Sunday, 2 October 2016

Ask the Laureate (or - The Day I met Chris Riddell!)

Up front - this is a long blog post! Make yourself comfy while you read it!

Sometimes in life, you're lucky enough to meet the very people whose work you have enjoyed and loved for a long time and who inspire you in your own efforts.

Yesterday, I met one of those someones, because yesterday - as part of Leicester City's 'Everybody's Reading' Festival - I went with Laura Buckland (Granny Rainbow illustrator) to an Ask the Laureate event.

Which meant I met Chris Riddell.

*pause while I run round the room, squeeeing with excitement. Again. Afraid I did a lot of that yesterday*

In case you don't know, Chris is the current Waterstones Children's Laureate and he is the most amazing illustrator, storyteller and all round lovely person. (He's also apparently the Children's Laundrette, according to a friend of his who is German and got her words a little confused when she congratulated him on his appointment!)

I first saw Chris's drawings in The Edge Chronicles, a series created by him and Paul Stewart, when I used to go the library a lot more with the Squidgelings. While they found their books in the children's library, I used to find mine - in the same place. As soon as I saw The Edge Chronicles I loved the detail in Chris's pictures, the imagination he had, his masterful characterisation and how perfectly he seemed to capture the world of The Edge Chronicles in the 'simple' strokes of a pencil.

I was hooked. A quiet fan.

(As an aside - Squidgeling T also likes Chris's style; three years ago he used Chris for a school art project about an author study.)

When I wrote Granny Rainbow, Chris's style of characterisation became the inspiration for the pictures I asked Laura to create for the book - which we told Chris yesterday. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to the story...

From Sunflower Saturday in a copy of Granny Rainbow I
added red noses to for a charity sale at the last Red Nose Day

Over the years, I've bought books like Goth Girl (a beautiful thing - I blogged about it here) and The Graveyard Book, and I began following Chris on facebook because he posts sketches on there from his personal notebooks as well as his Laureate Log. Never a day goes by without one of his sneaky train passenger portraits...or someone famous he's met...or something inspired by poetry or music or current affairs. I love it!

The first verse of a poem by Neil Gaiman that Chris drew on the way to Leicester.
You can see the other verses he illustrated on the way home on his
facebook page in the album 'Witch Work'.

Anyway, whilst browsing the old Book of Face a couple of weeks ago, I found out - purely by chance - that the Everybody's Reading Festival was hosting an Ask the Laureate event.

I knew I had to go.

Laura came with me. We submitted our questions for the Laureate and sat together (to start with - I gave up my seat for some little girls who I thought might see better, before discovering they'd moved elsewhere and I daren't move again, so we ended up sitting apart!) in the beautiful Y Theatre near Leicester Station, initially watching Chris sharpen his pencils. I have never seen anyone sharpen their leads SO long before without them snapping...

Then we watched while he flicked through the pages of one of those amazing sketchbooks and drew Emperor Smackbotty the Third AND a couple of audience portraits...

Emperor Smackbotty III (with Kraisie Mouse and nappy rash) from Alienography.

So funny, watching the mum and daughter trying to work this out,
then suddenly realising 'it's US!'

Lumberjack in The Sketchbook...

(Apologies for the quality of the photos - some are mine, some Laura's - but the necessary subdued lighting made things a bit difficult.)

The audience was very mixed; parents with children, fans of Chris's work (like us) and students of illustration. There wasn't a bad seat in the house, so everyone got to see what Chris was drawing.

Train passenger - not the man i the audience...

The question was 'When were you born?' and Chris added where
(South Africa) and that he was probably dreaming of wine gums even then...

I can't explain how amazing it was, to see drawings come to life on the big screen as answers to questions. There was an enormous wodge of postcards and Chris managed to answer a fair few; the lucky questioners got to keep either what Chris had drawn or - if it was a question he'd already answered - 'one he'd prepared earlier'.

We learnt about his earliest inspiration...his love of wine gums (a man after my own heart - but I wonder if I'd have to fight him for the black and red ones?) he was tutored by Raymond Briggs...and how his first story to be published (Mr Underbed) was written in a single evening in pure panic because when the publisher (with the extremely bushy eyebrows) who told him he could draw asked 'Where are your stories?', Chris lied and said 'I've got one, but I left it at home.' They told him to return with it the following day...

We learned what Chris would do if he was told he could never pick up a pencil again. He didn't know what he could have done to deserve this cruel punishment, but his answer was:

We also got to see how passionately he feels about reading and school libraries and the issue of grammar schools. I'm not sure if every Laureate has a campaign as such, but allowing children access to books is certainly something Chris feels very strongly about and champions at every opportunity.

He's also keen on the power of encouragement, something evident in the way he answered a couple of questions from the illustrators in the audience. He advised drawing every day - what you want to, not what you think you ought to - and researching the publishers where you think you might fit. And don't wait for things to happen. Sometimes you just have to be brave and take the next step.

We discovered the inspiration behind Lord Goth - Lord Byron - who is 'Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Gnomes' because he (Lord Goth, not Chris) rides around his estate on a Regency bicycle, carrying a blunderbuss. Then, when inspiration for his poetry strikes, he proceeds to blow the head off a gnome statue. Loved that tale...and kudos to the publisher who said 'yes, go ahead Chris!' without flinching when he took the proposal for Lord Goth to them.

The talk ended all too soon, (about an hour) and then we joined the signing queue. I'd taken Goth Girl and bought a copy of The Sleeper and the Spindle on the day (word of caution - the beautiful dust jacket will warp if you get it too near a heat source, as I discovered to my disappointment when I got it home). It took us three quarters of an hour to get to the front of the queue, simply because Chris was an absolute star, signing every book anyone put under his nose (some of the children looked to have bought their entire Riddell collection!) and he had a word to share with everyone. He came across as genuinely liking people - always good when you meet your fans! - and he was interested to hear what you had to say.

I really DID meet him! Still can't quite believe it...

I thanked him for everything he does for school libraries because I am, after all, a volunteer school librarian - and was astounded when he thanked me for doing that job! I told him I wouldn't be able to if he and others like him didn't write such fab stories for children to enjoy.

When it was Laura's turn he asked about her illustration degree and she told him about collaborating with me on Granny Rainbow; he wished her good luck in her future projects.

Laura getting her book signed...and the rest of the queue, still waiting patiently.

Oh - and if there are any Blue Peter fans reading this, Chris was wearing his GOLD BLUE PETER BADGE! He doesn't like to wear his Laureate's medal when he goes on tour - keeps it in a box on the mantelpiece - but he has been known to wear it whilst emptying the dishwasher because he is an Important Person.

One of the question postcards and my two signed books...

It was an awesome afternoon. I didn't get my question answered (I asked where is your favourite holiday destination - and do you take holiday snaps or draw holiday sketches?) but I had such a great time without that, I wasn't bothered!

Meeting Chris in person, watching him work, exchanging a few words with him AND getting my books signed...I think I almost floated home. 

And my most favourite thing that Chris said? 

"As creative people, keep creating."

I think that's just become my new mantra. 

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