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A Q&A with non-fiction illustrator Owen Davey

by Owen Davey, Quentin Blake Centre course tutor

With books on everything from beetles to sharks under his belt, Owen Davey knows how to make facts beautiful. He tells us about his work ahead of his February workshop, Planning a Non-Fiction Picture Book.

How did you get started working in non-fiction illustration?

It was sort of by accident. I did a job for a friend when they were putting together the first issue of Hound magazine and the theme was ‘beginnings/conception’.

I got really distracted researching the beginnings of the universe and space, then went on a tangent researching space and dogs (given the magazine’s name), and that led me to the story of Laika, the dog who became the first animal to orbit the Earth.

Her tragic story really spoke to me and I ended up doing a children’s book about her. Although the book was fiction, it was rooted in facts. I’d discovered that I loved the process of exploring the non-fiction elements within the story and knew that it was something I wanted to do more of.

Around the same time, the team at publisher Nobrow (now Flying Eye Books) remembered a monkey illustration I’d sent them and wondered if I’d be interested in making a non-fiction book about monkeys. I definitely was!

I’ve now worked on around 15 non-fiction book projects and loads of non-fiction editorial work, too.

Book covers for non-fiction books about beetles, crocodiles and octopi

What’s the main difference between fiction and non-fiction illustration?

Accuracy and research. You really have to get your facts right. You can’t just approximate things. You have to delve into the world of whatever it is that you’re illustrating, try and understand it as much as possible, and then filter that through your creative brain.

It’s a massive challenge and it involves loads of learning and unlearning in the process, but I love it.

Which is your favourite non-fiction picture book you’ve worked on?

Curious About Crocodiles is my most recent one with Flying Eye Books and that seems to be going down really well with people. They’re difficult creatures to illustrate but I’m really pleased with the results. I write all those Flying Eye Books titles too, so they’re very much my babies.

Another project that I’m really proud of is a French one called Prehistomania. I didn’t actually write that one, but I worked with a great team to make a pop-up book about prehistoric humans. It was so much work, but I think it’s one of the best things I’ve made.

Pop-up book with animals and trees

Are there other illustrators you admire?

I really love all the illustrators working with Flying Eye Books on their non-fiction titles. William Grill, Philip Giordano, Lisk Feng, Ella Bailey, Ben Newman. So many good ones.

I also love classic illustrators like Dahlov Ipcar and Charley Harper who worked on lots of non-fiction things. And I love books that aren’t as obviously non-fiction; stuff like Rob Hodgson’s A to Z of Monsters and Magical Beings, where he’s been super creative with how the facts are presented.