Spotlight on Pictures: James Mayhew!

James Mayhew has been creating books for children for 30 years. In that time, he has published over 70 titles including the Katie, Ella Bella Ballerina, and Mrs Noah books. James also works with a variety of orchestras and musicians, presenting concerts that combine music and art, created live on stage, at venues including the Royal Albert Hall. He currently lives in Suffolk, where he grew up, and where the skies and light are perfect for artists. His favourite movie is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and his first published illustration was in the ABBA Magazine.

1. You're stranded on a desert island. Which three books do you have, and why? 

The Arabian Nights - A complete edition! It would keep me entertained for 1001 nights of course, but also because there are so many strange, curious and wonderfully magical stories in the book, many unfamiliar to most readers.

The Summer Book by Tove JanssonIt's set on an island, and it is my favourite book, full of wisdom, humour and pathos. I first read this in the 1970s, and Jansson's philosophical writing, drawing childhood and old age together, cast a spell at once. I already loved the Moomins, so I found this fascinating. It's a book that, if you allow it to, stays inside you always. 

A Blank Sketchbook - Is that allowed? I'd go mad if I couldn't draw. 

2. Where is your favourite place to read or listen to audiobooks? 

I tend to read in bed, and just fall asleep! Oh, dear! 

I love listening to audiobooks in my little attic studio, overlooking the Suffolk countryside. I don't listen to anything as I'm writing, but I like the company of a story when I'm illustrating. Voices are so important, and my favourite actors really help me fall in love with an audiobook. Also, as a storyteller myself, it's always good to hear how others read aloud. 

A sunny day in my attic, an illustration project going well, and someone telling me a story, mingled with a bit of bird song through the open window - bliss! 

3. If you could work on a project with any creative, who would you pick? 

My partner, artist and designer Toto Martinez. We've often dreamed of collaborating, but we never seem to find the time! I'd love us to do a book together...

4. What has been your favourite project to work on throughout your career? 

Painting to music with orchestras, like the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The thrill of standing on stage and following the flow of the music, as the sound rushes through you, is incredible. I love classical music, and it is my passion to share the stories behind some of the greatest works with younger audiences. So much classical music is familiar, but so few people know the original stories that inspired it. So that's my mission - to introduce the story and then paint live illustrations as the music plays. In fact, my next book is based on this idea: Once Upon a Tune collects six great stories immortalised in music. 

5. What was your favourite book as a child? 

There were many - must I pick one? 

I'll say...

The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson

A beautiful, tender fable about accepting and being happy with who you truly are. A message which resonated deeply with me and still does today. A gentle masterpiece. It felt as if it were written just for me, and I loved the drawings. 


James' next book, Once Upon a Tune, brings you six wonderful stories from many different lands, all of which inspired great music. Publishing in 2021 by Otter-Barry Books.