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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Interview: Jenny Cooper talks about Dozer the Fire Cat

We want to introduce you to some of the finalists in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adults. Jenny Cooper is nominated for the Russell Clark Award for Illustration for Dozer the Fire Cat.

Jenny is an experienced illustrator who has illustrated for children in New Zealand and all over the world, for over 25 years. She lives in a high tower by the sea, which is caressed by sea breezes and the occasional bit of gull poop. Actually she lives in a blue house, in a small friendly town called Amberley, an hour north of Christchurch. She has a sunny studio, which she is not allowed to leave until she has completed all her work. They poke thermoses of tea and slabs of chocolate through a slot in the door to keep her going. Her girlfriends try to entice her out for coffee, but she womanfully resists. She has a handy partner called Chris, a floompfy cat who crunches on blowflies in a very tasty-sounding way, and a variable number of young trees struggling against the hot nor’westerly winds that blow in spring. She loves to read, to draw, and to potter in the garden. She is also partial to cauliflower cheese and lemon slice, not on the same plate.

Tell us a little about your book.

Dozer the Fire Cat, written by Robyn Prokop. I was really happy to be illustrating this book for Robyn and Scholastic because it had a cat! And a lovely fluffy cat. I’ve done so many cats, but I never get tired of painting them. Anything fluffy, really. Fluff is fun.

What research was involved?

There was a heap of research because this story is true. It involved real people and places that readers might recognise. Also fire engines and fire fighter’s uniforms… it all had to be correct. Also I had to take the story seriously, and not make it too much fun, because it was describing a really dangerous situation, (out of control fires, in drought stricken farms and forests) that had a lot of people worried. Hundreds of people had to move from their homes and farms, and take their animals with them. I had friends and family who live near Nelson who were also told to pack up and be ready to move!

The problem was that there was so much information given to me that I became completely bogged down. I had photos of Leon who painted the famous picture of the fires, of Dozer and his owners, of the particular cat box that Dozer used, even of the trailer that carried the sheep away. And when you are given photos, you do tend to use them. So I put too much detail into my first set of roughs and then they were rejected! The roughs are the pencil drawings that begin the process of illustration. I don’t often have a whole set of roughs rejected. In fact it’s only ever happened once before. It sort of knocks the wind out of you. And even if you can see what the editor is saying, and agree, you might feel a bit grumpy about it.

So I had to start again, and I sort of ran out of energy and enthusiasm at that stage. But my editor the wonderful Lynette Evans, and designer the amazing Vasanti Unka, gave me some great suggestions and that got me interested in the book again. We decided to go in the opposite direction, and include almost no detail, and very limited backgrounds. I kept this new version loose and sketchy…. it was quite a new approach for me, I loved it. Details kept sneaking in, and I had to keep telling myself to reject them. I did put in a lot of detail into Dozers fluffy coat. I couldn’t help myself. I used my own cat The Moosch as a model, she is very like the real Dozer but even more floompfy. I know that because I have to vacuum her fur of everything including all our visitors.

So in the end, it turned into a satisfying journey that taught me something new, and made me brave enough to try a new painting technique.

Here is an example of two sets of roughs for pages 6 – 7. You can see how busy the first set of drawings is, and how simple the second set is. I hope you like the second set best!

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

This will sound very boring, but to celebrate the finishing of the book, I had a huge spring clean in the studio. I put away my 50 paintbrushes and the hundreds of sheets of paper that build up on every surface. I cleaned down the drawing board, removed empty coffee cups, chip packets and dead flies from windowsills, then stood back and enjoyed the effect. It might sound dull, but it is a great way to put one book to bed and prepare myself for the next one. I may have also had a cup of tea and some chocolate. I often do.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

I read heaps of books, all the time, but during lock down I wanted something really happy to read, and something familiar. So I re-read Moomintroll, Moominsummer Madness, by Tove Jansson, and The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Such good books! And such great illustrations by Tove Jansson and Jules Feiffer.

What is next?

Pukeko, poetry and more cats! It will be a busy year.

The winners of the New Zealand Books Awards for Children and Young Adults will be revealed via a virtual presentation on Wednesday 12 August. For a full list of the brilliant 2020 finalists click here:


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