It was Pat Hutchins who recognised that Ron Maris had the right talents and qualities to create distinctive picture books for young children and encouraged him to try. (The Hutchins and Maris families have been friends since Ron and Laurence – both ex-students of Northampton School of Art – worked together in the vacation at Northampton Rep.) The success of Better Move On, Frog! (Julia MacRae) which appeared in 1982 has proved her right.
Ron Maris, a Senior Lecturer at Huddersfield Polytechnic, lives near the top of a steep hill on the outskirts of the town. It’s almost the countryside and it was there in his garden he found the idea for Frog. ‘I like watching animals: there are lots of frogs in the ponds in the gardens: there are field mice and voles living in the garden wall: there are badgers up the hill: tawny owls live in the wood and often come into the garden and there are plenty of rabbits about. I wondered if there might be a clash of interests amongst animals choosing the same habitat as a home.’
The storyline in Better Move On, Frog! is neat and simple. Frog is looking for somewhere to live but each suitable hole he investigates is already inhabited. until he finds an empty pond. A 30 word vocabulary tells the 78 word long story. The type-face is large and open (18 point Plantin with a specially designed ‘a’ and ‘g’). All combine to make a book ideal for children learning to read.
Ron Maris thinks using language well is important. The original text for Frog was longer: but he cut and cut until he found the right words. ‘Doing it I realised how clever Pat Hutchins is – so clever that you are not aware until you try to write yourself.’ For the pictures he works first in pencil using both drawn and photographic references. He paints with watercolour inks, whose bright clear colours survive the printing process well. The strong visual impact of his work is reinforced by careful composition and minutely observed and accurately recorded detail. In Frog you can find plantains, dandelions, scutch-grass, ivy, water-lilies and iris. Children respond to the humour in the story and absorb, en route, information about animals and their habitats.
Frog was not Ron Maris’ first foray into children’s books. In 1978 he did the line drawings for Humblepuppy, a Bodley Head collection of short stories selected by Eileen Colwell. He began, then, to look at children’s picture books. ‘A few, not many, as I didn’t want to be influenced by anybody else. The overall impression I got was that many books aren’t done for children at all, but to show how clever an illustrator is at using a particular medium. Having taught in art schools since 1956 I am not impressed by the use of materials because making the marks is the easy part – thinking out what you are going to say is the difficult thing. The books that I liked showed a basic honesty of intent in the drawings, like Janet Ahlberg’s. Children’s picture books like any other good creative work, need the approach of someone wanting to communicate something honestly, rather than wanting to show how clever they are.’
It’s clear that a lot of thinking, of all kinds, went into My Book, Ron Maris’ second picture book which came out last year and uses the device of split pages. The half-pages between the double-page spreads make a series of doors each of which opens to reveal the inside of a house, rooms and cupboard. In a split page book the mechanics have to be carefully worked out so that half and full page pictures are a perfect match. Take a careful look at the joins in My Book and see the clever ruses an expert designer has in his repertoire.
There are ten different words in My Book: ‘My gate. My door. My bathroom. :My bedroom. My cupboard. My bed. My book. My light. Goodnight.’ This short text and the simple concepts in the book make it accessible to the very youngest children and suitable for early readers. A small child appears first on the cover and then disappears as the readers enjoy a conducted tour of the house with the cat as guide. When the child reappears he/she is in bed reading My Book.
The pictures are presented from the point of view of a small child looking upwards at scenes adults would see from above. Emphasising this the illustrations are without margins: they ‘bleed off the page with bright colour at top and sides and a light area which carries the text at the bottom. The book cover which protrudes around the edges of the pages acts as a frame for the pictures which are packed with the detail of familiar objects. The illustrations entice children to look and draw them in to ‘read’ the pictures. Colours are bright but not gaudy: the mass of detail is well-organised, avoiding confusion or fussiness; the level of understanding is simple but neither crude nor trite; and at the heart of the book there is a teasing ambiguity (Whose book/room/house is it? The reader’s? The child’s? The cat’s?) which will provoke interesting discussions with observant children.
A sequel of a kind. Are You There, Bear?, is due later this year from Julia MacRae. The text is brief, the ideas uncomplicated, and the action features the toys which belong to the child in My Book as they search for bear who seems to be lost somewhere in the house. Ron Maris has again hit on an ingenious design feature: the search for bear takes place at night in the light of a torch beam so that only a circular area of the picture is clearly lit: the rest of the page is in shadow which obscures detail but does not obliterate objects entirely. It is sure to prove a great success with nursery classes.
The Punch and Judy Book, published this month by Gollancz. has a rather older audience in mind. Like Frog it offers possibilities for project work as well. Unusually for a picture book it is A5 sized (half the size of this page) and it too has split pages. The idea came from Ron’s collection of Punch and Judy puppets, which he carved and painted himself, and the recollection of his three sons’ enjoyment of Punch and Judy shows when they were young. Children enjoy puppets and relish watching Mr Punch being appallingly naughty and getting away with it – a safe psychological channel for their own repressed aggression and sense of aggrievement.
The text is brief and includes repetition of all the famous catch-phrases. ‘That’s the way to do it’, ‘Oh no there isn’t’, ‘Oh yes there is’. There is an establishing picture on the cover, of an Edwardian crowd watching a Punch and Judy show and inside close-ups of the action, with a cheeky seagull, the lion, the unicorn and two faces in the decoration of the booth acting as audience along with the reader.
Talent in drawing and painting, expertise as a designer, knowledge of printing techniques (‘I was a print-maker for four years at the Royal College of Art so I’ve always had an interest in the technical side of producing pictures’): all are important qualities for creators of picture books. But not perhaps the all-important additional one that Pat Hutchins recognised, a quality that Ron Maris reveals as he talks about his approach to his books. ‘I think perhaps I’ve never grown up – a common thing with creative people working in the visual area. Artists need to look long and hard at something to decide what they want to say about it – there is a need to look with the intensity that children have. When I was working on the books I trusted to my instincts to produce what was right.’
At the moment his instincts are leading him to a book with a circus setting and a central character, Lily the Lion Tamer. On the basis of the first three it will be well worth watching out for.
Better Move On, Frog!
Julia MacRae, 0 86203 083 8, £4.95
Julia MacRae, 0 86203 144 3, £4.95
The Punch and Judy Book
Gollancz, 0 575 03414 9, £4.95
Are You There Bear?
Julia MacRae, 0 86203 174 5, £4.95
The story behind the production of Reg Cartwright’s first book, Mr Potter’s Pigeon, shows what a tenuous and accidental business the creation of picture books can be.
Reg Cartwright worked as an art director in advertising before he took the decision in 1974 to become a full-time artist and illustrator. His reputation grew and exhibitions of his work were mounted at the Portal Gallery in London. One of his oil paintings was a portrait of an old man standing in a garden in front of a shed and holding a pigeon. It was bought by an American tourist who took it to Barbados. Meanwhile someone at EMI had decided that the picture would make an interesting record sleeve; so another version was painted. Reg Cartwright’s agent showed the record cover to a friend who worked for Hutchinson. The perceptive publisher realising that the picture might be the basis for a picture book telephoned the artist suggesting the idea. Reg Cartwright didn’t think he could possibly write a story for children. All might have ended there had not a next-door neighbour, Patrick Kinmonth, an Oxford undergraduate reading English, called to look at Reg’s paintings. He offered to write a story and it was duly finished in two hours that very afternoon. The three double-page spreads and eleven single plates which illustrate it took rather longer. Each illustration was done as a full-sized oil painting, 20″ x 30″, and the whole book was two years in the preparation. Mr Potter’s Pigeon was published in 1979; Reg Cartwright won the Mother Goose Award as the most promising new illustrator of picture books and a new career was born.
The story of Mr Potter’s Pigeon is simple but appealing. Shortly before an important race Lupin the cat unhooks the door of Mr Potter’s racing pigeon’s cage and the pigeon flies away in fright. She follows the river to the sea and collapses with exhaustion onto a lighthouse. Mr Potter is saddened by the loss of his pigeon. When she finds her way back home he is overjoyed and delighted that she will be able to race after all. During the race the pigeons are confused by thick fog. They are saved by Mr Potter’s pigeon who recognises the lighthouse and is able to lead them home, thus winning the race. This crude outline does no justice to the quality and subtlety of Patrick Kinmonth’s telling. The story is strong and memorable, poignant without sentimentality, offering opportunities to its illustrator which Reg Cartwright took in full.
Designing book jackets had given him experience in finding how to express the essence of a book visually, so when he analysed the text ideas for pictures came sharply into focus. ‘It’s not difficult to decide what to illustrate. I put myself into a child’s position. What would I want to see if I was a child? Which bit would I like to look at? When I was a child I always looked at the pictures rather than read the stories. I thought the sign of a true intellectual was anyone who read the long bits at the bottom of the page in Rupert Bear; I only read the rhyming couplets.’
The artwork for Mr Potter’s Pigeon has been described as ‘painterly’ which pleases Reg Cartwright who claims Douanier Rousseau as a strong influence. The paintings have a photo-realist quality in the reproduction of the textures of foliage, the wood of the pigeon shed and the bricks of the house. The details of the foxgloves and the cow parsley are very fine and provide both interesting surroundings for and a contrast to the central characters who are more simply worked. Reg Cartwright says, ‘People say the style is complicated. It’s not at all; it’s very simple. The format, the design of the paintings is very straightforward: it’s usually a horizontal and a couple of verticals if you pare it down.’ This simplicity of composition has a strong impact on the viewer. There are also lots of details which children like to investigate. Colour reflects mood: serious and sombre in the sad pictures, strong and bright in patches where good humour is appropriate, carefully muted in the foggy scenes. Here too all kinds of light are exactly caught: bright sunshine, moonlight, fog.
The pictures show things from interesting angles: close-ups, aerial views, views through doors and a gap in a train. The lighthouse is first seen from the point of view of someone standing at the bottom looking upwards. Usually Reg Cartwright draws from life but he worked from memory for the lighthouse and the angle was inspired by recollections of illustrations of space-ships in his favourite childhood comic, Eagle.
The model for Mr Potter is alive and well and living near Kibworth Beauchamp, where Reg Cartwright lives in Leicestershire; so too is the woman farmer who inspired the painting which sparked off the idea for Norah’s Ark.
The story of Norah’s Ark was written by Ann Cartwright, Reg’s wife; the idea of calling the central character Norah came from their son, James: the cat in the story is Boddy, the family cat: the inclusion of the black dog, Henry, is homage to a late lamented pet: so the book is well and truly a Cartwright family production.
Norah’s farm animals quarrel because their pond is too small. Very heavy rain floods the farm and resourceful Norah turns the barn into an ark. Instead of being pleased by the endless mud and water the animals complain because there isn’t enough dry land. All problems are resolved when the floods subside, dry land reappears and the original pond is found to be much bigger. There were many drafts, revisions and refinements before Ann Cartwright was happy with the story. Her final version is full of charm and good humour. Description is interspersed with comments from the characters and nicely-timed jokes, and the relaxed rhythms of the telling mean it reads aloud well.
Reg Cartwright’s artwork is flatter, less textured and more stylized than in Mr Potter. It is reminiscent of illustrations associated with folk tales, very suitable for a story that could be seen as a feminist update of Noah’s ark. The detailed, textured backgrounds of Mr Potter would have been out of place in a story with so many characters: simplification was necessary to avoid too busy a picture. In place of texture we have areas of rich pattern created from the varied shapes and colours of animals and birds.
The whole book has been designed with flair. The major illustrations are full size single plates or double page spreads, smaller pictures are inset into the pages of text. The text page is framed by a think grey line which contains the print and counteracts the tendency for small amounts of words to float about in a large white space. The type-face is round, open and elegant, with decorative capitals and the excellent layout of the pages makes one realise how much this aspect of design affects the quality of picture books, and how many could be improved.
Reg Cartwright is not an artist to be rushed. We have waited a long time for his second book so it’s good to hear that he and his wife are already planning the next. A treat to look forward to.
Mr Potter’s Pigeon
Hutchinson, 0 09 139450 3, £3.95; Methuen/Moonlight Pocket Bears, 0 907144 37 3, £1.50
Hutchinson, 0 09 152750 3, £4.95