Mini Grey remembers winning second place in the fancy dress competition at a local celebration in her English village. Grey, her sister and a friend dressed as characters from the movie Jaws: Grey’s sister was the glamorous swimmer in the opening scene of the movie; her friend was the fisherman, and Grey, the shark. “I made the shark costume out of a painted sheet,” she says. After learning more about Grey, it comes as no surprise that she chose to be the character requiring the most artistic talent. As soon as she could handle art materials, she drew and modeled her world.
“I remember feeling quite advanced,” she says, “when I was four and worked out how to draw the chimneys of houses properly, and when I was six I had another breakthrough working out how to draw horses’ legs.” Grey developed her vivid imagination early with “let’s pretend” games with her sisters and brother. “I particularly liked making things, especially models of all sorts.”
In college Grey studied Art but switched to English at the University College London when she realized the Fine Arts weren’t for her. She also trained to be a theater designer making sets, painting backdrops and creating costumes—a logical extension of her model-building and costume-making experiences as a child. After months of scraping by financially, Grey left the theater, but took with her a newfound knowledge that she liked working with the children who’d participated in her plays. After the appropriate training, Grey became a primary school teacher and taught in South London for six years. Her after-school classes on model making and pottery were especially popular. But a new idea began nagging Grey.
“When I became a teacher, I was bowled over by the wonderful picture books I found in my classroom and school libraries. I used them as inspiration for classroom projects. . .But I secretly wanted to make my own picture book.”
Grey became a student once more for a two-year Sequential Illustration program at Brighton University. Her first book, Egg Drop (Red Fox, 2003) was sold to her tutor’s editor.
Some of Grey’s stories come from asking “What if. . .?” like Biscuit Bear (Jonathan Cape, 2004). She asked her self, “What if I baked a biscuit and it came to life? What would it want to do?. . .I’ve always longed to see something truly inexplicable or extraordinary happen—like see a ghost or meet an alien, or see a cup get up and hover across the table. So having a biscuit come to life is a sort of wish-fulfillment.”
In addition to the “What if. . .” approach to writing, Grey employs a combination of other techniques to launch her stories. “I often start thinking about fairy stories and nursery rhymes because that gives me some characters to bounce around. . .A blank piece of paper is very daunting.” The Very Smart Pea and the Princess-to-Be (Knopf, 2004) is Grey’s spoof on The Princess and the Pea told from the pea’s point of view.
“Sometimes,” says Grey, “I do brainstorm-pictures where I draw as many situations as possible that my characters might find themselves in.” Grey’s newest book, Traction Man is Here! (Knopf, 2005), recently won the 2005 Boston Globe-Horn Book award. The story chronicles the adventure of a toy action figure, perfectly capturing the essence of childhood imagination. Readers will have no trouble visualizing Grey’s sketchbook loaded with harrowing rescues and near misses in which the title character finds himself entangled.
Grey doesn’t usually have to venture too far from her Oxford home to conduct research. “My stories often seem to take place in quite ordinary settings. . .For Biscuit Bear, of course, I had to do detailed research into all types of biscuits and eat them,” she quips. (She especially loves shortbread and anything with chocolate.) “My latest book [TheAdventures of the Dish and the Spoon (Knopf, 2006)] starts off set in the 1930s so I had to research the way that toys and cars and ships and clothes looked then.”
According to Grey, the biggest misconception about writing for children is that picture books are for people who cannot yet read well. “Picture books,” she says, “are a particular way of telling a story two ways at once—through words and through pictures—and can be as simple or as complicated as anything else.”
Grey captures the humor and drama of childhood in her books because she remembers how it feels to be a child. Even as an adult, Grey stays in touch with her inner child: she takes pride in the fact that she was born in the front seat of a mini-car in a car-park in South Wales and she delights in running down corridors. “I love it because everyone always tells you not to, and the longness and thinness of the corridor give a greater feeling of speed.” Her readers can only hope she continues to share her sense of humor.