Bob Graham was already 40 when he wrote and illustrated his first picture book. It was a story about his own family and a budgerigar that flew into their lives for a while and then flew away again. ‘When I finished it’ he tells me, ‘I simply dropped it off at a publisher on my way home from work. I knew nothing about the publisher, but I’d noticed their offices quite near to my bus stop. The publishers were very pleased with it, but when they suggested I did another, I told them I couldn’t possibly come up with another idea.’ That was in 1981 – now, 25 books later, he laughs at how it’s all turned out… ‘somehow,’ he says, ‘my career just happened.’
As you might expect from his stories, Bob Graham is a perceptive and quietly unconventional character. Modest and unassuming too – although he’s already received a stack of illustration awards, many of them in his native Australia. He seems genuinely ‘bowled over’ to have won this year’s Kate Greenaway medal. ‘I was stunned when they told me – it was quite a burden keeping quiet about it until the presentation here in London.’ His wife (also an artist) is English and throughout their marriage they have moved back and forth between the two countries. They have two grown up children and now, after an idyllic seven-year spell in rural Somerset, they’ve settled again in Australia – mainly because ‘we wanted to be able to see our granddaughter, rather than hear her growing up on the telephone.’
Family life is central to all Graham’s books. With a deceptively light touch, and a tendency now and again to go spiralling off on flights of fancy, his stories explore the ups and downs of everyday domestic life, celebrating its diversity and gently unravelling some of the tangled lines of communication within the family unit. With an easy balance of words and pictures, and an irrepressible humour that’s entirely without irony, he always manages to give equal importance to each character, and to see things from all their different points of view whether they are kindly grandparents, long-suffering mothers, attentive dads, questing five-year-olds, wandering toddlers – or ever present household pets – especially the dogs he draws with such affectionate insight.
Drawing has always been a vital form of expression for Graham. As a child he was very aware of the illustrations in the books and comics – ‘we had lots of books from England – I always found Rackham a bit scary but I loved the comfortable feeling that emanated from E H Shepard’s line drawings. But above all I was fascinated by cartoons and the way the drawing had to be stripped back to essentials. I loved The New Yorker, Punch etc., and my great hero was the cartoonist Emil Mercier.’ Although his school offered no art lessons apart from technical drawing, he drew incessantly at home. A favourite story he likes to tell – he’s a generous raconteur – is how he tricked his sister into thinking he’d ripped a page from her St Trinian’s book by copying one of Searle’s drawings onto a torn piece of paper and leaving it on her bed. Completely fooled by the excellence of his forgery, she was furious; so he looks on that as one of his early successes. He left school at 17, and worked for Qantas for four years, but increasingly found himself painting and drawing, even in his lunch hours, so finally he quit his ‘upwardly mobile’ job and, in spite of his parents’ fears that he was embarking on the slippery slope of a bohemian way of life, he enrolled at art school for a traditional training in fine art.
Graham draws with a simple, expressive broken line. The cartoonist in him keeps things to a minimum, but from his sly observational skills he distills a vast range of gestures and attitudes that let you know immediately, however informal the drawing, or from whatever angle it is observed, what a character might be feeling. Faces are uncompromisingly – sometimes alarmingly – minimal and cartoony – a typical Bob Graham face has two dots for eyes, a nose like a saveloy sausage, a tender blush for the cheeks and a mouth that is little more than a hiccup in the line: expression comes from the perfectly judged tilt of the head, the set of the shoulders, the whole stance. Hands are very important, again, however minimal in execution, the exact lift of a chubby finger, the inclination of a fat little palm is always tellingly observed, and even feet are expressive – shoes always being shrugged off at the first opportunity. Animals too are portrayed with great wit and economy – he has no trouble in suggesting – even from behind – the thought processes of a bantam hen preparing to negotiate a cat-flap, or a huge roly-poly dog casually monopolizing the sofa.
Crowd scenes present no difficulty; he can fill the page with bustling activity, yet never lose the narrative thread, or the sense of unity – how does he do it? ‘It’s all about dynamics, really, about body language and how the figures relate to one another on the page.’ Graham shows me a picture in which the father leans across the mother to talk to the child – ‘look at that dent on the mother’s thigh’ he says, ‘that little pillow of indentation where his elbow is resting… it’s a little thing, but it connects them in an intimate way.’
So what about his technique, his materials? ‘I like to work in an uncomplicated way. I certainly don’t want people sitting around wondering how I do it… I use a dip pen for the line, and watercolour, and chalks… sometimes, for a certain effect, I rub the chalk with a piece of cotton wool… I think of that as the poor man’s airbrush. But really, I don’t like to think about technique, I like to keep it simple – if you think about it too much it becomes self-conscious. Drawing is such a rewarding form of self-expression, you just have to go with it… it’s a bit like playing jazz, when you’ve mastered the technique you don’t worry about it, and you can improvise, do what you like.’
He frequently includes absorbing panoramic views – which offer, as in Queenie the Bantam, those oases of calm and reflection so vital to the rhythm of a busy picture book, and, as Graham says, ‘it’s important that children should be able to get a sense of the location, so they can explore and find their way round the story.’
Although there’s never anything specifically ‘British’ or ‘Australian’ in the illustrations – he tries to keep things ‘universal’, Graham operates a very strict housing policy – he likes to put his families into ‘the kind of houses children draw’ – ordinary, unremarkable houses, with symmetrical windows, a chimney, a front door, a little garden back and front, a tree and a washing line. In Rose Meets Mr Wintergarten, 1992 (one of his finest books), Rose and her family move into just such a house, but it’s bang next door to a grim fortified mansion surrounded by razor wire fences and inhabited by a curmudgeonly old man. When Rose’s ball goes over the fence she not only dares to ask for it back but decides to help the old man by bringing a little light and friendship into his life. This book Graham tells me was something of a turning point; ‘up until then, my books had all, metaphorically, had their feet on the ground, and here I wanted to express something beyond that. There’s a scene where the whole family and their pets climb up onto the roof to watch the sun rise – my editor wasn’t at all happy about children, sheep and chickens all perched perilously on the roof ridge, but the image was something I really wanted to keep. If Rose was going to be a real heroine, I needed this scene…’ Graham had his way – ‘a pivotal moment’ in his career, he says and with the surreal touch of the sheep on the roof it is indeed an inspiring scene – full of hope and freedom, in contrast with the prison-like house next door.
‘It’s important to remember’ says Graham, ‘that children are at their most creative when they aren’t hemmed in by organized activities – they need freedom to muck about and to do nothing in particular. In Jethro Byrde, Fairy Child, Annabelle lives in the drab, dusty environment of an anonymous sprawling city (you can find her home in the big cityscape on the title page) and although she has nowhere to play but a patch of concrete by a broken fence, she nevertheless has the privilege of meeting a family of fairies whose van has made a dramatic crash landing nearby. Tiny against the delicately drawn roadside weeds (the sense of scale is brilliantly manipulated here), Jethro explains to Annabelle that they are fairy travellers. Annabelle immediately offers to help get the van sorted out. Annabelle’s mum can’t see the fairies of course, but she gladly makes tea for them, and the fairies reciprocate their hospitality with a display of music and dancing – a beautifully designed, cleverly cropped double page spread shows an elderly fairy standing on a plate by the milk jug, solemnly singing a folk song while her grandchild, a baby no bigger then a crumb, sleeps in the crinkly paper from a home-made fairy cake. Annabelle watches entranced – a touching figure, her huge nose just level with the table top. Illustrated with the utmost sensitivity, celebrating the power of the imagination, and honouring the ancient tradition of welcoming strangers, this is an enchanting book.
Welcoming strangers into our midst is something Graham feels strongly about – while he was writing this book he tells me, ‘the Australian Government refused to rescue a boat full of 438 mostly Afghan people fleeing oppression… wanting no more than a better life. And when they finally allowed these traumatized people to land, the government incarcerated them, whole families behind razor wire on the island of Nauru – and some of them are still there.’ As an Australian, he says, he was deeply shocked by this – I’d heard that he’d donated his £5,000 prize money to the relevant organizations for refugees and asylum seekers – ‘yes,’ he says, ‘it was good to have an opportunity to give some practical help.’
Finally, on a lighter note, there’s time for one or two last questions – prompted, I suppose, by the thought of having to draw fairies – does he draw from life? Does he keep a sketchbook? Yes he does; he hands it over, more of a scrapbook really, it’s full of ideas, newspaper cuttings, jottings, photos, overheard conversations and lots of drawings… I flip through it. A rather romantic pencil drawing shows some children by the sea watching a seal on a rock… was this drawn from life? Was it in Australia? No, he says, it was drawn from the radio – I listen quite a lot, and you get some wonderful images…’
Another wonderful image, which will surely turn up in a picture book one day, is drawn from an incident a little closer to home… it shows a man sitting at a table with a plate of sausage and mash. The man is watching the sausage intently… why? ‘Well,’ says Graham, ‘this was my brother-in-law; he wasn’t really watching the sausage, he was listening to it. He said it was ringing – like a mobile phone, but very, very quietly – and eventually he answered it.’
Joanna Carey is a writer and illustrator.
published by Walker Books
Brand New Baby, 0 7445 6141 8, £9.99 hbk, 0 7445 6970 2, £4.99 pbk
Buffy, 0 7445 6192 2, £9.99 hbk, 0 7445 9828 1, £5.99 pbk
Grandad’s Magic, 0 7445 8916 9, £4.99 pbk
Has Anyone Here Seen William?, 0 7445 7556 7, £9.99 hbk, 0 7445 7807 8, £4.99 pbk
Jethro Byrde, Fairy Child, 0 7445 8863 4, £10.99 hbk
“Let’s Get a Pup!”, 0 7445 7574 5, £10.99 hbk, 0 7445 9441 3, £4.99 pbk
Max, 0 7445 6787 4, £9.99 hbk, 0 7445 9827 3, £5.99 pbk
Queenie the Bantam, 0 7445 5519 1, £9.99 hbk, 0 7445 9826 5, £5.99 pbk
The Red Woollen Blanket, 0 7445 7557 5, £9.99 hbk, 0 7445 7808 6, £4.99 pbk
Rose Meets Mr Wintergarten, 0 7445 9829 X, £4.99 pbk
Aristotle, Dick King-Smith, 0 7445 8320 9, £7.99 hbk
This Is Our House, Michael Rosen, 0 7445 3750 9, £8.99 hbk, 0 7445 6020 9, £4.99 pbk