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Meet: Phoebe Swan

Written by Eleanor Harvey
Published date 02 October 2019

Phoebe Swan graduated from Camberwell College of Arts in 2005 from the BA (Hons) Illustration course. She has recently published her first children’s book, King Leonard’s Teddy, a story with a strong message on the importance of recycling. We spoke to Phoebe about her time at Camberwell, and why environmental issues should be the main issue people are talking about.

Portrait of Phoebe
Image credit: Phoebe Swan

Why did you choose to study your BA (Hons) Illustration at Camberwell?

I had completed my Art Foundation course at Camberwell and enjoyed being there, so I stayed. Recent graduate Sara Fanelli had won the Macmllian Prize for children's book illustration and I already had my ambitions firmly set on a career in picture books. Being south of the river felt far away enough from home (north London) to be different while still being near enough to commute for while I settled in, but after a few too many times having to cross the city on night buses after missing the last tube I moved to Peckham for the second and third years.

Front cover of King Leonard's Teddy
Image credit: Phoebe Swan

What are your fondest memories of Camberwell?

I met my three closest friends whilst on the BA, we lived together for two years and have remained tight ever since. So my fondest memories are the times we spent together, in the tiny student bar, at the !WOWOW! squat parties in the old Co-op building and dancing to the Scissor Sisters and the Black Eyed Peas in our kitchen. Living with three other illustrators was great as we could talk through ideas, borrow each others Pritt stick and stay up late working together before a big deadline. I also enjoyed discovering different forms of printmaking in the print room, something I would go on to use a lot when I later did an MA in Children's Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art.

Sketch of a castle in portugal
Image credit: Phoebe Swan

Congratulations, this year you’ve published your first children’s book, ‘King Leonard’s Teddy’; what was your inspiration behind the story?

A few years ago I went to Lisbon on holiday. Before I went I came across an article about a Toy Hospital which had been there for a long time. After the recession, the article explained, it was suddenly doing more business again due to more people repairing their toys rather than buying new ones. I thought this sounded like good material for a children's story, most children can relate to having an irreplaceable favourite toy and so I just exaggerated everything, King Leonard is not just wasteful, he lives on top of a pile of his own rubbish! Having him reuse his own rubbish to repair the Teddy at the end was both a way for the main character to solve his own problem and to bring the theme of recycling into the story. I did a lot of drawing on that trip and when I wrote the story I based Leonard's castle on a drawing of one of the castles of Sintra which is in the hills just outside Lisbon and then replaced the hill with the pile of rubbish.

Image from King Leonard's Teddy
Image credit: Phoebe Swan

Have you always wanted to write and illustrate your own children’s book?

For as long as I can remember! I never really grew out of looking at picture books and was making small hand-bound illustrated books when I was about 5 or 6. The first time I had a proper go at making one was in the first year of the BA at Camberwell, I was supposed to be going on a study trip with the course to New York but I broke my foot just before. It was too difficult to get to across London on crutches let alone New York so I was stuck at home. I set myself the challenge of turning the story I'd written (about a pigeon pavement artist) for the animation elective into a picture book in order to submit it to the Macmillan Prize. I then spent pretty much the entire 6 weeks I was on crutches in my bedroom at my parent's house working on that. It didn't win but I learnt I lot about how to structure a picture book.

One of Phoebe's early books
Image credit: Phoebe Swan

King Leonard’s Teddy has a strong recycling theme; have environmental issues always been something close to your heart?

Yes, for me there is nothing more important to be campaigning about, without a healthy planet to live on we can't progress in other areas of social justice. I did a permaculture gardening design course a few years ago and among many other interesting ideas, learnt about the concept of peak oil. The analogy of mountain climbing was used, we've achieved amazing things in the industrial age, but we now need to learn how to climb down again. Climate chaos is disproportionately and unfairly affecting people in developing countries, whilst it is being caused largely by the overconsumption of those in richer ones. The big challenge is for us to, like King Leonard (who has to literally climb down his mountain of rubbish), bring our level of consumption down to a more sustainable level. I hope we manage to rise to the challenge as effectively and creatively as he does!

Image from King Leonard's Teddy
Image credit: Phoebe Swan

As well as your career as a children’s author, you’re also a teacher at both Primary and College-age. How do you balance these two roles?

I've spent a lot of my working life with primary aged children, mainly teaching Art but two years ago I switched to teaching Illustration and Graphics at Cambridge School of Visual and Performing Arts and have not looked back. It was good timing as I'd just graduated from the MA and felt fresh with new ideas and skills to share. I love that my 'day job' is much more closely aligned to my freelance career now, the two can feed into each other nicely. Illustrating from home is quite isolating so I enjoy the interaction with my students and colleagues, who are all also artists or designers in various fields. However, it's useful to have experience of working with younger children to draw from, especially as I make books for this age group. As part of the book launch for King Leonard's Teddy, I ran a craft workshop teaching families to make patchwork pencil cases from scrap fabric.

Image from King Leonard's Teddy
Image credit: Phoebe Swan

What is next for you?

I'm currently on maternity leave and enjoying spending time with my young son, including reading to him from my extensive picture book collection! But I'm also already working on my next book with Child's Play, researching and gathering ideas when I can. I learnt a lot during the making of 'King Leonard', and I'm looking forward to pushing my artwork further with my next book.

Related Links

Check out BA (Hons) Illustration at Camberwell

Buy a copy of King Leonard’s Teddy

See more of Phoebe's work on her website

Follow Phoebe on Instagram and Facebook