It’s a proper Christmas after all, presents AND snow!
This is the 9th and most recent Lighthouse saga. It is only a mere 16 years old and has some way to go to catch up with it’s illustrious 41 year old cousin. Good advice to a budding illustrator…. ‘Probably the best way to produce a picture book is to write and illustrate it yourself.’ Failing that, a close second is to marry or live with a top class children’s writer. That way help is always at hand! Is it ever. A down side can be the fact that most writers have a very strong visual sense and this is never more so than when their lovely text seems to lack sufficient illumination. This can lead, very infrequently, to either polar or tropical exchanges. But, after 40 years and a third generation of readers about to arrive, the world of the lighthouse keeper is as real to the creators as it is to the children. Mess with this institution at your peril. One’s audience would not stand for it.
The principal characters, Mr and Mrs Grinling, seem to have precious little in the way of an extended family. We are often quizzed about this by our young readers. Certainly Mr Grinling has a great- nephew George, and in this story the little chap spends his Christmas at the lighthouse. And what a visit. When the text is as good as this, the story illustrates itself.
One further reflection on working with children. A packed assembly hall, a presentation based on the ‘Christmas’ was well underway. I had produced a large seaside ‘skeleton’ outline and the children suggested various sea creatures et. al. to be included n the picture. Suggestions piled in at the rate of knots, so much so that I asked a 6 year old to wait for a bit as I was getting behind. Silence. She then stood up, turned to the assembled throng and, in a stentorian bellow, declared:
‘HE CAN’T MULTI- TASK!’
Convulsed with laughter, I dropped all my pens.
The Lighthouse Keeper’s Christmas is available from Waterstones, amazon and other good bookshops, or direct from the author.
A little girl is moving house to go and live in the city. But she knows she can’t take her cat who would be very unhappy. So full of sadness and regret, she leaves him with her cousins. All her favourite games were with Charlie. What would she do in the city? Who would she play with? But city life has other excitements Soon she has new friends and new games and while the place in heart for Charlie remains strong, and she visits him as often as she can, she learns that he can be her friend without being with her all the time. Beautiful illustrations complement this moving text which deals gently with two topics which can be a source of anxiety for children: friendships and moving house.
Working across different disciplines adds an element of confusion to the casual studio visitor, or, in one case it was somebody who wanted to see some work for a local show. Being familiar with the range of my children’s illustrations, the first thing she saw in the studio were several very large non-figurative paintings and lots of smaller ones. Puzzlement and doubt abounded. There was nothing cozy about these things. Had she come to the right place? How to extricate herself?
This was symptomatic of the reaction of many visitors and has led to me providing a brief tutorial in order to clarify this. Let’s start with the ‘abstract’ stuff.
My explanation was, and is, by invitation only otherwise the listeners boredom levels would be severely tested. Their interest was genuine and any hint of a patronising attitude from me would be spotted at once.
The gist of my riveting talk turned on learning the history and the language (or lack of it) of painting. As it is with literacy or numeracy or musical notation or culinary techniques, the study of these things is crucial. Otherwise, without the background knowledge of ‘reading’ paintings then the the lure of conventional pedestrian ‘proper pictures’ in all their tedium prevails.
Does one tackle this with a barrage of words? Heaven forbid. Consider this. After having enjoyed a play, or a novel, or a collection of poems, would you like to see a series of pictures to further increase one’s understanding? Or, conversely, does the visual experience have to be translated into mountains of words? Of course not. I once had a show where the only words were ‘fire exit’, and that was because it was compulsory. As somebody said ‘painting is about painting, everything else is about everything else.’ Quite so. Study it, learn about it, look at it, and even try it. Then forget the words.
As previously mentioned, illustrating childrens books has been quite a successful venture. And along with Ronda’s superior literary skill our Lighthouse Keeper books have kept us both busy for over 40 years. Being published by Scholastic they have been a hit in schools, with hundreds of lighthouses being crafted by kids all over the world!
Some years ago, Ronda and I were doing a school visit in London. For some reason, we worked with the kids in a lecture theatre, at the end of which was a grand piano. It was lunchtime and I was on my own finishing off some session pictures for my young audience. At some point a young man appeared, asked if I minded if he did a rehearsal on the piano. ‘Of course not’, I replied, ‘can I come and see?’ He was doing that wonderful warhorse, the piano part in Beethoven 5, a piece I had known since I was about 4 years old. His concert date was pretty close. He was nervous. He had umpteen goes at the start of the rondo. I approached the piano. ‘Look at this,’ he said, gesturing to the left hand page. He played a bit. ‘Now look at the right,’ he said. ‘You can see the problem! Bloody difficult, fancy a go?’ Of course, I could not see it at all. All I saw was a series of black marks on a piece of white paper. He looked at these marks and his head filled with music. This language was incomprehensible to me. My head filled with nothing. Not a hope. The music of top class painting is the same. It is wordless and deeply affecting.
And of course, the dross of the ordinary in this venture is just as evident and as easy to spot. There is acres of it. This can be very confusing. Online websites are full of the stuff, so much of it is of spellbinding mediocrity. More explanation required….
[A coda: Back to the lecture theatre type experience with the children….
Making images for children is wonderfully unequivocal and almost totally wordless. The scene is a draughty assembly hall. 200 kids, years 1 and 2 are settled down and expecting a good show. So, get to work and then grab them and hold them, but be quick about it. Do that and the rapport is a kind of silent and magical electricity. The children almost take all the oxygen out of the air. At the end, nobody wants to leave, including me and the teachers. If you are not up to it, death is not lingering, it is immediate and horribly final . Children don’t mess around with platitudes. This activity is not for the faint-hearted. In which case, go and do something else…..]