Horrible Histories illustrator Martin Brown chats about his latest book Lesser Spotted Animals

It was a great honour talking to Horrible Histories illustrator  Martin Brown about his latest book Lesser Spotted Animals and his great career.


Q:   How did you come up with the idea for Lesser Spotted Animals?

Years and years ago when there was the outcry over the fur seal cull I realised that being cute and fluffy with big eyes really helps your cause. But what if you weren’t cute and didn’t look good on a t-shirt? The more I thought about it the more I figured that there were lots of animals out there that would never get the protection they need because they’d never get the PR they deserve.


Q:   What is your favourite animal from this book?

That’s too hard! I’ve been thinking about which animals to include for such a long time that choosing one above the others feels like favouritism. But I suppose, as representatives of the book, the Southern Right Whale Dolphin and the Grey-Shanked Douc Langur. One is common, one is critically endangered, both are stunning and both should be better known.

Q:     What is your favourite animal from the ‘classic’ selection?

The cheetah takes some beating. (No pun intended.)


Q:    For over 20 years you have illustrated Horrible Histories. My son, like his school friends, is a huge fan of the book and TV series. Why do you think it is so incredibly popular?

The Horrible Histories are great fun. The stories from the past are marvellous and they give us lots of wonderful material to be funny with. We’ve also always had our own voice and are not averse to slaughtering the odd sacred cow or two. And deep down I think the books are quite serious – there are certainly things we don’t want to make light of. But how all those things balanced out is a bit of a mystery. A lucky combination of mine and Terry’s off-centre imaginations I guess.


Q:    What is the biggest challenge illustrating Horrible Histories? 


Sometimes it’s simply the complexity of the illustration – drawing the Colosseum was always a bit of a trial – and sometimes it’s trying to come up with a gag when nothing will come. Occasionally you hit a snag with finding the right reference material. But perhaps, these days, it’s making sure that the cartoons are still fresh and original.


Q:      How would you describe your illustration style?

Tight! I wish I could loosen up a bit. Then I might be quicker. Otherwise I guess you could call it illustrative but cartoony. Illustratoony. Or cartoonstrative.

Q:     What would you recommend parents should do to encourage artistic talent in their children?


Let them have fun. If you have fun doing something you’re more likely to do it again – and the more you do something the better at it you will get. I’m not even sure if I believe in ‘artistic talent’ – at least not in young children. Sporty kids often come from sporty families, musical kids come from musical families. And I think the reason is that in those households sport and music are just utterly normal. Of course you go to training, of course you practice – it’s what you do. It’s the same for art and drawing. You don’t need loads of fancy materials – just reams and reams of paper, lots of pencils and tons of encouragement. (And remember, you don’t have to be Ronaldo to play football and you don’t to be Rembrandt to draw. Drawing badly can be every bit as fun as drawing well.)


Q:    How did your illustrating career begin?


Drawing editorial cartoons for the London free magazines and doing gags for greetings cards. Both great learning curves.


Q:     What are your favourite books? 


Are you kidding? That’s impossible. Today it might be My Brother is a Superhero by David Solomons, or Himself by Jess Kidd or the Lynx Publications Handbook of Mammals of the World Volume 2: Hoofed Mammals. Yesterday it was probably something else, Fun with a Pencil by Andrew Loomis perhaps, a book from 1939 that taught me more about drawing than any other. Or maybe a Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. Or anything by Tim Winton, or anything by Oliver Jeffers. Making a list of any excludes all the others.



Q:   Which is your favourite Horrible Histories book you have illustrated so far and why?

a) The specials, France or Ireland or USA because I think the cartooning was good. The jokes and drawings just seemed to flow. And b) The Savage Stone Age because the costumes were easy.


Q:   If you were King of Britain what would you do first?

Spend so much on the education system that every class would have no more that fifteen children. The teachers would be treated as the professionals they are and the resources would be state of the art. There would be books. The whole thing would be so good that private schools would wither and die. Not because they were banned but because the richest kids would want to the finest schools – the schools down the road.


Then I would give all children’s book writers OBEs.


Q: What are you up to next?


I’m writing a children’s book.


Lesser Spotted Animals, written and illustrated by Martin Brown, out now in hardback (£12.99, David Fickling Books)


Find out more at http://www.davidficklingbooks.com/

London books horrible histories

For more Horrible Histories related stories read the following:

Kids Club: Learning history with Horrible Histories (by 8 year old child reporter Diego)

Film review: Horrible Histories’ Bill

Top 10 children’s books about London








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