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Children's author Jez Alborough: 'Digital books will never replace interactive experience of picture books'

01-Dec-14
Article By: Sue Learner, News Editor

Best-selling picture book writer and illustrator, Jez Alborough, is a very familiar name to parents and nursery staff all over the UK.

His books such as Hug, Duck in the Truck and Where’s My Teddy are much loved by all generations for their heartwarming, funny stories, told through a blend of rhyme and art.

Picture books are that vital first step on a child’s path to literacy and research by Manchester University last year found a successful picture book is one that stimulates a discussion between the adult and the child.

The study praised the book Hug for being simple yet generating complex discussion.

Hug, which only uses a few words, follows a little chimp called Bobo who has lost his Mummy. Oprah Winfrey raved about the book Hug on her TV show and it is part of a series which has sold over 1.76m copies.

Duck in the Truck (published in 1999) heralded the start of another bestselling series, this time featuring Duck and his three friends - Frog, Goat and Sheep. There are currently nine books in the Duck series and 1.2m copies have been sold.

daynurseries.co.uk spoke to Jez Alborough about his work and how he hopes his picture books will inspire children to develop a lifelong love of reading.

What is your favourite book you have written? My favourite book is always the one I am working on at the time. I know this is a cliché but my books are like my children so it is really hard to pick one book over another.

As an artist I try to keep moving forward, breaking new ground so each one has a special place in my heart.

For example the message behind Some Dogs Do was important to me, and the challenge was to find the right story in which to get it across.

The original idea I had of a dog that can fly seemed mad at first, but the challenge was to find a way to make it work.

So what’s special to me with that book is how I trusted the idea and somehow made it deliver the message.

Of course whether other people get it is something else altogether, you never know.

Some Dogs Do didn’t do very well to begin with but it has been a slow grower and is probably the book I’ve had the most positive feedback on.

What books did you enjoy reading when you were a child?

I do remember reading ‘When We Were Six’ and being inspired by A.A.Milne’s use of rhyming words; especially in the poem ‘Wheezles and Sneezles’. I also really liked ‘Rupert the Bear’ annuals with the rhyming couplet under each beautiful illustration.

What books do you enjoy reading now?

I like biographies as I am interested in people and how people work.

In Hug and Tall and Yes you reduced the text down to one word. Where did you get the idea from? Were you worried the concept wouldn’t work?

It just evolved organically, which is the best way, it wasn’t forced on the story, rather it was the other way around, it seemed to be what the book wanted. Because of this I wasn’t worried whether it would work, you have to trust your creative instincts.

I’m actually working on an idea now for a new Bobo book. Picture books are of course all about telling a story through the interweaving of text and illustrations, this is a very pure form of doing that, reducing the text side of the equation down to just a few words, which means the pictures take on more of the job of getting over the story. Like anything which looks simple, it’s hard to pull off.

When you have more words you can explain more, if at any point you don’t get over enough facts , you will lose the reader.

You have to keep them with you, with the story, by always giving the right amount of information: (sometimes just by a facial expression or body posture on the wordless pages).

I’m working on a new Bobo idea now, I’ve not worked in this way for a while and I realised how much I love it and how hard it is to get right!

How long does it take you to write and illustrate a book?

It varies, often an idea will sit in my ideas file for anything from one to up to 15 years, when the time is right you pull it out and start playing with it gain.

If it’s the right time you can feel it, the book just starts working, the initial buzz you felt about it starts to blossom. Then you have to get the publisher to feel the same buzz about it, this involves making lots of dummies of the book trying different ways of telling the story (this might take two or three months).

If they accept the idea then I start working up the final artwork (about another couple of months). When this is accepted I begin the lovely stage of producing the final artwork which takes another two to four months depending on the style. So all in all about a year but it’s not usually consecutive.

Do you try your books out on a child when they are still in their draft stages?

No, I trust my instincts, I guess I see that as part of my job. If I didn’t have that sixth sense then I suppose I wouldn’t be doing this job. I do however listen to feedback from editors, who also have that instinct or they wouldn’t be doing their job either.

The writer Jonathan Emmett who wrote Pigs Might Fly caused an uproar earlier this year when he said there are not enough books with characters and stories which interest boys, which is putting boys off reading. He attributed it to ‘female gatekeepers’ – female editors and mums buying the majority of books for their sons. Do you think there are enough books for boys or do you think they shouldn’t be gender-specific?

Perhaps I am redressing the balance- looking back I notice that many of my lead characters (Duck, Eddy, Bobo) are ‘boys’, although I really enjoyed having a female lead in my last series Nat the Cat (the Nat is short for Natalie).

The danger I suppose is falling into stereotypes – giving a message that ‘this is how a boy is meant to be, this is how a girl is meant to be.’

Nat is nurturing and loving (traditionally female qualities) but she is also strong, she is the leader of her little group of friends.

I would say that I try to write books that aren’t gender specific, because I’m interested in writing about feelings, and we all have those.

The gap between boys and girls’ literacy development is already significant at the age of five. Why do you think this is and what can be done to combat it?

To be honest I don’t know why this is. The best things to be told when doing visits is that one of your books started their son/ daughter off reading. So the only thing I can do is keep creating the best picture books I can, in the hope that through reading one of them, some child out there (whatever gender) gets pulled into a lifetime love of reading.

Are you worried about digital e-books taking over from printed picture books? Do you think that will change the experience of reading your books?

They both have a place, and are different. For me, nothing will replace the experience of a book, opening it up and physically turning the pages. Yes, digital books can have extra features where they animate or play music but nothing beats the child sitting there and making their own noises to go with the book. That’s more interactive than just touching an icon!

What advice would you give someone wanting to write a book for young children?

Work out what you want to say, then find your own unique way of saying it.

Interesting Facts

First job: Doing illustrations for magazines

Favourite book: ‘Oh the Places You’ Will Go’ by Dr Seuss I’ve just found out that it was published in 1990, the last book in his lifetime. How wonderful is that! It flies in the face of the belief you get less productive/ creative as you get older. That he could write something so pure, honest, and true at the end of his life makes the book even more inspiring.

Favourite film: Almost as impossible as being asked to pick my favourite book but for now, what comes to mind is The Truman Show.

Favourite piece of music: Equally impossible, but for now lets say ‘Voodoo Chile’ by Jimi Hendrix

Best present you have received: When I was a child, one of my parents’ friends (have never found out who it was) saw that I was good at drawing and on his next visit gave me a drawing book and some pencils. His gift recognised something in me and encouraged it and I’ve never forgotten that

Last holiday: Cornwall

Jez Alborough’s next book, Albert and Little Henry, about sibling rivalry, is published on 2 July 2015.

On Jez’s website, jezalborough.com, you can watch videos of him reading his books, download colouring in and drawing games, read blogs and much more.

You can follow him on https://twitter.com/JezAlborough

And like him at https://www.facebook.com/jezalborough

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