by William Grill
What inspired you to write this book?
I found a book called ‘Elephant Bill’ in a second hand bookshop around 10 years ago in Falmouth while on my illustration BA. The title caught my eye, then the book itself had some amazing images in it of elephants hauling enormous logs and building bridges, it conjured up a mixed emotion of awe but also concern for the animals welfare (this led me to learn a bit about Asian Timber Elephants) which is addressed in the book.
Years later I came back to the story with a better idea of how to adapt it. I realised that at its core, it was a story about we treat animals: they respond to actions not words, if we give them our trust and patience then our bond will flourish.
Not only was the story set in an environment I wanted to draw, its central character Bandoola won me over. He was not just physically big, but had a big heart too. He is a shining example of how deep and rich our connection with animals can be if we act with patience and kindness. This story also highlighted to me how we ought to respect animals intrinsically not just instrumentally. I think that’s a really important message to learn at a young age in respect to animals and the natural world.
How would you suggest primary teachers use this book?
I hope that teachers enjoy working with this book - over the last few months I have visited a few schools where I’ve seen a variety of responses to it depending on the year group. In a geographical/environmental way I think there is a lot teachers could work with like: the rainforest (and other types of forest), the flora & fauna in Myanmar, the logging industry (specifically the teak tree) – although wood is a renewable resource, harvesting it does bring up some ethical questions which could be a good subject for discussion and writing.
Then there are elephants, who are the stars of this story. There is a lot children could write, read or draw here. In the book I briefly mention their anatomy, social structures and our shared history, I’m sure children could expand upon that and even discuss how our relationship with elephants has and perhaps should change.
From an English/storytelling point of view, it could be interesting for children to create either artwork or poetry based on a particular scene of the story. I also think it could be a nice idea to write a first person account from an elephants point view, or a diary entry from one of the refugees fleeing the country. I feel this is a good exercise in writing in a more sensory and emotive way, and helps us empathise with different experiences, and animals.
What motivated you to begin a career in writing/illustrating?
When I was five I used to want to be a builder, I think I thought a builder could make anything they want! And then when my mum took me to a carpenter’s workshop to pick up a kitchen table I used to want to be a carpenter.
I think what motivated me to draw was that my older brother Kit was good at drawing, I can remember being about 5, sitting next to him drawing at the kitchen table and thinking ‘I want to be able to do that’! A bit like being able to play an instrument, I think it gives you the power to create your own characters, stories, worlds, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve realised it opens up the world around you too. I feel like I get so much more out of life through drawing.
As a dyslexic child, I’d always struggled with reading and writing so the thought of being an author seemed impossible. However when I saw my brothers’ friend make a comic and have it published at a relatively young age, I thought to myself this is actually something that could be possible if I worked really hard.
What are the major influences in your work and how do you decide on your subjects?
My inspiration has nearly always come from the natural world, more specifically how we connect with it. I’d have to say my mum too, who was actually my Religion & Philosophy teacher at school, she definitely encouraged me to be inquisitive about the world. I watch quite a lot of documentary films and those tend to inspire me to read about a subject further. In a more artistic way I draw influences from film, photography, printmaking and painting. I like artwork that has a naïve quality too it and like outsider-art by people without any formal training. When it comes to film, I love stories that are set on a grand stage, and deal with personal quests or journeys.
For me, a book is only worth making if it has a heart to it. There has to be an emotional connection. I also want to feel like I learnt something important, hopefully in a way that is subtle. The visuals are what attract me, and it’s a good story keeps that me engaged. I usually know it’s a good idea if I keep coming back to it and find myself obsessing over the subject material!
Which books had a lasting impact on you as a child and why?
When I was really small I used to love ‘What Do People Do All Day’ by Richard Scarry. The busyness and detail of the book, the silly characters, and the fact that it made me that realise that outside school the world is full of possibilities and different personalities, all interconnected and working in unison.
I was also a big fan of Anthony Browne, ‘Bear Hunt’ being one of my favorites, I loved the idea that armed with a pencil you could do anything. In a way, I like to think that’s still true!
As I got a little older my brother Johnny gave me ‘The Rabbits’ by Shaun Tan, at the time it was unlike anything else I’d ever read or looked at. Not only was the story so charged and hard hitting, but the artwork seemed levels above everything else I’d seen – just as I thought I was growing out of picture books this one brought me right back in.