Nicholas John Frith, the inaugural winner of the Klaus Flugge Prize for the most exciting and promising newcomer to children’s picture book illustration, has managed to pull off quite a feat with his winning book Hector and Hummingbird: high style and real substance.
It was a key factor in the book’s success for children’s laureate Chris Riddell, one of the judges of the new prize, who commented, ‘It’s certainly a very stylish book to look at, but the characterisation won it for us. Children will love these two heroes, it’s a book with heart!’
The premise is simple. Hector, a bear, and Hummingbird, yes, a hummingbird, live in the Peruvian jungle and are friends (mostly), happily sharing the sweetest custard apples and searching for the scratchiest trees…until Hector tires of Hummingbird’s endless chatter and storms off to seek some peace and quiet on his own. But life without Hummingbird isn’t all that Hector had envisaged. It’s a familiar scenario and Frith admits that it ‘isn’t a particularly original story, it’s that odd couple dynamic and there are similar versions of that story that exist in children’s books.’
But what sets Hector and Hummingbird apart is the gloriously colourful and ever-so-slightly nostalgic mid-century design combined with the depth of the delightful characters. It’s the result of a serendipitous discovery and creative process that was, says Frith, ‘like a dream’.
After 13 years of bar and restaurant work and a bit of desultory sketching on the side, he had taken the plunge into working part-time and developing his artwork by teaching himself screen printing from YouTube videos, creating greetings cards, prints and doing the odd bit of commercial illustration work. His work caught the eye of Zoe Tucker, the art director of Scholastic’s Alison Green Books, who emailed him out of the blue to suggest meeting up for a chat.
‘It snowballed from there. I went in with a few sketchbooks and a lot of notes for story ideas that I’d had in the past – I’d written a few little pieces for Anorak children’s magazine,’ says Frith. ‘I met up with Alison and Zoe twice and signed up for a two-book deal but with no specific project in mind, we just decided to “work on something together”. I’ve learnt so much from Alison in the past two or three years. I felt like I had a way of writing to a certain degree then I learnt that doing it for a picture book is a completely different discipline.’
The creative process can be seen in microcosm in how Hector came to be a bear. Frith was ‘completely tired of drawing bears and determined not to do one’ but ‘made a rod for my own back in that in the corner of one of my pages I’d drawn a bespectacled bear in a tropical setting. Zoe and Alison saw it and said ‘ooooh how about this?”’
However, Frith was keen that the background should be Amazonian rather than the more usual North American setting of brown, black and grizzly bears and ‘although it sounds like a very small difference, it was enough to inspire me that to draw a bear in that setting is slightly different and that’s ok. I made peace with it and told myself not to rule things out quite so quickly and not to jump to conclusions about what you can do with a bear and a book.’
It also inspired the brilliant ‘spot the animal gallery’ in the back of the book, featuring the jaguar, toucans, macaws and other splendidly named animals (Think flat-faced fruit-eating bat and Andean cock-of-the-rock) that feature in the background of the story and, as a result of Frith’s research, are wildlife that actually live in that setting.
‘I see the jungle and the other animals as a third character in the book,’ says Frith. ‘I thought it would be really neat to have the little chart at the back to share those things. And, for parents, it offers that element of extra time spent leafing through the book with kids – going back through it and picking out the animals.’
While Tucker and Green had editorial input on the characterisation, the style is distinctively Frith’s. He used a technique called ‘preseparation’, creating separate pieces of art for each colour used in the book. ‘The bonus of it is that, because of how it’s printed, from the separate layers, they can be printed in these ‘spot colours’, or pantone colours, which gives it an extra vividness. I’m very much learning about it and have only really just discovered what it’s called after I did Hector and Hummingbird,’ he says. Frith has continued to develop the technique with his second book, Hello Mr Dodo, which came out earlier this month.
‘I’ve worked quite hard on the style that I’ve developed and I’m really pleased with it but I’m also quite acutely aware that people see Hector and Hummingbird and one of the first things that they comment on is the style,’ says Frith. ‘That’s really lovely – but then to have the Klaus Flugge Prize acknowledge the characterisation and the warmth of that is great. It’s people seeing beyond the prettiness of it.’
Michelle Pauli is a writer and editor specialising in books and education, and created and edited the Guardian children’s books site.
Hector and Hummingbird (978-1407146416) and Hello Mr Dodo (978-1407146430) are published by Alison Green Books, paperback £6.99.