Monday, March 26, 2012

Words From the Wise #6 - Jez Alborough

I must say as we are entering week 6 of Words From the Wise, I have learned an incredible amount from all of the very talented people that I have had the pleasure of interviewing.  I hope that you have all been enjoying this feature, and will continue to enjoy in the weeks to come.  As always, if you have someone who you are interested in meeting here, or would like to be featured yourself, please let me know.

Today we are honored to learn all about author/illustrator, Jez Alborough.  Since 1984 we have all enjoyed his picture books about animals.  His books have helped us all to smile, laugh, cuddle our children, and to learn from his craft.  This year he comes out with his latest book, Six Little Chicks.  He also has a newly revamped portion of his website called The Club.  Be sure to check it out and to join.

Without further ado, here is a guest post by Jez Alborough. . . take it away!













I have two fantastic jobs: writing children’s books and illustrating them. My wife came up to my studio at the top of our house last week and found me cutting, folding and sticking pieces of card to create a paper engineering version of the dashboard of a truck belonging to a Duck. I had spent all day finding a way to have the movement of a tab change the gears, raise the needle on the speedometer and the engine temperature gauge. She looked at me as I sat there, tugging at the tab - driving my make believe truck and said: "You just sit up here and play all day."

How I spend my time now is not that dissimilar to how I spent it as a child - drawing and making up stories. Nowadays however I do it at a desk instead of lying on my belly with my feet waving in the air. Back then, when I wasn’t outside playing football (my other great love as a child) I could be found inside, spread-eagled on the carpet creating a football match in two dimensions with a pen, a sheet of paper and a fertile imagination. As I sketched my favourite players displaying their skills – with correct kits, haircuts and facial likenesses - I would speak the words of the imaginary commentator: ‘it’s Charlie Cooke... just look at him - weaving through the defence... past Bremner, past Peters, and he’s through...’ Then, as I scribbled in the circles representing the distant faces in the grandstand (a trick learnt from SHOOT magazine) I would give voice to the roar of the crowd reacting to Charlie Cooke’s break for the goalmouth.

Later I started drawing my own made up characters using a repertoire of funny voices to express out loud what I Imagined they were saying to each other. Giving them the power of speech added a whole new dimension to the creation; it made the characters as real as they were in my head - and it was a lot more fun.

Using a convention I had learnt from Dennis the Menace in the BEANO I started writing down what they were saying in speech bubbles above their heads. In retrospect I can see that comics were my first teachers on the road to being a children’s book author and illustrator. Comics gave me a graphic vocabulary which I still use today; they taught me how to break up the story into important scenes and how to compose these scenes within a frame. Most importantly I learnt how beautiful a simple black line can be when it is drawn with the confidence to allow a certain amount of relaxation.

As I grew up I used every opportunity to practice my love of drawing and story telling. At primary school I remember the excitement of finishing an exercise book because this became a passport to get me into the Aladdin’s cave of the stockroom to obtain a new book. Some artists talk about the fear of a blank page of paper but to me it has always been an exciting invitation to catch with my pen the images and ideas that were floating about in my head.
What I treasured most amongst the pens, erasers and sugar paper were those exercise books which had ruled pages on one side and blank pages on the other. For me these were an invitation to create my first picture books. Now my character’s speech would appear in a block of text opposite the illustrations. I recall Custer, with long flaxen hair and droopy moustache being the hero of one of these early books – the influence of a television series. I don’t recall showing these books to my teacher or parents - they were made solely for my own enjoyment, for the pure pleasure of play.
This same principle applies to the books I create today. The best stories come out of a pure sense of play – without thoughts of how they might be received by an audience. These more grown up considerations come later. The first stage is purely selfish; I’m making a book simply because I love doing it.
Having mentioned comics and T.V programmes as sources of inspiration for my creativity (lets not forget TOP CAT) I would like to be able to reel off the names of many treasured picture books which had enriched my development. The truth is, back in the early sixties there simply wasn’t the array of fantastic 32 page works of art that bookshops are bursting with today. I do remember the poems and drawings in WHEN WE ARE SIX by A.A. Milne (thank you whoever brought that into our home) and a book of riddles by (Bennet Cerf?) illustrated with beautifully simple brushline drawings. Years ago, just before giving a reading to a group of children in a library, I found a copy of this book on the shelves. As I scanned the graceful drawings which I hadn’t seen for decades I realised that I knew every brushstroke by heart. As a boy I had the memorised lines just as faithfully as if they had been lines from a favourite poem. I hadn’t just seen the pictures, I had read them, and the language I had learnt from studying was utilized in my drawings and still is today.
After school I spent three years at Art College – accompanied the whole time by a succession of sketch books. These were whipped out at every opportunity to record the minutiae of student life in drawings. Any interesting, quirky things being said would be scribbled underneath or in a speech bubble. Once again the words helped to bring the picture to life.
I have always been interested in the marriage of words and pictures and it is this fascination which informs my work today. I am lucky in that if I have a story to tell - I have two versatile and complementary tools with which to tell it. With picture books the fun comes in deciding what you tell in words and what is best said in the language of pictures.
In my book Hug it became clear to me that my story was best told by the pictures (I cut the text down to only three words!) This meant that the pictures had to carry most of the story development. The expressions on the character’s faces, the body language, the colours, the compositions all had to work together to give the information which the child would need to engage emotionally with the twists and turns of the story. My central character in the book is a chimpanzee called Bobo (yes, one of the three words in the book). In the story Bobo’s sense of lostness and bewilderment at losing his Mum has to grow page by page. If this is conveyed convincingly then the reader will identify with Bobo and hopefully feel the same sense of joy and relief as he does when he is reunited with his Mummy (you may have guessed the third word by now). The emotions on Bobo’s face are therefore crucial to the story. When you consider that the raising or lowering of a line describing a mouth by as much as a millimetre can radically change an expression (and therefore the emotion of the character) things can get a bit scary. If I thought about this sort of thing too much I could never put pen to paper.
When you are writing and illustrating for children you have the pleasure of knowing that you have the most attentive audience for your work. Even if children are not yet able to read the words they are nearly always fluent readers of the pictures. They will read the lines and interpret the expressions on the faces. In this respect they are often better readers than their parents - who will miss many details that the child is instinctively picking up on.
One of the things I love about being an illustrator is that there are so many different materials that can be used to make pictures. For me to use only ink and line in my illustrations would be like a musician only ever playing one type of music. Why play just classical when there’s jazz, blues, boogie woogie and many other styles to explore? In my book Some Dogs Do I used gouache paint with no line at all and in Guess What Happened at School Today (a collection of my poetry) I used coloured paper to make collage illustrations. By ripping, cutting, sticking, splodging, scratching, and scrawling my way through varied mediums I find that I get to express different aspects of myself as an artist.
So I confess, it’s true: I do play for a living. I’ve been getting away with it for twenty years now and no-one’s blown the whistle for playtime to end yet!


Jez’s new picture book  6 LITTLE CHICKS has just been published, to find out more please go to ; jezalborough.com/theclub





15 comments:

  1. Jez -- We love your books in our house. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Keep playing! We enjoy the results.

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    1. Yes we do! Thank for your feedback Eric!

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  2. I love reading his books as well. Nice interview and learning about Jez! I like this...creating picture books is playing.

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    1. It is amazing how play can turn into so many wonderful things!

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  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  4. That is awesome post i have found today in many blogs its really so nice and interesting.

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    1. Glad that you enjoyed it. Stop back next week for another interview.

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  5. Our first copy of Hug ended up in many bits as it was read so many hundreds of times with our children. Bobo (which our Iranian friends always fondly referred to their babies) became a fond nickname for one of ours, too, as a result of Hug.

    When I do author visits I usually see your books in prominent places.

    Thanks, Clare.

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    1. We have all loved Jez Alborough's work for so many years. Nice to his books them in the classrooms!

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  6. I really like your illustrations Mr. Alborough! I liked reading about how you always loved to write and draw. I agree with you that the pictures are as important as the words (I think even if kids can read)!
    Erik

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    1. Erik the highest compliment that a children's author can receive is from his or her target audience. Way to go! I agree with you too, even as an adult I love looking at the pictures.

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  7. This was my first introduction to Jez (I should likely be ashamed to admit it), and I thank you both.

    This was thoroughly fascinating. I particularly loved his delight at having a new exercise book. It sounds similar to my delight at getting a new reader (even though I'd often sneaked into the store cupboard, stood on a chair, and read the next reader before its time!)

    Thank you so much for this, and for this series. I have learned so much.

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    1. I am glad that you enjoyed the interview as well as the series. Head out to your library or bookstore and start reading some of his books. I know that you will love them!

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  8. "At primary school I remember the excitement of finishing an exercise book because this became a passport to get me into the Aladdin’s cave of the stockroom to obtain a new book." LOL! I have a 5 year old son who does that too! He has gone through way more exercise books than any other child in his class!

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  9. Oh, and did I mention that "Some Dogs Do" is that same son's favorite book. He became a fan of it at 4 and made me read it every night for about two months. Now he lets me read him other books, but about once a week, he asks for that one again. I love the premise of that book, so I have never minded reading it to him over and over. :)

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