Last weekend Jackie French mesmerised and intrigued Booklinks members and the public by speaking about the women history hides to raise money for an upcoming Symposium on literature and writing centres. This is my account of listening to her talk.
It was a shocking morning, hearing all about stabbings in London. I could scarcely keep the tears from rolling down my face. Oh what are we doing – humanity? I wasn’t sure if I could leave the house, and if just a day of meditation and prayers, or a solitary walk in nature, might be the way to go. That’s my sensitive poet’s heart; I am sure a lot of other’s people’s hearts were breaking too.
But I gave myself a stern talking to, Jackie French one of my all time favourite authors was in town, and was going to give a talk. ‘Get on that bus June and go be with…
Leigh Hobbs, this year’s Australian Children’s Laureate, is about to give a lecture, The Mystery of Visual Literacy, to the three quarters full auditorium in the state library, Queensland. The talk has been sponsored by Book Links and the Queensland Writer’s Centre. Scanning the audience I see many of my Writelinks buddies, visitors from the Gold Coast and further afield, prominent children’s literature advocates, and several librarians.
Images Courtesy: Sam Sochacka , June Perkins (aka Gumbootspearlz), Jillanne Harrison, Giuseppi Poli, Leigh Hobbs & Sally (surname unknown)
Mr Hobbs is the creator of Old Tom as well as Mr Chicken and the 4F For Freaks. I used to giggle watching the television version of Old Tom when my children were growing up, as it seemed to have a lot of jokes highly suitable for parents, not just their offspring.
He seems to have a spring in his step and twinkle in his eye before he even begins and smiles as he offers to sign posters, featuring some of his characters, that he has bought with him. Many of us line up and take him up on this offer.
Then Megan Daley, who doesn’t want to say anything about herself but is a great advocate for children’s literature, gives him a warm introduction, and talks about the good old days and various children’s book creatives she hung out with, and Book Links and the dream for a children’s literature centre in Brisbane. Everyone in the audience claps keen support for that idea.
Mr Hobbs begins by telling us that he feels ‘a responsibility and protectiveness to his audience, children.’
He tells us he will make the talk as much about us as him, he will share several pictures as they say a lot more than words can ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’ and will be teaching us to draw Old Tom.
He tells us that theory is not his thing, but he will speak to us from his experience as a secondary teacher, a visiting presenter to several countries and his memories of his own childhood. (He shows us a few pictures of these presentations later, with photographs that show the children all having a go at drawing old Tom).
He explains that he writes in an ‘adult’ voice, not as a child. But he likes to have fun and celebrate the ‘absurd.’ He shows that absurdity throughout the presentation with images.
He tells us that his creations are character studies and that he works ‘innately and never writes or draws down to children.’ He doesn’t feel a need to be ‘realistic with his art’ and he totally believes children will relish the opportunity to stretch their minds.
He works with three levels: first the words, second images and thirdly the contradiction between the words and image. Often the image is doing something every different from the words. Interpretation doesn’t have to be literal.
He likes to work instinctively and intuitively. He tells us a funny story about when a student asked him to explain, ‘Why is Old Tom is sometimes very big and sometimes tiny and doesn’t seem to be drawn to scale?’ He asked if anyone in the audience if they knew the answer and another kid explained, ‘that is because Old Tom is big when he is good, proud, happy and small when he is bad or in trouble.’ That is visual literacy!
His character’s size then depends on their emotion.
Hobbs, explains that if children like characters, and they’re well constructed, they will be gripped by them in a couple of pages and make a decision whether to keep going into their world. He doesn’t write with ‘a message’, but rather with ‘real’ characters, experiencing loss, friendship and more .
Some of his books appear ‘subversive to adults,’ but children just relate to them as they innately understand characters like Horrible Harriet, the outcast. Not to mention that naughty Old Tom.
Hobbs has had a mixed experience with critics, but it is the children who are the most inspiring in their responses to his work and there was one editor very early on who believed in his work and gave him the opportunity to share it.
He reads us a scathing critique from a prominent Australian newspaper where the writer/reader didn’t display any understanding of the characters in his text, and compares it to comments from some positive kid fans (six and five) in Ireland wrote, including their teacher (30 years old). They asked delightful questions which he savours reading to the audience. He then reads us another adult critic who did understand his book, and loved it. He is philosophical about this and not at all bitter. He talks about the process of how people enter the world of books like his.
At this point Hobbs shows us a picture of himself as a child in bed, reading, with an alarm clock behind him. There are a few aws in the audience. He tells us his parents wouldn’t allow him to draw until it was at least 6am as he drew all of the time. So he would wait for the alarm to go off and then draw.
As a boy he wanted to grow up to be an artist and travel to London. His favourite books were non-fiction books about castles, architecture, and London. He liked to inhabit the worlds in these books. He does point out the Noddy Collection in the back of the photograph (I remember my brother having this set too.) He has been to London over 30 times and that’s why one character, Mr Chicken goes to London. Mr Badger is also created out of his passion for England.
Today he likes to travel everywhere with his notebook and sketch.
He shows us some slides of teapots with architectural construction and other visuals of things that inspire his art. He always loved architecture and history. He then tells us a bit more of the history of where Old Tom came from (he is maybe a bit based on him and his mum is the mum in the book) and reads us some of the pages of the book as they appear projected up on a screen behind him.
He talks to us about some of the other books, like 4 F for Freaks, and shows us some pictures. He jokes, but is deadly serious as well, that many of these characters are based on kids he knows. Well they are kids we all know if we think about it. Some of the teachers in the audience are giggling now, showing their visual literacy.
He says, ‘kids are scary, ‘the audience laugh. ‘Yes, I don’t like to read aloud to them as they might not laugh in the right places, and then I might stop being intuitive when I create.’ Instead he prefers to teach them to draw and field questions about the characters, which he will sometimes have them answer themselves. Sneaky Mr Hobbs, but maybe there is something in this technique, because it is about not talking down to children! Children can explain his characters and how they are represented to EACH OTHER.
He explains that children read Old Tom and see that the cat is like a baby, a naughty boy, and the mother, a control freak. Angela is lonely which is why the cat is her baby boy. The cat/boy wants to grow up, and is sometimes immature and pretends to be sleeping to avoid things like helping the mother.
He once wanted to dedicate one of the Old Tom books to his mum, but she said, ‘no’ which at the time made him grumpy. He loved his mum but used to fight with her a lot (I think I might have giggled here, sorry mum). When he spoke to another relative about this, they just laughed and said, ‘Mum always complained those books were all about her and you.’
At the start of every old Tom book Mr Hobbs doesn’t assume anyone knows Tom, and so he introduces him.
His pictures are never just literal and he will for instance have a vacuum cleaner with eyes (this flashes up on the screen.) They have an emotional honesty to them.
Then Hobbs, tells us more about Horrible Harriet and Mr Chicken and shares slides of portions from each book. He shows Mr Chicken sitting on a chair visiting the Queen, and sitting daintily and the Queen is depicted respectfully.
Mr Chicken is pretty mischievous and bold too and he shows us some of his adventures in Rome as well. More laughter from the adult audience gathered.
Mr Chicken is in some ways ‘an affront to the adult world,’ but he makes total sense to children (and the children at heart?)
Every now and then he has a comedic break, and shows us things like Mr Chicken now on the loose in Queensland. Could a new book be on the way?
‘Children like Mr Chicken because he is bold and funny. ‘ Mr Hobbs invites us to have pictures with Mr Chicken later and holds up a toy of him.
And now it is lesson time. We all learn to draw Old Tom. How to make him angry looking, and mischievous. It’s fun! Mr Hobbs tells us all our pictures will be different and he asks some people to voluntarily show their pictures once we are done. These are projected up for all of us to see.
He makes a few jokes about how the pictures reflect the personality of the ‘feral’ artists, which makes a few people look at their pictures a bit more and giggle. One will later proudly sign hers and share it on her facebook!
Then it is question time.
And in his response to the questions he shares his feeling that libraries are safe havens for many of the kids who feel like freaks at school. They one space they are not assessed in within the school environment, but are FREE to read, write and draw.
He thinks schools spend way too much time assessing! More cheers from the audience.
He tells us a story about one of the freaks of the library days of his school days being someone who grew up to become a famous journalist. The library was his safe place.
He shares that if someone wants to grow up to be a laureate, they should first just be a writer or artist. To foster this you can give those someones notebooks and say ‘draw whatever you wish, observe the world around you and you don’t have to show your book to me unless you want to.’ This gives children freedom.
Mr Hobbs very much believes that everyone has the right to make marks on paper, and be free, which is why he taught us how to draw Mr Tom, but some of those who do this will grow up to be artists.
He likes to think of himself as an artist, not an illustrator, but he does tell stories in art.
There are a few more questions and we find out that his dear old Mum is gone, but she got to live to see her son doing something he loved.
Now we head off for a VIP reception and Mr Hobbs kindly deals with a long line of people asking for photographs and autographs in his books (some of them have dashed down stairs to grab some from the shop.) None of them are children but there are several illustrators amongst them. Mr Chicken meets Mr Grumbles! Another character on paper. A big of magic happens. Giuseppe and Yvonne are delighted.
Every now and then he dashes out of the autograph line to grab a snack and talk to someone he knows and then he heads back to his Laureate duties.
He has a bit of a joke with everyone, and is smiling, and some of us make sure all the food trays are pushed towards him so he doesn’t suffer autograph fatigue. Who would know so many adults would start acting like Old Tom and Mr Chicken? Grown ups can be cheeky!
Mr Chicken makes an appearance in the centre of the group photograph, that we manage to call people together for – all wearing their VIP stickers. Everyone seems to be in high spirits and several have the giggles.
Someone makes sure that Mr Hobbs finally gets to eat more food. In fact maybe they are turning him into Old Tom or is it Mr Chicken.
“I had a brilliant evening @ Book Links 2nd annual lecture in childrens literature with guest speaker Australian Children’s Laureate, Leigh Hobbs. I was impressed with the delightful manner in which Leigh Hobbs shared his knowledge and experience. During his presentation ‘The Mystery of Visual Literacy’ with a projector at hand, he got everyone to follow his direction to create our own drawing of ‘Old Tom’ a main character in one of his picture books. He explained that he writes and draws instinctively, saying ‘he doesn’t draw down to the children, he makes them stretch up to the understanding of the image”
“Creating amazing children’s literature is a whole lot of craft and good splash of magic. After listening to Leigh Hobbs – Australian Children’s Laureate, I have levelled up in craft …and experienced a little bit of magic. Can’t wait to share this with the school kids. Awesome – Go Australian Children’s Literature!”
You can check out Mr Hobbs in action tomorrow and he was busy there today as well :
As part of the Out of the Box festival the 2016/17 Australian Children’s Laureate Leigh Hobbs is coming to the State Library of Queensland to introduce us to a trove of his Picture Book characters: Mr. Badger, Old Tom, Horrible Harriet, Fiona the Pig and the well-travelled Mr. Chicken.