ Illustrations are mostly shown in this blog in their original pen-and-ink form ~

 SPACEY! Published this week is this energetic new book by Abby Harrison aka @astronautabbyofficial, co-founder of The Mars Generation, called DREAM BIG! 

Illustrating this book occupied eight months or so of my 2020, begun and ended in different lockdowns, with over 30 black and white pen-and-ink illustrations to help guide its young readers through the process of not just envisioning a goal, but making it a reality. Not through wishing and hoping and throwing cosmic orders out there, but via the only method that works: planning, small steps, staying focussed and good old fashioned hard work!

Abby’s manuscript was utterly charming but pulled no punches either: if there’s something you want, you have to work for it. There truly is no such thing as ‘overnight success’ - what appears to be that is usually, just like an iceberg, the suddenly-visible tip of years and years of hard work. Abby’s narrative cheerfully breaks down the methods and steps involved in taking the vague and sometimes intimidating blob of an ambition or goal and breaking it down into do-able, realistic small steps. Because one step at a time is all we can actually take - even if ultimately, the step we most want to take is the one onto Mars!

I came up with the idea of creating a cast of characters for this book, who would be there to represent as many kinds of people as possible. Each character has a chapter of their own, and although their names aren’t mentioned in the book, you’ll meet Tina (named after a go-getting, opportunity-loving friend of ours), Zafeera (whose name means ‘always successful’), André (named after musical innovator and entrepreneur Dr Dre), Charlie (named for my energetic nephew who always throws everything into every challenge he’s given!), Georgia (my niece, who’s shaping up to be a real character and probably will one day be reaching for the moon),  and Chlöe, whose name simply fitted the character as soon as I’d drawn her.

It was important to me that this little group of friends was as representative as possible. I’d need more characters to fully encapsulate all the shapes and sizes and colours that human beings come in, of course - there’ be no room left for Abby’s words - but ‘reaching for your stars’ does not refer just to those wildly glamorous or seemingly unattainable goal types such as becoming an astronaut or a professional spy or an adventurer. It applies as equally to the lad who wants to be the best hairdresser in the world as it does to the girl who wants to be a a writer, a boxer or a Mum. They’re all goals, and they all take series of steps and some planning to get to them. And our little Dream Big people needed to be physically suggestive of exactly that enormous spectrum of possibility!

Happily, publishers Philomel embraced that idea, and as well as representing a nice spectrum of young humans, it also provided us with a useful system of referring to the characters, what they were doing, who they were interacting with, and in which chapter. 

The book also threw me some unexpected challenges. Two of the chapters deal with the idea of mentors - people we not not only look up to but might choose to engage and correspond with on our journey to the goal we’re moving laser-like towards. This required me to draw Real People, and not just any old Real People. So I went from inventing ambitious children doing imaginary things to capturing the likenesses of Malala, Serena Williams, Michelle Obama - gulp - not exactly faces you want to get wrong!

Fortunately I’d had a little practise with a previous chapter, drawing three female ‘disruptors’. Disruptors are people who, simply by following their dream, perhaps in an area not traditionally open to them or populated by people of their particular gender or background, or entering it from a different field, move to significant positions within that field and from within it make radical and long-lasting changes to it.  Perhaps, for example, they were not the first person to do something, but they did it in a way that had never been done before. Those ‘disruptors’ were Elaine Welteroth, ex-editor in chief of Teen Vogue; Emma Gonzalez, who survived a shooting at her school and became a spokesperson and advocate for gun control, and one of my own role models, the beautiful and dramatic architect Zaha Hadid. Drawing each was a challenge, but because their stories were so vivid and moving, it was easy to channel their achievement and strength into each of their wonderful faces.

So it was with Malala, Serena, Jonathan Van Ness and Michelle O. Such well-known and beloved faces were a joy to draw since their characteristics are richly evident on them. I wouldn’t say it was *easy* - but they did kind of flow, amazingly, in one take (apart from Serena who had to be drawn twice, as she was judged to just looked TOO determined and fierce in the first sketch - shown here!)

This book gave me the opportunity to draw the same characters over and over again in different scenarios and with the gamut of facial expressions from nervous to scared, to cheeky to laughing and joy. Over the course of the many months I was working on the book, Tina, Chlöe, Charlie, Georgia, André and Zafeera resided on some part of my desk at all times, and it was with some sadness that I drew the final scene and realised I’d have to put them all away.

Some of my favourite bits are the tiniest of details - André's cat, whose name has significance for Abby; people in the background, facial expressions, clothing details.

I’m grateful to Lindsey Andrews, Dream Big's art director, for giving me the opportunity to be the pictures to Abby’s words, and to Abby for cheerleading as those pictures were being created. The Philomel team were joy to work with during this long and sometimes tricky project, especially as all of us were working through lockdowns and associated Covid anxiety in our different corners of there world, and I can’t wait for the opportunity to work with them, and Abby, again! The book made me reflect on my own career; whether and how I’d taken some of the steps in the book myself - consciously or otherwise - and got me thinking about whether I could possibly have set the bar a little higher for myself. What the book did make me think about the most, though, is that you don’t stop once you’ve got to a certain place…and dreams continue to evolve and develop in unexpected ways, as long as you still love what you’re doing and want to stay active within in.

So DREAM BIG people. And if Dreaming Big scares you - well, dream small. All dreams are important, regardless of their shape and size. And they’re all worth chasing!

“Fun and helpful…appeals to both STEM-oriented fans of the author as well as those whose interest lie in other areas.” 

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