Counting her chickens: The children’s book writer on a mission

Illustrator Kristyna Litten is on a mission, just like the hen at the centre of her first book. Marie-Claire Kidd finds out what inspired her and her thoughts on how to encourage children’s imagination.

In her first children’s book Chickens Can’t See in the Dark, Krystina Litten’s main character, Pippa the hen is told by her teacher that chickens can’t see in the dark. Kristyna takes up the tale: “She’s like, ‘forget that, I want to see in the dark.

“People along her journey are laughing at her. They think she’s a bit silly. But that makes her even more determined she’s going to do it.”

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Quietly determined herself, 24-year-old Kristyna graduated from Edinburgh University in 2010 and has not stopped working since. She resisted the lure of London and Edinburgh and instead spends her days in a small studio in her family home in the village of Cottingham, near Hull; the place that shaped her life and her stories.

Her childhood, she says, was spent exploring, excavating and building dens with her brother and their neighbours, in a gang they called the Forest Adventurers.

The family kept chickens in their large garden, and as a child she holidayed on her grandparents’ smallholding in the Czech Republic, where they lived on poultry and rabbits, home-grown vegetables and mushrooms from the forest.

“Our chickens all had individual personalities,” Kristyna remembers.

From an early age she wanted to do something creative.

“Even aged eight or nine I was always drawing, for no purpose at all,” she says. “I had incredible patience, which I think today’s kids lack. Fun has become too blatant these days. There’s less of a need for young people to create their own fun, and in consequence their imagination suffers.”

To create her books she draws in pencil, pencil crayon and ink and adds texture and detail on a computer. She is inspired by whatever catches her eye.

She struggles to balance her work and social life, but is grateful to be doing something she loves.

“A lot of my friends aren’t in that position yet,” she says. “I’m lucky that I don’t have to work another job.”

Her father and brother are architects. Her mum, a former teacher, works for the family business.

“My family are very supportive. We all work from home, which is quite strange. We’re a family of workaholics. I’m always saying I can’t come out. I really enjoy working.”

Kristyna studied psychology to A-level, and retains an interest in the subject.

“Picture books can inspire children to observe and read in a different way,” she says. “You have to get kids really involved in reading a picture book because a lot of things are missed out in the text. That way children elaborate on both what they have seen and read.

“You’re showing in pictures things that might not be said in the words. For example, if the tiger was very energetic the pictures may show him doing also sorts of things, but the text doesn’t have to describe or mention any of them. I like to have little things hidden in the story that aren’t said in the text. In Chickens there’s a mouse on every page. There’s always something going on; something constant going through the book.”

At Hull School of Art and Design she took an art foundation course, trying her hand at everything from ceramics to product design. Among her tutors were York-based illustrator Mark Hearld, who encouraged Kristyna to study illustration at Edinburgh University. At Edinburgh she worked closely with professional illustrators like Jonathan Gibbs as tutors, and began to consider them her peers.

Her mum is her biggest critic. “She’ll say it’s not working,” says Kristyna. “It pushes me.”

In her second year at university she started to hand make picture books. She learned how a book works and developed ways to build tension and drama.

Her first handmade book Flint’s Odd Socks was highly commended in the 2009 Macmillan prize for children’s picture book illustration awards. The success encouraged her to continue writing and approach more publishers.

In 2010, her graduation year, she sent the first version of Chickens Cant’ See in the Dark to four publishers and exhibited at the D&AD show London, where she caught the attention of Arena, an agency representing some of the UK’s top illustrators.

Arena have kept her very busy since then. She has illustrated book covers for older children, including Mr McCool by Jonathan Tulloch and the UK edition of Angel Creek, by Australian author Sally Rippin, and magazine articles for titles including Candis and National Geographic.

It was through Arena that Kristyna built a relationship with Oxford University Press who commissioned Chickens Can’t See in the Dark, and asked Kristyna to illustrate Pigeon Pie, Oh My, by Debbie Singleton.

Many of her stories are about being different and how to cope with change. The Blue Giraffe and Gerald, for instance, follows an outrageous blue giraffe who always does things differently, and Gerald, who find it hard to understand how anyone can be so strange. Patrick and the Fairy Fly features Patrick the pig, who is fed up with his trotters making a noise and his curly tail. But when a fairy fly grants his wishes and he turns into an array of wonderful creatures, he realises how happy he was.

Chickens Can’t See in the Dark, says Kristyna, is about being different, and about not being afraid to go against the grain.

“The whole premise is that you don’t have to go with what you are told,’ she says, in her quietly determined way. ‘It’s about determination If you want to be an individual, don’t be afraid to be different.”