Drawn from life

19th July 1996 at 01:00
THE CHRISTMAS MIRACLE OF JONATHAN TOOMEY. illustrated by P J Lynch Walker Pounds 9.99.

The winners of the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals, the Bookers of children's literature, are announced this week.

The past decade has been good to Belfast-born illustrator PJ Lynch. His work has earned a succession of nominations and prizes, all now culminating in the award of the Kate Greenaway Medal for his illustrations in Susan Wojciechowski's The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, published by Walker. "It's nice after all this time," he says, grinning, "to win the big one"

We are talking in Dublin, where PJ (nobody thinks of him as Patrick James) has lived and worked since 1992. It is, clearly, an environment which he finds extremely congenial. Here, one senses, is someone much at ease in the city's artistic and social life: the word "freedom" occurs regularly in his conversation. He revisits the Belfast of his 1970s boyhood to see family and friends but, though he talks of that city with considerable affection, there are indications that it has cast its darker shadows. "I'm glad I didn't go through my early twenties there," he says. He intends to give the Pounds 1,000 worth of books which comes with the Greenaway Medal to Lagan College, an integrated school in Belfast.

At St Malachy's, the Catholic grammar school which Lynch himself attended, the students were advised to follow careers in professions such as medicine, law and architecture. The illustration of children's books did not figure largely among the possibilities, even if Lynch generously acknowledges the encouragement given to him by two of his art teachers. ("I still call them Mr Maguire and Mr McFadden when we meet.") Later, at Brighton College of Art, Raymond Briggs was one of his tutors. Again, Lynch acknowledges his encouragement and goes on to single out the college's illustration department as a place "where people were still drawing from life and good draughtsmanship was considered important".

His entry into the world of children's books came in 1986 with his illustrations for Alan Garner's A Bag of Moonshine. Lynch's interpretations of the eerie creatures who populate Garner's stories are the forerunners of what would later become his trademarks: a fondness for the silhouette, an eye for the grotesque, the anthropomorphised tree trunks a la Rackham, all frequently coated in colourful exuberance. From the start, also, his pictures have had a powerful strength in their narrative dimension. It is not merely that they complement his chosen text, they often tell their own story too.

Admitting to giving "an enormous amount of time and energy" to selecting texts for illustration, Lynch has obviously so far chosen with remarkable success Yeats, Wilde, Andersen, Nesbit, East o'the Sun and West o'the Moon, the 10 stories in The Candlewick Book of Fairy Tales and Antonia Barber's Catkin. Fantasies all - but fantasies which, in Lynch's interpretations, are deeply grounded in their reality of detail, often the outcome of intensive research. "If you provide a basis in reality like a real little house" he points out, "then you get away with a ridiculous fantasy like having a man talking to a big white bear that comes to the door."

Aware that a sense of elemental darkness underlies virtually all these stories, Lynch comments, with a suggestion of relief, that Jonathan Toomey is "a million miles away from the fantasy stuff". In Wojciechowski's story, which he considered for a year before committing himself to it, gloom and rejection are finally dissipated in warmth and generosity; appropriately, Lynch moves with bold dramatic flourishes from dark interiors to a final triumphant light-filled outdoor scene. "Better to light one candle than curse the darkness," as the inscription on the United States Christopher Award (which the book has also won) reminds us.

Now 34, P J Lynch finds that each of his books demands a year's work. Selection of texts, research, finding of suitable models, photography, drawing and painting, all followed by consultations with his various editors: these are fascinating, but time-consuming, parts of the process which leads to the published book. October next will see him return to an Irish setting with his version of Brendan Behan's The King of Ireland's Son, from Andersen Press. At the moment, work is well in hand on another book for Walker - Amy Hest's The Girl Who Sewed Lace.

And, for some time in the future, he is attracted to the stories from the Ulster mythological cycle centring on the deeds of Cuchulain. "But maybe there's a wee bit too much gore and violence there. We'll see."

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