An image of author/illustrator Ben Rothery on a blue and purple patterned background. Surrounding him is the book cover of Ravenheart by David Gemmell, a dumbbell and four circular rocks that strongmen lift
21 Questions

‘I devoured The Lord of the Rings trilogy in a week’: 21 Questions with Ben Rothery

The author and illustrator of Ben Rothery’s Weird and Wonderful Animals on inviting David Attenborough for dinner, having a sweet tooth, and his ideal superpower.

Flipping through Ben Rothery’s non-fiction children’s books, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were looking at a collection of photographs. His attention to detail when it comes to illustrating is paramount and has seen him win accolades like the Silver Pencil Award.

Inspired by nature from a young age, Ben wanted to grow up and be just like David Attenborough. Or a shark. Luckily for fellow nature lovers, he settled on being a wildlife artist and has been dazzling readers since the publication of his first book Sensational Butterflies in 2019. This year, Ben has turned his attention to some of the weirdest and most wonderful creatures on planet Earth.

To celebrate the release of Ben Rothery’s Weird and Wonderful Animals, we caught up with Ben to ask him our 21 questions about life and literature. Below he shares with us his surprising hobby, his love for J. R. R. Tolkien’s universe, and how he hopes to help tackle the global biodiversity crisis.

Which illustrator and/or writer do you most admire and why?

The illustrator would be John James Audubon for being the person whose work first captured my imagination as a child and whose style undoubtedly influenced my own. But as an adult, it's very hard to square that with how despicable of a man he was in life.

And the writer is Carlos Ruiz Zafón – I’ve loved getting lost in his books since I first discovered them.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. I was nine years old, and nobody thought I could even read as I’d shown no interest in or aptitude for it. My mum handed me a copy of the trilogy and I devoured it cover to cover in a week… I read and reread that book until it fell apart. That and my prized collection of David Attenborough books which I carried everywhere with me – I have them still.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

I became obsessed with Terry Pratchett and David Gemmell for a bit as a teenager, very different but both provide pure escapism. Hard to pick out a favourite book though.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

Probably the aforementioned copy of The Lord of the Rings… Before it, people thought I was stupid, incapable, and uninterested, and afterwards, they and I, realised that I wasn’t.

'I became obsessed with Terry Pratchett and David Gemmell for a bit as a teenager.'

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside of being an author?

I will have to plead the fifth here – but if you name a job, I’ve probably done it at least once.

What’s the best piece of illustrating/writing advice you’ve ever been given?

'Don’t'. It was like a red rag to a bull.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

I’ve read and reread every single David Gemmell book more than once, they’re like visiting old friends. It doesn’t matter that I know what’s going to happen by this point. Sometimes I read for a new experience, to learn, to be challenged but more often than not, I read to quieten the noise in my head and these have always done that job nicely.

What’s the one popular children’s book you’ve never got round to reading?

Most of them. I was always interested in things above my age range. I’d probably be more inclined to read a children’s book now than I was when I was a child.

If I didn’t become an illustrator, I would be ______

A naturalist or a strongman. Both of which I guess I am alongside being an illustrator. Otherwise, nothing.

What makes you happiest?

Anything that quiets the noise in my head so for me that’s usually lifting very heavy things or escaping into a person, a place or a book.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

I compete as a strongman.

What is your ideal illustrating scenario?

Do you mean other than the current one? I think if I were to be able to spend the rest of my career drawing all of the birds in the world then I’d be pretty content with that.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author/illustrator experience?

Being approached while only semi-clothed in a gym changing room by a very excited German man who opened with 'Are you the illustrator?' and proceeded to tell me how he knew everything about me… That was fairly unsettling!

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

I know he’s not strictly just a writer but Sir David Attenborough. If I could have had another life, his is the one I would have chosen! And as it's Sir David, I’d serve him whatever he asked.

What’s your biggest fear?

Mediocrity. I’m very ambitious and competitive. I don’t want or need to be better than anyone else but I absolutely have to be the best that I can be at everything I do. It's probably my greatest strength and weakness.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

Flight, no question.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

'If my work can help the global biodiversity crisis in any way then I’m doing my job.'

I’ve been so busy that I don’t actually think I’ve read anything in the last 12 months.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

Absolutely not.

Which do you prefer: chocolate or crisps?

Chocolate, I don’t have a sweet tooth… they’re all sweet.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

I think I have to go back to The Lord of the Rings again. I know there are objectively better books, I also know that I’ve read some of them but I can’t for the life of me remember them. So I have to pick this one if for no better reason than the change it brought about in my own life.

What inspired you to write your new book?

We’re in the middle of a global biodiversity crisis. In the last 50 years animal populations have decreased by, on average, 69% globally. To put that into perspective, we have just over a quarter of the wildlife left that we had half a century ago, so it's imperative that we do everything we can to preserve what remains. The purpose behind this most recent, and indeed all of my books, is to introduce the reader to species they’ve never heard of or take a closer look at creatures they think they know. Because in order to protect something we must first care about it and how can we care for something we can’t name? If my work can help this in any way then I’m doing my job.

Ben Rothery's Weird and Wonderful Animals is out on 7 September 2023.

Image at top: Flynn Shore for Penguin

Sign up to the Ladybird newsletter

The latest books, activities and tips to help you grow little readers