Former Children’s Laureate, illustrator Chris Riddell
- Credit: Tom Pilston
Chris Riddell is an illustrator whose characters populate tens of thousands of childhoods, a cartoonist who distils each week of politics into a searing image, and a lover of libraries, landscapes and Norfolk
Drawings pour, scuttle, meander and swarm from a studio deep in rural Norfolk. There are nightmarish creatures, all weird protuberances and dripping limbs, limping alongside jaunty princesses with cascades of curls. Classes of children cluster around storybooks; a cavalcade of familiar faces is made freakish by the slice-through-the-facade power of the political cartoon. Ogres jostle with authors, animals, trees transforming into fairytale characters and trees just being trees. And over and over again in this daily procession of drawings comes the chatty, enthusiastic, friendly, slightly rounded, lightly-bearded portrait of the artist.
For the past two years Chris Riddell has been Britain’s Children’s Laureate and for every one of those days he drew pictures; a remarkable record of the people he met, the places he travelled, the talks he gave, the illustrations he created.
Chris first arrived in Norfolk around 35 years ago, an art student preparing to meet the parents of his girlfriend, Jo. She became his wife and their house, created from two former farm cottages, at the edge of Rockland St Peter, near Attleborough, is on land her family once farmed.
Jo, an artist herself, generally appears in Chris’s work as ‘Princess Joanna of Norfolk,’ and Chris draws himself in poses ranging from ‘pontificating’ to striding joyfully towards the wild woods and big skies of Norfolk.
“I have always associated Norfolk with escape and romance,” he says. “It’s a creative place. There is something about the Norfolk landscape. I think it’s the big skies which have always invited artists to gaze into the far distance.”
It is here in Norfolk, looking on to fields and woodland, that Chris is creating the pictures for the 13th and final book in the bestselling Edge Chronicles series which he and writer Paul Stewart have been inventing together for almost 20 years.
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The first book, published just a year after the first Harry Potter, gripped many of the same readers. They are now in their 20s and Chris said he had recently been surprised to be asked to visit universities such as Imperial College, London, as well as the schools, art schools, libraries and bookshops where he has shared his story, and pictures, for years. He was delighted to discover that the invitations came from people who grew up with the Edge Chronicles, or his later Ottoline and Goth Girl books.
Although the main family home is in Brighton Chris and Jo’s three children have grown up coming to Norfolk and Chris draws the cover for the monthly parish newsletter, The Rocklander (as well as for the internationally renowned Literary Review.)
“I love this part of Norfolk, because of the woods and also its agricultural quality. I like the fact that it’s a working landscape. It’s not giant estates but smaller working farms. There is a real sense of community here and it’s lovely to be part of that,” he said.
“Norfolk has always been in the Edge Chronicles. I remember wandering through the woods at Holkham and this idea came into my head of a place called the Twilight Woods. Then Paul’s dark imagination transformed it into a nightmarish place!” said Chris.
He and Paul (who also has Norfolk links, having studied creative writing at the UEA) met as dads dropping their toddlers at nursery. Two decades later Edge Chronicles aficionados are eagerly anticipating the publication, next year, of The Descenders. “In it, and this won’t mean anything to the casual reader, we reveal what’s at the bottom of the Edge,” said Chris.
Chris’s Goth Girl series sprang from stories he used to tell his daughter (now herself embarking on a career as a book illustrator) but the pictures of the heroine, Ada, are based on the eight-year-old daughter of Norfolk family friends. Her sisters, and even her father and grandmother, have since found themselves in the series – which is being developed for television.
Chris began drawing in church. His dad was a vicar and as a little boy Chris would draw through the sermons. And he admits he still draws in church (and just about everywhere else.)
“I describe myself as an illustrator who writes when called upon,” said Chris.
He was planning to apply to study English at university when an art teacher suggested he was a born illustrator. So he went to art college in Brighton instead. “Punk was in its heyday. Traces were being kicked over!” said Chris.
He was taught by Raymond Briggs and is still in touch with the man who drew the famous Snowman and Father Christmas books. As Children’s Laureate Chris was able to present his great role model with a lifetime achievement award.
Chris’s fantasy worlds are constructed and explained through his instantly recognisable line-drawings. His work becomes even more spikily eccentric as it shades from imagination to interpretation for his political cartoon, published in The Observer newspaper every week. A recklessly nonchalant David Cameron, a noxiously flatulent Boris, Jeremy Corbyn literally tying himself in knots, a tiny-handed and monstrously-egoed Trump, they too become fantastical, freakish characters in their own world of make-believe. “It’s a very good time to be a political cartoonist,” said Chris.
And for escaping into fantasy worlds too. “When things in a wider context are looking grim and uncertain, the world of books and literature is more important than ever,” said Chris. “My time as laureate has been joyful, and it’s made what’s been a very difficult time a little bit less depressing.”
He was thrilled to draw fellow illustrator Quentin Blake as they talked after supper, live-streaming as the conversation flowed and a portrait emerged. “It was a great privilege and a magical experience,” said Chris.
He has become a big fan of social media, posting his laureate life on Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter. “We live in a very visual age,” he said.
He also met and drew near legendary children’s authors and illustrators Shirley Hughes (Dogger and Alfie and Annie Rose and many more) and Judith Kerr (The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Mog.)
“She drew Mog in my sketchbook!” confided a delighted Chris.
As laureate he also worked with Amnesty International, interpreting the Human Rights Act for pre-schoolers.
Called My Little Book of Big Freedoms it asks children what sort of world they want to live in.
He wants to live in the sort of world where libraries are valued. This year he became president of the national School Library Association, taking over from fellow member of the Norfolk literati Kevin Crossley Holland. He will also be illustrating Kevin’s new book featuring the Arthurian legends.
“Libraries are brilliant public spaces. You can get in for free and there are people who want to help. And there are parent and toddler groups and local history groups and groups for older people…”
He will talk at Attleborough library as part of his Norfolk summer and also read poetry in his garden, as a judge of the prestigious Forward Prize for Poetry. He recently illustrated Roger McGough’s 50th anniversary edition of summer-of-love poem Summer with Monika.
But mainly he will be drawing, gazing out on to Norfolk woodland as he pictures life beyond the Edge, and sees new projects taking shape, via sharpened pencils and sharp mind, to join the joyous cavalcade of characters flowing through his sketchbook.
Travels With My Sketchbook, by Chris Riddell, an illustrated record of his two years as Children’s Laureate, is published in hardback by Macmillan, priced £16.99, with the royalties going to BookTrust.