It is more than five years now since Jasper’s Beanstalk , the last collaboration between authors/illustrators Mick Inkpen and Nick Butterworth and they have got over that slight prickliness about their separate identities when the world persisted in seeing only a Siamese Mick-Nick. Nick was featured in Books for Keeps Authorgraph No.92; now it is Mick’s turn.
Mick and Nick’s personalities are indeed quite different (you get no bravura performance of anecdote and family lore when you talk to Inkpen), but they can’t escape the amazing coincidence that from the same small community emerged two worldwide bestselling artists and writers, in exactly the same field of picture books, TV animation and merchandise. Why, even Nick’s wife, Annette, had once been an early girlfriend of Mick’s. Tedious though it is for them, filling in the background of one reveals the background of the other.
Which was Romford, where Inkpen was born at the end of 1952, and which he didn’t leave until five years ago when success brought his family to the Constable country beyond Colchester (psst! – about twelve minutes from the ex-pat Butterworths). Now a handsome patio outside their sitting room looks down the sweeping garden to a church-centred view of woods and village roofs.
Mick grew up in a ‘very suburban estate with white concrete roads all named after Scottish rivers’. His father managed the last of the manual Sainsbury’s stores, ‘the ones with the mahogany and bow-fronted windows, and the ceramic tiles specially commissioned by the company. They were beautiful: I had no idea then, but they were the first company to purpose-design an entire shop at a time when people used to sell provisions more or less from their front room. He moved on to managing warehouses, which didn’t have the same attractions.’ Mick was sandwiched between a brother two years older and a sister three years younger, and they have all followed loosely ‘artistic’ careers.
English and Art marched side by side in Mick’s affections throughout the Royal Liberty School, an old-fashioned grammar that assumed most of its pupils would go to university, and where Nick Butterworth had preceded him seven years earlier. Unlike Nick, who left with nothing but a dream of art school, Mick left with O and A levels, an S-level distinction in English and an entry to Cambridge, but no real sense of direction. He had known Nick from a church youth group since he was 14, and in his year out (‘I was pretty immature for my age’) he temporarily joined the graphic design studio Nick and a couple of schoolfriends had set up, had a boisterously enjoyable time as ‘the lad’ and dumped the idea of Cambridge.
Before they each went solo in 1986, their years together, in the studio and after, were to produce about 30 titles, as well as Gordon Fraser cards, reading schemes for Nelson, the Upney Junction mice – originally for a Sunday Express strip – and even a fraught 18 months with Steve the Punk on TV AM’s Rub-a-Dub-Tub, when they suddenly discovered how strong and prolific a storyteller Inkpen could be.
‘That period was marvellous for learning all the stuff that usually takes so long: Nick was an extremely good teacher – I’d choose that informal teaching over a college course every time – and I think I’m a good learner. It was an enriching process and long enough for me to develop graphic skills in the real world, though at first I wasn’t really earning – we were hopeless at business and often there simply wasn’t any money.’ How did his parents react to his rejecting Cambridge? ‘They put no pressure on me at all, and if they were upset they never showed it. I know how I would feel if it were my kids,’ (and Simon, whose drum-kit dominates the room across the hall, is approaching that stage), ‘not about missing the academic achievement, but the broadening experience it would have been. Having been born in suburbia I thought everyone lived in suburbia: I had a blinkered view of the world and it’s taken me that much longer to learn things. It would have been confidence-building, too.’
His parents’ sang froid was tested to the extreme when at 21 he married Deborah, his sister’s exceedingly pretty 19-year-old schoolfriend, because it was part of a four-month period when all three Inkpen children married and left home. ‘Undemonstrative though they are, it was fairly traumatic for them!’ Today Debbie’s watercolour flower portraits hang round the house and her own first picture book is due from Hodder, while 14-year-old Chloë may well outshine both parents.
‘She’s more observant than the rest of the family, including me: from a small child she’s had the ability to draw characters very simply, so people respond to a sympathetic quality with a wry smile underneath (like me, I suppose), and though I wouldn’t push her into the field she could do something similar. She has that objectivity to find young children funny – cute, in a hideously overused term. There’s such a fine line between cute and sentimental, that meal ticket of big eyes, with a knee-jerk, Pavlov-dog response – I sometimes worry, “I hope that’s not the only response I’m getting from my books!” It was essential for me to have been grounded by being a parent, experiencing the blood and guts of real life that disabuses you of any romanticising of children.
‘I find it fairly easy to visually create characters that people find sympathetically real: much better draughtsmen than me can’t do it, and I suppose you always underestimate what you don’t find difficult. If you asked me to do a helicopter’s-eye view of the village, I couldn’t, though others could dash off a very decent drawing. To be honest, it doesn’t interest me so I’ve never tried. Some are born with that talent and can be idiots in other areas – just that one bit of their brains works beautifully. I’ve tended to expand my repertoire by doing what I can do.’ To Mick, photographic realism feels dead; he prefers the lively impressionism of the dots-for-eyes school of Burningham and Ahlberg.
‘I actually like the writing process more than the illustrating, because there’s less craft between you and the idea. You put the words down and there’s the reality on the page. That’s more stimulating: I rather resent the process of getting the tracing paper out, doing the rough, getting another piece of tracing paper, improving the drawing, deciding where it is on the page, modifying it, putting it on the watercolour paper …’
But everyone says how hard it is to write for little ones with only a few words? He laughs. ‘That’s a Big Lie really. Provided you accept that no writing is actually easy, writing for children has got to be easier than other forms because we’ve all been kids. It’s a matter of clearing away the debris and getting down to it.’ Perhaps, as both the artist and writer, he has no need to be defensive. ‘Well, people do mistake simplicity for lack of substance; it’s not easy to be simple, but implying it’s the hardest thing in the world is a gross exaggeration!’ His attempts at longer fiction remain unfinished: I hope he and his publishers were not daunted by the initial problems Nothing faced in the States, for it remains his most subtle and adventurous book, a delicate reworking of the discarded-toy theme.
Ideas arrive both visually and in words. Threadbear , which won the 1991 Children’s Book Award, began in the middle with the image that was eventually its cover (bear pegged to washing line) and worked backwards and forwards through the story. The Blue Balloon was treated almost coldly like a project, based on Inkpen’s own affection for balloons as wonderful graphic objects with an endless list of properties. Although he commends Hodder for never laying marketing restrictions on him, he actually enjoys the discipline of the commercial world and even finds it liberating. ‘It’s like a limited palate – you can get a good effect with a few colours – and after all there’s no point producing books no one’s going to read. And childhood is a rich seam, needing and producing so many concrete references for the writing which are instantly visual.
‘Kipper was always designed to be big on every page, a self-conscious exercise in publishing, and to my relief I’ve got fonder and fonder of him! Normally it’s a new idea and a blank piece of paper that sparks me off, but it’s easier to market books when you repeat a character, and he was my concession. Wibbly Pig followed later, a big product out of a series of small ones: board books, the necessity to find a little bit of development in such a format, suit my style.’ Now Kipper has 13 animated episodes on ITV, all except Snowy Day specially written by Inkpen in a year of ferociously instructive, appalling and fascinating activity – an experience that bulldozed his work schedules but opened up his career, rekindled the sociable stimulation of his studio days but left him thankful he usually works alone. Solitary, but in total control.
Martin Clunes, behaving perfectly as Kipper’s voice, also reads the cassette of Bear , this Christmas’s picture book, which in an ordinary year would have been an earth-shaking event, but seems comfortingly familiar after the mayhem. So empathetically childlike are his characters that it is odd to be told that the humans in Bear are his first since Lullabyhullaballoo ; much more surprising is that Bear is real and not a teddy. Inkpen takes his fondness for ‘interactive books that speak straight out to the child’ to its logical conclusion here, with a pop-out finger that points Kitchener-Lottery fashion at YOU and demands a (happy, of course) ending.
So will this crown 1997 for Mick Inkpen? Like Bear , I can assume the roared-back answer. YES IT WILL!
Mick Inkpen’s books are published by Hodder Children’s Books
Nothing , 0 340 64650 0, £10.99 hbk, 0 340 65674 3, £5.99 pbk
Threadbear , 0 340 53129 0, £9.99 hbk, 0 340 57350 3, £4.99 pbk
The Blue Balloon , 0 340 50125 1, £10.99 hbk, 0 340 55884 9, £5.99 pbk
Wibbly Pig (various titles)
Kipper (various titles)
Lullabyhullaballoo , 0 340 58573 0, £8.99 hbk, 0 340 62686 0, £5.99 pbk
Bear , 0 340 69829 2, £9.99 hbk
Stephanie Nettell is a critic, author and journalist on children’s books.