ILLUSTRATION FEATURE Chris Riddell: Mr Underbed vs Moz

Coincidence, or a monstrous tale of stolen creativity? Jo Dearden asked former Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell for his side of the story…

Unless you’ve been living under a mountain of mince pies for the past few weeks, you’ll probably be aware of the controversy surrounding this year’s John Lewis Christmas TV ad. Shortly after it was first screened, illustrator Chris Riddell took to social media to point out the similarities between the ad and a picture book he’d created more than 30 years ago.

The star of the John Lewis ad is, of course, Moz the Monster – a big, blue, cuddly creature with a red, bulbous nose and a couple of white, downturned fangs who lives under the bed of a boy called Joe. Whereas the star of Chris’s book (first published in 1986) is Mr Underbed – a big, blue, cuddly creature with a red, bulbous nose and a couple of white, upturned fangs who lives under the bed of a boy called Jim. The resemblance is uncanny…

Chris, what was your initial reaction when you saw this year’s John Lewis ad?

I thought, ‘My goodness, that looks like Mr Underbed’. Then I smiled and thought no more about it until a couple of days later, when I went to the launch for Oliver Jeffers’ book We Are Here. I had a conversation – not with Oliver, with someone else – and they mentioned the similarity between the John Lewis ad about the little boy and the penguin (the 2014 John Lewis Christmas ad) and Oliver’s book Lost And Found. At which point I thought ‘Ah, perhaps I’m not the only one’.

What did you decide to do about it?

The next day I put a gently sardonic post on Facebook thanking John Lewis for promoting my picture book Mr Underbed in their Christmas advertising campaign. But people started replying to the thread saying, ‘Congratulations Chris, we had no idea John Lewis had adopted your book, you must be thrilled.’ So then I thought, ‘Oh dear, irony doesn’t work on Facebook, I’d better put the record straight’, which is why I brought up the advert on my computer and made a little film on Periscope

What sort of a response have you had?

The response has been huge. People have looked at Mr Underbed and Moz the Monster and made up their own minds. I haven’t pushed and shouted too much.

I’ve actually been really heartened by the support I’ve received. Fellow creatives within the industry have been fantastic, as have the general public. I was in a little bookshop in Sussex the other day and people were coming up to me saying they’d bought Mr Underbed out of a sense of solidarity.

Did you ever consider taking legal action?

I didn’t want to go down the legal route. Unless something is word for word or image for image [the same], it’s extremely hard to prove that someone else has used your work.

So, if you weren’t seeking legal redress or compensation, why did you raise this issue?

Because I think it’s important to call ad agencies and companies like John Lewis out on such matters. We have to keep up this sense of naming and shaming so that large organisations, who have a reputation to uphold, think, ‘Actually, maybe we should credit this person. We don’t have to. We could probably get away with not doing it, but…’

Why on earth don’t John Lewis, with all the resources at their disposal, a £7 million budget, why don’t they actually just approach someone in the children’s book industry and say, ‘Can you write something for us?’

I think the answer is they could, if they wanted to, and that is the point of me raising this issue.

John Lewis did issue a short statement regarding this matter. Have they contacted you directly?

They haven’t, which is disappointing. It would have been nice if they’d reached out and talked about it. I hope that, rather than going away and feeling bad about it, John Lewis might rethink how they approach their Christmas campaign and bring in some real people from the world of children’s books and work with them far more closely in future.

Many SCBWI members share their stories and illustrations on a regular basis – with critique groups and agents etc. – do you have any advice about how they can protect their own work?

I think the most sensible course of action is to maintain this feeling of solidarity, of sharing but, if people overstep the mark, call them out on it.

Andersen Press (who publish Mr Underbed) have just printed an extra 10,000 copies of your book…

Well, Andersen, being a really clever publisher, thought OK, this is a two-way street. If John Lewis can ‘borrow’ from us, we can ‘borrow’ the notion of a campaign based around a bedtime monster! It [having Mr Underbed reprinted] has been a lovely antidote, and has given this story a happy ending after all.

How will you be celebrating Christmas this year?

I think that one of the nicest gifts to receive at Christmas is a book. They’re so much more exciting and imaginative than socks! So that’s what I’ll be doing on Christmas Day I hope, sitting in my living room, in Norfolk, in front of a lovely roaring fire, looking out across the woods, enjoying a good book.

You can view Chris’s own heart-warming Christmas ad here

Chris Riddell is an acclaimed illustrator and author of children’s books as well as being the political cartoonist for The Observer. He was the 2015-2017 UK Children’s Laureate and has won many awards for his work including the Nestlé Gold Award, the UNESCO Award and, not one, but two Kate Greenaway Medals.

Jo Dearden is a freelance writer/magazine journalist. In her spare time she writes picture book texts and poems for The funEverse.

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