Babette Cole’s wittily dynamic picture books with their anarchic energy and often ‘unmentionable’ subject matter have been influential in broadening the appeal of the picture book. Here she explains the techniques and thinking behind two illustrations, one from Drop Dead and one from The Bad Good Manners Book.
Despite its title Drop Dead is really about life! Two children ask their old wrinkly grandparents why they are so old and the grandparents give them their life history from birth to death and beyond that even. They lived very dangerous lives and escaped death at each moment of it until they just get old and drop dead anyway. This illustration is of one of their student parties which was obviously a dangerous affair indeed!
As there had to be a narrow escape from death on each page, I liked the idea of them being crammed onto the roof of a college building having such a good time that none of them seem aware of the danger. The facing illustration showed them making dangerous chemical experiments and was very much a drawing. I wanted to complement the line on that page by contrasting it with the more abstract and painterly illustration about colour and shape that you see here. In order to do this, I used almost entirely pastel to make this picture soft (yet dangerous). The only line being the little figures on the top of the building. I scrubbed it on using my fingers and cotton buds (those little woolly things on sticks for cleaning your ears! I find these very useful for putting down pastel.). I cannot think of any influences that made me do it this way, it just seemed the natural thing to do.
I am very fond of this illustration from The Bad Good Manners Book. I like it because it is a very good piece of drawing for me. I wanted lots of changes in texture. Note the soft podgyness of mum where the little girl is sticking her finger in, to the hard little iron legs on the stool struggling to keep mum up. The rather harsh black feathers on the hat, in black ink, set off to the soft netting drawn in grey ink as do the silk scarf against the watermarked velvet jacket and the flimsy overskirt on top of the solid black underskirt. Mum’s face is peachy and flushed compared with some hard lines about her hair and hat.
At the very moment she gets poked Mum is so incensed that she gulps and spills her tea unexpectedly. With her cheeks full, I wanted to make it look as though she might spit it at the rude child! The text reads ‘…and don’t tell your mum that she’s fat.’ I like the largeness of mum compared with the small, rather spiky little girl who has her mother’s podgy face, indicating that she will probably be like that when she grows up anyway. Note the other slimmer, more elegant mothers in the background to make mum look even fatter. The little girl is not embarrassed. She is taking the mick a bit! As for influence, I can definitely see the Searle illustrations from St Trinian’s that I giggled over as a kid in there, and a good dose of Mr Shilling about the hat!
Drop Dead is published by Random House Children’s Books (0 09 965081 9, £5.99 pbk) and The Bad Good Manners Book by Puffin (0 14 055480 7, £4.99 pbk). Babette Cole won the 1996 Kurt Maschler Award for Drop Dead.