David Mackintosh, renowned graphic designer, writer and illustrator, has two new books out this year: There’s a Bug on My Arm That Won’t Let Go (HarperCollins) which he has written and illustrated, and Archie and the Bear written by Zanni Louise (Little Hare Books).
David has written five other books for HarperCollins in recent years, after over 20 years illustrating other writers’ texts. Born in Belfast, he grew up and studied art in Australia where his tutors included Armin Greder and Chris McKimmie, and where he embarked on his illustrious career. He relocated to London in 1997 and has since worked with some of the most acclaimed writers in both the UK and Australia.
There’s a Bug on My Arm That Won’t Let Go has all the hallmarks of previous works, Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School (2011), The Frank Show (2012), Standing In for Lincoln Green (2013), Lucky (2014) and What’s Up MuMu? (2015). It’s touching, hilarious, and highly inventive in image, design and words. His sympathetic design and typography makes any book he creates a fully integrated package. His whimsical take on the world can be viewed on his website, too, where ‘Notes to Self’ provide some inkling of how his inventive mind works.
David’s words and images always highlight what it is to feel as a child does, sometimes misunderstood, or ignored, and often alone. They are intricate metaphors for what it means to tackle life as an individual whether that be as a big person or as a child. The closing words in this text summarise that so well. ‘Goodbye bug. Look after yourself.’ The bug takes off, as the narrator must inevitably do as well.
David has an innate understanding of a childlike perspective on the adult world. His observations on family dynamics and on his feisty narrator’s friendship with the elusive Melody next door, and her cat Pearl, are endearing. She spends a day wishing a bug would ‘buzz off’ and leave her alone, but then she realises that: ‘This bug needs my help – just like Melody when everyone called her Scratchy. I told them that Melody probably didn’t want to have scratchy hair and how would they like it?’ And she saves the bug from a hungry bird.
Does David draw on his own childhood, or more through observation of those around him?
‘I’m sure I do draw on past experience when I’m trying to relate to a young audience. I am aware that if I’m doing a book that’s to be published for a young reader then there’s no point aiming too high above that, for example, by using highfalutin words. However, I try to think of my picture books as ‘books’ not ‘children’s books’. If I was overly conscious of an age range or something I’d never get anything done. I’m trying to deliver an idea or a point of view to help make the reader think about something that interests me, and that’s about it. It’s open to adults as much as it is to children.
I easily recall experience of relating to adults as a child, but I figure everybody does to varying degrees. I guess this is what you’re suggesting. I have a recollection of how demarcated children’s and adults’ lives were when I was growing up: at home, at school, in society. We inhabited different worlds, and that’s a great basis for storytelling for children. One can exaggerate it, or blend it. I love the melodrama of juvenile struggle, but in a good way. To the adult, it’s something the child will get over but to the child experiencing it, it can be the end of the world. I guess we all did struggle.’
David uses a variety of mediums and techniques in his distinctive drawings and collages; here two pages contain a series of small images which give a filmic or comic quality to the action, and the final image contains a stark silhouette framed in a window. He says: ‘This book is very busy and scratchy and full of messy line drawing. I wanted the feel of outdoors in a garden in summer, when it’s holiday time, and I wanted to draw it all. I was thinking about how it was playing outside, around the house. The indoor/outdoor aspect was a theme, a metaphor for knowing someone and not knowing them.
Melody the next door neighbour is the fulcrum of this book. The girl’s flashback to her relationship with this new friend influences her reaction to the bug and so I inserted two strip-like pages where she recounts what happened with Melody on their way to becoming friends. It’s a contemplative story and the reader needs to think a little too. My work is very drawing-based, nothing more than that. It’s figurative and I love to draw people and things. I like working on paper and in two dimensions, but with drawing I like adding tension with some collage, usually with a found image or something cut from kraftpaper or newspaper or something. Composition is all important. I might start with cutting out a cat from a piece of paper and working a picture up around that piece of paper. Or a drawing might have a piece of paper glued down on it because I like its shape and want to use it. I have pieces of paper I like pinned on the wall waiting to make an entrance.’
Typography and hand-lettered type are passions for you. He elaborates on his passion for typography and hand lettered type: ‘Type was always a mysterious thing to me and I love how it has meaning and how the illustration has meaning and the two can be on the same page and together say something new. Visually, it is such an integral part of a composition, so the selected typeface has to feel right. A serifed typeface fits with my drawing somehow. The hand lettering is really part of the drawing and is a kind of bridge between the set type and the drawing. I also like to look beyond the meaning of the letters and words, and just see them as shapes to use in the composition.’
Wry humour is another aspect of David’s work – when the narrator is looking for help to remove the bug, she turns in desperation to the family dog but concludes that: ‘O’Reilly’s no help because O’Reilly wouldn’t hurt a fly.’ The ridiculously elongated arm of the narrator is a visual joke; his books are full of delicious little asides like this.
What was the inspiration for this book?
‘When I was little I was in the garden and a Christmas beetle flew on to the front of my shirt and clung on. I tried to brush it away but it stuck on there and flapped its wings to try to deter me. I could feel its claws scratching me. I was alone in the back yard and felt like I was helpless. But really, it must have been more terrified than me considering I was 100 times its size.’
What does he plan to work on next?
‘I’m working on a book about a shoe shop which is all about making decisions. I’m really enjoying drawing lots of shoes. It’s surprising how many styles you can imagine when you put your mind to it. And I’m designing a series of longer fiction books for HarperCollins and have been writing some stories for boys set in the Wild West but without horses.’
David’s signature style is always design-driven and his unique aesthetic is appealing to old and young alike. But the writer of words as well as images has always been lurking there in his pictures, and in these six books he confirms his considerable dual talents: ‘When I’m writing a picture book there’s a fight between what comes first: pictures or words. I’ll sketch a quick storyboard to see the visual narrative which in turn inspires the words, but then I’ll write something that will make me think of a way to illustrate it. So it’s back and forth like that. But it really all stems from an idea or a situation I find interesting and I can’t tell you where that comes from because I don’t know.’
Dr Robyn Sheahan-Bright is deputy-chair of the Australian Children’s Literature Alliance and has published widely on children’s and YA literature.