As I stand with Jackie Morris, looking out to sea from the summit of a rocky peak near her home on the coast of west Wales, a blue-black raven soars across our field of vision. It’s a spellbinding sight, and I’m enchanted to share it with the illustrator of The Lost Words, shortlisted for Children’s Book of the Year at The British Book Awards 2018, and a book which works a kind of magic—ravens, adders, brambles and all—on those who read (and look at) it.
The success of The Lost Words—75,000 copies sold, and the subject of crowdfunding campaigns at home and abroad which seek to put the book into the hands of as many children as possible—has brought Morris’ work wide acclaim after two and a half decades of creating beautiful picture books. But what typifies her work is not just its beauty, but the way in which it also conveys the person she is: her fierce love of the natural world, her eye and ear for words and the spaces between words; her respect for what she calls the "bright, shining minds of children".
We sit and chat in Morris’ attic studio, which runs the full length of the pitched roof of her cottage and houses a treasure trove of eclectic finds and inspirations, from the enormous plush tiger which reclines on the day bed, to her collection of Tibetan singing bowls. She shows me the otters she has been drawing, exquisitely rendered in Japanese sumi ink with just a few swishes of a brush, and how their sinuous forms can make different shapes, like an alphabet.
The illustrated life
This close association in her mind between letters and pictures goes back to Morris’ childhood in the Vale of Evesham, Worcestershire, when learning to read was a daily battle. "I used to feel so sick when we did shared reading in class, because everybody would laugh when I couldn’t get the words out." Morris was in her forties before she realised she was dyslexic. "This is why I wanted to work with Barrington Stoke, because if I’d had its books when I was younger, I would have come to reading sooner." (The White Fox, Morris’ illustrated story aimed at under-confident and dyslexic readers, was published by Barrington Stoke in 2016). "But I loved stories and I thought in pictures." Morris can’t remember a time when she wasn’t drawing them too, although it wasn’t an activity much encouraged by her family. "Can’t you give her something to do?", her grandmother would say of this apparently time-wasting pursuit.
But with a dogged determination, Morris refused to be deterred from her early ambition to study art, and she went to Bath Academy, where her contemporaries included Axel Scheffler. She quickly picked up illustration work after graduating, designing greetings cards for Greenpeace and Amnesty, and contributing editorial illustrations to the Radio Times, New Statesman and New Internationalist. By the age of 27, she was doing well enough to quit her last ever "day" job: washing up in a restaurant. Her first book, Joe’s Storm, with text by Caroline Pitcher, was published by The Bodley Head in 1994, and then she went to Frances Lincoln, where she first teamed up with her long-time editor Janetta Otter-Barry. Highlights of their collaboration include an illustrated edition of Ted Hughes’ How the Whale Became, and selkie tale The Seal Children, evocatively set in the part of Pembrokeshire where Morris now lives. Mention should be made, too, of the elegant series of book jackets she has designed to grace the novels of US fantasy writer Robin Hobb.
Llanelli-based Graffeg is now Morris’ main publisher, and their relationship came out of her habit of coastal walking with one or more of her cats, and her camera. She kept a blog of their forays, and then decided it would make a good photographic book. She suggested it to numerous publishers, none of whom "got" her idea; then Matthew Howard at Graffeg got in touch—"I’m not quite sure what this is, but I really want to work with you, so let’s do it." Graffeg published Cat Walk in 2014, and a range of cards and calendars followed. "As creative people, it’s wonderful when someone gives us the space to do what we do," Morris says of Graffeg, which also publishes some of her lushest picture books, including The Snow Leopard and The Quiet Music of Gently Falling Snow in the same large format as The Lost Words. The appropriately Welsh Tell Me a Dragon is due out in the same format next month.
It’s sobering to hear from Morris how close she has come to giving up on making books altogether in the past, due to creative frustrations, contractual problems and the difficulty of making a living from declining royalties. Her abiding love of stories has always won out, however, and she is content in her current homes at Graffeg and Otter-Barry Books, for which she most recently wrote Mrs Noah’s Pockets, the first picture book to which she has contributed the text alone (the illustrations are by James Mayhew). She is full of praise too for both Robert Macfarlane and the team at Hamish Hamilton regarding the deeply collaborative experience of creating The Lost Words, a book which she says came from her own "blood, bone and DNA".
It’s enthralling to hear her describe the deeply thoughtful, pared-back way the book took shape, but Morris’ warmest words of all are for the "amazing" librarians and independent booksellers who have been stalwart champions of her books over many years. Not forgetting the owners of the shop at the local woollen mill, which, she tells me, sells more of her books than Amazon. "All of them have kept me working," she says. "Now, 25 years later, life’s kind of turned around."
An Indian summer
Later this month, Morris will be presented with the Hay Festival Medal for Illustration. Requests and commissions are pouring in, an exhibition at prestigious Compton Verney is in the offing, and the media is beating a path to her door. A few days after my visit, Country Living magazine is coming to do a photoshoot, an event for which Morris is trying to tidy up. "My grandmother had a phrase: ‘Them that reads books has got dirty houses.’ How wise you were, Granny," she laughs.
Morris originally moved to Pembrokeshire to be with the man who was to become her husband, and the father of her two children. The marriage didn’t last, but the roots she has put down in west Wales are now as deep and robust as that of her dandelion in The Lost Words. It’s clear how much she prizes the splendour of solitude in this beautiful place, admitting that during her travels as author and illustrator, part of her is "crying to be home and talking to some paper". So it’s a privilege to be in her vibrant, bracing and frequently very funny company for several hours, during which the conversation ranges widely from the shameful neglect of school libraries to the iconic Pauline Baynes cover of the classic Puffin edition of Watership Down.
Afterwards we walk out, with two dogs and one Bengal cat at our heels, into the Welsh landscape which inspires her so profoundly. "For a long time, I only felt I was properly working when I was at the paper face, moving colour around. It’s taken me years to understand that sitting on top of a hill, watching a bird fly, that’s where I’m really working. That’s where the ideas for stories creep in."