Alexis Deacon’s talent for creating unique and exquisite picture books for children is evident from the enviable repertoire of his works. Taking his book Beegu as a starting point, Bookedforlife chats with the writer and artist about his creative process. Excerpts from the conversation…
You write as well as illustrate your books. What comes first for you, the story or the pictures?
Whilst many of my books are both written and illustrated by me, I do also write for other artists and illustrate for other writers. What usually comes first is a vague and nebulous swirl of stuff in my head. Gradually different bits and pieces of ideas come together to form groups. New ideas add to these groups whilst others are edited away until those that remain feel like they all belong together in a single story. All this is taking place in my head for the most part, with maybe a few sketches or written snatches of dialogue to grease the cogs.
Funnily enough, Beegu happened in a completely different way. I had seen that Maurice Sendak used to draw quick, improvised picture-stories to pieces of music and I wanted to try the same. Beegu came out this way, with lots of scenes, including the puppies and the school, surviving all the way to the finished version.
Beegu explores the themes of friendship, feeling like an outsider and being different. Do you believe that one can actually use this as a starting point to have open discussions with children on many themes relevant to the modern world- displacement and acceptance for instance?
For sure you can! I know for a fact that many schools here in the UK use Beegu to introduce themes of isolation and difference to their classes and begin discussions around the idea of empathy for others. You say these themes are relevant to the modern world but I am sure they are so old as to predate our human history. You see it with any animal that forms social groups. There are those who are in the group and there are those who are not. Hopefully these ideas should be accessible to everyone. I am sure we have all experienced feelings of otherness and difference at one time or another. Childhood is full of moments of feeling in or out of the crowd. Think of starting a new school or welcoming a new child to your own school, meeting a new-born sibling for the first time or perhaps a new family if your own has broken up. These are very common events but they affect us deeply.
Tell us about your studio or work space.
Well, I recently moved to a new town so my studio is not as messy and full as it will inevitably become. I have always been a messy worker! I have a lovely standing desk that my dad made for me from an architect’s drawing board. I do almost everything there. From my window I can just about see the sea of English Channel. It’s a great place to watch the sunsets and see the storms roll in over the water.
What are your sources of inspiration?
I love to play games and make-believe with friends and family and this has remained a great source of inspiration from childhood to this day. The characters we play as are clear and distinct in my mind and I can think and act as they would. In any given situation, I know what they would do. This has always been something I value in stories.
I also love to read comics, and watch movies and collect toys and essentially see what the rest of the world is imagining. Who doesn’t? I try not to be too influenced by today’s creators though. There are so many great artists out there it can be overwhelming. To keep from getting demoralized by the vast quantity of it all, I tell myself that drawing and story making are languages. This helps a lot in two ways. Firstly, it helps to cope with the number of other creators working. After all, who ever got sad to see that others spoke their language. Secondly, it helps me to remember to concentrate on what I have to say with this language and not so much how it is said. With that in mind I try to keep inspired by and connected to my own life experience and passions. Those are really the only stories I am qualified to tell.
What were the books that influenced you as a child?
I loved Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and In The Night Kitchen. I loved the Curious George books by H.A. Rey and several stories by William Steig, including Farmer Palmer’s Wagon Ride and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. Later on, I was a big fan of Tintin and Judge Dredd.
Today, children have access to digital versions of picture books. Moreover, with story weaving software’s their favourite picture books can be made interactive. Do you believe that the charm of the physical picture book is waning? Or is it here to stay?
I believe that stories transcend the media they are told through. They are at the heart of what is being communicated. Having said that, each form has its own unique strengths and way of communicating with its audience. I do not think that the charm of the physical book is any the less. Let’s rather say that it has some more compelling competition to battle with. I also believe that the best home for a children’s book is inside a book. If you have ever played a computer game you will know that the average interactive book online is missing a trick or two! Stories are at their best when they embrace the form they are told through.
Picture books specifically, are often the building blocks of a child’s journey into reading. Any suggestion that you would like to give parents that would help them approach reading picture books in a novel manner?
The one thing that truly matters most is that the child should feel that reading is a joy and not a chore. I don’t want to tell parents they should be doing this or that because that is not really my place and I have never tried to raise a child. I have however, been a child and worked with thousands of them over the years. The one thing I would change if I could is to challenge the snobbery of good reading versus bad reading. If a child has an interest in something I would try to feed that interest through reading.
If your child loves science and animals, great, no problem, there are a thousand books to read. What if your child loves shooting things on the computer or dressing up dolls in the latest fashion? Well, there are lots of things to read on those subjects too. Perhaps an encyclopaedia of guns might lead to an interest in soldiers and the military, which may in turn lead to the history of warfare. Maybe all that reading leads to a career of committed pacifism and renunciation of violence… if that sounds far-fetched, it shouldn’t. It is the same journey that my own life of reading took me.
Well, Alexis Deacon continues to inspire young readers (and older ones!) with his utmost dedication to his craft. Being a building block to a child’s journey into reading is no mean position, and he wields it with a magic pen…and brush!
More books by Alexis Deacon