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Dark and mysterious world of children's picture book maverick, Benji Davies

Article By: Michaela Mildenhall

The multi-talented Benji Davies, part of a cool new breed of illustrators, has revealed he wrote his latest book, The Grotlyn, to conquer his 'childhood fear of the dark'.

'The Storm Whale' author tells us about his love for the gothic stories of Edgar Allen Poe, how picture book writing is just like making a film, and explains the inspiration behind the beguiling rooftop world of his latest creation, The Grotlyn.

Benji Davies and daughter Esther. Credit: Jay Anderson Photography

‘I always wanted my words with pictures’

An imaginative and creative child, Mr Davies had a feeling he was always going to end up doing what he does for a living. In his formative years, he immersed himself in a world of doodles, books and daydreaming.

“I spent my childhood indulging in my imagination - lots of drawing, looking at pictures and reading, watching animated films - and allowing myself to be swallowed up. Being so happy in that space is the thing that has drawn me to continue into adulthood”, explains the author.

Going to the library was a weekly highlight for Mr Davies when he was a child. It was a real family event, but once he arrived, he would go off on his own and discover fictional worlds that would stay with him way into adulthood. He says: “My mum often took my two sisters and I to the library. It was so inviting, a warm cosy quiet place where you could endlessly browse picture books after school - then getting home with the borrowed goods - bliss!”

Illustration from the Grotlyn. Credit: Benji Davies and HarperCollins Children’s Books

As an older child, Mr Davies found that he still enjoyed the illustrations as much as when he was a pre-schooler. Sitting in between the rows of books with his prized finds, Mr Davies would often skip to the illustrations, he says: “When I moved from picture to chapter books I was always drawn to the ones with chapter heading illustrations. I’d have a quick thumb through and make sure they had the right subject matter and appeal.

“I was particularly into stories where animals were the protagonists. I just found the human children in books rather boring to read about and I couldn’t identify with them for whatever reason - perhaps I just wasn’t drawn to the right books, or perhaps because the ones with animals seemed to have more interesting illustrations that appealed to my love of nature and the fantastical.”

His favourite authors at this time mostly wrote about animals, such as Colin Dann, responsible for works such as ‘The Animals of Farthing Wood’ and Dick King Smith, the author of ‘Babe the Gallant Pig’. Roald Dahl was an exception, even though Mr Davies cites his favourite Dahl book as ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’.

The Grotlyn was created to conquer ‘childhood fear of the dark’

Equally at home with illustration, storytelling, poetry compilation and filmmaking, the picture book polymath from Walthamstow, enjoyed considerable success with his first foray into children’s publishing with 'The Storm Whale’. This sweet and unassuming early years picture book won him several publishing awards, including the Oscar's First Book Prize.

Illustration from the Grotlyn. Credit: Benji Davies and HarperCollins Children’s Books

His new book, the Grotlyn, explores deeper and darker themes. The Grotlyn, despite its beautiful imagery and charming storytelling, isn’t what you would normally expect from a children’s picture book. It is a slowly unfurling tale of a mysterious night-time creature, who scuttles about London in the dark, stealing knickers from washing lines and leaving dirty footprints over freshly laundered bedding.

Of course, the tale is populated with Mr Davies' characterful illustrations of Victorian chimney sweeps, organ grinders and bobbies on the beat. The writer explains what fired his imagination at the time: “Many things went into The Grotlyn. I think you pick up lots of ideas or seeds of ideas as you go through life and when you write or illustrate - create anything in fact - they percolate through on to the page or into whatever medium you’re working in.

“When I wrote the original verse back in 2003, for a short film of the same name, I was under the influence of Edgar Allen Poe’s incredible verse ‘The Raven’. I also wanted to quell my childhood fear of the dark - those noises you hear at night, perhaps they’re just somebody trying to do something good, not anything evil or malicious.”

His childhood interest in films and animation led him to study animation at university, which eventually led to employment as an animation director making music videos, short films and commercials. He describes how enjoyable this was for him, saying: “As an animation director I always enjoyed creating characters and the worlds they inhabit.

Grotlyn cover. Credit: Benji Davies and HarperCollins Children’s Books

“Creating picture books enables me to do the same in a parallel way. They are very similar disciplines and I love the cinematic qualities of a double-page spread, the pacing you can create through page turns and the atmosphere of a well-lit scene.”

‘Each time you write a new book it has to become your favourite’

Mr Davies cites the Grotyln as his favourite book written thus far. He explains why, saying: “Each time you write a new book I think it has to become your favourite. You invest a lot of time, thought and energy into each new story when you’re writing, illustrating and later promoting, so it’s important that you are really into it.

“I have a soft spot for my first book The Storm Whale, but equally I love The Grotlyn, and I’m excited about my next books too - I think they’re a bit like your own children in that way.”

Currently, life is busy for Mr Davies. In amongst Dad duties for baby daughter Esther, Mr Davies is also writing and illustrating two picture books simultaneously, which he says is the first time he has ever done so. When asked, given the chance, which evergreen children’s classic he would he most like to illustrate, Mr Davies doesn’t hesitate: “Watership Down - hands down! I was a huge fan of both the film and the book. It looms large in my subconscious!”

This is the perfect choice for an author who doesn’t shy away from difficult themes in children’s literature, and whose own experience and love of animation informs such carefully illustrated creations and nail-biting narratives.


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