Leigh Hobbs’ ‘Old Tom’ series
Children like stories with pace, exciting pictures and lots of humour. Leigh Hobbs’ ‘Old Tom’ books tick all the right boxes. Margaret Mallett shares what she learnt when she met him at Heber Primary School and joined his workshop with a class of 7-8 year-olds.
‘I’m going to help you to draw a strange little character from my books – he looks like a cat but I never actually refer to Old Tom as a cat. In fact in many ways he’s very like a mischievous seven-year-old boy. He lives with Angela Throgmorton, a Mum-like figure, who tries to make him more mannerly and helpful.’ This was Leigh’s dynamic start to the workshop in Heber Primary School’s bright and airy new Art studio. He next began to draw his cartoon-like characters on a whiteboard with their distinctive strong line and showed the children how just one little mark can change expression. The children’s pictures of Old Tom all have the same elements, but as Leigh promised, each drawing reflects the individual’s distinctive way of seeing. Later on the children are helped to create their own imaginary characters and to start to think about how they might write about them.
At 7-8 years old these children are just the right age to appreciate the ‘Old Tom’ books although children younger and older will also like them. Teachers find they bridge the gap between early picture books and full text stories and can enliven guided reading (where a group of up to six children read the same text). Newly independent readers seem to love the ‘grown up’ feel of the books in this small format edition of four titles. This anarchic cat with an obsessively tidy carer has enormous appeal. ‘Old Tom may be a lazy, untidy “monster” defiantly unwilling to “help around the house”, but he is secure in the knowledge that despite her prim protestations, Angela’s love for him is unconditional.’
Each book tells a story at a cracking pace through a minimal written text – a sentence per page usually – and exciting cartoon-like pictures. Although the text is succinct, the books are long enough to provide some challenge for newly independent readers. The vocabulary is often stretching too: I found ‘surname’, ‘invitation’, ‘instruction’, ‘desperate’, ‘pretended’, ‘relaxed’, ‘improved’ and ‘favourite’ in Old Tom’s Guide to Being Good . Children see the correct use of punctuation including that to show dialogue. And there are some amusing verbal games. In Old Tom Goes to Mars there is a mismatch between Tom’s energetic pressing of levers, buttons, dials and switches and the stern notices on the machinery saying ‘Do not touch’, ‘Do not press’ and ‘Do not fiddle’. There is no doubt that Leigh Hobbs knows what makes children laugh. He believes that the detail in the pictures and the contradictions between picture and text help develop children’s visual literacy. The books are full of ‘signs’ and ‘codes’ – hints that children can interpret.
I wondered how the books came about. Leigh told me that they spring either from a line of text ’which might suddenly pop into my head’ or from a particular image. Old Tom Goes to Mars grew out of an image Leigh had in his mind’s eye of Old Tom’s black eye peering from a porthole. The picture then changed into a rocket ship. ‘Then I thought of the line – “At 9.15 Old Tom left earth for Mars.” The ridiculous combination of text and picture made my editor and I laugh so we suspected I was on the right path.’
I have read Old Tom , the first of the stories, to children as young as five years who loved the picture of Angela taking in the baby ‘monster’ left on her doorstep. The best books make us wonder and puzzle and five-year-old Cyndey was very concerned about Old Tom’s weird dark eye – would it get better or was it something permanent? It is this ability to connect with children’s experience and preoccupations which makes the ‘Old Tom’ books so attractive. This group was entertained by Old Tom’s energetic activity in Happyland and his obliviousness to the effect he was having on others. This same lack of empathy for others is evident in Leigh’s brilliant drawing of facial expression and gesture in Old Tom at the Beach . Tom has exciting adventures, but also manages to alarm and annoy quite a lot of people. He meets his match in Percy the Pirate – a stranger to any kind of good behaviour – when he goes to the pirates’ party. It’s not so good to be on the receiving end of bad manners!
One of the best things about Leigh Hobbs is his generosity of outlook and belief in children’s creativity. He left the children at Heber Primary School feeling excited about all the follow-up work they would be doing with their teacher, Lily McCotter. And he is always pleased to hear from teachers who have used the ‘Old Tom’ books as starting points for children’s own writing and drawing.
Thanks to Lily McCotter and the children in Year 3 at Heber Primary School, Dulwich who joined Leigh Hobbs, Andrea Reece from Happy Cat Books and me for a workshop in the school’s newly refurbished Art studio. MM
Margaret Mallett is Visiting Tutor in Primary English, Goldsmiths’ College, University of London
The ‘Old Tom’ series by Leigh Hobbs is published by Happy Cat Books, an imprint of Catnip Publishing, at £3.99 each pbk: Old Tom (1 905117 10 8), Old Tom at the Beach (1 905117 11 6), Old Tom’s Guide to Being Good (1 905117 12 4) and Old Tom Goes to Mars (1 905117 13 2). The titles were first published by Penguin Books, Australia.