From cracking the spine of a new release to settling in with a well-worn classic, there are few things that compare to losing yourself in a book. Apart from being a sure-fire way to whittle away a rainy winter afternoon, reading has long been proven to help reduce stress and keep your mind active and focused. With International Book Lovers Day upon us, we wanted to shine a spotlight on Teamsquare member and children’s author/ illustrator Matt Shanks. Matt is part of the Cogent team and after toying with watercolours for 10 years, made the monumental leap to published author with his whimsical illustrations and heart-warming stories now finding their way onto the shelves of kids across the world. We chatted with Matt to find out about how he gets his inspiration and how his hobby became a career.
Did you grow up loving books?
This is my secret shame, because the answer is actually no, I didn’t read very much at all for a number of reasons. We were never a booky household. We had some books, but my parents’ love of sport meant that my brother and I spent every waking hour either in the surf, or on a soccer pitch, or on a golf course. Between that and school, there was no time left for reading for pleasure. Of course, it’s a different story now. Thanks to my book nerd wife (who you can find on Instagram), I’ve found a complete love of them. See, what no one tells you is that no one dislikes reading, they just haven’t found the right story yet.
How did you start writing and illustrating children’s books?
Phew, this is a long story so I’ll try to keep it short. FWIW, I took a very agile approach. A few years ago, I started to feel really burned out by digital after 15 years. And by that, I mean trying to constantly keep up with the way technology was evolving and the reaction that humans had to it. My day job as a designer meant that understanding that relationship was critical to being able to do my job properly. Anyway, as a direct response to needing an escape, I went to art. It forced me to spend long periods of time away from a backlit screen. I got back in touch with playing in the physical world, and it really was that, play. After some time, a friend encouraged me to upload a few sketches and things to Instagram because she found them funny. Soon enough, I had a bit of a following and had people requesting prints or custom commissions. I couldn’t be bothered setting up my own payment gateway and online store so I ‘outsourced’ it to Etsy. Then, after about 6 months of being on Etsy, an email landed in my inbox that I thought was spam. It was from a “Senior Editor at Scholastic” and I almost deleted it. My wife encouraged me to follow up and without going in to detail, it was legit. They saw my work on Etsy and asked if I ever considered illustrating picture books. My answer was no, but like with anything, I was open to the idea. We had some back and forth and the next thing I knew, I had a 3 book deal with Scholastic Australia and a literary agent. Little did I know that it was only the beginning to what’s turned out to be a second career.
Do you feel your background in design helped you make the leap to author and illustrator?
Without a doubt, yes. But not in the way you might imagine. Artistically, the design career hasn’t helped at all. Painting with watercolour has absolutely no relationship to designing digital products. But, it’s the running a business side where design has contributed the most. Dealing with clients, deadlines, becoming more accepting of change, being a good communicator and understanding humans (big and small) have been the real invaluable. As I’m learning, it’s also a huge differentiator between me and other illustrators who came straight out of art school and weren’t lucky enough to have the intense client management practice that a career in design gave me.
Where do you find inspiration?
Oooh, this is the million-dollar question. The answer is everywhere. I often think of a human brain as a fragment collector that’s brilliant at putting those fragments together in a variety of ways. It could be a colour or shape you see, a conversation you have or a turn of phrase someone uses. It could come from a song you hear, a certain time or location. It’s really hard to narrow down. The one thing I will say is that journaling is absolutely necessary. Stories are everywhere, the problem is when we don’t write them down, they disappear because our brains are constantly focussed on the future, not the past. I have a moleskin journal that’s been with me for 7 years. 7! It’s worth more to me than anything I own.
Do you follow a set creative process for each book?
My creative process differs for every book. I’ve written about it in several places so instead of boring you with it here, you can see the story and also some accompanying sketches for Row Row Row Your Boat or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. It’s far more interesting that way. If you’re even more interested, jump online and subscribe to my email list, that’s where I send most of this stuff first.
How do you balance working on your books with your role with Cogent?
Cogent has to be one of the best places to work in Melbourne. I dare say if I was anywhere else, it wouldn’t have been possible. For the last 2.5 years I’ve spent nights and weekends working on books, whilst keeping my 9-5 hours at Cogent. As the illustration side grew, Cogent supported me every step of the way giving me time off when I needed it and managing my workload at Cogent so I was able to do both and not burn out. I’ll be forever grateful to Marty and Mark and their support over the last couple of years. It’s now finally at breaking point (I was up at 4.30am to do two hours of illustration, then went to work, then came home and finished up from 930pm-1130pm with more illustration… I did that for a week and burned out). So, I’ve just gone down to a 4-day week arrangement with Cogent. Again, sooo easy to do because of the incredible organisation that’s been built here and not something I take for granted. I dare say other work places would find that quite difficult to accommodate.
What’s next for you?
Fame and fortune? Well, not quite. When I signed with my literary agent, the first thing she said to me is that no one goes in to children’s publishing for the money, and she couldn’t be more right. I’ve got 3 more books in the pipeline at the moment but the most exciting thing to happen in the coming months will be the release of a collaboration with none other than Jackie French (Australian Children’s’ Laureate and Senior Australian of the year). You can pre-order Koala Bare now. It’s by faaar my favourite and funniest book so far. Needless to say, a koala is NOT a bear and you’re definitely gonna learn that with this book. I’m also about to spend 4 weeks in total isolation at an illustrator’s retreat in Adelaide, lovingly supported by the May Gibbs’ Children’s Literature Trust. While I’m away, I’ll have the chance to talk with my users (yes, little kids) at several school visits and, like with design, I’m sure that they’ll create a billion more ideas for stories and drawings to explore.
There is no better time to indulge your inner bookworm and treat yourself or your little ones to some quality reading time. If you’d like to purchase a copy of Matt’s books, you can do so through the Scholastic website. From all the team here at Teamsquare, happy International Book Lovers Day!