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Interview: Donovan Bixley talks about following in Leonardo da Vinci's footsteps!

Donovan Bixley is one of New Zealand’s most recognisable picture book creators, with books published in 31 countries, and awards as an illustrator, author, and as a book designer. Recently Donovan was the recipient of the Mallinson Rendel Illustrators Award, part of the New Zealand Arts Foundation laureate awards. This tremendous honour places Donovan’s work alongside some of New Zealand’s most celebrated writers, musicians, film makers, choreographers and artists.

Donovan's work is nothing if not varied, from the feline hijinks of pussycats in planes in Paris in his Flying Furballs series, to his award-winning illustrated biography Much Ado About Shakespeare, plus over 100 books in between. His latest book is The Great Kiwi 123 Book. He talks to NZ Booklovers.

You are the recipient of the Mallinson Rendel Illustrators Award, can you tell us a little about this?

The Mallinson Rendel Award is administered by the wonderful New Zealand Arts Foundation, which connects philanthropists with New Zealand artists. It’s one of those amazing awards that come completely out of the blue. Funnily enough they had trouble contacting me with the good news, so when they finally got hold of me via email, I thought it was some kind of scam … seriously, it was like, “Mr Bixley, we’ve been trying to get in touch with you. You’ve been awarded $15,000. Call this number now.” I was on the verge of pressing delete!

As the name of the award suggests, it comes from a very generous bequest by legendary New Zealand publisher Ann Mallinson, who was the original publisher of Hairy Maclary. Ann wanted to recognise the work of New Zealand children’s book illustrators. Of course it’s a wonderful surprise and honour to be the recipient, but it’s also a fantastic opportunity to showcase the work of our children’s book illustrators alongside the other great New Zealand arts. Some of my fellow Arts Foundation recipients at last year’s awards were Nikki Caro, Jemaine Clement and Hera Lindsay Bird. Great company to be in.

We understand you are off to follow in Leonardo da Vinci’s footsteps in Italy soon. Whereabout are you travelling?

I’ll be using the Mallinson Rendel Award money initially to attend the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. My publisher Upstart Press has had some promising interest in my junior fiction chapter book series Flying Furballs, as well as my illustrated biographies Much Ado About Shakespeare and Faithfully Mozart. I’m super excited to find out what the reaction to these books will be. I also have a couple of speaking gigs where I’ll talk about how I use words and pictures in different ways to tell my stories.

After a week in Bologna I’m doing a bit of research for a future book on Leonardo da Vinci – I won’t say ‘my next book’, because I still have about 8 or so books lined up before I can really get stuck into this one. I’ve been fascinated with Leonardo ever since I was a teenager, but I’ve put off tackling him for a long time. With my Mozart and Shakespeare books I was illustrating music and literature, but with Leonardo I was daunted about using my illustrations to depict one of the greatest masters of painting. I had to figure out a way in which I was comfortable to do that. As with my previous illustrated biographies, this book will be concerned with trying to find the interesting human snippets of Leonardo’s life and times that are often overlooked in academic studies. I’m ridiculously excited to walk in those places he walked and get a real sense of light and the colour and the landscape that affected Leonardo’s life. Leonardo travelled quite liberally around northern Italy, and it’s a part of the world I’ve never been to, so you can imagine it will be a terrible imposition to have to force myself to visit places like Florence, Vinci, Milan, Venice and Rome … need I go on?

You also have a new book out, The Great Kiwi 123 Book – can you tell us about this book?

The Great Kiwi 123 Book is about as far from Leonardo as you can get. You can probably tell I really love doing a variety of styles and making books for different ages and in different genres. I always try to fill my books with all sorts of exciting things for my readers to discover, again and again on subsequent readings, no matter how little they are. Preschoolers make sense of the world every day visually, so I think they deserve to have lots of vibrant stimulating books that they can ‘read’ by themselves through the pictures alone. I’m alway thrilled when I get those emails about a one year old who intently studies my Old MacDonald’s Farm to track down the magpie on every page, or the 18 month old who holds the picture of my all black lambs in front of the television while their parents are trying to watch a Bledisloe Cup test. After the popularity of my Great Kiwi ABC Book, I wanted to follow up with a Great Kiwi 123 that is just as colourful and fun for little readers all over the country.

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