Chris Riddell, the author of several children’s books, including the Goth Girl and the Ottoline series for Macmillan Children’s Books, and the illustrator of books by authors such as Neil Gaiman and Russell Brand—as well as his own titles—is now seven months into his tenure as the UK Children’s Laureate, and he says he is loving every minute of it.
Riddell says he had been asked if he would consider being laureate in previous years, but that the “time was right” when he was asked if he would like to succeed Malorie Blackman in June 2015. “I thought to myself: ‘My kids are all grown up and doing their thing... I’m a middle-aged man...what else am I going to be doing?’ I have had such a lovely time in publishing, and worked with so many brilliant people, now is the chance to talk about that and give a bit back,” he says.
Riddell has a plethora of public events in his diary and he says that school visits, which are one of the “great pleasures” of the job, are “continuous”. He adds: “Yesterday I was at a local primary school and on Saturday I am popping into a local Baptist church to do a book event there. I don’t want it to be all fanfare and trumpets, I just want them to think, ‘There’s a bloke who has popped in to talk about primary schools’. I’ve been to tiny village schools, big secondary schools, wonderful special-needs schools...lots of different places.”
There are book festivals throughout the year too, events such as the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and international appearances. Riddell recently visited the international youth library, located near Munich in Germany, and is planning on visiting Northern Ireland and Scotland later in the year. “It’s important to communicate my love of what I do,” he says. “It’s great that kids can see the author or illustrator as a person. One of the great pleasures is being able to talk about pictures and words and what they mean. This industry—the publishing industry—is one of the strongest we have, especially in terms of children’s books, and I think talking about that is great.”
The Big Draw
One of the major projects Riddell decided to take on when he became Children’s Laureate was the creation of a “laureate log”: a sketchbook with daily drawings based on what he has been doing or who he has been talking to. All of the images, which collectively act as an aide-mémoire for his life as laureate, are then posted on social media.
He is passionate about getting kids to draw too, hence why he instigated the creation of a Doodle-a-Day diary, which features pages of ideas to encourage doodling, with Macmillan Children’s Books. A percentage of every diary sold goes to reading charity Book Trust, but the main aim of the book was promote how fun it is to pick up a pencil and draw. “I keep a sketchbook because it’s a chance to sit once a day and lose myself in it. That is such a pleasure, and it’s a pleasure I love to share with people.”
He also used his position to “bang on” about the work that libraries do. “Librarians in general are under huge pressure, but I do think [a love of reading] begins in schools and the access children have within a school environment.”
However, he is not slowing down on the publishing front and, unlike some laureates, is continuing to produce work on top of his other commitments. The Ottoline series for Macmillan is ongoing and he has just illustrated a version of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. He said the original illustrations were “very strange [and] Victorian” so he has given them an update, and jokes that he has “finally made sense” of the Nonsense poem. “I realised that it was a poem about rather strange men on a hunting expedition and what it really lacked was a feminist subtext. So that’s what I’ve provided.”
Another passion of his is poetry, which he describes as “words in their purest form”. He is considering compiling an anthology for Macmillan and is working on a Young Adult poetry collection with poet and special needs teacher Rachel Rooney.
“I went to a poetry café a few weeks ago and there was such brilliant community of poets there. I had a glass of wine with Carol Ann Duffy and we have some tentative plans to work together. I’m also going to be working with Roger McGough on something for next year.”
Riddell will also continue to contribute to the Observer as a political cartoonist, a role he says is “tremendously cathartic”. He adds: “We live in turbulent times and there are huge issues out there. Part of my job is to look at that and make sense of it. It’s not always about making fun, sometimes it’s about bearing witness.”
Becoming an illustrator
Riddell became obsessed with illustration as a child, and remembers, aged around six or seven, analysing Sir John Tenniel’s drawing of the white rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and trying to work out how it was done. But he didn’t realise that illustration could in itself be a job until his teens, when a teacher told him he had a knack for it.
He later studied at Brighton Art School, where Raymond Briggs was his tutor, and became an author as well as an illustrator after a meeting with Klaus Flugge, the founder of Andersen Press. “I arrived in his office to show him my illustrations and he said: ‘Where are your stories?’ I winged it and said I had a story but it wasn’t with me and he said: ‘Bring it tomorrow’! I thought ‘right, I had better write something’. That’s literally how the first book [Mr Underbed, published by Andersen Press in 1986] came about.”
Another title he wrote and illustrated, Ben and the Bear, was published by Walker Books the same year, and he has over the years authored several books—although he modestly says he only writes books when he hasn’t got anyone else’s story to illustrate. He says: “When I did my first books, I thought what a fantastic job-creation scheme it was—and if I’m ever twiddling my thumbs, I’ll write something for myself to illustrate. That’s pretty much been the model for my career. I have no literary pretensions at all.”
As Children’s Laureate, Riddell is also keen to promote other illustrators’ work, and one project he has in the pipeline is a partnership with Waterstones to showcase books that have inspired or excited him. Some of the books chosen will be classic titles, but Riddell says he is also looking forward to shouting about some of the “brilliant” new illustrators working today. The scheme should launch some time in the summer, but for now, however, he is just looking forward to spending time at the annual children’s book fair in Bologna. His plans include meeting his international publishers and also checking out the work that is being created by illustrators from all over the world. “Bologna is a snapshot of what’s happening in publishing and a chance to see cultural trends,” he says. “In the current [political] climate it’s fascinating to see what unites and what divides us, and [Bologna is] a great place to come together. It’s important to celebrate Europeanness in that way—now more than ever.”