Donovan Bixley has illustrated over 100 New Zealand's children's books including best-sellers The Wheels on the Bus, Old McDonald's Farm and The Looky Book. He says you don't have to be a great artist to be successful.

1 Why did you decide to tell the story of Maui fishing up the North Island?

That was pretty nerve-wracking actually. I'd been asked again and again by publishers to do that story but as a pakeha guy with no Maori connections, I didn't feel like I had the mana or cultural background to take it on. Luckily I met Dr Darren Joseph at a children's book hui. He's a senior lecturer in Maori at Massey and an award-winning writer of teen sci-fi in te reo Maori.

2 Did the book change much as a result of having a cultural advisor?


I'd come up with the idea of portraying Maui as a cheeky younger brother. I was a bit nervous about portraying a god and cultural icon in that irreverent light but when Darren saw my sketches he said, 'This is what our tamariki need - a person they can connect with." He told me which elements you can mess with and which you can't. What changed were details like the kind of canoe Maui would have paddled; the stars and birds followed by Pacific navigators. It sounds really naïve, but I'd assumed Maui was Maori. Yet Aotearoa didn't exist till he came from Hawaiiki and fished it up.

3 What was it like working with Margaret Mahy on Dashing Dog?

If you're any good as an illustrator, you get offered a tremendous amount of manuscripts. Dashing Dog was unlike any I'd received before. If you read it without looking at the pictures you'll notice it's not very descriptive. Her words bubble along in a poetic way, but she never once mentions what kind of dog he is. As an illustrator, I find that so exciting. As you get older the words become more and more descriptive and the pictures become tiny little asides that eventually disappear altogether. The best books are the ones where part of the storytelling is actually in the pictures.

4 Why did you decide to write your own books?
The Flying Furballs series exists largely because I like drawing animals and old fashioned planes. I thought if I want to draw more pussycats flying planes I better write books so I can. Then I can live vicariously through my characters visiting all the cool places I've never been to.

Six years were put into creating Monkey Boy.
Six years were put into creating Monkey Boy.

5 The series has sold best overseas. Why is that?

Maybe the European setting. I can't help feeling chuffed that the first one sold immediately in France and went on to win a children's choice award there. I've never been to Paris so I drew the street scenes using google earth.

6 You've done illustrated biographies of Mozart and Shakespeare. Are they for adults or kids?

They're picture books for adults. That's been a hard sell in New Zealand. Asian countries have a much stronger graphic novel culture. My Shakespeare book was published in Taiwan first. It was amazing going to the book fair in Taipei – the fourth largest in the world – and seeing the kudos picture books have there. I was on the main stage with an audience crammed with adults, whereas in New Zealand I'm the Wheels on the Bus guy.


7 Growing up, did you always want to become an illustrator?

Ever since I can remember, I've been writing and illustrating my own books and stapling them together but for some reason it never occurred to me that I could do it for a living. When it came to university, I had no idea what to do. My parents suggested art school. I was like, "Oh yeah". Now that I have teenagers I can see myself in them very clearly.

8 Why do you choose to illustrate children's books?

I often get asked what I want to do when I grow up. I started off as a commercial artist but have always worked towards becoming a professional children's book illustrator, which I have been for the last eight years. There aren't many of us. I'd be really sad if I didn't get to do silly things like The Looky Book.

Donovan Bixley always aimed to be a professional illustrator and stubbornness helped get him there. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Donovan Bixley always aimed to be a professional illustrator and stubbornness helped get him there. Photo / Jason Oxenham

9 What does it take to become a successful children's book illustrator?

I often tell kids when I do workshops in schools that you don't have to be the best at drawing. Look at Diary of a Wimpy Kid - it's just stick figures and it sold 40 million copies. You just need to be a good storyteller. You also have to be tenacious. Monkey Boy took me six years to make and got rejected by 17 publishers worldwide before going on to win best junior fiction at the New Zealand book awards. I probably wouldn't have got this far if I wasn't so bloody minded and stubborn.

10 Can books can change lives?

Oh, definitely. The Lord of the Rings completely changed my life. Mum read it to me when I was 7, then I read it when I was 8 and it became an obsession. I wrote a sequel copying Tokien's way of writing. That's how you start, by copying other people's stuff and slowly adapting it to find your own style. I've always used a lot of colour. Dr Seuss was another favourite. I can still recite The Lorax off by heart - the pictures are bright and colourful and undiminished in their vibrancy and energy.

11 Why do you live in Taupo?

My wife and I both grew up there. It's funny; when I was young I couldn't wait to get out, it was like, "Aargh, I can't be in this place – it's devoid of culture" and yet now it's the complete opposite. I was inspired to work internationally from Taupo after seeing Peter Jackson make Hollywood films in New Zealand. So far it's working. The Dinosaur Rescue books I did with Kyle Mewburn were the number 1 children's best seller in Norway last year and he lives in central Otago.

12 What do you do in your spare time?

Work was all consuming for a long time. You have to be so ambitious to make it in this field; once you do you're on a roller coaster and you can't get off. I got to a point where I did 12 books in one year; I thought I was going to die or have a serious meltdown so I've made an effort to have a life outside work. I'm in a couple of jazz funk bands. I play saxophone and sing. It's great fun.