Now much loved for his funny and often somewhat naughty or anarchic characters including Mr Chicken, Old Tom and Horrible Harriet, as a shy child Leigh did not dream of becoming an author, let alone a champion for children’s reading and books.
It was art that was his passion from the very beginning. Drawing was what he was “best at” in school. Drawing was what he spent all his spare time doing. Indeed, it could almost be called an obsession: at one point his father gave him an alarm clock and the instruction that drawing could only commence after it had gone off in the morning… at 6am!
Seeds of Leigh’s future style were clearly sown in those early days, with illustrations by Ronald Searle and Ludwig Bemelmans being favourites of his to pour over. “I adored Searle’s line and dark ironic sense of humour,” said Leigh when I recently interviewed him to celebrate his appointment as Laureate. I’m sure I’m not the first to see parallels between Leigh’s scratchy, flowing illustrations full of mischief and spontaneity and the freshness of Searle’s work.
Leigh’s love of drawing led him into 25 years of teaching art at secondary school. But “while I was an art teacher I did some freelance newspaper cartoons. There was always a frightful deadline, a space to fill, a topic to absorb and some text to wade through. Often I never understood the story I was supposed to illustrate. Especially if it was about something like, say, finance. So I’d just do a berserk cartoon then pull a line of text from the story and set the two together. From this I gradually developed an ear for a line of text and an eye for the text saying one thing and the drawing saying something completely different. I realised that there was power and in fact another, a third point of view in the combination.”
And this third point of view has since become a key characteristic in Leigh’s books for children; a delicious tension between what you observe in the illustrations and what you read in his words, inviting you to giggle.
As the Australian Children’s Laureate, Leigh wants to champion “creative opportunities for children.”
“I get the impression that nearly everywhere in the school context kids are assessed, ranked or ‘marked’. One of the things I’d like to do as Laureate is to champion the idea that, while I don’t believe every child is a ‘would be’ writer or artist, I do believe that given the chance, every child is capable of expressing themselves in words or pictures creatively in a way that is meaningful to them.
Creativity in the context I hope to be focussed on is not in the ‘training the child for a job’ sense. Nor is it a case of ‘every child is an artist or writer’. I never tell an audience that ‘You’re all artists’ or ‘Writers’. However I think if freed from the pressure of assessment or comparison kids can express themselves creatively in a way which they may find fulfilling. Draw a picture. Write a story. Paint a picture. Describe in words or pictures how you feel. Write a poem. Or write and illustrate a story. Create a design. Invent a code. Do it all in your own sketchbook or diary which no one can see without your permission. This would be an adjunct to the other school subjects which are assessed.”
I love this focus on creativity – for me, life is pretty meaningless without some sort of creativity in it, but I was curious to hear why Leigh thinks it is so important to encourage it.
“I think it’s important to encourage creativity in children. Art, music, writing. It’s natural for kids to want to express themselves and the choice of form which suits them best is a personal one. Of course there’s also the life enriching enjoyment from an appreciation of the creative work of others.”
And the creativity of others plays an important role in feeding Leigh’s own creativity. He has particular passions for classical music (favourite composers include Bach, Handel, Purcell and Mozart) and architecture (in particular Eighteenth century architecture, with the Pump Room at Bath and Kenwood House in London ranking amongst his most loved buildings), but reading – and reading non-fiction especially – plays a vital role in nurturing his inventiveness. “I feed and have always fed my creativity by reading. Even as a child the books I read were about history, architecture, art and biographies. All this information has gone into a sort of big reference library in my head. I draw from it or refer to it when I want to.”
Libraries have played an important role in providing the raw material to feed the fire of Leigh’s creativity and this is just one of the reason’s he also wants to use his tenure as Laureate to highlight their amazing work. Like here in the UK, “school libraries in Australia seem to be under threat and librarians an endangered species. I visit on average about 30 schools every year doing presentations and running workshops for students and I’ve noted that when a librarian retires they often are not replaced. I’ve visited schools where a library carefully, often lovingly built up over decades sits completely unused because there is no longer a librarian employed by the school. Even worse is when all the books are dispersed throughout the school. Or thrown out.”
Losing libraries is no joke at all. But wanting to remain upbeat, I ask Leigh about humour. I’ve yet to read a book by Leigh which hasn’t got me guffawing, or snorting through my nose. And yet, funny books often fly under the radar somewhat. Leigh agrees: “I think the value of humour is often overlooked. ‘It’s funny so it can’t be serious’. Humour is complex and personal. And mysterious. to analyse the whys and wherefores of humour can ruin the joke.”” As if to immediately prove his point, when asked what Leigh himself finds funny he admits, “I’ve never found jokes funny. I may appreciate that they’re clever but I seldom laugh when told a joke. I always found the Three Stooges hilarious and I think Fawlty Towers is a masterpiece of television comedy. However I was never a great Monty Python fan.”
Basil Fawlty, Moe, Larry and Curly – they’re all tremendously strong characters who stay with you long after you’ve first met them. And this strong sense of character seems to me a key feature of Leigh’s work, and so I was curious to learn something about how he goes about developing his characters.
“Yes, I think of my books as primarily character studies. The characters have developed book by book. I enjoy putting the characters in different situations and seeing how they react. Not to mention how those around them react… I started off illustrating other peoples books in 1990 but moved to creating my own characters as a response to the cutesy pie goody two-shoe type characters I’d seen in children’s books. I wanted more character in my characters and so Old Tom was born.”
“I wanted to create an edgy humorous creature with a distinct and independent personality. Someone that both adults and children could identify with. Someone or something who could connect with the reader in a good-natured but subversive way. And most importantly he had to be likeable if not ‘lovable’. A dog was out of the question. Too loyal and eager to please. I could see an independent, sly, lazy, feral, scruffy, seven year old boy in the guise of a tom cat / Tasmanian Devil type creature though. Pairing him with a prim, matronly, house proud, good-natured but bossy mother figure felt just right.”
I can’t resist asking Leigh which of his characters he most identifies with. “Undoubtedly there are aspects of me in every one of my characters. I was a secondary school art teacher for twenty five years and there were many Old Tom’s and Horrible Harriets. My stories are written from the heart as much as the head. This means that the ‘issues’ that inevitably work their way up through the story via the characters, such as difficulties in family relationships, or the need for friendship are explored through humour, by fully – fleshed out characters.”
Leigh’s books are filled with authentic characters, warts and all, drawn with energy (though Leigh takes “much care to make it look easy. This often means endless drafts of text and many versions of drawings to try and make text and illustrations seem effortless, with varying degrees of success. For me if it looks laboured I have to start again.“). Mr Badger is the latest to be found on bookshelves up and down the country, but his next book will see a new adventure with Mr Chicken running amok in Rome.
Creating books loved by families isn’t all Leigh spends his time doing. Painting in oil and creating sculptures (most recently a series of teapots, inspired by some of his favourite local architecture) also mean a great deal to him. Whether he’ll have much time for these during his Laureateship remains to be seen. It’s going to be a very busy period – indeed this weekend sees Leigh arrive in Europe for a packed fortnight of school visits. Once he has completed ‘Mr Chicken arriva a Roma’ he’ll be concentrating on travelling across Australia running workshops and speaking at Festivals making the most of what, for him, is the best thing about being made Laureate: “I’ll have an opportunity to speak up for the causes and things that I feel strongly about in connection to the world of Children’s Literature. Libraries and Librarians in schools. ‘Taking children’s books – and humour more seriously’ and going in to bat, speaking up when I can for the creators – both writers and illustrators of kids books.”