Reach For The Stars – In Conversation with James Mayhew

Author and illustrator James Mayhew’s books have that rare quality of making classical art accessible and relevant to a young audience.  His best-selling series about Katie introduces children to some of the world’s most iconic paintings and their creators.  His newer project, Ella Bella Ballerina, opens a door on to the exciting world of classical ballet.

James has a new book out today.  pirottablog will be reviewing it for the ABBA website on the 12th of August. Meanwhile, we thought we’d help James celebrate by doing our blog’s very first author interview.  Luckily for us, he agreed to take time out of his hectic schedule to answer a few questions.

James, congratulations on your publication day. What is KATIE AND THE STARRY NIGHT about?

Thanks Saviour! It’s about Katie’s adventures in a gallery full of Van Gogh paintings. She can’t resist the Starry Night picture – and goes right into it. But when she takes a star, the others float out of the picture as well. Somehow she has to get them back before the gallery guard sees her!

Katie is a very successful young lady. How many books about her have you written and illustrated?

Katie and the Starry Night is the twelfth title in the series.

All your fans know that you had the idea for the Katie books while working as a pavement artist. Did any of the pictures you drew on the pavements make it into the series?

Yes, several of them. I remember attempting the Haywain which was complicated in chalks as it’s quite a dark painting. But I wanted to try it as I was doing this in in Suffolk – not to far from Constable Country, where the artist lived. It’s very near where I grew up. That’s why The Haywain is the very first picture Katie visits in the first book, Katie’s Picture Show. I also drew several Turner paintings, and Mona Lisa…

How do you choose which artists to feature in your books?

It’s a dialogue between myself and the publisher, Orchard Books. We don’t always agree to start with! But we always get there in the end…

Do the paintings suggest the story to you, or does the plot dictate which art to use?

It can happen either way. Usually the former, but sometimes, if there is a particular theme, it can happen the other way. The next book for instance may be a Christmas title. If it goes ahead, the theme will dictate the paintings, even if the story is not yet developed.

We love Katie because she’s plucky and determined.  Is it true she’s based on your sister?

More or less. I wrote the first story as a student project and tried several names. None seemed right. I tried Katie and it fitted. I think I was subconsciously writing about my sister. Her charateristics just came through. She spells her name Katy. I made a tiny change!

You are very committed to getting children to enjoy classical art and music. Why do you consider this important?

Many reasons. I think it is an area which is overlooked in education, and often delivered in a too limited way. I think it is especially important for children who find visual communication easier or who are creative. Often these children struggle, as I did, with literacy early on. Art and music are valuable and valid ways of communicating. They can really help build confidence and lead to better literacy skills. I think we need to remember that. But above all, I think they improve the quality of life immersurably. Art and music give me great pleasure. I want to share that. Too many children don’t hear classical music or see art in a fun and approachable context. They inherit preconceptions that these things are difficult or highbrow. Most artists and composers were anything but! They, too, wanted to communicate something…

Van Gogh had a really hard time as an artist. Do you think things have changed for artists who insist on staying true to their vision?

I think it’s hard to say for sure. When one thinks about controversial modern art, I suppose artists like Tracy Emin (who I was a college with!) are true to their visions. But today there is the cult of celebrity and media, which is regrettable. It means artists can become notorious and therefore famous for the wrong reasons. It may allow them to succeed in one sense, but how much of their art is created with integrity, I’m not sure. I think a solitary man like Van Gogh could easily go unnoticed. And if he were picked up by the media, it would all become a bit of a circus and probably destroy what he was and what he was trying to do. I think the battle that goes on in a creative mind has to happen. I think all good artists give themselves a hard time regardless of what the world thinks of their work. I’m terribly self critical!

Katie’s books have been incredibly successful. They have also inspired quite a few other books about art. But the idea was quite a daring one. Would Katie get published in today’s harsh economic climate?

It’s true, there was nothing around for children using art when Katie’s Picture Show was first published. She really was a pioneer. Now there are many great books celebrating art for children, which is good. Would Katie be published today? I’d like to think so because I do think publishers are always looking for strong concepts, and I think Katie is certainly that. It wasn’t easy to get published back in the 1980s either…

 A lot of illustrators are using ipads and computers to draw. Have you started using these new tools or do you still prefer traditional materials?

I’m not remotely interested in digital art. It doesn’t exist! There is no true original to give or exhibit. I like art that the artist has touched. Of course I use photoshop to create mock-ups of ideas, and plan books. But all the sketches and all the art is created entirely by hand using traditional methods. For a series of books celebrating art… there can be no other way!

You are going to be very busy promoting Katie’s Starry Night this summer. Can you fill us in with some details?

The main events will be in Edinburgh, where I’ll be appearing at the Book Festival on August 14th at 10.30. This will be a pretty unique event, a bit more theatrical than a usual author talk. I am busy preparing, creating props and I think it will be a lot of fun. It’s one of the craziest things I’ve ever done actually! And I’m keeping it a secret…!

The day before, August 13th, I’ll be telling stories and running a masterclass at the National Gallery of Scotland.

Later in the year – October – I will be telling stories at the National Gallery in London…

What is your next project going to be?

Bookwise, that will be the Katie Christmas title I think. But before then I have a couple of concerts with orchestras, the main one being a launch for Ella Bella Ballerina and the Nutcracker. I’ll be telling Hoffmann’s original tale and illustrating it live on stage with a whole orchestra performing Tchaikovsky’s ballet music. That’s November 4th. Lots to prepare!

Well, thank you for your time, James. Good luck with the book. We’re really looking forward to reading it and sharing it with the children in our lives.  As for a story about Katie at Christmas, we  can’t wait…

Thank you so much Saviour and good luck with all your wonderful projects! will be reviewing KATIE AND THE STARRY NIGHT for ABBA blog on the 12th of August.  From the previews we’ve seen it looks, well, out of this world.   The book is available from all good bookshops already. You can also purchase a copy from

Read more about Katie and her artistic exploits at

James is also a gifted storyteller and stages storytelling concerts, drawing pictures and telling stories with a live orchestra.   Find out where he is performing next at’s conversation with James is the first in a series of author interviews.  Please support us by subscribing or following.   Any donations of comments, clicks, likes and digital cake gratefully accepted!

Related posts:  You might also want to read  Today I’m Celebrating the work of Kay Nielsen



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5 responses to “Reach For The Stars – In Conversation with James Mayhew

  1. James Mayhew is a hero. Children love art and music but it is the adults who are scared of it. Try putting on a recording of the good stuff and see their eyes light up. It is not easy to be an expert but that is what James is there for. He will show you the way. Give his books a go!

    • You’re so right about only adults being scared of art. I think it’s because we’re afraid of being seen as the person who ‘doesn’t get it’, so we shy away from it. Children have no such inhibitions. They enjoy art for what it says to them.

  2. Pingback: Stars in my eyes on publication day! | James Mayhew

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