It appears you're viewing content from a territory other than your own — switch territory?

Behind The Book: The Ballad of Cactus Joe

last updated 08 May 2024

We sat down with Clive McFarland, the brilliant illustrator behind The Ballad of Cactus Joe, written by Lily Murray and published by Oxford University Press. Join us as we delve into the artistic process behind the book.


In your own words, what is The Ballad of Cactus Joe about?

It’s a tale about a solitary cactus called Joe, who isn’t too keen on company. However, his life takes a turn when he lets a small woodpecker nest in his branches. Soon, other birds flock to Joe, wanting to make their home with him too, and his once lonesome world is interrupted. A brilliant story written by Lily Murray, and I illustrated it.


Tell me about your illustrative process. What inspired you?

I knew early on that I could use neon colours, which was exciting. That, in itself, was a learning process. The colour approach for the art was inspired by real-life desert night skies and how bright and vibrant they are. We wanted to depict the desert in a different way than it’s typically shown, to showcase how full of life this landscape is. This was my first book project created mostly through digital illustration. I experimented with creating various textures in Photoshop and painted the backgrounds in Procreate, so it was a nice change from my usual way of working.


What was your favourite part of working on The Ballad of Cactus Joe?

My favourite part of a book is often the beginning stages, doodling in sketchbooks and figuring things out. For this story, it was fun to illustrate and design Cactus Joe. Since Joe stays in one spot, his expressions and emotions play a huge role in moving the story forward, making it important to get his character just right.


Why is the book important to you?

Developing ‘The Ballad of Cactus Joe’ brought me back to the joy of creating picture books. It’s a privilege to make children’s books and see those books go out into the world and find readers, but it’s also hard work. This project reminded me of my early days when I was just starting out; my Bright portfolio had a lot of anthropomorphic trees and cloud characters back then. It reminded me how much I love bringing characters to life.

At this point, I feel more confident about the value of my own work and my place in the children’s book industry, and that just comes with time. The amazing team at Oxford University Press was brilliant to work with.


Is there anything specific you hope readers take away from reading The Ballad of Cactus Joe?

That change can be a good thing and that it is always worth the effort to make new friends. Hopefully, they enjoy the story and learn a little about the Saguaro cactus and the animals in the desert along the way. There’s an educational spread at the end of the book with lots of fun facts about the characters in the story; Saguaro cacti really do support life for a lot of animals in the desert!

I have library visits planned for later this year, and I’m looking forward to bringing Cactus Joe with me; I think people will enjoy his grumpy personality. Reading to kids is when you really find out if a book has been a success!

The Ballad of Cactus Joe published on the 2nd May 2024, get your copy here.

To work with Clive, please get in contact with his agent Susan Penny here.

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website — see our privacy policy for more.