In the May issue of Books for Keeps Colin McNaughton explained why the panel of judges for the Mother Goose Award had decided not to nominate a 1985 winner.
Tudor Humphries, an artist whose first children’s book was published last year, read the report and sent us this.
I wasn’t aware, until I read in Books for Keeps the report of the jury’s deliberations, that I had even been considered for the Mother Goose Award for the most exciting newcomer to British children’s book illustration. I’ve been working as an illustrator for over ten years, banging my head against the publishing wall until finally someone gave me a whole brick to paint, so I hardly fall into the category of newcomer. Reading what the judges had to say to justify not making an award this year has left me furious and bristling. This could of course be considered ‘sour grapes’ but I think it goes much deeper than that.
What angered me most was the suggestion that everybody who worked hard to illustrate their first book in 1984/85 could be lumped together under the umbrella of producing ‘dull sanitized books’ and following ‘just the same old formulae’. Yet most of the list of ‘formulae’ (which took up half the first paragraph of the panel’s report) sounded very much like publishers’ ideas for books rather than ideas originated by illustrators:
‘The-richly-illustrated-Arabian-nights-tale-formula, The-Myths-and-Legends-formula, The-respectable-poetry-anthology-formula, etc, etc …’
So presumably many of these books were already conceived before the artist came on the scene. Can the jury then blame the illustrator for the lack of originality in the concept? Particularly as, by the very nature of the award, we are dealing with artists who are presumably unknown, inexperienced and untried and who therefore haven’t yet acquired the clout to demand their own way?
My own first book The Doom of the Gods was one of the few that received a reasonably favourable comment but, oh dear, it was just not quite good enough. The five other books cited as ‘almosts’ were similarly guilty of not being dynamically exciting enough to fire the judges’ enthusiasm. In case you read the article and thought artists just weren’t trying hard enough these days, let me give you some background to Doom of the Gods:
As a child I was obsessed with ancient history. I was awestruck by the things that have happened in this world (I still am); the fact that ‘Then’ was ‘Now’ to real people, just as 1986 is real to us, is to me one of the many wonders of being alive. When I was offered Doom of the Gods, Michael Harrison’s reworkings for younger readers of stories from the Norse Mythology, I realised that amongst other things I had a chance to encourage in children that feeling of the reality of history. You could argue that Mythology is not history, but to the Vikings these stories of their gods were very real, just as Christ is to a Christian or Buddha to a Buddhist. I challenged myself to bring the stories to life. This involved constant research and imagination and sheer hard work. Determined not to conjure an accurate but lifeless world, I struggled for a whole year to produce a book that would be INSPIRING to children on as many levels as possible. If you think I failed them then fair enough, but don’t tell me I didn’t push myself to my artistic and imaginative limits, that I settled for a dull sanitized formula. Getting the picture right often reduced me to a frustrated wreck, as I worked at the very edge of my abilities. The experience left me exhausted, wrung out, broke, and introverted but nevertheless sure that I had done what I set out to do. Did I really go through all this to be told, `Sorry but you didn’t have quite enough dazzle and sparkle to make our jaded palates froth’?
Fortunately, children are not so rediculously demanding as the Mother Goose Panel. If a book stimulates them to laugh, cry, think, learn, enquire or wonder then they feel they have got something out of it; apparently the panel of judges felt differently and seemed to consider novelty value to be their main criterion.
I recently discussed The Iron Man (another book deemed not good enough) with some 8-10 year olds. They thought the illustrations were brilliant; so do I. I was stunned by Andrew Davidson’s strong and original woodcuts for this new edition of The Iron Man. Surely, weren’t they capable of arousing enough excitement?
There seems to be a terrible tendency in the 1980s to take criticism to an absurd level. Not to appreciate people for what they CAN do but to nitpick to find the slightest fault and pounce on it, crying ‘there, he’s got a flaw, he’s not perfect’. Who are these panel of judges to be so elitist and esoteric as to create a group of super illustrators who have I passed the ultimate eligibility test (set by them)? Surely this detracts from the very essence and purpose of childrens’ book illustration which is its capacity to give enjoyment, stimulation and education to children.
Another of the jury’s admonishments was that artists took ‘the safe path, producing safe, boring books’ in order to please publishers, to do what is necessary to get published. Yes, I made concessions to my editor, author and designer: in some cases I followed their ideas rather than my own and they were generally right. Isn’t this simply part of working as a team, allowing other members of the team to make their own contribution?
The illustrators who appear in any year are expressive of that year, good or bad, and if you must try and pin down the best of them, then for God’s sake do it. Give someone the prize so that all of those who worked hard can feel that they were appreciated and the best person won. Otherwise your smug condescension makes a mockery of the award and their hard work.
I’ve just finished another long year, painting my second book. Once again I’m exhausted, wrung out, broke and introverted but at least I can sleep soundly knowing that I can never again be considered for the Mother Goose Award …
Tudor Humphries trained as a set and costume designer for the theatre. This experience, he says, had a profound effect on his ideas about drama, lighting and atmosphere in paintings. While waiting for the opportunity to illustrate a whole book he has, among other things, worked as a landscape painter, done book covers, been a sign painter and taught life-drawing. The waiting time has also involved him with children: as a playgroup leader, an organiser of festivals and workshops, and teacher of art in primary schools.
For The Doom of the Gods he did extensive research and made working costumes and props which he got people to wear and use to get the feel and look of living Vikings for his paintings and black and white drawings. (His wife Mary appears as Sif. )
He has recently completed the illustrations for a second book of Norse tales (also by Michael Harrison). The Curse of the Ring tells the story of the ring cycle (the Volsung saga) and will be published next April. The Humphries family, which includes `our three naughty boys’, lives in Devon.
The Doom of the Gods, Oxford, 0 19 274128 4, £7.95