Here’s an illustration from a story called ‘Troll Busters’ about the three billy goats gruff setting up their own troll-control agency, except this book doesn’t exist. The same goes for stories such as ‘It’s Raining Chocolate’, ‘The Haunted Classroom’ and my own particular favourite, ‘Dinosaurs in Doughnut Land’. They sound (I hope) like exciting children’s stories, although they exist only as titles. For many years I’ve worked in primary schools running illustration workshops and these fake book titles along with others have been a staple of my presentations, except here’s another twist – I don’t drawn them, the children do. I give the class a choice of three titles and encourage the children to pick one and draw whatever image it conjures for them. What happens every time, and delights me no end, is seeing the children not only draw their picture but begin to tell a story to go with it, even if it’s just a verbal explanation of what’s happening. Suddenly, and without really trying, each child has a narrative to go with the title, no matter how scant, or as is often the case, crazy!
I recall walking around a class of year 4s once, seeing how they were getting on (without lingering and looking over shoulders) and one girl was busy illustrating a title called ‘Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Hedgehog’, and I gazed at her work and saw a Godzilla-sized hedgehog chasing after three helpless rabbits fleeing on a skateboard. Curious, I asked why she’d elected to draw rabbits in a picture with ‘pigs’ in the title, of course being careful not to say if it was wrong or right, and she answered; I can’t draw pigs, but I can draw rabbits, and the rabbits are in a gang called ‘The Pigs’. I told her that was one of the most creative solutions I’d ever heard and left her to it, and I still cite this example of lateral thinking in schools to this day.
The ‘Troll Busters’ illustration above is one that I drew just to show in schools as a primer to get the children excited about the drawing task I’ve just described, so you could call it a demonstration piece. Each title is like a door into an unknown room, and sometimes that room is just a broom cupboard and other times it’s palatial, and on rare occasions it isn’t a room at all but another world. One title I used to employ was ‘The Witch That Couldn’t Fly’. I decided to draw a demonstration piece to go with it, like Troll Busters above, but something unique happened. In drawing a few practise witches I became fascinated with their story, and they quickly got their hooks into me. This is how a fake title for a children’s book evolved into the complex and rich Dark Raven Chronicles, the fantasy series I continue to expand and have spent over ten years writing. Sometimes I’m left wondering if the words inspire the pictures, or is it the other way around. I like to let the children decide.