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A day in the life of: Children's author, Polly Dunbar

We spend a day with Polly from rise and shine, through office hours to story time

Posted: 22 August 2013
by Catherine Hudson

Polly at Camp Bestival
Tilly and Friends is now a television programme, too
Polly with one of her puppet friends

Polly Dunbar, is an ilustrator and author of children’s books. She also makes puppets. Polly lives by the sea in Hove.

What is your morning routine?

I have recently put up a large pair of pink velvet theatre curtains in my flat to divide up the space. So getting up in the morning is now a little like stepping on to a stage. I feel like I should stretch out my arms and shout "Ta-Dah!" everyda, but in reality it’s still a slow shuffle to the kettle.

I mostly work from home, so the first thing I do is go out and then come back again: I trick myself into feeling like I’ve gone to work. I usually go for a coffee, I like to have a stroll and say hello to the sea. I do my best writing in the café.

What is your office environment like?  

I can see the sea from my desk and there is always something extraordinary going on outside my window. This week there’s a fun fair, last week there were naked cyclists - and lot’s of them. When I’m mid-book, my flat is a muddle of paper, paint, mess everywhere. Then once the book is done, I’ll have a ceremonial tidy up.

Do you have such a thing as a typical day?

When I’m at home writing and illustrating I tend to work all hours. I’ll dive into the work and tend not to come up for air until I’m out the other side. Having said that, I do stop for lunch and occasional in the afternoon I’ll switch on Tilly and Friends - it’s still such a thrill for me to see it on television!

Did you always want to do what you do now, for a job?

I always knew that I wanted to make things, draw pictures and tell stories. I didn’t know in what way and who for. It turns out my work is best suited to very young children, my inner child is alive and well! That’s not to say I’m childish, it’s more like staying in touch with how things seemed when they were fresh new, and still believing in magic possibilities.

What was the first thing you wanted to be ‘when you grew up’?

If I had known as a child what I would be doing now, I think I would have been very happy. It’s not too different from what I was up to then: cutting and sticking. Tilly, although not based on me, has a lot of my childhood in it; that simplicity and space to play and be creative.

What is the best thing about your job?

One of the great things about my job (or jobs) is the variety. One day I will be at home on my own trying to work out how to solve a picture book text, the next I will be paper-macheing a giant's head and at weekends I can be found dancing the Wiggle Wiggle Woo with a room full of toddlers.

Are there any downsides to your job?

I used to find the solitary lifestyle of writing very difficult. It is hard to feel inspired without any day-to-day interaction. I have been so busy these last few years it’s gone in the other direction. Quiet time is rare and therefore precious, so I have to make the most of it.

How do you come up with creative, original ideas?

Getting out and about helps me to come up with ideas, they never come when I’m at my desk, pen in hand. I therefore have a responsibility to have an interesting life! Though they don’t just pop into my head fully realised. Once I have an idea, there’s a lot of brain ache trying to make it work. When it’s going well it’s thrilling, when it’s going badly it feels like I’ll never have another idea ever again.

How do you juggle personal life with work life?

I balance my life by collaborating with family and friends. I’m currently illustrating a picture book text written by my Mum, Joyce Dunbar. I co-founded the children’s theatre company, Long Nose Puppets, with my old college friend, Katherine Morton, and we make all of the shows together. My friend and neighbour, Tom Gray, writes the music for our puppets and he went on to write the music for Tilly and Friends, along with Matthew Slater. At the moment I’m designing some wallpaper with my sister in-law - something completely different!

What do you do outside of work, with your friends and family?

My work is such a big part of my life that it’s hard to know the difference between that and leisure time. I read a lot and go to lots of theatre shows - I love the Edinburgh Festival.

What is coming up, work-wise for you? 

Aside from the projects I have bubbling away, the next step for me is Tilly TV Tie-in books - stories based on the Cbeebies show. These will be published by Walker Books, which published the original Tilly books. They have been very sure to stay true to the characters.

Would you want your children to follow in your footsteps?

When I was little both my parents were trying to find time away from their jobs to be more creative. I was lucky to believe that making up stories could be a ‘proper job’ I was also very aware of the struggles that can involve.

If you had superhero skills, what would be your dream job?

If I had superpowers I would probably do all that I do now but I would be braver, faster and I would wear a super snazzy outfit. And if it got paint on it, it wouldn’t matter one bit.


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