Sunday, 31 May 2009

There's only one Ardizzone

The last day of half term and I got a call from Chris Riddell. He rang me on Friday to say he would ring me on Saturday and then forgot. We don't speak that often but when we do we have a lot to catch up on and so Chris was booking himself in.

It turns out he and Paul are going to the Lake District about the same time as us. 'The Lake District' is such a prosaic name isn't it? They don't call East Anglia 'The Flat District' do they? Anyway the prospect of meeting Chris on a fell-top is an amusing one. Paul knows the Lakes quite well I think, but I'm not sure that Chris has ever been. Maybe we can all meet up if we do happen to be there at the same time.

I have been going to the Lakes for years and to one particular corner - the area around Ullswater and Brotherswater especially. It has been great introducing my son to the simple joy of staggering up a steep slope and the euphoria of reaching a summit and eating your lunch among ravens and buzzards with no sound but the roar of the wind in your ears, the bleat of lambs or the occasional Tornado fighter jet. Despite - or maybe because of - my vertigo, I feel intensely alive up on those fells.

Oddly, considering we are both illustrators, Chris and I had quite a long chat about the problems of illustrating and the issue of illustrations getting in the way. I think that any book can be illustrated and in a way that compliments the text. But of course, in children's books, the illustrations are often doubling up on what is written because they are often unnecessary descriptive.

This is OK for younger fiction, where illustrations can help the reader, but in older fiction overly pedantic illustrations can simply kill the story. What is the point of the author straining him or herself to come up with a fantastic description for the villain's sinister appearance, if the illustrator is going to simply draw the villain on the opposite page? And this dilemma seems all the more striking when you are in the position of being both author and illustrator.

It is a constant struggle between what good illustrations can add to a book (which is a lot) and what bad or indifferent ones can take away. Edward Ardizzone was a master of not giving too much away and adding atmosphere to a book. Sadly there are no Ardizzones working in children's books at the moment and I have a feeling that if there were, someone would be giving him art direction along the lines of 'Can we not see a bit more of the boy's face?'

I spent a large part of the day sitting with my son as he did his homework - a writing project based on Mal Peet's The Penalty. I tend to help with English and History (and Science) while my wife handles Maths and French. Though I'm not sure how much help I was, not having read the book. I've not read any Mal Peet come to think of it. I haven't met him either. Chris assures me he is a very nice chap.

I did have horrible memories though of having my love of books and of reading ruined by what we called English Literature. That feeling of having to read something knowing that you will be asked questions later. That horror of being asked to read something out loud in class - particularly if there was dialogue and strange accents.

Schools now don't seem to make the big distinction between creative writing (what we called English Language) and this study of books, and that has to be a good thing. The focus seems to be on analysing what a writer is doing, thereby hopefully improving both the students own creative writing and their ability to look at something critically and order their thoughts. It is a constant danger, though, that what began as a pleasure, a form of entertainment and something done willingly and eagerly, can be turned into a chore.

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