‘I can’t relax with all that racket’, says Leigh Hobbs as we meet in an attractive but noisy cafe. So we move to the quieter surroundings of Allen and Unwin, his publisher’s offices. Leigh is the current Australian Children’s Laureate and I was catching up with him in Melbourne. Here, in the UK, Leigh is probably best known for his books about Old Tom, a cat of character – the character of a rather anarchic child – with his “mum” Angela Throgmorton and more recently, Mr Badger in charge of special events at Boublès Grand Hotel in London. But there are also Horrible Harriet, Fiona the Pig, the Freaks – and Mr Chicken touring the world. All of these lively characters are presented with an infectious humour and accompanied by Leigh’s own energetic illustrations. I wanted to find out more about this author.
Born in Melbourne where he still lives, his father was a school teacher, his mother a dressmaker. From about the age of four or five he was obsessed with London. ‘All I ever had was two ambitions, one was to be an artist, the other was to go to England’. He tries to think back why this was so. Reading about King Arthur or King Richard and the Crusades, watching the Richard Green series of Robin Hood, ‘all the things that fed my imagination seemed to be British – then English – and finally associated with London. I am obsessed by English history – it is my absolute passion’. Another interest that has developed as he has grown older is architecture, which , of course, links closely to his work as an artist.
Did he always want to draw? Yes, painting came later but he has always drawn. ‘I loved to draw’. Indeed his father gave him a drawing board when he was about six – a block he still uses; he also gave Leigh an alarm clock set for 6.00am when he would be allowed to start drawing. The joy was being able to create a little world. But what about the characters? Leigh’s work is full of wonderful characters, all distinct and different. They appear fully formed and Leigh has a great affection for them – Mr Badger in particular, perhaps the gentlest of his creations. The Mr Badger books are the closest Leigh has come to writing in the ‘classic’ tradition of children’s literature. Surprisingly Leigh feels he is very badly read. When his peers were reading Wind in the Willows he was reading about the Crusades! His fertile imagination is visual and the artwork always takes precedence over the text. His artistic hero is Ronald Searle. ‘It is the drawings mainly – the sense of humour lurking in his work, the beautiful draftsmanship and the fabulous atmosphere’. Ludwig Bemelmans is another inspiration, ‘But I don’t think I have ever read a whole Madeleine through.’ He will look at the art work then read a biography of the artist.
His route to publishing was through Old Tom, initially rejected by a number of publishers before being taken up by Penguin through Erica Wagner who is still his editor. His stories are not really stories; disconcerting for the adult critic. Rather they are character studies where the characters however extraordinary very much reflect the experience of the child. Old Tom is perhaps the little boy Leigh once was, Angela, his mother. He admits this somewhat ruefully. Mr Chicken experiences the cities he visits very much as a child would. Leigh’s characters are larger than life, full of energy stepping off the pages and the reader could imagine them on the stage. They may be anarchic but they are never malicious or cruel, though his mother did feel he had gone too far with Mr Chicken, this monstrous bird once disparagingly described as ‘a lemon with fangs’. ‘He is shocking…but in a way if kids like him, that is what he is; he is an affront to the adult world’. We laugh to realise that we are talking about Mr Chicken as if he were real. But this is what the young reader will do on opening the book; ‘I am intrigued by what it is that the kids read into the stories and the pictures and the gap in between, their own stories.’ He dismisses the criticism that he does not write stories – particularly directed at the first Horrible Harriet. ‘I leave gaps on purpose – some may see this is a flaw, but to me it was a character study. I wanted kids to feel by the end of that book, they understood that character.’ It is all in the telling.
He has never had any ambitions to be a novelist. ‘I didn’t write anything apart from lines with a picture until Mr Badger. The Mr Badger books are a labour of love. I was trying to create the sort of books I would have loved. It was gentle, it had gentle humour written in an adult voice but with naughty characters’; characteristics that are often seen as belonging to books from the past. He claims the highest compliment would be if a reader thought he was British. It is this feeling of authenticity that Leigh strives for and which comes through very strongly as Mr Chicken visits different cities – London especially. ‘I care about the fabric of London.’ he says fervently.
After a career as a teacher in a secondary school, Leigh is now a full-time writer and of course Children’s Laureate. How is he finding this experience? He is thoroughly enjoying it. Of course it involves doing what he has always done – visiting schools. He wants to combat the current climate in education where everything has to be measured. Not every child is an artist he declares but every child should be able to feel they can express themselves in their own way at their own level – and should be encouraged to do so. ‘I love the idea of kids feeling better about themselves through the work they do.’ He is delighted to be given the opportunity to speak out in support of libraries, both school and public and independent bookshops.
Looking forward he would like to continue developing the family of characters he has already created – he is especially interested in exploring the world of Mr Badger using this slightly more extended narrative, balancing description with incident. Let us hope this happens soon so that young readers will have the pleasure of making friends with Old Tom, Mr Chicken – and of course, Mr Badger.
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.
Mr Chicken Lands on London, Allen and Unwin, 978-1-7433-6366-9, £9.99 hbk
Mr Chicken Arriva a Roma, Allen and Unwin, 978-1-7433-6875-6, £10.99 hbk
Mr Chicken Goes to Paris, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 978-1-4088-0524-4, £6.99 pbk
The Big Book of Mr Badger, Allen and Unwin, 978-1-7433-6668-4, £8.99pbk
Big Book of Old Tom, Allen and Unwin, 978-1-7433-1844-7, £8.99 pbk
Horrible Harriet’s Inheritance, Allen and Unwin, 978-1-7411-4985-2, £5.99