Giselle Clarkson on illustrating the new Egg & Spoon cookbook by Madelaine Empson
Wellington-based illustrator Giselle Clarkson was watching the Olympics in 2014 when, after a few days glued to the screen, she decided she “should do something, maybe!” For the first time in years, just in front of the telly, she started drawing again. The fish on the page soon splashed out into the real world, adorning shop walls around the country as her first professional print.
Fast forward six years and Clarkson is now known New Zealand over – sometimes as “the biscuit girl”, she laughs. Common Household Biscuits & Slices of New Zealand is perhaps one of Clarkson’s most well-known works, featuring depictions of quintessential Kiwi bickies drawn in her distinctive warm, colourful, approachable style. She also creates science communication cartoons designed to inform and inspire kids – though they do the trick for adults, too, with Outlander author Diana Gabaldon tweeting Clarkson’s comic about the extremely rare tawaki penguins to her 300,000-plus followers. Many of her cartoons find their way into the School Journal, a publication she read in school herself and finds working with special – some of the most delicious icing on her career cake so far.
Speaking of cake! Alongside children’s books like the Joy Cowley anthology The Gobbledegook Book and Courtney Sina Meredith’s Secret World of Butterflies, Clarkson illustrated the Egg & Spoon cookbook, written by Alexandra Tylee, the owner and chef of Havelock North’s celebrated Pipi Café. Out now just in time for Christmas via Gecko Press, Egg & Spoon: An Illustrated Cookbook is full of scrumptious recipes for children and their grownups. Check out our review on page 33 and Clarkson’s thoughts on the vibrant book below.
How did you first launch into the drawings for Egg & Spoon?
For something like Egg & Spoon I could let loose. I was drawing with crayons! But before I started doing any of the drawing, I went up to Pipi in Havelock North and stayed there for a few nights. I went so I could get a sense for the place. It’s so closely tied – the whole aesthetic of the café informed the whole look of the book. The colours and the feel and the sense of humour in it and everything about it is representative of what the café is like. It’s a wonderful place. And it is so pink! Everything is pink and the pizza is delicious. That gave me something to bring home, bring back to my desk and have this mood in my head, thinking back to these nice memories – these beautiful sunny Hawke’s Bay days, green and blue skies…
Did you meet Alexandra while you were there?
Yes, but we’ve met a lot.
Do you always get to work with the author as well as the publisher and designer?
The standard process for most picture books would be that the author and the illustrator don’t even talk and never meet each other until the book’s launched – and then they’re like, ‘hey!’ I worked closely with the designer Vida Kelly, she’s brilliant, she’s a design genius. But this was a bit different because in a way, Pipi is Alexandra. You can’t pinpoint where Alexandra ends and Pipi begins. It was really important to have her involvement and make sure she had a say in what’s actually quite a personal project for her. It’s really great that she trusted me with her Pipi.
Have you tried to make any of the recipes in Egg & Spoon yourself?
A few. They’re delicious. The breakfast popsicles are amazing. The chia jam that goes with them is so good. It’s kind of like jelly tips, but healthy…er, healthyish [laughs].
I’ll tell you what’s really good is the method for boiling an egg. It’s changed my life! Oh, also, how to cut an onion properly. I think of myself as a pretty good cook, I cut onions every day, but I just realised I’ve been doing it in the most uncoordinated way. I’m 100 times better at cutting onions now.
Did you have a favourite one to illustrate?
There’s a couple – maybe the banana cake. I find something so satisfying about the image of a whole banana in the top of the cake. A massive cake, a banana, and you just go, squelch! And then the alligator eating the taco. I had free reign. I didn’t have to just draw a pretty plate of food, I could get a bit silly, think a bit sideways. The fact that I could just draw an alligator eating a taco…
I’m assuming the recipe never called for alligator?
It’s an avocado-based recipe. I was thinking about the fact that another name for avocados is alligator tears. That got me onto the alligator [laughs].
I love that you could follow those thought trains.
Alex’s writing lends itself to that too, it’s so imaginative and fun. The way she describes things – for getting the right size of a meatball, she describes it as being halfway between the size of a hen’s egg and a blackbird’s egg. When she writes something like that it practically illustrates itself.
Why do you think Egg & Spoon is a good cookbook for both kids and adults?
It trusts kids to make their own decisions, learn a lot, and just kind of make mistakes. Rather than having these beautifully presented dishes, I hope that the illustrations make things seem more achievable. They don’t have to have this Instagram-worthy final product. If it flops everywhere, who cares? It’s good! There’s a lot in there that’s fun, classic kid food, but also it’s good for adults – marmite spaghetti? It’s real good! It’s delicious. Making pancakes, fairy cakes, jelly squares, strawberry French toast... I don’t think there’s any reason that adults can’t use it too. Everyone should buy it. Give it to everybody for Christmas!
You studied photography and thought you might work as a park ranger, but life took you down a very different path. What would you say to yourself 10 years ago, and where do you hope to be in 10 years’ time?
I think I would just tell myself to keep having cool experiences. Go do stuff and have fun and do what interests you and it will turn into something eventually. Take as many opportunities as you possibly can. To my future self, I hope I’m doing much the same as what I’m doing now. If I can balance being able to do illustration projects with being able to have adventures, that’s perfect!