Meet Tilly and Friends creator Polly Dunbar

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From inspired picture-book creator Polly Dunbar comes a colourful and charming series following the escapades of Tilly and her friends. Starting on CBeebies on Monday 17th September.

How did you get started writing books for children?

I loved children's books when I was little and I continued to love them as I grew up, there is no need to ever grow out of books with pictures. I used to make books for my toys to read, stapling them together and drawing tiny pictures - things haven't changed that much since then.

You write and also illustrate your books?

I studied illustration at University. I was very lucky, a lady from Walker Books came to my degree show and invited me to present my portfolio. I started off by illustrating other people's stories and various poetry books; this was a great way to cut my teeth.

How did you set about writing your first book?

I soon realised that I wanted to make my own books. I started mapping out stories with pictures alone and then the words came, that's how I started writing. There's something very exciting about making a complete children's book, it's getting the balance between the words and the pictures, often a whole a page of writing can be replaced with a drawing of the character, the body language can say it all.

Do the pictures have to work harder?

I find it fascinating that children can read expression and emotion way before they can read words; they can follow what's happening in my books by just looking at the pictures

What was your favourite book when you were little?

One of my favourite books was Mr Magnolia by Quentin Blake. There is something about the quality of his line drawing; it leaps directly off the page as though it's actually alive. I used to pour over his pictures for hours on end. That freshness of line is very hard to create, as an adult you get so caught up in the way things should look and the spontaneity can easily be lost.

So spontaneity is important?

There's something magic about the way that children draw, their pictures have a certain energy that is so hard to keep hold off, I often prefer to look at art up on a primary school wall than to go to a swanky gallery. In the Tilly and Friends animation the fantasy sequences are drawn in a child-like way, I wanted it to be as though the characters had walked into their own pictures, their own imaginations.

Were you a big reader as a child?

I found reading difficult as a child, my spelling was terrible (it still is) and I used to get my letters back to front. Although I struggled with reading I still loved books, the pictures would tempt me in and I would persevere with the story, if I couldn't understand all of the story I would make bits up. I was lucky to get a lot of encouragement, even though I didn't have a very good grip on how words are spelt, it didn't mean I couldn't tell a good story.

And this is reflected a little in Tilly and Friends?

The character Tilly loves books; I started the very first story with a picture of Tilly reading. I wanted it to be almost as though the characters and adventure had all leapt out of the pages. In the animation Tilly is often quietly reading while her friends are busy playing, books are like little doorways into new adventures. The Tilly household had a very large and colourful bookshelf!

How did you come up with the idea for Tilly and Friends?

I came up with the idea for Tilly and Friends years ago when I was house sharing in London. There were a lot of us living in what should have been a two bedroom flat. It was a chaotic and hilarious time in my life; all of us trying to muddle along together meant a lot of laughing but also tears. I wanted to capture this in the Tilly series, putting different animals characters in a house inspired some very funny scenarios, I didn't want to hit readers with a great big moral ending, but I do think the stories show how it's possible to get along together, even on those days when you're feeling a little bit 'bitey'.

How did it end up as a TV series?

Walker Books, who publish the Tilly book series teamed up with JAM MEDIA, a Dublin based animation studio. Together we made a pilot with music written by my friend Tom Gray. It was so exciting to see my characters walking, talking, singing and even dancing!

Where you worried about how it would work on TV?

It's a dream to have my work come to life and be aired on Cbeebies. It has been a long journey to go from book to screen, although there was a small amount of letting go to do, I got to work with some very clever people who have been so generous with their talents. I feel the animation has absolutely caught the essence of the books and I think that's quite a tricky thing to do.

Can you tell us a bit about Tilly?

There needed to be a little girl in the house, Tilly. I wanted her to be a nurturing figure but without being maternal or bossy, she too is a child discovering things along with the other characters, it was important to me that she doesn't have an answer for everything. When I was a child I loved looking after my toys, I suppose I have tried to emulate this in Tilly.

What about the other characters?

There is Tiptoe the rabbit who communicates through magic twinkles; he is the enigmatic character who always seems to know what to do. I wanted him to be silent, almost like a child who doesn't speak yet, but seems all-knowing.
There is Pru the very pretty chicken, she is always being fabulous. Pru is great fun to send up. Doodle is a tom-boyish crocodile, she adds a bit of bite to the household, I wanted her to be female for the same reason Hector the little boy pig loves to wear pink. Tumpty for me is probably the most loveable, he's so bumbling and yet well meaning. As a team they all look out for each other but they all ultimately turn to Tilly for love and support.

Do you have any tips for parents who have little budding artists at home?

I would say it's never too early to start making your own books. Perhaps make a little library for toys to read, simply by cutting and folding paper. You can perhaps make long thin books for giraffes to read or a very small book that would be perfect for a mouse. I think little hands are good for making little pictures. Then maybe graduate to an elephant size book, Tumpty would like that very much.

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