I recently had the privilege of meeting Leigh at a recent visit not far from where I live. He was on his whirl wind tour of the various schools and libraries across Australia, as well as overseas. He delighted the audience with his tales of being an art teacher, and pursuing children’s book illustration, as well as other artistic pursuits.
Today, I welcome Leigh to my blog.
You’ve been asked this a lot, but how did you get started in illustrating and writing your own books?
Around 1992, when I’d been illustrating other people’s stories for a couple of years, I began to lose interest. Primarily because I felt disengaged from the characters I was being asked to illustrate. Then an editor suggested that I create my own character which turned out to be Old Tom. He’d been hanging round and taking shape in my head subconsciously for a while. Originally, he looked like a gangster but I toned him down a tad, without making him look too goody – two – shoes. Naughty rather than nasty. Four publishers rejected Old Tom before an eagle-eyed editor at Penguin nabbed him.
You say your stories are character driven. Who are they inspired by?
I don’t think my characters are inspired by any person or ‘persons’ in particular. They’re a mixture of characters who I’ve met, or taught, even aspects of my family. There’s a bit of me in each one I suspect.
How do you road test any new characters you create?
I showed a couple to my mother earlier on. She was appalled, particularly when it came to Mr Chicken. I knew at that point I was on to something. I have an aversion to ‘cute’. I’m simply not interested in cute books, not that I pay too much attention to children’s books in any case. However, I admit I am a bit of a romantic at heart, hence the underlying good heartedness of my characters and the relationships between them…. or most of them. I never road test characters with kids. Every kid is different and ultimately a writer or artist needs to rely on their instincts. Well I do anyway.
I had the privilege to attend one of your talks at my local library in Gippsland. During your talk, you said that you write from the heart. Does what come out ever surprise you? If yes, can you give an example?
Yes. I’ve surprised myself on a few occasions. The first time was when, about twenty years ago I was asked to give a lecture to fine art and graphic art students at my old art school (Caulfield Tech. now Monash University) I’d only written a couple of books at that point and some students asked me to select a few pages and read them from my first book ‘Old Tom’. My voice cracked at a certain spot and I realised that I’d strayed into autobiography. The students picked it up as well.
Your illustrations are so loose and immediate. What do you do to create that effect?
It’s just how I draw. The drawings evolve on the page. I work hard to make it look effortless. I feel I’ve failed if a drawing looks laboured. I’ve always had better eyes than talent. Which means I’m nowhere near as good as I wish I were. My limitations all too often stare back at me from the page.
That can be a healthy thing for an artist. To keep striving for ones own idea of perfection even though you know it’s all too often unattainable. My primal goal when drawing is to get to the essence of the subject, be it a character or a building.
How long does it take you to complete an illustration?
It varies. Sometimes a drawing works straight off and it looks fresh and spontaneous and it’s done. However, there’s usually a spoil sport part or illustration where I have to battle to get it right….and then disguise the considerable effort along the way. Then it might take a day or days to finish. Often in this case I rip it up and start again, in a sort of frenzy because by then the deadline is looming.
I noticed in your books that you include well known buildings in the illustrations. I’m aware that you have a passionate interest in architecture and history. How important is it for illustrators to create from the heart?
I’ve no idea what’s in anyone else’s head, I just know that the enjoyment and satisfaction I get from creating these books comes from creating a genuine sense of place. An authentic sense of the atmosphere in London, Paris, or Rome.
You are working on your art in its various forms all the time. How do you feed your creativity?
I read a lot. Books about architecture, History, Baroque, Georgian, Tudor. English or German architecture interests me most. I read history books often. Biographies too. At the moment, I’m reading David Marr’s biography of Patrick White. As well as a history of London. I travel quite a bit too. I’ve been to London over thirty times.
Horrible Harriet has been made into a stage show. How did that come about?
I was approached by the producers who were, in consultation with me, offered the stage rights by my publishers. I had some input but stepped back after a point. I have learnt not to get too emotionally involved in the translation into other mediums of my books or characters.
What is it like to see your work interpreted in that way?
Unnerving and strange. My ‘children’ have left home. It’s ultimately flattering in spite of a degree of anxiety I inevitably feel.
I’ve watched a lot of interviews of you. Some show you going into schools and talking to the kids, engaging with them, and the students totally engrossed in every word, especially when it comes to the drawing segment where you show them how to draw Old Tom. What do you like most about school visits?
I enjoy engaging kids, especially when I sense that they are loosening up and creating for the pleasure of it. It’s satisfying too when kids who may not be used to drawing or writing creatively end up being completely engaged.
You are the Australian Children’s Laureate for 2016/2017. What does that mean for you?
It’s been a great honour and is and has been a wonderful experience.
What would you like to see change in the schools of Australia, and why?
Every school needs a Library and school Librarian. Misguided schools are, or have already done away with their school Library. I’ve heard dreadful stories about Librarians retiring or being put in excess and the school library, carefully built up over many years completely emptied with books thrown out or delivered to op shops. Libraries, good ones are carefully calibrated to the needs of the students and teachers at the particular school. They are more than just books. And I’d like to see art and music as a ‘definite’ on the primary school curriculum.
What’s next for you?
Mr Chicken’s next adventure: ‘Mr Chicken all over Australia’
Would you tell us ‘Three Fun Facts’ about yourself?
Well, here’s just one…. I’m allergic to cats.
Australian Children’s Laureate 2016-2017
“Leigh Hobbs, best-selling author of more than 20 books, including the iconic Old Tom, Mr Chicken Goes to Paris and Horrible Harriet is the Australian Children's Laureate for 2016 – 2017.
His subversive humour has delighted children for more than two decades.
Leigh Hobbs was born in Melbourne, grew up in Bairnsdale and has lived and worked in Sydney, Sale and London. He is an artist who works across a wide range of mediums, as well as writing and illustrating his children's books.
Many of his cartoons have appeared in the Melbourne Age newspaper. He is best known, though, for his children's books featuring his characters Old Tom, Horrible Harriet and Fiona the Pig and Mr Chicken, as well as the Freaks and their teachers in 4F for Freaks and Freaks Ahoy.
Old Tom has been adapted into an extremely popular TV series. Leigh has three times been shortlisted for the CBCA Picture Book of the Year Award (for Mr Chicken Goes to Paris, Horrible Harriet and Old Tom's Holiday) and his books have won every major children’s choice award in Australia. Leigh’s books are published by Allen & Unwin.” Quote from Children's Laureate website.
You can find more information about Leigh Hobbs on his website, about his role as the 2016-2017 Children's Laureate here, and his books and toys (you can buy Horrible Harriet, and Mr Chicken soft toys) through Allen and Unwin.
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