I interviewed Rebecca Cobb in August during the Edinburgh Book Festival. She had just conducted a session with a group of children and parents. She began with a reading from her book Lunchtime, which has won the 2013 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, and was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Award. It depicts a confrontation between a toddler who won’t eat her soup and a hungry crocodile, bear and wolf. After reading the story, Rebecca conducted a ‘live drawing’ activity, responding to children’s suggestions for adapting the story by drawing their visions on the spot. Then there was a stint of hands-on craftwork with the children, recruiting them into a challenge, organised by Macmillan in support of Save the Children, to break the Guinness world record for the longest chain of paper dolls ever created. She concluded with a reading from her forthcoming book, Aunt Amelia, about a splendid babysitter who also happens to be a giant lizard.
Her desire to be an artist long preceded her induction into authorship.
“From when I was really little I was always drawing, colouring, creating things. Every now and then at my mum’s house she finds something I made years ago. I even used to collect old tin cans and make them into people. I was always making little books, stapling bits of paper together. At school I’d do my writing then heavily illustrate it. With science I would spend hours doing diagrams – sometimes the teachers would say ‘this isn’t an art project’.”
After leaving school, her love of drawing drew her to Falmouth University’s degree in illustration. She then worked as an illustrator for publications including the Independent and the Guardian. While working in Falmouth, she met Ron Johns, the owner of an independent bookshop, who also runs Mabrecon Books, an interestingly distinctive publisher devoted to celebrating Cornwall. Rebecca showed Ron her work, and he was impressed enough to offer her a commission.
The association with Mabrecon led Rebecca into the world of children’s literature; she was asked to illustrate The Ferry Birds, (2010) one of Helen Dunmore’s Cornwall-set adventure stories. “Helen’s agent had a look at my website to see if they would be were happy for me to work with her, and then she asked, would you like me to be your agent too?” The collaboration has produced two further books, The Islanders (2011) and The Lonely Sea Dragon (2013).
“Helen loves writing about Cornwall, so all her children’s books are set in real locations there. We go out and look at actual place,… so I know exactly what to draw.” Rebecca’s depictions of the coastal communities and seascapes amongst which the stories are set convey a vivid spirit of place, born of both rigorous observation and love of locality. However, the adventures of the children in Dunmore’s stories convey a sense of underlying magic and peril that goes beyond a simple celebration of beautiful places. Rebecca’s illustrations convey this tension between the serenity of the secure little cove or cave or fantasy island, and the more threatening forces, both mythical and elemental, which shape the Cornish landscape and its living character. In The Islanders, for example, the endpapers depict the ‘wild interior’ of the island, a squirming turmoil of variegated green seaweed tendrils amidst which intricately drawn tropical birds glitter like scattered jewellery. The storm that carries the children away from the island rages across a double page of huge washes of the same greens, curled into gigantic, Hokusai-like waves, completely overtowering their frail little boat. In all three books, the children are drawn into their surroundings with an acuteness of gesture, posture and expression that captures their earnestness, curiosity and vulnerability.
These qualities are powerfully present in Missing Mummy, a book about bereavement (2011). “A friend of the family, who’s a bereavement counsellor said to me, ‘Do you think you could have a go at writing a book on that subject? We’re really struggling – we can’t find one that’s just directly for small children who’ve lost a parent.’ So that’s what made me try writing a story for the first time since I was at school.”
The book is certainly direct. It opens with the sentences, ‘Some time ago we said goodbye to mummy. I am not sure where she has gone.’ The words are written above a double page showing only a rear view of massed black umbrellas and mourning clothes at a rainy funeral, with flickers of colour on the right in the red welly of the child narrator, gazing away from the scene, and the green glove of his older sister. In 21 more brief sentences, the child’s sorrow, fear, anger, confusion and the beginnings of acceptance are expressed alongside poignant images of loss and eventual reassurance, intensified by the use of coloured pencils and crayon alongside ink and watercolour. The strength of the words and images is in their simplicity. ‘I really miss my mummy’ is printed on the left of a double page, with a small picture of the child turned away from the viewer, weeping, on the right. The rest of the expanse is blank white emptiness. I asked Rebecca about how she had composed a work that is both unsentimental and compassionate.
“I just tried to think of all the questions a child would ask. What triggered it was being at a funeral and a little girl was asking where her great gran was. It made me think, she’s expecting to see her there because everyone had obviously said this is great gran’s funeral, so the child thought she’d be there, and that made me try to think from that little girl’s point of view. What would be her questions and feelings? Bereavement’s really confusing anyway but if you actually don’t know what’s going on– I did a lot of crying when I was making this book – every time I sat down to do it I just cried. In the pictures I wanted the child to be colourfully dressed, even though the adults are all in dark clothes, because for them life is still going on like before – they know things have changed but they don’t understand why or how.”
She was initially anxious about the impact of the book on its intended audience, but has received messages of thanks from families who have shared it with grieving children.
Since Missing Mummy, Rebecca has published two more of her own storybooks, but has continued to work as an illustrator for other writers. The Empty Stocking, a Christmas story by Richard Curtis, was published last year, as was The Paper Dolls, a collaboration with Julia Donaldson. The story is about the death-defying adventures of five dolls, made by a little girl and her mother, who face down several perils before being scissored to shreds by a bully. This is a distressing surprise, but on the following pages, Rebecca shows them reassembling themselves like a windblown organic mosaic to enrich the girl’s past and future. The image of the dolls dancing through a forest strewn and garlanded with emblems of childhood resonates with the sense of creation, loss and redemption underlying Missing Mummy. ‘”The forest is memory”, she says. “You can’t see your memory but it’s always there, hidden and changing and growing.” The book gave rise to the paper doll chain record-breaking project, for which Rebecca designed the templates.
She enjoys the challenge of working with other authors. “I like the diversity of the different processes. As an illustrator I was telling stories in pictures, so self-starting with my own words was like a natural progression. But with collaborations you can explore stories and envision ideas that you would never have come up with yourself.”
Lunchtime presented the challenge of creating a story based on an idea entirely her own. She found inspiration in combining two vivid memories of her own childhood: sitting at the table steadfastly refusing her soup, and being friends with an imaginary lion that lived in her bedroom. “I put the two ideas together and turned the lion into a bear, wolf and crocodile.” Similarly, Aunt Amelia emerged from memories of unfamiliar family members arriving as vaguely worrying babysitters, then turning out to be marvellously subversive companions. The entry of talking animals into domestic routines reflects Rebecca’s empathy with the imaginative lives of children. “I love the ambiguity of stories which leave unanswered questions. It’s a bit like Not Now Bernard: was he really eaten by a monster? Was there really a wolf and a bear and a crocodile at the Lunchtime table? Is Aunt Amelia really a big lizard? Well, it’s lovely that children can make their own minds up about that. They like the sense of mystery.”
Working with text has also provided other creative challenges. For Aunt Amelia, she designed the font in which the parents leave instructions for the baby sitter. Her decision, while writing Lunchtime, to have the crocodile declare the soup to be ‘exquisite!’ prompted a message from a parent reporting that her children now use the word whenever they have soup. “I like the idea of a little tiny two year old using a beautiful word like that. It was lovely that Helen described the lonely sea dragon as ‘lugubrious’. With picture books there are so few words you have to choose ones that are interesting.”
Rebecca’s future plans include further collaborations with Richard Curtis and Julia Donaldson, and she is also working on another recipe book for Mabecron, Regarding her own creative writing, she is finding inspiration in the domestic labour of restoring a derelict house with her partner. “There’s a ruined old greenhouse that reminds me of Skellig, so maybe I’ll find my own story there.” Meanwhile, her own memories continue to inspire her. “As a child I was always fascinated by holes; who made that hole, and what’s down there? Once I found an interesting hole and put a mini-cheddar down it, and out popped a frog! I had no idea frogs lived in holes!’” The hole, the frog and the mini-cheddar all feature in an emerging story. The imagination reels in anticipation.
The Ferry Birds , Helen Dunmore, illus. Rebecca Cobb, Mabrecon , 38pp, 978-0-9532-1569-0, £11.99 hbk
The Islanders, Helen Dunmore, illus. Rebecca Cobb, Mabrecon, 38pp, 978-0-9564-3502-6, £11.99 hbk
The Lonely Sea Dragon, Helen Dunmore, illus. Rebecca Cobb, Mabrecon, 40pp, 978-0-9572-5601-9, £11.99 hbk
Missing Mummy, Macmillan Children’s, 32pp, 978-0-2307-4951-1 pbk
Lunchtime, Macmillan Children’s, 32pp, 978-0-2307-4953-5, £6.99 pbk
The Empty Stocking, Richard Curtis, illus. Rebecca Cobb, Puffin, 48pp, 978-0-1413-3625-1, £6.99 pbk
The Paper Dolls, Julia Donaldson, illus. Rebecca Cobb, Macmillan Children’s, 32pp, 978-1-4472-2014-5, £6.99 pbk
Aunt Amelia, Macmillan Children’s, 32pp, 978-0-2307-6481-1, £10.99 hbk
George Hunt is lecturer in Education at the University of Edinburgh.