Creatives in Common: Mem Fox and Judy Horacek

Acclaimed author-illustrator duo Mem Fox and Judy Horacek talk friendship, perfectionism and children’s books.


What was your impression of each other when you first met?

Mem: I was in Canberra for a literacy conference and Judy happened to have an exhibition there. Judy had drawn the cartoons for my book, Reading Magic: How your child can learn to read before school and other read-aloud miracles, but we hadn’t met. I bought a couple of her prints. My first impressions of her were of this highly likeable elfin person, with my kind of politics and an awesome talent.

Judy: I had to think hard about when we actually met, so much has happened since. I was honoured when Mem requested I draw some cartoons for Reading Magic. Then, we did Where is the Green Sheep? together, inspired by an etching of a green sheep I’d done. That was my first picture book (Mem’s 1,000th, I think) and it’s been an amazing success. When we met in person, I was expecting someone larger, given what a huge figure she is in Australian picture books. In person, she’s not very big, but huge in energy and enthusiasm. I remember she had spikey red hair and I’m pretty sure that day she had red shoes, too.

Mem, do you take inspiration from Judy’s illustrations? Judy, you obviously illustrate Mem’s words, but does she inspire your illustrations through other means too? Conversations? Laughs over a glass of wine? Early morning phone calls after a bright idea at midnight?

Mem: No, I don’t, but that’s not because they aren’t inspiring – they are. When Judy starts illustrating, I’ve already finished my side of the job: the words are done. As for late night phone calls and glasses of wine, I don’t drink for a start, and we live in separate time zones so, no, that doesn’t happen. But, when we were doing Where is the Green Sheep?, faxes were still common and Judy would fax me wildly funny ideas at all times of the day and night.

Judy: Obviously, when I’m drawing pictures to go with words by Mem, her words are the jumping off point. I love it that she sometimes lets me change some of the words around, to fit a visual idea I might have had. After that, she doesn’t really have anything to do with the course of the illustrations. I do find Mem inspiring as a person, in her passion for so many things about life and the world, both the things she loves and the things that distress her.

What strengths does the other bring that you most admire?

Mem: There’s such a massive gap in my ability to draw and Judy’s a genius in that regard, so it’s truly funny, and tragic! I can’t draw at all, not even a stick man, so without her I’d be lost and my stories would never find their way into bookshops.

Judy: I write myself, so it isn’t so much about a gap in my skill set, but when I’m doing a manuscript from Mem, the fact that the words are the product of an entirely different mind means my pictures are given an opportunity to go somewhere else. I admire her total commitment to words and what they can do.

Why do you think you work so well together?

Mem: I couldn’t work closely with anyone who didn’t have the same views on life and politics as I have, nor with anyone who wasn’t a demented perfectionist. We think alike and the difference is that she can draw and I can’t, so we’re like Jack Spratt and his wife in the nursery rhyme:

Jack Spratt could eat no fat

His wife could eat no lean.

And so, betwixt them both,

they licked the platter clean.

Judy: Having similar views on life and politics is an important thing, but the ‘demented perfectionist’ is probably the most important thing. We both work really hard to make the book the best it possibly can be, down to the smallest detail and each can understand that in the other, even when it’s annoying. Having a similar sense of humour doesn’t go astray, either.                  

What was your favourite project to work on together?

Mem: Whenever I’m asked about favourites, I tend to think that books have ears, so I never reveal the answer in case the other books get hurt feelings!

Judy: My favourite project tends to be the one that’s most recent (that way they all get a turn!). I love our book together, This & That. I find it totally charming, even if I say so myself. The illustrations are full of things, and I love thinking about kids poring over the pictures, taking in all the details.

Main Image ( Mem Fox and Judy Horacek.

Illustration: from This & That

Mem Fox and Judy Horacek in conversation at the Wheeler Centre