With the beginning of the Year of the Earth Pig on 5 February, Canberrans can…
Bob Graham is a living treasure and likely living on the bookshelves of anyone who has littlies at home or to visit.
Thrice Children’s Book of the Year award-winner and creator of some of Australia’s favourite characters such as Jethro Byrde, Max, and Dimity Dumpty, his whimsical and wise words and illustrations are what storytime is made of.
We caught up with him ahead of his visit to Canberra as VIP guest for a gorgeous exhibition of picture book artwork at the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature, plus events for kids and adults at Muse.
Did you write and illustrate when you were a child? Did you imagine you’d become a writer and illustrator?
I drew the comic strip characters. Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Popeye, The Phantom. Not a day went by when I didn’t copy Emile Mercier, the cartoonist from The Sun newspaper in Sydney. A little later I almost replied to the cartoonist Brody Mack advertising on the back of a magazine for a correspondence course, to “Learn Cartooning. Earn Good Money in your Spare Time. Impress Your Friends.” My motivation always seemed to fall short! No, I could never have imagined becoming a writer or illustrator. It took just on 40 years to do that.
What were your favourite books when you were young? Do you know why these appealed to you?
We post war kids in Sydney’s Beverly Hills were steeped in comics. They were glossy and coming from the States. We hoarded them, swapped them, and I think occasionally fought over them. There was a certain smell to all those comics in a newsagent’s on a wet day which is perhaps now lost forever.
Later, I read many of the books my father brought home from the library; elderly “Boy’s Own Adventures,” I guess. I read of Howard Carter discovering Tutankhamen’s tomb, sailed into the far reaches of the Amazon, took part in the Kon Tiki expedition, and went with Colin Simpson into the far reaches of the Australian desert, Adam in Ochre.
What was the inspiration for your first children’s book? How did you decide to create a picture book for children?
It happened almost by accident – that or maybe it was meant to be? My life at art school, marriage, with two children and the years reading books to them was a kind of apprenticeship leading up to the day I was home sick from my job as a designer at TAFE. I put a few words and pictures together to tell a story of a budgie who flew in over the fence; we called him Roland and he stayed with us for a while. It seemed quite a natural thing to do as it was happening at the time, and I had time on my hands, (and can’t have been all that sick). I never planned anything beyond just making little pictures and putting words with them, and turning the pages, one after the other. I was interested to see what happened, I didn’t even have an ending. Then the budgie flew out the window. Well, of course, there was my ending. Budgies do that all the time.
It was not a “career move”. It just happened. It was a story in the making and I loved doing it, creating the sequence, making the pictures, turning each page as it came. I was 40.
What is the best part of being a children’s author and illustrator?
A few days back I spent a good part of the day drawing a mother hedgehog skipping rope with a mouse in a forest. It could be argued that jobs don’t get much better than that.
What is the hardest part?
A few years back my wife Carolyn said on our son’s birthday, “Forty years ago Pete and I had a little struggle together.” Peter was 9 pounds 11 and 3/4 ounces when he was born. That’s hard! By comparison, my own little struggles at the desk are minor, and will often only result in work going into my bottom drawer – and sometimes used for spare parts into the future.
Of all your books, what is your favourite and why?
Hard to have favourites. I am fond of small things scattered around my stories, often without words attached. The dad in The Wild, on the floor, dog hairs all over him, playing with the dog and the duck, peck marks on his bald head – and his small daughter walking by not even looking. She has seen it all before. How to Heal a Broken Wing, three jet fighters on TV over a destroyed city making the same shape as the porcelain birds on the wall. And in Spirit of Hope, when the family faces eviction from their house a calendar on the wall, a lighthouse and a shipwreck on the rocks below. Just small things I guess.
What inspires your stories, or where do your ideas come from?
Strangely from not imposing the thought on myself that I am trying to write a story or force-feeding “ideas” into the process when I first sit at my desk. That is somehow too fraught and worrying for me. A certain apprehensive look in a small dog’s eye drawn in my notebook some years back might be enough to set me rummaging through my head to find a few words, suitable partners to accompany it. And I might ask myself why this look? And I might answer that this small dog is about to be stepped on. And who by? By a baby taking his first step of course. And after some time working outwards, like the ripples of a stone dropped into water I might realise that a story is taking place. It can be a happy and sometimes surprising by-product of just asking myself “what happened next?” I don’t get out much to compare notes but I suspect it’s a question quite common to many writers. I called the book Silver Buttons.
What’s one of the most interesting questions from children you’ve been asked?
Back in 1992 I received a letter from Charlotte somewhere in the east end of London I think it was. She said, “ Dear Bob Graham, would you write a book for me and my best friend Kelly?” Well, Rose Meets Mr. Wintergarten was just going to press with no dedication. So, “To Charlotte and her best friend Kelly” went on the title page just as the presses started rolling. I sent them both a copy, but never heard back. But then perhaps they weren’t surprised. It was a natural outcome from a natural request. Charlotte could well be reading it to her children now.
Your first picture book was Pete and Roland published in 1981. Since then you’ve published over 80 books, many of these winning awards right around the world.
We want to know how you keep on giving us stories we love, illustrations we pour over, and characters we remember.
Thank you. As described above, I just keep on shuffling little pieces of paper around much as I did with Pete and Roland, fitting memories, observations and imagination together like a jigsaw puzzle. And always leaving room for the dog next door and the postman if I can find room for them.
Bob’s work appears alongside other greats such as Kerry Argent, Freya Blackwood, Elizabeth Honey, Graeme Base and Shaun Tan in the exhibition Imagine if…
Images via walkerbooks.com.au
Feature image: Carolyn Graham