Willie Rushton, cartoonist, illustrator, writer, actor and all-round humourist, writes about getting involved with children and books.
The first kids’ book I ever illustrated was in 1960 and (isn’t Life odd, particularly in my experience, Fridays) I owed the job to none less than Michael Foot. As I remember, it had been a strange week altogether.
On the Thursday for the first and last time in my life I had voted Conservative (there had been something so deeply reassuring about their final Party Political Broadcast with Harold Macmillan poking a globe in a God-like manner) and on the following Monday I joined Tribune as Political Cartoonist. Michael Foot was then Editor and a great admirer of Vicky. So was I, but Mr Foot wanted me to do cartoons in his style and I never was too keen on labelling clouds `Recession’ or writing people’s names on their brief-cases or trousers. However we cobbled out one cartoon together complaining about the wishy-washy policies of the Labour Right that had blown the election. At his behest I drew a large bull labelled ‘Labour Party’ being fed from a bucket (labelled `Milk and Water’) by Douglas Jay (labelled `Douglas Jay’). Meanwhile a person labelled `Left’ waved a red rag (`Tribune’) in an attempt to excite the slumbering beast. Plus ca change, baby. I hated it, and it was the first and last cartoon I ever did for Tribune. Mr. Foot, however, a generous man, rang Harrap the Publishers and they, given my Bull which I must admit I was quite impressed by myself, asked did I ever do elephants? Certainly, I cried, lying in a good many more teeth than I boast today. I think the book was called Ebeldum E. Elephant, and I could certainly dash off elephants by the end of it. Incidentally, to prove the mercenary nature of the young Rushton, within a week I was Political Cartoonist of The Liberal News.
I should think it was ten or more years before I did anything for kids again. In those days I rarely appeared in daylight, but my wife and I gave birth to a fine son, and it’s extraordinary how quickly you find yourself imitating the actions of Old Grimm. My stories aged with Toby. When he was very young, I passed the odd one, usually about our lunatic dachshund, Mrs Saunders, and her friend, our Mynah Bird (known as The Pouf) who could only say `Good Morning’ in my voice (Better than Mike Yarwood, the Pouf!), to Playschool. As he grew I graduated to Jackanory, writing, illustrating and reading for them.
My excuse for engaging in all three activities is that I’m the only person I know who can read my writing. I did a week’s stories for them about the ruler of Europe’s smallest country called The Geranium of Flut. In one the Queen and Prince Philip paid an Official Visit to Flut and were given 150 trees to plant in the afternoon. (Andre Deutsch published another of the stories as a strip-book.) As well as that, I wrote a Jubilee story about The Queen’s Beasts, and had a good time reading most of Winnie the Pooh!
The pleasure of writing for kids is the discipline. You can whack out a Play for Today or whatever which starts in the middle, continues in the middle and ends in the middle, and leaves the audience brow wrinkled and shouting for less. Not so with kids.
When I was carving out the Jackanory stories about the Geranium and his lovely wife The Lobelia, I was on holiday in the Dordogne and surrounded by children. It was a sobering exercise to read the results of the Midnight Oil to them on a morning. The air was thick with questions, and if I couldn’t answer them, forget it. Sobering, but rewarding. I got Toby to read the proofs of The Incredible Cottage books and blue-pencil where Father had shattered Plot or Logic. (He also did all the black-and-white illustrations in the style of the young hero, Waldo – I believe in Jobs for Youth.)
I’m certain I could never do anything for kids be it a book, a stage or a telly without seeking their opinion first and weathering the backlash, the abuse and the probing queries. In that regard I’ve been lucky, not only with a scrupulously honest son and friends but also that over the years I’ve done a deal of Christmas Shows at the Mermaid Theatre in London. You get to know your audience there. I certainly learnt one lesson: it is best to aim for all the family. If the kids see parents getting restive, you lose them and conversely if you aim solely at Mum and Dad, the kids are out with their potato crisps and noisily rustling their copies of the Financial Times.
`Children of All Ages’ is a happy cliche. There has to be something for everyone. There’s nothing so depressing as reading a bed-time story to a small child and going to sleep before he does.
I like to think there’s something for everyone in The Incredible Cottage series. The books are basically for amusement only, but I’ve tried to inject one fascinating fact or gobbet into each, whether it be that Buffalo Bill was one of the first to climb the Eiffel Tower or simply that the interior of the Great Pyramid is deeply dull. Above all, I have sweated over Plot and Logic.
I once wrote a line into an adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels I did for the Mermaid which I think extremely wise. `There’s very little to be said in my book for anything that can’t be explained to children.’ Try Monetarism on them for instance and see how far you get.
The Incredible Cottage stories are Willie Rushton’s latest books for children. Hundreds of years ago the first inhabitant of the cottage, Noragunge, a Nice Witch, decided that travelling by broom was too uncomfortable. So she cast a spell and thereafter travelled by cottage. When young Waldo Trumpet and his parents move in and he discovers the secret of instant travel the stage is set for (so far) four amusing adventures.
The Story of the Incredible Cottage,
0 86185 324 5
Ancient George Gets His Wish,
0 86185 325 3
The Incredible Cottage Goes to the Moon,
0 86185 326 1
Waldo Meets the Witch,
0 86185 327 X
published by Golden Acorn Publishing at 65p each.
Earlier this year Willie Rushton’s talents as an illustrator were demonstrated in The Stupid Tiger and Other Tales (Deutsch, 0 233 97256 0, £3.95), a collection of Indian stories translated from the Bengali by William Radice. The black-and-white drawings are witty in just the right way to catch the flavour of these wise and funny stories. And there are at least two elephants.