Old Bear and his friends have long been favourites with readers and countless children have grown up enjoying the gentle nursery based adventures of this band of soft toys. Now to mark the 30th anniversary of the publication of the first Old Bear book, author and illustrator Jane Hissey has created a brand new story, Happy Birthday Old Bear. Ferelith Hordon spoke to Jane for Books for Keeps.
The pleasures of the Old Bear books are always enhanced by Jane Hissey’s illustrations with their realistic approach and beguiling colours, and I wanted to know a bit more about their background. It turns out Old Bear had been a gift from her grandmother and was a constant companion through childhood. Drawing was also something she had always done, ‘I drew all the time’, Jane says, adding ‘I was not very good at it!’ However she did go to Brighton Art College with the idea of becoming a medical illustrator. Luckily her tutor, John Vernon Lord, put her straight, explaining that the highly prescriptive approach was probably not for her – ‘I was very grateful to him. I had never really looked it up before’. Though she had teachers including Raymond Briggs and Justin Todd at Brighton, illustrating picture books was not something she considered; teaching seemed a more solid career and she didn’t start creating her own books until the arrival of her first child. At home, surrounded by toys, she began to draw them. Then as her children grew, watching their activities and the way they played allowed her to develop her characters and the stories. ‘It’s been very much a family thing all the way through.’ She agrees that this has contributed to the atmosphere of her books; Old Bear and his friends are a real family.
Her books take a long time to produce; usually about a year for each title. Jane works from life using coloured pencils to create the luminous soft effects which have proved so distinctive and popular. ‘Over the years the group of toys which I work with has grown … that small group of toys has continued through but I have added toys like Hoot the Owl and Splash the Seal. But I always have the toys in front of me, pinned in position while I draw’. After that comes the text – again she will spend several months on this – and then the task of putting everything together to create the finished article. When the books were made into a TV series, she provided all the texts while the models and settings were based on her drawings. She had felt that very important to retain the integrity of the books.
Does she use digital techniques now to create her pictures? ‘Nowadays they probably do think I have done something digital’, she says, but, in fact, the only way she uses the computer is to create and plan spreads. ‘I love the process of actual drawing’ – a skill she feels is much less valued now. Digital techniques do encourage experimentation, but possibly at the expense of drawing skills. Also she felt there was no programme that could yet reproduce the effect of coloured pencils – her preferred medium. She loves taking them into schools for visits. Children can see clearly how the pictures are created – and can relate to that themselves.
Does the story come first? Yes, but she will have the type of illustration in mind. Often Jane has an idea of something she wants to draw – bubbles, balloons – or in the case of Old Bear’s Birthday – an umbrella, and this will inspire the story. She will then build the narrative around one of her toys. These are carefully chosen to provide interesting contrast in colour and texture. It isn’t just their character that is important, but how they will affect the composition of the illustration. ‘I have never considered the gender of my characters… It is of so little importance… All my male characters cook and knit and sew’, though she agrees that today it may be more important to have a balanced mix. She has always written longer texts than might be expected in a picture book, possibly influenced by the editions of Rupert Bear she enjoyed as a child. However, with the reissue of her books, she has taken the opportunity to rewrite her earlier stories to make them a bit shorter, and so more suited to the world today. Indeed she has found she can now read several with ease to a class when on a school visit.
Does she think that her books have lasted because they are so grounded in the child’s world? Certainly Jane is careful to leave out any details that will date – especially technology: ‘I quite like the fact that the things in my books are timeless… There is something comforting about this timelessness to both adults and children.’ And children will adjust the characters to their own toys. It is with surprise I learn that she has a strong fan base among children who are autistic. She thinks it may be this timeless element that helps to make the stories accessible to young autistic readers and because the characters are toys, the emotions and situations are very clear.
Looking back over her career, Jane recalls with pleasure her early years with Random House and her editor, Caroline Roberts, who first spotted her work on greetings cards. She remembers how much fun those early days had been: ‘I have always tried to keep it fun!’ It’s good to hear that she is very much enjoying working with her new publisher, Salariya. And she is looking forward to more adventures with Old Bear and friends.
Ferelith Hordon is active member of CILIP YLG and has served as Chair of both YLG London and of the National Committee. She is editor of Books for Keeps and of IBBYLink, the online journal of IBBY UK.
Happy Birthday Old Bear is published by Salariya Scribblers, an imprint of the Salariya Book Company, £11.99 hardback.