With his decisive, scratchy line Tony Ross has become one of Britain’s best known children’s book illustrators despite a relative lack of recognition from the givers of prizes in the UK. Although he was Highly Commended by the Kate Greenaway for Dr Xargle’s Book of Earth Tiggers, Holland and Germany have been more appreciative of his work. This is surprising as Ross’s distinctive artwork is to Francesca Simon’s ‘Horrid Henry’, to his own ‘Little Princess’ books and to Jeanne Willis’s texts as E H Shepard’s illustrations are to A A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh – for all their vigour and exuberance, they respect and complement the respective texts perfectly. Here Tony Ross explains the technique and thinking behind his illustrations for Jeanne Willis’s latest picture book, Big Bad Bun, in which Fluff the rabbit tries to divert his parents’ attention away from his school report.
When I was a kid, I waited for my Christmas Rupert Annual with bated breath and a pounding heart. That wonderful feeling has never quite gone away. Now, a new picture book text by Jeanne Willis has a very similar effect. Jeanne usually writes from the heart and from personal experience so I wondered whether any of her school reports had inspired this story about Fluff and how he tries to deflect attention away from his school report by becoming a biker Hell Bunny. When I challenged Jeanne on this point, she denied it emphatically. Perfect she was, PERFECT! I was never happy letting my parents read my school reports because of the endless recriminations and excuses that always followed that evil, and to my mind, biased and unfair publication.
So, when Andersen Press showed me the manuscript of Big Bad Bun and asked whether I would like to do it, I gave them the usual ‘You betcha!’ I think I have said that to every Jeanne Willis I have been offered.
It was, in many ways, an easy book. I think most illustrators would agree that well written stories are easier than the other kind. In Jeanne’s case, all I have to do is to draw lines around her ideas. Another thing that made this easy was my IMMEDIATE empathy for Fluff! I was HIM! I would resort to any lies to worm out of my school report and my own youth was filled with leather jackets and motor cycles. Drawing is rarely a problem. Looking at the bulk of my work, it is obvious that I don’t do it for awards, or to impress. I do it for fun, and pure enjoyment.
I switch about through several styles of working, somehow always returning to the simple black line and direct drawing for this book. It comes easily and I can relax. Of course, a little thought and book design creep in, such as the typography. I chose a straightforward Roman typeface for the first and last pages, and Fluff’s ‘own’ handwriting for the rest of the book. This was best done by inventing a typeface (Bunny light extended). Often, there are drawings that I wonder about, like the funeral scene in the rain, but I left it in. I love repetition too, always a strongish pictorial element, used in the picture of the weasels. As six Harley-Ds would be a bit much to draw, I put them on scooters, which was funnier anyway. Another page I worried about was the nearly empty page of the pillow and stuffed toy. However it works visually, being the quiet, before the storm of the school report.
I am, though, a great believer in the importance of the last page. I think a last page can make a book. I always like to end on a left page with a blank right page. In this case, the last page illustration tells the reader, ‘no matter what, everything is OK!’ Not a bad way to end a children’s story, and my favourite drawing in the book. And the blank right page says, ‘The End’.
Big Bad Bun (978 1 84270 925 2) by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Tony Ross, is published by Andersen Press at £10.99.