Behind The Book: Little People, BIG DREAMS Lenny Henry
last updated 08 February 2024
Discover the life of Lenny Henry illustrated by the incredibly talented Bright artist Diane Ewen, written by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara, creator of the Little People, BIG DREAMS series (Quarto). This inspiring book explores the life of Sir Lenny Henry, the multi-talented comedian, actor, writer and activist.
In this interview, Diane shares her illustrative journey. Join us as we dive into the story behind the book.
In your own words, what is Lenny Henry about?
Lenny is about the famous comedian, philanthropist, actor, and Comic Relief Charity extraordinaire Sir Lenny Henry. In the book we begin with Lenny, a young boy around five years old and he’s surrounded by his many siblings and their mother in their kitchen.
We follow Lenny from the seeds of his ambition to be a TV comedian at age 16, to Lenny raising millions of pounds for the Red Nose Day Comic Relief Charity. We also look in particular, at Lenny becoming an actor and latterly, becoming a children’s book writer.
The book is a great way to get to know Lenny, and see in action the ambitious, multi-talented boy becoming the world-famous man he is today.
When did you first hear about the opportunity to work on Lenny Henry?
I had just had a weekend and completed a workshop for the Jericho Prize. I was asked by Fabia Turner, founder of the Jericho Prize, to do a Q & A session for potential entrants for the subsequent prize. I was still on a little bit of a high because it had been a really great session.
Then on Monday 26 September 2022 a very interesting email from my lovely agent Freddie Dawson dropped into my inbox. She told me that Quarto had been in touch about a potential project. It said…
“The art director and I absolutely adore the work of Diane Ewen, and we have a project that we think that she would be perfect for… Little People, BIG DREAMS – Lenny Henry!”
I’ve always loved the Little People, Big Dreams series by Maria Isabela, so it was really a ‘no brainer’ when deciding if I wanted to do the project. Having Lenny as the subject was just the icing on the cake.
How did you feel about the text before you began the illustration process?
Even before I read the text, I knew that Lenny’s story would be fascinating. He’s a fascinating character and a beacon for the black community in the world of television.
I felt that his background story would resonate with a lot of people from the African-Caribbean community and, to an extent, to all people of colour who are descendants of the Windrush Generation who traveled to the mother country, England.
I didn’t know the immediate family background of Lenny before doing this project so the opportunity to learn about him and his journey whilst drawing the illustrations was a great experience for me.
What inspired your artistic style in Lenny Henry?
The story told me that Lenny began his career in 1975 so I began my research around that time in terms of creating the family dynamic and vibrant surroundings. I love the wallpaper patterns and the amazing fashions of that period; flared trousers and contrasting patterns and the wealth of colour that was everyday life.
What inspired the character design?
Lenny began with the front cover design.
I was sent a photograph of a young Lenny, at around five years old. I experimented with this image trying to capture his likeness. I thought I knew exactly how Lenny was going to look. I didn’t realise that creating the image would be harder than I thought as It’s difficult to create a younger person when all you’ve known is the grown-up person and, I was always mindful that it had to fit into the previous Little People Big Dreams format.
The finished cover looks deceptively simple but the process of getting it right was the total opposite, it and it took many attempts to pin it down.
What do you love the most about illustrating books?
I love drawing and creating characters and I love colour. When you blend them all together, that’s what I really love about illustrating books. I read somewhere that Sir Quentin Blake said ‘Sometimes people think drawing and painting is mucking about when actually it is a highly skilled activity’ I totally agree with this statement. I’m lucky to be doing what I love for a career and getting the opportunity to be creative on a daily basis.
Creating something from a blank page is so fulfilling and then to work on exciting projects such as Lenny is so rewarding.
The process can sometimes be challenging, and painstaking, but when the work is completed, and the hard copy of the book is in my hands, it’s such a great feeling of personal achievement.
Of course, now, I’ve been given the opportunity to work on exciting and diverse projects such as this one, I get the opportunity to make books more inclusive.
What was your favourite part of working on Lenny Henry?
Apart from being chosen to do the project in the first place, I loved working on the page of characters Lenny created that includes Reverend Nat West and Delbert Wilkins.
I was not too familiar with these characters, but I loved re-creating them in 2D. I also loved creating the 1970’s wallpaper pattern and the other patterns dotted around the book. I wanted the book to reflect the time period and atmosphere, and I hope the book achieves that.
Do you personally resonate with any parts of the book? If so, why is it important to you?
Yes, I do. In the book, Lenny missed finding people from all backgrounds in front of and behind the screen. Saying ‘Everyone should be able to create and recognise themselves in films, television and books because if you can see it, you can be it!’
I totally believe in these words. It’s similar to being a picture book illustrator for me. I never saw or heard of a person from my type of background doing a job such as this. It was always for me, a dream to have a career and make a living from my love of art. But there were never any examples of people of colour in this field.
Now that I am an illustrator and writer of books, I hope I will be one of the visible people who prove that it is possible, and provide that much needed inspiration for future generations,
Is there anything specific you hope readers take away from reading Lenny Henry?
I feel that the writing and illustrating stories of contemporary people of colour such as Lenny, who have and are still achieving so much in their lives, is about documenting their experiences for future generations to read and to see. I think that is so vital.
A by-product of creating a book such as Lenny is that it’s a book that covers a lot of representational issues. A young black boy, who comes from a background, not of privilege or representation who makes it successfully in the world of television to become a world-famous entertainer and national treasure.
I hope that when children read this book it encourages them to have big dreams because the story screams that dreams are obtainable.
To work with Diane, get in touch here.