Author Jason Hook and illustrator Ilaria Demonti explain how they worked together to produce this wonderfully whimsical children’s picture book, the inspiration behind it, and what would be their favourite wallpaper to decorate their bedroom with.
V&A: Where did the idea for Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat come from?
JH: I love looking at the different wallpaper collections in the Victoria and Albert Museum, which have patterns made from so many interesting things. There are mermaids and whales, boats and trains, peacocks and owls, butterflies and bees, knights and princesses, dogs and cats, plants and flowers. I found some wallpapers there by an artist called Walter Crane, with pictures from fairytales and nursery rhymes, and I wondered how many children must have gone to sleep looking at them and dreaming of the pictures on them. That’s when I had the idea of animals and plants and objects in the wallpaper coming alive and jumping out into the room.
V&A: Did you know who Walter Crane was before you began the project? Have you learned anything interesting about him or his work that you admire?
JH: I knew Walter Crane was famous for his illustrations in Victorian books of nursery rhymes and fairytales. His paintings appeared in comics called ‘toy books’ in the late 1800s. That was the first time that beautiful picture books became widely available for children to read. When I found out that he also designed some of the first wallpapers for children’s nurseries and bedrooms, I thought it would be wonderful to include those in a modern picture book that was just as beautiful as the ones he’d created. So, I started writing the story, and named Wendy’s grandfather after Walter Crane.
V&A: How did you come to work with the illustrator Ilaria Demonti?
JH: I looked at lots of different art when we were trying to find the best way to bring Wendy to life. But as soon as I saw Ilaria’s work, I knew that she was the perfect artist. I loved how bright and strong her characters were, and how this would make them stand out from the wallpapers in the background. And I love all the textures that she uses in her work. Fortunately, Ilaria liked the story, so we began working together on creating Wendy and exploring Grandpa Walter’s house of wonderful wallpapers.
V&A: With a picture book, the illustrations have an equal role to play in the storytelling role as the words do. What is the collaborative author-illustrator relationship like when working on book like Wendy?
JH: I like to try to imagine how each page will look as I write the story, so that I can tell the illustrator what’s in my mind and give them lots of ideas to play with. But I also know that the illustrator needs to feel free to run with those ideas and to add things to the story that are in their own imagination. This worked really well with Ilaria, and it was a lot of fun working together. She read the story carefully, she used lots of my ideas, but she also added so many lovely thoughts and details to bring a whole extra layer to the book. Ilaria introduced Wendy’s teddy bear, for example. And when Wendy first sees the wallpapers, Ilaria made them come alive in ways I hadn’t even begun to think of! And when I first saw Ilaria’s painting of Wendy, I knew that she was exactly who I had wanted her to be.
ID: Working on this book has been a unique experience: Jason’s story has its own strong rhythm, but at the same time he brilliantly succeeded in connecting it harmoniously with the wallpapers. He gave me some indications about the designs which should have interacted with the story, and at what point. At the same time, I tried to add some personal flavour with my illustrations, introducing some small details and changes.
V&A: Did having a selection of existing designs to work from make the creative process more difficult or more interesting?
ID: I think that the wallpapers are the real protagonists of the story: they lead the adventures of Wendy and the Cat and influence what happens to them. Most of these designs were a great source of inspiration for me, and they contributed to find greater, more creative solutions overall. Of course at the same time they strongly impacted the style of the illustrations. I found this work very challenging.
V&A: Do you have a favourite wallpaper?
ID: It’s very hard to pick just one! I really love the colours and the motif of the Oranges Wallpaper, I think it is very elegant and classic. Thanks to this project I also got a deep knowledge of the Nursery Rhymes, that I didn’t know before. In Italy we have different ones, and not as many. I therefore agree with Wendy’s choice, in that wallpaper there are so many details to be read, and stories to be found!
JH: My favourite wallpaper is the one we used for Grandpa Walter’s magical garden. Although it is just a painted pattern, it feels like a maze that you can step into and explore, and find all sorts of interesting things hidden around the corner. I also like the fact that Grandpa Walter has a suit with a pattern on it that looks just like his garden. I’m hoping that Wendy will have some other adventures, and that we she will always find Walter outside in his garden when she goes to visit.
V&A: Do you wish that you had had a Walter Crane wallpaper bedroom as a child?
ID: Of course. Probably I would have chosen the Garden one, it reminds me of a fantastic maze to get lost in and to play hide and seek… But I still love having fun a little bit and I did that in the book every now and then. I especially enjoyed hiding all the characters in the endpapers… have you spotted the teddy bear?
JH: I actually had four different wallpapers on the walls when I was a child, and stars on the ceiling. I also had four pet cats. But, yes, it would have been wonderful to have had a Walter Crane wallpaper, and even more wonderful if a blue cat had been living in it!