Pat Hutchins was born in Scorton, a small village in Yorkshire, the second youngest of a large family. ‘We had no money, but Mum always insisted that we do whatever we wanted.’ Pat wanted to draw. At sixteen she won a scholarship to Darlington Art School. ‘I was happy to go. Somehow in Yorkshire people think you’re a bit weird if you like to draw and go off for long walks on your own. I was beginning to feel I was a bit of a freak.’ After Darlington came Leeds College of Art and then London, with a portfolio of drawings and £40. ‘I thought it would last forever.’
‘I traipsed round all the publishers and they all said, “Come back when you’ve had something published” or “Write a story”.’ Eventually she went to work as an Assistant Art Editor for J Walter Thompson, the advertising agency. ‘I had a very nice boss. He used to let me do my illustrations when we weren’t busy.’ She stayed for two years. ‘It taught me a lot: economy, getting rid of unnecessary details, working quickly, working to a deadline.’ She also met and married Laurence. But she hadn’t settled for a career in advertising.
‘I always wanted to illustrate children’s books. I thought I would eventually. I’m quite stubborn; if I’ve decided to do something, I’ll work at it.’ When Laurence’s job took him to the United States Pat went too, and so did her illustrations. ‘I thought, I’ll try the New York publishers.’
It was the Swinging Sixties and the English were O.K. ‘I think they thought I’d come such a long way, they ought to see me.’ She showed one editor an idea for a book about farmyard noises. ‘There was one line she liked: “This is the fox. He never makes a noise.” She said, “Try and write a story about that.” I was terrified. I didn’t think I could write; but she just sort of kept on at me.’
The story went through lots of different stages. ‘It started very long.’ Then came the drawings. ‘As it was my first book I wanted it to be in glorious technicolour. But that would have been wrong for such a simple story.’ It took well over a year of hard work to get to the apparent effortlessness of the thirty-two words and simple three-colour illustrations of Rosie’s Walk.
When Susan Hirschman, Pat Hutchins’ editor at Greenwillow Books, saw it in its final form she said ‘This is going to be a classic.’ She was right.
That was in 1968. Since then, back in London, Morgan and Sam have been born. Being with her sons and their friends as they grow up has made a big difference to Pat Hutchins’ work.
‘Looking through the early books there are words I would have changed, things I wouldn’t have done. The most important thing is that the child should be able to understand and enjoy the book.’
For the last five years Morgan and Sam’s enjoyment has clearly been an influence. Happy Birthday, Sam (1978) appeared because Sam thought it was time he had a book named after him. Morgan had starred in The House that Sailed Away (1976) – with the rest of the family including Grandma (Pat’s mum) – and in Follow that Bus (1977) – with his class at school. Both these longer stories are uproariously funny and right for the lower junior age Morgan was at the time. Laurence did the illustrations. ‘I couldn’t do the sort of cartoony drawings those books needed.’
‘It’s a terrible admission – but I don’t really like drawing very much at all. I enjoy the writing much more. I think it’s because I don’t know anything about writing. My English is appalling, but because I don’t know it’s appalling I just get on with it and enjoy it. I’m very conscious of the mistakes I do in the drawings. I’m much more relaxed about writing.’
Seventeen books in twelve years is a formidable achievement. How does it feel? ‘I think I know how to write for small children now. The danger is in running out of ideas – thinking of something new each time. After each book I’m convinced that’s it. I’ll never be able to do another one.’ Happily so far she’s been wrong. She’s currently working on a Number book for the under-fives which promises to be a gloriously inventive visual joke. After that? ‘I’d like to think that as my children get older I’ll write for older children.’ A Pat Hutchins novel for teenagers, perhaps? ‘What I’d really like to do is a children’s play. I like writing dialogue.’ And then, ‘Sam wants a big book with all his mates in, like Morgan.’
Will she do one? ‘I’ll probably have to.’ But there’s a grin and she doesn’t sound as if it will be too painful.
The Hutchins family live in this Victorian terrace in North London. Downstairs in the big friendly kitchen, the walls and shelves are filled with a fascinating assortment of objects. ‘I’m not a collector. It’s just that I find it difficult to go past an antique shop or a junk shop. We like old things; we seem to pick them up. Lots of these things were given to us by friends – there are stories behind them. Neither Laurence nor I can throw anything away. We’ve got cartons of things in the attic from when we moved. We’ll never unpack them.’
Laurence, whose company makes TV commercials, is a model steam train enthusiast – he has a workshop and a track in the garden. Morgan is interested in space and film; Sam in gardening and the countryside. Pat won’t admit to a consuming passion but likes gardening, wild birds, wild flowers, walking and going to the zoo.
Not long ago they bought a neglected Elizabethan farmhouse in Buckinghamshire – putting that right is keeping them busy. Will they move there eventually? ‘I don’t like planning far in advance. But I know I couldn’t work happily anywhere other than England.’
Pat Hutchins works here in her studio overlooking the back garden. ‘I usually work five hours a day – 9.00-3.00. I like to be disciplined about it. The kids and their friends are usually around after school.’ The boys don’t seem to mind having a famous mum. ‘They loved it when The House that Sailed Away was on Jackanory and they could tell all their friends. Sam was a bit cross though, because in that book he’s “the baby”. They like having books about them. I’m doing a sequel to Follow that Bus – The Mona Lisa Mystery. There’s a school outing to Paris. The Mona Lisa gets stolen and there are lots of people heavily disguised chasing each other. There are even more characters in this one because after Follow that Bus all Morgan’s friends kept coming up and saying, “Can John be in the next one? Can Sue?” I don’t think I’ve missed anyone out and Laurence studies them all very carefully for the drawings, The only problem is by the time I’ve finished they’ve got a new set of friends – Morgan has just gone to the local comprehensive – and they are asking for another book.’
About the books
‘The whole point of Changes Changes was to use the same bricks throughout. It wouldn’t have worked properly if I’d cheated and used extra bricks. The ones that get burned don’t appear again. How could they?’
‘A long time ago I had an idea for a book. It starts, “There’s a tree growing in the forest.” The tree is on the left hand page and on the facing page there’s a little shoot just coming up. As you turn the pages the tree gets fuller and fuller with birds and animals and the little shoot gets bigger and bigger. At the end two woodmen come and chop down the tree and all the birds and animals transfer to the other tree – now fully grown. The last line is, “But there’s another tree growing in the forest.” It didn’t work as a book but Titch, Goodnight Owl and Changes Changes, all come from that circular idea. I keep going back to it. I like the idea of continuity.’
The Wind Blew
Most of Pat Hutchins’ books are published first in America so they are not eligible for British awards. As she is not American they are not eligible for American awards either! The Wind Blew (1974) which won the Kate Greenaway Medal was published simultaneously in both countries.
The new Numbers 1-10 book has one hunter, two elephants, three giraffes… ‘I’m having trouble with it. I want it to be “designy” with lots of pattern, but the creatures must be easily recognisable. It’s vital that the children can see exactly what’s going on even at the risk of the pictures not being as beautiful as perhaps they could be. It’s no good having really gorgeous, lively designs if it doesn’t mean anything to a two-year-old. I know exactly how I want the book to look; it’s very difficult to do it.’
Clocks and More Clocks
‘With a book like One-eyed Jake for 5-7s you can be freer, more detailed. Even then I consciously try to make it work on more than one level, so that the youngest reader can get something from it even if they don’t understand the whole thing. In Clocks and More Clocks – which was “inspired” by Laurence who was forever checking the time – I hoped that a small child who couldn’t understand the concept of telling time would find Mr Higgins funny.’
‘I thought if the fox doesn’t make a noise it would be nice to make it almost like a silent movie – where the heroine doesn’t realise she’s being followed by the villain. So I didn’t mention the fox.’
Pat Hutchins’ books are published in hardback by Bodley Head and in paperback by Puffin and Fontana Lions.