“What we have today is way more dynamic” – Interview with Jackie McCann and Aaron Cushley

In February, writer Jackie McCann and illustrator Aaron Cushley won the Educational Writers' Award for the book If The World Were 100 People.

If The World Were 100 People helps children to better understand the world they live in by imagining the world was condensed to a small village of 100 people and explaining what this global village would look like.

We spoke to the winning author and illustrator about working on the book, their backgrounds and the state of children’s non-fiction.

What did it mean to you both to win the Educational Writers’ Award?

Jackie

It’s a huge honour to win this award. I’ve been working in children’s publishing for a long time now and you never quite know what’s going to hit. I’ve worked on books that I’ve been proud of before that haven’t really done an awful lot. So to have recognition from your peers, from children, from educationalists, is the most gratifying thing. It really makes you feel good about what you do and spurs you on to keep thinking about new ways to hopefully inspire young readers.

Aaron

It’s just very humbling and gratifying hearing that something that you’ve worked on has received such good praise. And not just from the public, but people with a lot of experience in the industry. And it’s great to have worked on something so educational, that we can look back on in 10, 20 or even 100 years. I’m just so happy with all the praise the book has received. It was never in the back of my mind that it would receive this response, I was just focusing on making sure there were 100 people on each page!

Jackie, you began as an editor, was authoring your own books something you always wanted to do at some point?

When I was little, I wanted to write. In fact, I did write pony stories and that kind of thing at primary school. Later, when I graduated from university, I gravitated towards publishing. At that time I didn’t have any designs on being a writer. I loved working in children’s publishing and I loved working with illustrators. I really enjoyed thinking about how text and visuals work together and reinforce one another.

I’ve worked for a number of children’s publishers and when I went freelance, I carried on editing and project managing and gradually the writing started to trickle in to my work. The more I wrote, the more I liked writing. As an adult, I didn’t have any particular ambitions to be an author, but looking back, perhaps it’s what I wanted to do all along. If all my publishing experience has led me to this point, where I can write for children, that’s a wonderful thing.

Aaron, what inspired you to become an illustrator?

From since I could crawl and pick up a pencil, it was something my mum encouraged me to do. I remember getting home from school and doodle on the Horrible Histories or Simpsons magazines. Eventually I went to the Belfast School of Art and Design and did a module in illustration and animation. I really enjoy telling a story and narrative, and I saw illustration as the best way to approach that.

Jackie, the format of the book is so effective at putting things in perspective and making the complex easy, what inspired you to adopt this approach?

Sometimes, it’s just kismet. Something emerges from an accidental conversation. I was talking to a book designer about all the things that humanity has in common; we all have different coloured hair and eyes for instance, but how many of us have black hair or green eyes? How many children are there in the world? Or how many of us speak English or Hindi? We thought it would be fun to have a book with answers to those sorts of questions. The idea grew from there really.

And it goes beyond simple trivia, it deals with a lot of hard-hitting subjects like poverty and climate change. What did you hope that young people reading this would take away from it?

You’re right! The book began with simple questions looking at the things that we have in common: we all start life as babies and grow older, but how many young or old people are there on earth today? Which continents do we live on? Can we all read and write and does everyone go to school? The more I researched, the more intrigued I was by the numbers – they began to tell their own stories. The questions just kept coming and I was staggered sometimes by the inequalities that the data revealed.

I wanted the questions to get ‘bigger’ and more meaningful: Do we all have a safe home to live in, access to clean drinking water, or enough food to eat? The answers are ‘no’ for many different reasons but I wanted to show children that they can use data to ask questions about their own world, or the wider world. We can learn a lot about ourselves through exploring data and numbers. The more we understand about our environment, the better able we are to address issues and challenges that we all face – big or small.

Aaron, the illustrations fit so well and the characters are so charming. Is this a style of illustration you often employ or something unique to this project?

It’s a style that carries over into a lot of my work. The monobrows for example, I use frequently. You can get so much expression in one line rather than two and its become a sort of stamp on my work. With this project, when it came to drawing and putting visuals to the words, it really hit me when I was looking at certain statistics. It’s one thing hearing these things, but it’s another when you start actually drawing them. We had to be very careful to not accidentally reinforce stereotypes by letting a particular character get the short end of the stick across multiple statistics, for example not having a home and not having enough food.

And what do you think are the elements that make good illustration for children?

You need to make it interesting and make sure there are characters that are endearing to them. Also humour plays a massive part. Once you get them smiling or laughing, that’s the first hurdle. I think it really comes down to, is the person drawing having fun and enjoying what they’re doing? Because if they are, that really comes across and I think kids can tell.

Jackie, as someone who has worked in children’s publishing for a long time, what do you think has changed over the years in terms of what is being published?

It has changed dramatically in the last 25 years. The publisher Dorling Kindersley used to dominate children’s non-fiction. Everything was white, images were photographic rather than illustrative, and the text was informative but quite straight. They produced great books – and still do – but for me the children’s non-fiction publishing scene was less interesting then. What we have today is way more dynamic. You have this fantastic marriage of brilliant illustrators and non-fiction writers, telling compelling stories about world. You can use beautiful illustrations and be far more lyrical with your words.


You can find out more about If The World Were 100 People here.