Colin McNaughton is an illustrator, writer and poet whose exuberant picture books with their comic-strip techniques, often take the form of an extended joke. In this article McNaughton explains the thinking behind Hmm …, the fifth book about popular Preston Pig and his adversary, Mister Wolf.
When I was little, adults were always telling me to `Stop Being Silly’ and to `Stop Messing About’. It took me far, far, too many years to realize that these were the only two things in life that I was any good at. Now, it’s what I do all day. It’s how I write my books: I get an idea and I mess about with it. I do silly things with it. I play with it.
Preston Pig lives in that uncorrupted state of childhood, that oh-too-short stage in our lives when we walk around with our eyes and our imaginations wide open. Mister Wolf represents all those dangers out there that give parents nightmares. He’s a nasty piece of work. Only thing is, I got to feeling pretty bad about Mister Wolf because he was so one-dimensional. He had no inner-life. Hmm… is my attempt at remedying that. The book shows, through the use of thought-balloons, how his mind works.
The first spread shows, for the first time, Preston and Mister Wolf actually conversing. (A risk this, as the previous books depended on Preston’s `unawareness’ of Mister Wolf for their humour and suspense.) I’ve done it in a comic-strip way with panels and speechballoons because that was the most efficient way to get all that `intro’ information over without a hugely wordy text. (Also, because I think it looks great!)
Technically, the artwork is done in pencil-line and watercolour. I’ve used lots of bright yellow and blue to suggest a warm sunny day. The sort of day when one
might indulge in this sort of contemplative conversation. I particularly like the marks a very soft pencil makes. The crumbling of graphite on hand-made water-colour paper. The sensuous response to the pressure of the hand. It demands total concentration yet a certain detachment. It’s a Zen-like activity. (Pretentious, moi?)
This opening spread design is repeated at the end of the book and forms the bread on either side of the filling of the book – a sort of ham sandwich. (Oh, for-heavens sake!)
The second spread is representative of all the other spreads. A sandwich spread. (Colin, I’m warning you!) I use the comic convention of the thought-balloon to reveal Mister Wolf’s inner-voice, his vivid imagination and to confirm his unpleasant (though hopefully humorous ) nature. Preston is blissfully unaware of Mister Wolf’s thoughts. Whereas, you, the reader, are let in on the secret. In academic circles this is known as `Irony’. (I hope you’re taking notes.)
The pirate theme is just me having a little fun with the readers who know my other books. It comes under the heading ‘Knowingness’, I think. Mister Wolf making Preston walk the plank is a cliche, I know, but cliches are incredibly useful when you need to get a lot of information over in a limited space. All I do is to give the cliches a little twist – making them my own.
I suppose what I’m striving for these days, in my books, is to do more with less. I’m looking for that kind of quality that the classic, two minute, pop song has; it’s great when you first hear it and it’s still great thirty years later. It’s a lovely contradiction; it’s of the moment but it’s also timeless. That’s what I’m after. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. (That and the cats drooling on my face.)
Colin McNaughton’s books include the Preston Pig series – Suddenly!, Boo!, Clops!, Goal!, Hmm… and Shh (Don’t Tell Mister Wolf!) (Andersen Press and HarperCollins) and his illustrated poetry books from Walker Books; the latest being, Wish You Were Here (And I Wasn’t!). An extended interview with Colin McNaughton, Daft as a Bucket, Inside the World of Colin McNaughton , is available from “The Centre for the Children’s Book, Pendower Hall, West Road, Newcastle upon Tyne NE15 6PP (tel. 0191 274 3941) at £5 inc p & p.