Donovan talking to students at Rotorua Lakes High School (photo courtesy of the school).
Donovan Bixley: writer, artist, performer, creator of the famous Flying Furballs series… and also one of our treasured Writers in Schools authors!
Donovan visited Rotorua Lakes High School in late March. He spent the morning with the school’s student writing group and a year 10 English class. In the afternoon he worked with year 10 art students, giving them some insights into how he designs the characters for his picture books.
A teacher wrote:
Donovan was really well organised with slide presentations and stories to share. He had his own display, and was great at storytelling, rather than lecturing to students.
The teachers had nothing but positive words to say and a few takeaways from his time, such as motivating writers, why editing is so important, how to 'steal' ideas and creative sketching.”
We talked to Donovan about what a typical visit to a classroom looks like.
Hi Donovan, how long have you been doing school visits?
I guess I’ve been visiting schools since at least 2009. I had done a few kids’ sessions as far back as 2002, but these days I actually know what I doing.
What do you enjoy about visiting schools?
I love getting in front of kids and seeing first-hand how they react to your stories. A huge part of the enjoyment for me is sharing all my knowledge with students of how I write and illustrate books. I did everything in my career the hard way, finding out by trial and error, so it’s lovely to pass on all those tips and tricks to aspiring young artists.
What does an average school visit look like?
I start with sharing my colourful childhood (there were a LOT of major accidents amongst all the reading and drawing). I love to show them that I was just a small-town kid, like them – and it’s always hilarious to read them the sequel I wrote to The Lord of the Rings when I was seven.
I usually do a bit of drawing – most of my books are inspired because I’ve been doodling – so it’s a good way to show how words and pictures spark off each other. And it’s always nice to do a reading. Even college kids love to sit and listen to a picture book.
Any memorable moments or anecdotes you can share with us from a school visit?
Kids always want to know how much you earn. This led to one boy in Waikato asking me if I knew Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson after he found out that I was the same age as him.
My answer was a bit cryptic, so the boy asked if I was as rich as Dwayne. I said “Do I look as rich as Dwayne the Rock Johnson?” and he said “Wearing THAT you look like a million bucks!”
It was hilarious, as I was wearing my top hat as usual, but I was also wearing a crazy red and black Johnny Cash style shirt — the type of thing Nicholas Cage might wear when he’s being particularly over-the-top.
It’s hard for books to compete with the other dominant media, so I figure you’ve gotta leave a strong impression when you visit a school!
Some feedback we received from a recent school visit said your creative sketching and ‘brain vomit’ exercises were useful. Can you tell us more about what you do to bring out creativity like this?
I think it’s about demystifying writing and art and making it entertaining and not another class lecture. I try to break complicated ideas down to really simple exercises, so then it’s like something the whole class can do. Even if they’re not interested in being a writer or artist themselves, they can start to understand the process.
The creative process IS such a big messy “brain vomit” – so it helps for students to see all the mess I make when I’m creating a story, and understand how that mess is slowly moulded into the finished article.
What do you think is the secret to keeping the children engaged?
I like to get down on their level. If I can, I’ll lie on the floor and draw with them — and I’m pretty silly. As Roald Dahl pointed out, kids have a lot more humour in their everyday lives than adults.
What would your dream illustration/writing/book job be?
Well, I’m ridiculously lucky, because I’ve reached the point in my career where that’s what I do all the time. I have multiple dream projects that I desperately heart-achingly thought I would never get around to doing, and now I’m doing them, such as: finishing off my biography of Leonardo da Vinci (which I’ve been working towards for over 20 years), to finally getting to do a bedtime book (only 15 years after my youngest was at that age), to working with Hollywood studios on some projects which will hopefully come to fruition, and finally getting to put all of my school visit experience into a book on art and drawing. After that, I’ve got a whole variety of other projects I’ve been dying to do too.
Your work – its colour and style – is distinctive. How would you describe it and what are your inspirations?
Ummm, I’d say I’m going for energetic fun and really getting the personality of the characters.
For my biographies of Mozart, Shakespeare and Leonardo, it’s all about finding the normal everyday person behind the genius, but there’s also a massive amount of wry fun going on.
As a kid, I loved the wonderful storytelling of Bill Peet and the wordless picture books by artists like Jean Jacques Loup and Mordillo. I often try to create ‘busy’ images like those illustrators because you never know what tiny detail of an illustration might send a child off on some voyage of discovery.
I think the biggest influence on me as a storyteller has been Graham Oakley’s Churchmice books. I loved getting them for Christmas presents, even when I was a high school student. The way Oakley used pictures and words to each tell their own part of the story is marvellous, and it’s a big inspiration to the type of storytelling I use in my chapter books like Flying Furballs.
What were your favourite books during childhood and who are the illustrators that inspired you growing up?
School kids I’ve visited all across Aotearoa will know that my mum read me The Lord of the Rings when I was seven — wow, what a revelation, I was hooked and obsessed with drawing epic scenes from the books — and as mentioned above, that lead to my first attempt at writing a book.
Illustrators … well, most of them I’ve mentioned above, but at art school, I discovered seriously cool painted comics by people like Kent Williams and Dave McKean (the Picasso of comics). My all-time hero is Norman Rockwell; he’s the Mozart of illustration and storytelling, and is often put in that same chocolate box category as Mozart. But there’s a reason why these artists are eternally popular because their art speaks to us timelessly. To do work like that, just once in your career, would be my real dream.
What are you reading these days?
Crikey – well I’ve been rather boring, just with so much research reading to do.
For the last six years, my bedside table has been piled with WW1 aircraft books for Flying Furballs (some of the most unbelievable adventures in that series are actually real-life stories — you can’t make this stuff up!), and then, there’s Leonardo — I’ve spent years absorbing everything I can find, and sifting out the minutest detail for snippets of his personality.
I’m looking forward to reading a novel again… in fact, I’m almost finished Maggie O’Farrell’s wonderful Hamnet — it’s only taken me four months!
Donovan is available to visit your students and inspire them with his enthusiasm for all things creative! Click here to make a booking.