Writer and illustrator Rob Biddulph’s début picture book was published two years ago in hardback. In a picture book market crowded with licensed characters and TV favourites, Blown Away established Biddulph immediately as a rising star.
It is the charming story, told in rhyme, of Penguin Blue, who one windy day takes his brand new kite out of the box and finds himself on a maiden flight, picking up passengers along the way. The book went on to win the greatest accolade for a children’s author at the start of their career: the Waterstones Children’s Book of the Year. It was only the second picture book to win the overall prize in its 11-year history.
He had another hit with his second picture book, Grrrrr!, the tale of Fred the Bear, who competes every year to win Best Bear in the Wood—but faces a challenge from Boris, the new bear in town. After penguins and bears, the star of his latest book, Odd Dog Out (HarperCollins Children’s Books, August), is a dachshund, immediately familiar to under-fives as a “sausage dog”.
When we meet at his home in north London— actually in his dedicated writing shed at the end of the garden—Biddulph explains the origins of Odd Dog Out. At university in the '90s, one of his friends owned a dachshund, “so we were all slightly obsessed with them”. In the pub one day, they made up a game to the tune of Noel Harrison’s “The Windmills of Your Mind”, with the lyrics changed to feature the dog; “Like a dachshund in a tutu in the corner of the room,” he sings, as an example line; the next person along would then have to sing one that rhymed with it. “We’d sing it for hours,” he says, laughing, “so I always had a picture in my head of these dachshunds in bizarre situations.”
The lead character in Odd Dog Out is female, a deliberate choice, says Biddulph, as “the default setting for animal characters in picture books seems to be male”. His books start life as a single image in his head, which he will then sketch in pencil. He shows me the original sketchbooks for Blown Away and Grrrrr!, which are fascinating; the now-familiar penguins and bears in their embryonic stages. He uses watercolour to paint them on paper too, but once he has a feel for the characters he will move onto the computer. Using Photoshop on a tablet with a stylus, he is able to draw straight onto the screen.
“Everything is sort of still drawn longhand but it means you have total control over everything until the last minute. The brushes I’ve got make it behave exactly like paint, so I can blend colours in as if it were pastels or paint.”
His illustrations are stuffed with tiny details which children love to pick out. My three-year-old is still finding new things she hasn’t spotted before. “It’s a reward for having read it so many times,” says Biddulph, fully aware that if young children like a book then they will demand to read it again and again (and again). Devoted readers may spot some recurring motifs, for example the number 72 appears somewhere in each book (1972 was the year of his birth) and there a character from a previous book always makes a guest appearance.
For Biddulph, “the writing is the bit that takes the time”. Until very recently, he was working full-time as the art director on the Observer Magazine, and would write during his spare time. He writes in rhyme, which makes his books particularly lovely to read aloud, so it is surprising to hear him say: “I don’t consider myself a writer. I’ve always been in art direction or graphic design or illustration and I feel confident doing that.”
Biddulph originally wanted to be an artist, but during his art foundation course at Hertfordshire College of Art & Design he changed his mind. Although he enjoyed the fine art and illustration modules, he found himself veering towards graphic design. This led to a degree in visual communication design at Middlesex University, and a job straight after university on the teenage magazine Just Seventeen as a junior designer. Within just four years he was the art director, responsible for the entire look and feel of the magazine; everything from typefaces to the design of layouts and use of photography. He then moved to the groundbreaking '90s style and culture magazine SKY, and then to music bible NME.
Biddulph started as an art director on the Observer Magazine in 2007; it was where he was working when his middle daughter reached the age of 18 months and began showing a real interest in picture books. Two of her favourites were Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers. Reading them to her, Biddulph had “an epiphany”. He remembered his earlier passion for art and illustration “and thought, ‘I’d like to have a go at that’”.
So he wrote and illustrated a story for his daughter about two sisters who are choosing a name for a doll. He showed the story to a friend, who knew an agent and sent it on. The agent loved it, but it took another five years for Biddulph to actually sign a book deal. Looking back on that time, he says: “It was so near, yet so far. We almost had offers from Penguin and Random House but couldn’t quite get the books across the line.”
Then he took a break and found a new agent, Jodie Hodges at United Agents, who advised him to draw children’s book staples—pirates, dragons, dinosaurs, animals—and build a new portfolio. “So I did...and it really helped to hone my style.”
In the process of showing his new portfolio, two editors from different publishers spotted a little penguin drawing, and asked him to come up with a story featuring the bird—"as two of them said it, I thought there must be something in it”. So he sketched out a penguin story in a fortnight, sent it out and the following day had six offers for the picture book that would become Blown Away.
HarperCollins Children’s Books signed him then, and it has recently signed him again, in an exclusive deal that will see him create four picture books over two years from spring 2017. Most excitingly, there will be a sequel to Blown Away (perhaps featuring the cheeky stowaway monkey, but Biddulph is not saying).
But whatever he writes, as well as the rhymes and the gorgeous illustrations, there is always a message for his young readers. “I don’t consider myself a moral arbiter,” he says. “But when I do a reading at a school, I ask at the end if there’s anything they might learn from the book and they all get it.
“Blown Away, broadly speaking, is about home, about belonging in a particular place. Grrrrr! is about friendship, and [showing] that there are more important things than winning. Odd Dog Out is about being yourself, being pleased with the person you are and not trying to be like everybody else.
“I have three daughters and I’m so fed up of them coming home from school and saying, ‘so-and-so said this about me because I don’t have the same lunchbox as her’, and ‘so-and-so said I’m doing this wrong’.” Odd Dog Out is Biddulph’s charming, beautifully drawn riposte to that. He points to the last line in the book: “So blaze a trail, be who you are”, adding: “I really want to encourage that in kids—it is so important.”
Imprint: HarperCollins Children’s Books
Formats: HB (£12.99)
Rights: sold in 11 territories to date, including HarperCollins US
Editor: Alice Blacker
Agent: Jodie Hodges, United Agents
This article originally appeared in The Bookseller magazine of 10th June 2016.
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