Struck by the discernible lack of bilingual titles available for children, illustrator Jim Field, perhaps best known for his work on the rip-roaringly successful Oi series, has taken on the mantle himself. Monsieur Roscoe: On Holiday is Field’s début as author-illustrator and follows the eponymous canine as he and his pet goldfish, Fry, go on holiday to visit friends and learn new French words along the way. The impetus behind the book is to "introduce a language at a young age but in a fun way", and by interweaving vibrant pictures with simple vocabulary, Monsieur Roscoe: On Holiday is sure to entertain even very small children.
This is a subject particularly close to Field’s heart—he lives in Paris, where he and his wife, a native French speaker, are raising their daughter to be bilingual. Over the phone he tells me how the new title was inspired by a trip he and his family took to a bookshop in search of something in English and French. On noting that there "wasn’t really much there, mainly just dictionaries", he mused, "maybe I could do something about this". The idea bubbled away on the backburner as Field worked on other things. He says he had "always wanted to tell stories", but in the past hadn’t often "had the time to dedicate to a project". However, feeling he "really had to do it", Field "kept nagging Hachette… to make some space in my schedule". He repurposed a sketch he "really liked", which had originally been intended for a pet food company, and nattily dressed him in a pair of tweed trousers, a jacket and some brogues. And just like that, Monsieur Roscoe was born.
That was five years ago "before Brexit was even a word" but, arguably, books such as this are now more important than ever. Not only are there, as Field highlights, "a lot of multilingual couples bringing up children with other languages" but he views language learning as a way of bringing people together: "I think us Brits are really quite terrible at learning foreign languages. We kind of let everybody speak English for us [but] when you embrace another language you embrace another culture. It opens up doors for respect and communication to understand other countries better. I think it brings the barriers down instead of putting the barriers up."
Communication and understanding are an integral part of Field’s award-winning work as an illustrator. He has illustrated children’s books with Kes Gray, Julian Gough, Michelle Robinson, Rachel Bright, Jeanne Willis, Steve Cole and comedian David Baddiel. Over time his partnerships with a number of these authors have evolved into something symbiotic—"the first time you work with an author, it’s very distant. [The illustrations] go to the publisher and are sent back to the author", but now, he says, "I’ve got a really good relationship with the authors I work with, Kes [Gray], and Julian [Gough] and Rachel [Bright]. It’s much more of a collaborative process from early on." For example, he explains how "they’ll share their stories early with me... and I show them the rough illustrations and they’ll come back with ideas, or they might sketch down composition ideas or make notes in the stories as well." This style of working has proved invaluable—"I think it makes it stronger if you are both working to build the best thing you can, bouncing ideas back and forth, for the strongest story you can make."
The collaborative nature of the author-illustrator relationship has not always been fully recognised in the industry, however. In an attempt to combat this, Sarah McIntyre founded the Pictures Mean Business initiative to support illustrators and push for their work to be properly credited. Field is a proponent of the campaign: "Sarah MacIntynre has done amazing work for us illustrators creating Pictures Mean Business. She’s really helped to get us on the map and get names on the covers of books. I think it really has improved over the past few years." Despite recent advances, Field is keen to stress that more should be done to "level the playing field", citing how "in chart sales the author is listed and we’re often sort of left out". He acknowledges that this can be especially galling in such a competitive market where "it’s hard to get your work seen in the first place".
Ahead of Monsieur Roscoe: On Holiday’s publication in July 2020, perfectly timed for anyone heading to France on holiday, Field has an array of interesting projects in the pipeline. In "really exciting Oi times", the fifth instalment of the series, Oi Puppies!, was released earlier this month. Field finds this "quite crazy", especially considering there were initially only plans for one book. The brand as a whole continues to go from strength to strength, with "Oi Frog and Friends" the stage show making its West End premiere at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, on 29th November.
Away from all things Oi, Field has a new title with Bright scheduled for 2020 and, following the success of book four in the Rabbit and Bear series, A Bite in the Night, he and Gough have already been working on its sequel, also due to be released next year. Hinting at future plans with Gray, fans of the duo will be pleased to hear that they are currently "trying to find [Gray’s] next book... we’ve got a snippet of an idea for a series, but I can’t really say much more".