Rod Campbell and I are pretty much of the same vintage. We can both remember when the books with which he has made his publishing career were very hard to find.
Board books for the youngest children, with or without flaps, are now a staple of children’s publishers’ lists and have their own sections in bookshops and libraries. But, forty years ago, few publishers had thought this audience was worth addressing or had explored the technology to produce the simple sturdy interactive books we now expect to share with our children and grandchildren.
Rod came upon what was to become his career ‘almost by accident’. He studied organic chemistry for many years: ‘I was supposed to be a bright child and go to university and all that’. But actually he wanted to paint and, once he’d satisfied expectations of his academic prowess with a doctorate, he spent ten years doing odd jobs and concentrating on painting ‘hard edge abstracts’. He did sell some paintings then and he continues to paint now but his life changed course when someone with a sister in publishing saw a drawing of a toy that he had done and thought his style might suit children’s books.
He found himself with Blackie, a venerable Scottish publisher, and began illustrating early concept books: ‘tiny, insignificant, little paperbacks, with very little text: bigger, biggest, smaller, smallest, that sort of thing.’ He enjoyed the work and the people. ‘I was gradually drawn in and I realised that I had ideas’. He feels he was very much learning to illustrate as he went along, ‘in public, you might say’. He then came across Eric Hill’s Where’s Spot? published in 1980. Pop up books for older children had been around at least since Victorian times and had seen something of a revival, particularly with Jan Pienkowski’s Haunted House, published the year before Spot. These books for older children were sophisticated and somewhat fragile pieces of paper engineering but it was the potential of Hill’s use of the humble and robust flap that intrigued Rod. He began work on his first flap book. This was published two years later as Dear Zoo. It has been in print ever since and is now recognised as a classic of its kind.
Rod remembers that Dear Zoo ‘developed in my mind surprisingly quickly. It has never been that quick since’. Rod sees his books as a bridge between toys and books, engaging younger children through physical interaction and introducing them not only to how a book works but also to the conventions of story and text. Dear Zoo exemplifies a number of principles that Rod has tried to apply to all his subsequent work. He places most importance on a story’s resolution, aiming for an ending that is either calm and quiet, ‘like the end of a busy day’, or is gently upbeat.
While a story needs to be simple – and he typically uses repetition both as a plot device and within the text – it also needs to respect the child’s level of understanding. What struck him most reading Dorothy Butler’s Books for Babies (1980) was her insight that children bring their existing experience along with their curiousity to their reading. Humour is key to all of Rod’s work, not only in his style of illustration, but in the story. Sometimes, author, carer and child seem to be sharing a joke. As he remarks of Dear Zoo, ‘The logic appeals. Children are sensible enough to know that most of the animals will not fit in the house and will be difficult to look after. And then the perfect pet arrives’.
Rod describes himself as a maker of books, rather than an author or illustrator: Perhaps as a development of his interest in the book as a physical object, he quickly became involved in the publishing process itself, and, perhaps uniquely in the children’s book world, became his own publisher. His name first appeared on the books alongside Blackie in 1987, and in 1989 he founded his own imprint, Campbell Books. ‘Maybe it’s because I’m quite proprietorial, but I’d learnt a lot about book production with Blackie, so I started doing a list and asked other authors and illustrators to do something for me, as well as publishing my own books.”
Starting with just himself and an assistant, Rod soon had a success on his hands. The ‘books for babies’ movement, starting from small beginnings in the early 1980s was, ten years later, fully into its stride and Bookstart, aiming to gift board books to every young family, was only a few years away. Rod sees this as result not only of changes in attitude to young children and books but also of the expanding technological opportunities in book production: ‘Now with books you can do things that you couldn’t do years ago: the card that’s available, changing formats, thicker pages, holes, flaps and tabs – more ways of engaging the child’. Campbell Books thrived as an independent for six years and then Rod sold it to Macmillan. It was the right move for him. ‘I felt I was turning into a businessman, which is not what I wanted. Also, it needed to expand, and I didn’t feel I wanted to do that’. He took the opportunity to move to Paris for twelve years, practising his French.
Campbell Books still exist as an imprint within Macmillan Books, and Rod, returned to London, no longer has a role in it, although he continues to produce his own books for Macmillan. He feels flattered that Macmillan have kept his books in print, although, having done everything himself before, he admits to initially finding it difficult to accept that even small changes from his originals might be necessary for new editions. Other challenges have emerged and two of his stories have taken on new forms thanks to the children’s theatre movement. A play of Dear Santa has been touring at Christmas for fifteen years and Dear Zoo went on tour in 2018. It was stopped in its second year by the pandemic, but will surely be back. Rod wrote the scripts for both productions and, while Dear Zoo and the rest of his back catalogue continue to find new small readers, he also has a new flap book to add to Macmillan’s list.
Look After Us arose from an enquiry that Macmillan received about using Dear Zoo as part of a conservation campaign. Rod didn’t feel that Dear Zoo quite fitted the bill and he set himself the task of making a book that might address animal conservation for young children. He liked the challenge of introducing a complex subject to young children. Rather than arriving mysteriously in a crate, the animals on each page are initially nowhere to be found, ‘because we need to look after them better’. The front of each flap shows only an empty habitat – savannah for lions, desert for camels, jungle for orangutans and so on. The animals are revealed, of course, when the flaps are lifted. True to his policy of an upbeat ending, the end papers open out to reveal happy whales, ‘because kind people are looking after them really well’.
Rod says that he feels immensely grateful for his long career. ‘It’s astonishing really. I do what I do as best I can and it’s just happened. When I did school visits it was always a great pleasure to connect with the children and to share their enthusiasm, spontaneity and honesty. The other thing is meeting parents, them telling me how much their child enjoys, say, Dear Zoo, and then saying, of course, I loved it too. It’s a bit overwhelming’.
Clive Barnes has retired from Southampton City where he was Principal Children’s Librarian and is now a freelance researcher and writer.
Books mentioned, all published by Macmillan Children’s Books
Dear Zoo, 978-0230747722, £6.99
Look After Us, 978-1529045741, £6.99
Dear Santa, 978-1529050714, £6.99