The prodigious Mr Bixley

by Ann Packer / 30 July, 2015
Donovan Bixley has become a one-man, award-gobbling illustrating machine.
Donovan Bixley self-portrait.

It’s unusual enough for authors to make book-award shortlists with more than one title in any year. Illustrator Donovan Bixley’s nomination for eight awards in three of this year’s contests is unprecedented.

Of his trio of books published by Scholastic New Zealand, Monkey Boy was a finalist in the Librarian’s Choice and Best Junior Fiction categories of the LIANZA awards held in June. The part novel, part comic about a powder monkey in Nelson’s navy was highly commended in the July PANZ book design awards.

In the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults 2015, to be announced on August 13, Little Red Riding Hood Not Quite (written by Yvonne Morrison) is shortlisted for Best Picture Book, and Dragon Knight Fire – the first in a four-book series co-created with Kyle Mewburn – and Monkey Boy are Junior Fiction finalists. Little Red Riding Hood Not Quite and Dragon Knight Fire are also finalists in the Children’s Choice Award, the winner selected by Kiwi kids from all books submitted.

Last year, Bixley and Morrison resoundingly won the Children’s Choice for The Three Bears, Sort Of, a spoof of the traditional tale in which a child reader nitpickingly questions the received version. Three Bears also won the Western Australian equivalent – Bixley was born near Perth in 1971, moving here with his parents soon after.

Three Bears
Illustrations from The Three Bears.

Dragon Knight Fire has been on the New Zealand bestseller list for over 14 weeks, continuing Bixley’s almost unbroken record over six years.

So it may surprise those in this country familiar with his enduring (and slightly subversive) Kiwi versions of The Wheels on the Bus and Old MacDonald’s Farm that the Taupo artist is better known overseas for Faithfully Mozart, a lavishly illustrated life-and-times account based on the composer’s letters. A finalist in the Montana Book Awards Illustrative category in 2006, Mozart became a worldwide seller due, Bixley says somewhat self-deprecatingly, to “serendipitous circumstances, chance meetings and a lot of luck”.

Six years in the making but now out of print, Mozart has been the foundation stone of Bixley’s career since, giving him international credibility he could not have dreamed of. “I love to do a wide variety of work from preschool picture books to graphic novels to biographies of Mozart – and it’s because of Mozart that I’m not pigeon-holed.”

A graduate of AUT Design School, Bixley began his working life as an illustrator on this magazine – quite by chance. Wandering into the Listener office in 1994, Bixley found “they just happened to need an artist, and the editor of the time loved my stuff”. He became a regular contributor over six years.

Following a brief flirtation with film, he set up Magma Design and Multimedia with his high-school sweetheart, Joanna. With their three children now teenagers, Bixley was finally able to begin working full-time on children’s book illustration a couple of years ago.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. Like many others, Bixley was caught in the crossfire some years ago when several local publishers shut down their New Zealand lists. He admits he went into “a bit of a hole”.

“I had ideas for what was to follow the hugely successful Wheels on the Bus and Old MacDonald – but what was I to do now? Luckily, Upstart came out of the ashes of Hachette and picked me up.”

Illustration of Shakespeare.

After some years of feeling like he was “just a machine”, Bixley is rediscovering “an absolute love and passion” for his work. A huge fan of Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean and Asterix, he has six books to be completed before Christmas – three each for Scholastic and Upstart. And he has his fingers crossed for a celebrity foreword for his second picture book for all ages, on Shakespeare.

“It’s really nice to have a publisher who likes what you do,” he says. “Now I don’t have to do all the other stuff, the commercial design work, I can devote myself solely to children’s books. It’s been a long journey over the past 16 years and it’s great to have finally arrived here.

“I’m working just as hard as always but feel as if I’m on relaxed time. I adore what I do again.”

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