Bridges Not Walls

On this foreboding day in history, I was heartened by the #bridgesnotwalls campaign that was making itself seen and heard along London’s bridges and across the Twitterscape. Inspired to share in the collective expressions of freedom and inclusion, I immediately wondered what bridges had been built by book illustrators. That is, after all, what this occasional blog is supposed to be about.peter-jacksonThe first bridge that I stumbled across (as it were), which got my juices running, was not from a children’s book but from a remarkable series of London artworks by the wonderful Peter Jackson. Ironically, I found it on the Internet, when all along it was staring me in the face: I have it hanging on my wall. Peter’s extraordinary reconstruction shows London Bridge c.1600, with the ferociously flowing Thames whipping boats towards its pontoons, and the many grandiose Elizabethan buildings piled precariously upon its back. Take your pick from any number of metaphors for our modern world right there. With Peter, you know that what you are seeing is historically correct. He was not only a wonderful illustrator but one of the great historians and collectors of London ephemera. He scoured the city’s markets and second-hand shops to gather up over 25,000 prints. Between 1949 and 1980, Peter drew historical cartoon strips of London for the London Evening News, and he built up an unrivalled knowledge of the city’s history, beautifully conveyed through his work in a number of authoritative and evocative books.

Peter was a friend of my father’s, and his London Bridge led me across to another bridge very close to home. What better than a dragon’s tail for making a bridge when you’re on a dragon hunt and can’t see for looking, as illustrated by Richard Hook in our children’s book Where’s the Dragon? It’s funny how when you start looking, you can find bridges right beneath your nose, within your own four walls.

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6a019103c45ca1970c01b7c7de029e970b-500wiThat dragon-tail bridge carried me back in time to my childhood, as I started thinking about my favourite bridge from a children’s story. Surely, it must be the bridge in the Three Billy-Goats Gruff, with a hungry troll lurking beneath its humped back in wait for delicious goat flesh. The story originates in a Norwegian folk-tale, and has a classic narrative structure of three heroes moving from danger to safety by outwitting a threatening presence. In case you’ve forgotten it, the smallest and medium billy-goats succeed in crossing the bridge by each promising the troll a larger prize coming along behind, with the sumptuous finale of the third and biggest goat being of sufficient size and sharpness of horns to give the troll its just desserts. It’s an idea to make any writer or artist salivate, and I’d offer a bridge to any illustrator who would like to join me in a retelling.

I am instantly transported to my childhood when I see the splendidly realistic cover of the Ladybird version of the story, where both bridge and troll lurk unseen. I also discovered a beautiful early illustration from A Selection From The Norse Tales For The Use Of Children (Edinbugh, 1862) in Barbara Hawes’ excellent British Library blog, which gives a fascinating summary of the history of the tale and how it crossed over into our language.

billygoatsOn a day such as this day, when #bridgesnotwalls lifted me up, it seems appropriate to celebrate three satiric heroes crossing safely over a bridge beneath which a troll will always lurk in the darkness.

Do you have any bridges from children’s literature that you’d like to share with me?

A Dragon in the Library

On a Bonfire Day when we remember, remember to protest the plot against our precious libraries – a plot that seeks to put a match to the idea that ideas, imagination and inspiration may be freely available to all, rich or poor – it is a good time to write of books and the sparks and fireworks that can fly from their pages.

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Where’s the Dragon?

There is a magic in books, as all readers know. Every book holds within it the power to breathe life into characters, creatures and entire worlds. These things begin in the imagination of the writer. They start with the spark of an idea, that magical, mutable thing that comes from nothing, from nowhere, from something, somewhere. That spark lights the furnace in which the idea might, if you are lucky, survive the heat long enough to be forged into a story.

Ah, but that story is, when left in the darkness, a lifeless creation. It requires a lightning bolt to animate it. And that lightning bolt is cast not by the writer but by the reader. It is the reader who discovers the story in a book and grants it life. The more readers who read it, the brighter the story burns. The more readers who return to it, the higher its fireworks fly. Most magical of all, the story starts to take on a life, or lives, of its own. It is told and interpreted. It is given as a gift. It is borrowed from a library. It starts to cast sparks of its own.

This is a magical process indeed with a children’s story, which finds its light from a bedside lamp and its life from the regular breaths of a bedtime reader. I once wrote of a fire-breathing dragon, so big that the closer people got to him the harder they found him to see. That was the spark, and it began to breathe fire through the alchemy of my artist father, Richard Hook, in the book Where’s the Dragon? That was back in 2003. To our delight, the dragon was summoned in sufficient bedtime stories for him to grow old. He hides away for a while, and then emerges in the most surprising of places. Today, when I give talks at schools, it is the old dragon that children always seem to know about. It is the story of the dragon so large that he can’t be seen that they still want to hear. He lives on, both as a glowing memory of my father, and as a story that is still being told. He is almost old enough for a grown-up child to hand him down to the next generation, and what finer fate could there be for a dragon, for a story, than that.

If the spark of one idea, one story, one book, survives to cast its own sparks through the readers who breathe life into it, just imagine how many sparks and fireworks fly from a library. A library is a crucible filled with a thousand hot metals, each one of which might turn to gold in a child’s imagination. It is an infinite free firework display, where any firework is possible. It is a fire-breathing dragon, which appears different to every child who discovers it, and which every child should be free to discover for themselves. Otherwise, we might just as well tell our children to stop believing in dragons.