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Katherine Battersby is the critically-acclaimed author and illustrator of 10 picture books published around the world, including Perfect PigeonsYou’re One!You’re Two! and the popular Squish Rabbit series. She is regularly booked to speak in schools, libraries and at festivals and she is a passionate advocate for literacy and the arts. In this interview, Katherine talks about art as a tool for battling isolation and leaving space for her readers’ imaginations.

Author Katherine Battersby (and a friend). Photo provided by MASC.

MASC: Children’s books are often heavy on illustration and light on word count. At risk of sharing your deepest, most creative secrets, what’s the trick for creating a really, really good one?

A great picture book is like a great poem: It’s a condensed form but there’s an expansion of meaning. When I’m working on a picture book I always try to leave room for the reader. I want them to be able to add to my story with their imaginations, to take my characters somewhere new in their minds long after they’ve closed my book. So I use as few words as possible and my illustrations often revel in white space and aren’t overly detailed.

I always try to say one thing with my words and then reveal something slightly different with my illustrations.

My favourite picture books also use words and images together in playful and often surprising ways. I always try to say one thing with my words and then reveal something slightly different with my illustrations, so the story is only truly understood when the two are read together. This way, when the book is read aloud, the adult reader says one thing but the kids (who “read” the images) understand something else entirely. It’s an incredibly fun medium to play with!

MASC: At the beginning of the pandemic, you launched a weekly YouTube series called KatBatDraws to offer kids a creative outlet online and teach them the basics of illustration and character development. What are your thoughts on art as a tool for battling isolation?

Art can be incredibly powerful! Art is self-expression, so when you view someone else’s art and really sit inside it, you are experiencing a kind of empathy. You are taking the time to think about someone’s experiences and feelings and thoughts and ideas. And there’s nothing that connects us all together quite so powerfully as empathy. So when the pandemic hit, I wanted to use art to reach out to kids who may have been feeling as isolated as I was, to offer a kind of connection through creativity and self expression.

Kids from all over the world have been sending me drawings they’ve done while watching KatBatDraws. It’s pretty incredible; it’s a great privilege to receive their art as they are sharing a part of themselves, which takes a special kind of courage.

Katherine with some students (pre-COVID). Photo provided by MASC.

MASC: You recently launched your newest children’s book Perfect Pigeons on Facebook LIVE. How did the experience differ from previous in-person events you’ve hosted?

Having a new book published is the culmination of so many years of work, so it’s quite a momentous occasion. I had always celebrated in person, by visiting bookstores, doing signings, and speaking with kids in schools and libraries. So I had no idea how to do any of this while isolated in my home! Once I got my head around the idea of doing an online launch, I actually started to get quite excited. I realized the benefits, mainly that an online launch can be worldwide! I’m originally from Australia, am half British, and have lived in Canada these last seven years, so I have readers all over the world. I couldn’t be happier with how the launch went: we spoke all about Perfect Pigeons, I gave my first reading, and I also did a live art demonstration (it’s still online if anyone wants to take a peek!) The pandemic has forced me to try new things, and I am learning skills that I will continue to use long after we are all able to meet in person again.

MASC: As a member of MASC, what do you gain through offering your workshops in schools and in the community?

I love making books, but my favourite part of being an author and illustrator is getting to connect with my audience. Kids are amazing – they’re so switched on and engaged and open to the world. You can’t be complacent when working with kids; you have to be your very best self. Working with MASC allows me opportunities to visit schools and libraries all over Ontario and beyond. MASC is an incredible organization: everyone who works for them is passionate about bringing the arts to kids. I especially love the yearly MASC Young Authors and Illustrators Festival. Getting to work one-on-one with a small and passionate group of budding artists over an entire day is just fantastic. The MASC festivals are a lot of fun, both for the kids and the adults who get to run them!

Katherine in her element. Photo provided by MASC.

MASC: Why do you think it’s important for our local community to have access to professional artists?

As a kid, I turned to books as a way of trying to understand an incomprehensible world; books were a comfort and an escape. Then, as soon as I could hold a pencil, I started making my own art, using images and then words to try to process my experiences. Meeting artists helped me to understand this process and to see that there were legitimate ways to use your art out in the world.

Not everyone expresses themselves the way I did as a kid, but everyone can benefit from access to professional artists. Engaging with the arts connects us to inner worlds and the worlds of others: It’s the perfect place to explore self-expression, to play, and even to de-stress. I understand this better than ever as I watch my two-year-old explore art for the first time: she is never more free and completely herself than when given room to create.