Our reading helpers have been exploring the illustrations in The Suitcase to discover just how much more they can help you learn about a book’s messaging. It’s all too common for us to consider a book to be more about what the author has written and to pay less attention to the pictures.

Here we talk to author and illustrator of The Suitcase, Chris Naylor-Ballesteros, to find out more.

Where did your inspiration for The Suitcase come from?

I was struggling to come up with a humorous story on the notion of home or shelter that would follow on from my two previous books but nothing was working. It was the beginning of the Brexit/Trump era and the politics of division and denial of others' humanity seemed to be becoming more and more mainstream in political debate and the media. I'd had a vague idea for a story about a wall that divided two populations but that didn't work very well either. In working on that, The Suitcase idea came out of a doodle of an animal with a rucksack at the foot of the big wall. This character seemed much more interesting than the wall so I thought more about that and went in that direction.

There is a great balance between the narrative and the illustrations which we think works really well for children who are less confident in their reading. Which was harder - writing the narrative or creating the illustrations?

Quite rarely for me, the story came quickly - over a couple of days (it can sometimes take over a year for everything to fall into place - or fall apart). And as my writing style is usually quite straightforward and simple it didn't take long to write a first draft that wasn't much different from the finished book. The illustrations took longer and were more difficult, getting the look and colours of the characters just right before getting onto actual page illustrations.

We love how the character of the animals is expressed in the illustrations - what made you choose a fox, bird and rabbit?

Originally there were five members of the gang and I'd played with the idea of them all being hybrid creatures that looked almost familiar but also strange and not quite identifiable, a bit like the Stranger is. My editor at Nosy crow correctly suggested that five was too many and three was probably enough to get the different opinions and reactions across. And we agreed that the hybrid animals distracted from the story, perhaps in prompting questions or curiosity in the reader that had nothing to do with the story.

Despite the "don't judge a book by its cover" message, the story does rely on one or two well-known animal-species clichés (e.g. foxes being sly, untrusting/trustworthy etc.) which helped to establish their personalities with the reader very quickly and without exposition. Hopefully the clichés are overturned at the end! On the visual side, they're all very easily identifiable and distinguishable species.

What would you hope an adult reading this with a child might explore further along the theme of kindness?

That's a tough question. I have a naive hope that adults reading this book would already have some pretty strong notions of kindness and empathy but I don't know. I do think that we have an inbuilt, instinctive wariness of people or cultures we aren't familiar with and perhaps we have to accept those feelings do exist to some extent but make sure we try to reject them rather than embrace them. And that mistakes will be made, people can make the wrong judgement but we can always redeem ourselves. It's not always easy being human.

Your newest book, 'Out of Nowhere', which is due out in the spring, has a very different style of illustration. How do you decide what will work best?

Yes - it's very different. Well, I did a rough version of the book in pencil - a lot of shading and no ink or watercolour at all. I sent this to Nosy crow and my editor and book designer really liked the look of these early sketches so we decided together to keep to that style and make use of colour very sparingly. It was maybe a risk to do it that way but I'm really happy with how it turned out. Making and publishing picture books is a very collaborative process and I think you can only take risks or go off on a tangent if you really trust the people that you work with.

If you’d like to find out more about how Chris created the illustrations for The Suitcase he has written this blog post for his publisher Nosy Crow.