I have sometimes been asked if having children changed the way I thought about illustrating children’s books. Beyond seeing the world from their level, (you spend a lot of time on your knees as a parent of young children), and realising that they can be visually very acute, I don’t think it has had a big impact on my work. I suppose we draw for the child within ourselves. But one of my favourite projects came directly from having young children.
From very early on my wife and I began remembering and reciting and singing nursery rhymes and counting and skipping games to our first child. The interaction with our child and her interaction with the language was joyous. It became clear that the rhymes had been important to us as children too and that between us and grandparents and friends who were parents, we knew dozens of complete rhymes and intriguing snippets of others that demanded research.
I’ve mentioned the publisher Michael Neugebauer in previous blogs because he is such an important part of my career. At this time Michael published under the Picture Book Studio imprint; he used to visit my house and knew my young daughters. I don’t remember who first put forward the idea of compiling a book of nursery rhymes, but it was irresistible. Give a dog a bone; it became something of an obsession. I would collar primary school teachers and playground supervisors to ask about the children’s games and rhymes; I bought chap books and other antiquarian editions and also went to some of the original archivists: James Orchard Halliwell and the Opie collection.
Originally given sixty odd pages for one book, I went on to edit and illustrate two one hundred page books, (one for each daughter), and had enough more-odd rhymes left over for a book of nonsense, although this has never seen the light of day.
Other nursery rhyme editions I had seen seemed to consist of spot illustrations and little sequences of vignettes. With my interest in illustrating poetry I wanted a more substantial approach and a greater continuity. I structured the rhymes loosely over both the day and a year. I played with longer rhymes over several spreads, had characters appearing before their rhyme and let them wander through to other scenes. I wanted also to show the poignancy of some of the rhymes, together with the beauty and importance of the language.