Some thoughts about Books, Fantasy, Illustrated Books and the Book Industry

 

I’m still not quite sure why I spent 6 years of my life making ‘Mobile Magic’ but I think of the book as my major artwork and will try to explore some of my feelings about it on this page.


    Books are precious to me. They have recorded the deepest thoughts and  most entertaining stories of our ancestors for thousands of years. As new technologies make the transfer of information more ephemeral, there is more reason to make the printed book an entity worth hoarding and savouring.

    With ‘Mobile Magic’ I had full control of the whole bookmaking process from start to finish so I am very happy with the result. I don’t feel that my project has been railroaded by some big publisher, just for maximum profit. The words, the illustrations and the layout were all completed by me to a point where I felt that they were as good and appropriate as I could make them, without the pressure of a real deadline.

    Every part of the book has a meaning to me, from the use of current slang which I borrowed from my teenagers to the use of the coated art-paper, Monza Recycled, printed in Australia using full colour. That is why it is such a beautiful book to handle as well as to read. I think a book ought to be the baby of its author - a distillation of whatever is most important in their lives. There is enough crap out here on the internet - unedited and transient. If you are going to write a book, then put yourself into it and be proud of it.

    That idea makes me think of Jane Austen and ‘Pride and Prejudice’. I am very glad that she found the book hard to publish and kept it for years. She kept it, she worked on it and as far as I am concerned, she got it just right. It is the best and most complete of her books. You can tell with that book that Jane loved her characters and her story. I don’t think there is a superfluous word or idea in the whole of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ - it is so lovingly crafted. I was very shocked to find that, of several editions in our local public library, both text and audio, none were unabridged. What sort of modern Bowdler would presume to edit that book - they probably took out all the ‘slower’ bits so that kids studying it at school wouldn’t have to read so much.

    Despite my love of books and my flair for excessively creative essays, I never thought of myself as a writer, but I have read and collected plenty of books. When I lived in Sydney in my early 20s I had an idea for an illustrated book based around circular Quay and the Harbour Ferries. I did a bit of research then shelved that project, but I am actually coming back to it for my next major endeavour - not in the young kid’s book form I thought of then, but as an apocalyptic animation and a Graphic Novel.

    I first became involved with book production when I designed and painted a couple of covers for irrePRESSible press fantasy novels by Kaaren Sutcliffe. After finishing my degree at art school, I fully illustrated some commissioned, low print run books for IrrePRESSible press. While I was doing these books I came to the conclusion that it would be more rewarding to illustrate my own words and ideas.

    I then completed a Diploma of Education at the University of Canberra. Why? Well, what else do you do with a Fine Arts Degree when you were already a perfectly competent artist before starting it? Tailor your art to the current trend and spend the rest of your life self promoting and chasing grants? I thought I might as well try teaching.

    While I did my prac. teaching in schools I was researching the books in the classrooms and libraries. So I think I already had it in my mind that I was going to write a book, but I needed a story that I really wanted to write. I am not the sort of person who writes as a living, or who is happy to adapt an old tale or story from the newspaper into book form. I am an artist, not a professional writer. To write a book I needed an idea that was going to totally grip my imagination, a fantasy I could really believe in.

    My book really did emerge from my Dip. Ed. though, because after the final tutorial of the year my class members and I went down to the coffee shop for a celebratory drink. There was an end of year Student Union promotion on. We all got a form to fill in with our purchases - the prize was a trip to New Zealand for the winner. When everyone got up to leave I asked, ‘Aren’t you going to fill these in?’ They replied, ‘No. You can do it if you want.’ So I picked up the coffee stained forms and filled them in, which is just as well because I won the prize. I find that the only successful form of gambling is when the tickets are free, but then it’s not really gambling, is it? 

    My daughter and I went on the Kiwi Experience bus around South Island. I was the oldest person on the bus and she was the youngest. Apart from painting tiny watercolours of the views out the bus window my creative projects were put on hold, but by chance the central idea of the ‘Mobile Magic’ story came to me when we were standing in a park on the shores of Lake Te Anau. In one of the very tall trees we were sure we heard the sound of a telephone ringing. Was it a bird or a phone - could it be both?

    The subject I majored in at the University of NSW was The History and Philosophy of Science (HPS). If there is one thing that studying HPS teaches a student, it must be that Scientific Orthodoxy is always wrong. Science is a useful and rational way of looking at our world and the way things work, but its boundaries must keep being pushed. One of the things that I have always found most annoying about contemporary Scientific Orthodoxy is its prejudice against anthropomorphism.

    I don’t believe that there is anything that humans feel that is not shared by our fellow earth inhabitants, nor is there all that much difference in our capabilities. Anything we do or express that seems to separate us from other sentient life forms just seems to be a matter of degree to me. Most other animals are just not as over the top, impatient and impractical as us, and many of we humans are very happy to live a simple, active life. Some of our more ‘advanced’ human skills have just made us into the most destructive ‘beasts’ the Earth has ever known.

    ‘Mobile Magic’ can definitely be categorised as a Fantasy or Science Fiction novel. I know that my story is utter speculation, but I feel deeply for my characters and I believe that there might be some level at which it would all be true. Because Scientists have had this prejudice against anthropomorphic views, so few of them have bothered to study the capabilities and behaviour of other animals in a scientific manner. If the DNA of other vertebrates is so incredibly similar to our own why can’t we give them the credit of having minds in tune with ours as well. The Scientific Community is only starting to discover the basic principles of inter-species politeness that any decent pet owner, hunter-gatherer or farmer knows.

    I believe that other animals have as much right to exist as a human. That doesn’t mean I am a complete pacifist - it’s a dog eat dog world out there after all. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ should be taken more literally than most christians do - it should mean that if we mistreat, dispossess or rip off others, of any creed or species, we deserve what we get. I eat meat because I like it and it is a natural thing to do, but it if someone manages to eat me it would be only just. If we all stopped eating meat we would lose close relationships which we have held for thousands of years with our domestic animal dependants, for who is going to keep cattle as pets? Just respect your fellow creatures for what they are and give them credit for their own minds and their own will to survive.

     Things are starting to change. There are scientists out there now who are giving animals other than humans the credit for their own actions and decisions. One scientist doing really interesting work in this field is Gisela Kaplan of the Centre for Neuroscience and Animal Behaviour at the University of New England in Australia. Here is a link to an interesting article on the DANA Foundation website by Gisela Kaplan, Ph.D., and Lesley J. Rogers, D.Phil., D.Sc. and for a fun but relevant link go to Mobile Phones Change Birds' Tune.

    The basis of my book is that I had a good idea, an idea I wanted to share. I imagined how a clever bird with exceptional hearing might react to all the noise our modern technology pollutes the environment with, and I thought of the kind of situation that might force the bird to leave its accustomed lifestyle and seek help from humans. Then I wondered what sort of human the bird would chose to communicate with and how they would react - and so it all led on to the book which is now available for others to share.

    The fantasy element became quite believable to me. I fell in love with my characters. They started to occupy my thoughts throughout the day, especially when I was driving the car into town or just after I woke in the morning. So, I had a book in my mind, with some random words written by hand in old exercise books - the next challenge was how to actually structure the tale so that it would be readable and enjoyable for others.

   In any sort of fiction there are devices. Ways of explaining the world through artifice in which neither the artist nor the viewer are really expected to believe. Every novel or story is a fairy-tale more or less, but the author has to believe in the central plot of the book enough to build a world about it. Most tales also involve retribution, the idea that one’s misdeeds will be punished or that good deeds will be rewarded. Even if a story just sets out to entertain, the author cannot help putting their own values into it.

    Sometimes a book or a film with a strong structure can be predictable, but I like that. In a book with a beginning, a middle and an end you get to know the characters, you are invited into their lives, you learn about their problems, their strengths and their prejudices, and if it all works out for them, as you hope it will, you rejoice along with them. Then there is the action, which should take a while to come to the boil then simmer down again to let the characters get on with their lives.

    When I started to write ‘Mobile Magic’ I was tempted to start the book with an exciting action scene. This is a device used by a lot of contemporary authors to get the reader’s attention straight away and keep them reading. But I couldn’t do it. I just don’t like books where all the action is at the front and then the poor reader has to work backwards through the characters’ lives in order to know who they are and what motivates them. Think of it like a meal; if you eat all the desert first you lose your appetite for soup.

    I think that one of the reasons that authors have taken up the fashion of writing books backwards is the lack of pictures in them. If you have pictures in a book you can flip through it to get a precis of the story. The reader can see that there are more exciting scenes coming up. Perhaps the reason why authors who currently write books for teens or young adults don’t use illustrations any more is that they are all busy hoping their books will make it into film or TV series. Perhaps the money has just gone from publishing.

    Up until the 1980s, the good chapter books for older kids and teens were always illustrated. Just think of the classic books which are still being reprinted and stocked in classrooms and school libraries. The list is a mile long; for example, The Famous Five series, Huckleberry Finn, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Black Beauty, Wind in the Willows, The Silver Brumby series, Heidi, Treasure Island, The Railway Children, The Water Babies, Blinky Bill, Robin Hood, Charlotte’s Web, My Friend Flicka, The Muddleheaded Wombat, The Secret Garden, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, Mary Poppins, 101 Dalmations, The Wizard of Oz, Pollyanna, The Billabong series, Dot and the Kangaroo, The Magic Pudding, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Biggles Series, Blinky Bill, Peter Pan and Wendy.

    I could recall pages of my old favourites, most of which are still in current circulation. When I think of them I remember the illustrations as much as the words. The two art-forms just seem to mesh together in my mind. Today’s children are expected to graduate straight from the most sumptuously illustrated and colourful early reader picture books to barren paperbacks where if they get a rough, black and white computer generated design between chapters, they are doing well. That is one of the main things that prompted me to fully illustrate my book in colour - we have the technology.

    Why are the big publishing houses so stingy that they cannot contemplate printing an illustrated chapter book for teens when in the past they had black and white sketches throughout and often had hand inserted colour plates scattered throughout the book? The big publishers deserve to have their ground stolen from under them by Amazon and the iPad if they cannot produce a product that is worthy of being called a book.

    If a small publisher like irrePRESSible can produce a book like ‘Mobile Magic’ for such a reasonable price, I hope that Schools, Libraries and Parents will support us. Buy the books that are lovingly crafted with the needs of young readers in mind, not the books which are commissioned by the big publishers to fit their most profitable styles and categories, churned out in their thousands, remaindered and forgotten. If a book is well written and interesting enough to be a classic tale in years to come it should incorporate the very important aid to literacy and imagination that illustrations provide. Don’t wait for them all to be made into films, or the art of reading may never develop.