Q & A with Jackie Morris and James Mayhew

Q & A with Jackie Morris and James Mayhew

Mrs Noah's Song front cover

Mrs Noah’s Song is the third title in the series of picture books created by writers and illustrators Jackie Morris and James Mayhew. The ‘Mrs Noah’ stories for young children are published by Otter-Barry Books.

It is a beautiful book in which gentle Mrs Noah shows the children how to listen to and appreciate the sounds of nature and the moments of quiet too. You can buy a discounted copy here.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to ask Jackie and James about what inspired this book and to explore their collaborative process, given that this talented due are both accomplished writers and illustrators!

Are you able to recognise different bird calls and if so, do you have a favourite?

Jackie: There are many I know and more I am learning. I travel to hear them, and they speak in different ways to my heart. I love the call of the curlew, mournful, over the sea, different in spring and summer to autumn. Blackbirds are so melodious. Thrushes are a marvel, and if you stop and really listen to skylark it is hard to breathe as you think of them rising and singing; so much effort to make such a song. Wren, so huge a voice for so small a bird. And I once travelled a long way to hear nightingales bring in the dusk.

James: A few, yes. I grew up in Suffolk and returned here four years ago. There are lots of bird sanctuaries here, and apparently the highest number of nightingales, I’ve been told! I can recognise peetwits, chiffchaffs, nightingales, the cuckoo, the lark etc. but there are many more I’m not sure about, especially when they all sing at once!

Would you describe yourselves as musical? Can you play an instrument?

James: Yes and no! Yes, I think I’m very musical; I’ve been working with orchestras, painting to music, for 15 years, and this inspired my music-themed book “Once Upon A Tune”. As for playing? only the piano, badly!

Jackie: I play the paintbrush and the pen and there is always a sense of the musical in the writing I do, much of which is to be spoken aloud. For me it needs to taste good in the ear. And I love to listen. But I do not play an instrument.

Do you enjoy singing?

Jackie: Yes – I sing to myself, but then again, I talk to myself too!

James: Yes, I love to sing, and before the pandemic I was in a choir here in Suffolk. I like to sing everything, from ABBA to grand opera.

Five Questions for Jackie Morris

Jackie Morris
Jackie Morris by Elly Lucas

1. Do you have memories of exploring outside and enjoying nature when you were a child?

My father took me for walks when I was very young, but he always kept his eyes on me and I had the sense that outside could be dangerous. Growing older, I loved to be out alone, especially in the dusk and the dawn. And night time too, to see the stars and the ever constant changing moon.

2. As an illustrator do you find that you have an idea of what the characters and pages will look like whilst you are writing the story?

As the author of Mrs Noah I kept images out of my head, focussed on the words to leave space for James to step in with his own vision.

3. How do you reconcile this if James’ interpretation is different to your own?

James’ work, every stroke of it, is a delight to my soul. He gives flesh to the bones of my words and makes the characters live and breathe.

4. When wrote the first Mrs Noah story did you already know that it was going to be the first in a series?

Mrs Noah tends to write her own books in a way. The first one was most definitely that. One story, but it seemed obvious to me that she had more to give. She’s telling me another, slowly now. I have to learn to listen, give her space to breathe, not try to push her to a story I want. So, the brewing of the story takes time, but when it’s ready it flows.

5. Do you find in increasingly difficult to think of new stories for Mrs Noah or are there lots more books that readers to look forward to enjoying?

She has a life, before she met Mr Noah, and a little of this is in Song. But she also has a life in raising their children and some time she will have grand children. If the story is worth telling I will write it. I’m hoping one day that James and I will work on Mrs Noah’s Big Book of Bedtime Stories. She will probably write these for her grandchildren. Those stories she told the children at night on the ark. It’s important to her that they know where they came from, their culture, as well as where they are. Stories can teach us so many things, and I doubt she will run out until the final story… but then her tales will live on with her children, her grandchildren and theirs.


Five Questions for James Mayhew

James Mayhew
James Mayhew

1. Do you have memories of exploring outside and enjoying nature when you were a child?

Absolutely. I grew up in a tiny village, and there was little else to do there, other than play outside, on the farms or in woodland nearby. I was very inspired by it, and loved sketching from life and painting landscapes.

2. Do you have a favourite page in this story ? Which one and why?

I think the page where the children are climbing into the hammock is my favourite, as I really did spend half the night in a hammock once, as a child, to listen to the dawn chorus!

3. Often picture books are created by an author and an illustrator with distinctly separate skills. In this instance you and Jackie are both writers AND illustrators. Please explain if this has an impact on the collaboration nature of the creative process.

I think it’s quite rare to find a writer like Jackie, who really understands how to write for an illustrator. Her prose is beautifully crafted and has just the right space and suggestion for me as illustrator to be inspired and not restricted. Equally, as an illustrator who also writes I think I’m very sensitive to those words and the inference in Jackie’s writing. Jackie is also very sensitive to my needs as an illustrator. She knows how difficult it can be to have a writer who interferes with the illustrator’s vision. She never does that. She lets me get on with it. It is a relationship of respect and trust.

4. Whilst working on the Mrs Noah series has Jackie ever discussed with you her vision of how she imagines the characters will look or have you ever made any suggestions about the text to Jackie?

Very little – as said before, Jackie trusts me to find the right approach. I may never have discovered the collage without that trust (also from Otter-Barry Books I must say). Occasionally there might be a tweak to the text to accommodate a page turn or something, but very little.

5. Do you and Jackie meet in person to discuss the images together?

Jackie lives in West Wales, and I’m in East Suffolk – as far apart as we can be! Plus we’ve been working on this book during lockdowns and pandemics, following the guidance on travel and meeting up. So no, we don’t meet often. But we go back a very long way and we do call each other regularly. I think we support each other 100%.


Jackie Morris is a British writer and illustrator. She was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2016 and won it in 2019 for her illustration of The Lost Words, voted the most beautiful book of 2016 by UK booksellers. She is a recipient of the Tir na n-Og Award for children’s book Seal Children. To find out more about Jackie Morris’s work please visit her website.

James John Mayhew is an English illustrator and author of children’s books, storyteller, artist and concert presenter/live art performer. To find out more about James Mayhew’s work please visit his website.