That’s a big word isn’t it, children? And difficult to spell, as I’ve just found out.
Are you sitting comfortably? Once upon a time...
John Shelley, Bridget Strevens-Marzo and myself were given the task of drawing pictures for a story written by Annie Neild. In front of real, living, breathing people, and with no time to think because none of us had heard the story before that moment.
It was a cruel and unusual punishment...
An illustrators’ shoot-out then; no holds barred, no prisoners taken, giving the audience a chance to watch three grown illustrators sweat with panic.
|Me, John, Annie and Bridget, anthropomorphizing like mad things.|
It was a cruel and unusual punishment to finish the day with. Along with Paeony Lewis, Benjamin Scott and several others, we’d all taken part in the SCBWI Authors’ and Illustrators’ Day at Norwich’s Millennium Library, which John had organized back in July.
Most of us picture book people will have been there, drawn that and got the Peppa Pig t-shirt.
Annie had written a fun story about a small panda, with an attentive mum and various animal friends. He went to school, and juggled and did silly things. So… not the usual lying-around-in-the-wild-chewing-bamboo-shoots behaviour that real pandas tend to go in for. This was a story about animals as substitute humans, attributing human characteristics to animals, showing them doing things they’d never normally do. Anthropomorphism.
Most of us picture book people will have been there, drawn that and got the Peppa Pig t-shirt. Anthropomorphism is a staple of our trade.
|Cover for Highlights High Five Magazine: Mike Brownlow|
At one point, Mummy panda had to help little boy panda get ready for school. Right… put yourselves in our shoes. You have three seconds to think how to make a visual distinction between the two anthropomorphized pandas. Obviously size will be one way. But what next? How do you show that the big panda is female, and a mother who cooks breakfast and dresses her son for school?
It’s not easy, is it? We had no time to come up with any kind of sophisticated graphic solution. My mind went blank and I resorted to the old Disney trick of putting a big bow on top of her head, and giving her a small dress and pinny. And so did Bridget. And so did John.
I adopted my politically correct, concerned face and muttered some fluff about visual shorthand.
After we’d drawn classrooms full of animals, pandas doing juggling tricks, and pandas hula-hooping, we breathed a big sigh of relief, and started to pack up. It had been a funny, lively session, and well received. Then a serious looking young mother approached me and asked “Why do you all do that? Dressing animals up like this?”
She glared accusingly at the bow on the panda’s head and the skirts. At first I thought she was trying to make a point about sexism or something similar, so I adopted my politically correct, concerned face and muttered some fluff about visual shorthand.
My answer didn’t impress.
“No!” she went on, “I mean making animals act like humans. Why do you all do it? It’s everywhere!”
I pointed out that using animals as substitutes for humans has been going on since at least the time of Aesop.
“Yes and I hate it! It’s lazy thinking. There’s no need!”
“But…” I spluttered, “… it makes stories universal because… um… there are no race issues to worry about.”
No. Still not good enough because, you see, she wasn’t making a point about sexism or race. It was an environmental point. She complained that there are currently so many species of animal being made extinct, and at such an alarming rate, that we writers and illustrators should be concentrating our story-telling talents on showing how real animals live their lives in the real world. Then we’d not only be helping children to learn to read, but we’d be educating them about the natural world as well.
And do you know what? I think she had a point.
Would picture books taking a more naturalistic approach to their subject matter be a healthier way to educate and entertain our youngsters?
“I can’t think of a single picture book that depicts animals as proper creatures and not as pretend humans,” she said.
I could. I’d recently been to the SCBWI Picture Book Retreat at Holland House near Copethorne, and had the pleasure of watching author and illustrator Gerry Turley show us his extraordinary sketchbooks, full of drawings taken from life, many of them executed in the wild. Gerry’s work showed real animals in real environments, and it was stunning stuff.
|An image from ‘Woo’ by Gerry Turley|
So why don’t more of us do the same thing? After all, there’s plenty of drama and loads of conflict in nature.
Sadly, there are probably far, far more panda cuddly toys in existence than there are real pandas. Ditto elephants, rhinos, apes… it’s a depressingly long list. Would picture books taking a more naturalistic approach to their subject matter be a healthier way to educate and entertain our youngsters?
I would hate it if there were no more Rupert the Bears, Mrs Tiggywinkles, Danger Mouses, Wibbly Pigs, Maisies, and all the other magical animal/human hybrids that have captivated generations of children. But let’s face it, they’re not the ones in danger of extinction. Pandas – real ones – they’re a different proposition.
I think there’s a gaping gap in the market here, and my ever-so-slightly-angry inquisitor is onto a terrific idea. As Peppa Pig might say, ‘Oink-tastic!’
‘Bears and wolves in snow’: Gerry Turley
Gerry Turley’s work can be seen at http://www.gerryturley.com
His picture book Woo is due to be published in 2014 by David Fickling Books. Watch out for it. It’s brilliant. Conciliatory.
Mike Brownlow is both an illustrator and author of many books for children, including CBBC's Little Robots. His new book Ten Little Pirates was illustrated by Simon Rickerty. Mike's clients include Orchard, Bloomsbury, OUP, Harper Collins, Pan Macmillan, pearson, Lego....
Recently Mike was Words & Pictures' featured illustrator. He is an active member of SCBWI and lives in Somerset.