`I want to help every school to do more for readers'

12th June 2015 at 01:00
Chris Riddell aims to make his mark as Children's Laureate

Chris Riddell, the new Children's Laureate, says a teacher changed his life.

"Lots of people, in all walks of life, have had a teacher who has been enormously influential and who they remember for ever," the children's author, illustrator and political cartoonist says. "My art teacher, Jack Johnson, said to me: `Have you considered art college? Because you are a natural illustrator.' "

It was spot-on careers advice - until then Riddell had vaguely thought about studying English at university. Instead he went to art college, won his first commission before graduating and has gone on to become a renowned illustrator, twice winning the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal.

And, this week, Riddell was announced as the ninth Children's Laureate, taking over from Malorie Blackman.

His beautifully detailed, gothic drawings are familiar from his cartoons in the Observer, as well as the 100-plus books he has illustrated, including the Edge Chronicles, created with Paul Stewart, who lives just four doors away from him in Brighton.

He has also written his own books ("I write so that I can illustrate," he confesses), including Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse, winner of the Costa Children's Book Award in 2013.

Riddell, 53, was born in South Africa, the third of five children. His father, an Anglican vicar, opposed apartheid. The family came to England, moving parishes from Yorkshire to Bristol to Worcestershire. Here, Riddell recalls attending the two-class, 50-pupil Cleeve Prior primary and spending Thursday and Friday afternoons drawing and painting.

Books and drawing became constants in his peripatetic life, and his childhood reading still infuses his work. "I remember my father doing a locum at Kelso in the Scottish Borders," he says. "We were staying in the village. It was raining. Beautiful, but raining. For a week.

"There was a wonderful bookshop and I found [a] Professor Branestawm [book] with Heath Robinson's illustrations - that was love at first sight. It was a huge inspiration. That was the moment when I thought, `I want to do that.' "

When Riddell's father became the chaplain at Brixton Prison, the family moved to inner London and Riddell attended Archbishop Tenison's School in Kennington.

Riddell describes his adolescent self as "sensitive, artistic". He was perhaps the only teenager in the history of teenagers to play truant from Wednesday afternoon sports not to make mischief but to visit the Tate Gallery.

`Beauty and simplicity'

Now, when he is not working in his studio in the garden, Riddell spends time visiting schools and colleges. "I love walking into schools and seeing art on the walls," he says. "There is a beauty and simplicity to a lot of children's art that I find absolutely stunning."

Riddell's own work rate is impressive. He is planning to upload a daily laureate's log of his drawings and he will continue with his weekly Observer cartoon. He wants to visit schools to talk about the notion of drawing for pleasure and the importance of school libraries.

"I want to help and encourage every school to do more for readers. If they have nowhere to read, create a space with a few books; if they have a bookshelf, have two; if they have a reading room, aim for a library," he said at his inauguration on Tuesday.

And he loves meeting teachers, despite once speaking at a literary festival while a teacher in the audience caught up on their marking.

"Teachers are fantastic," he says. "They are a great audience. Some of the best talks I've done are to teachers and students training to be teachers. There is only one thing I've learned: don't ask teachers questions. They ask the questions."

And how does he feel about travelling the country in the footsteps of previous Children's Laureates, such as Julia Donaldson, Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Morpurgo?

"I feel tremendously honoured to be appointed," Riddell says. "There is a little bit of trepidation about how I'm going to follow these people. But you just have to throw yourself into it."

Gothic master

Chris Riddell was born on 13 April 1962 in Cape Town, South Africa. He lives in Brighton with his wife Jo Burroughes, also an illustrator, and their three children.

Books - as writerillustrator

  • Goth Girl series
  • Ottoline series
  • The Edge Chronicles (with Paul Stewart)
  • Muddle Earth (with Paul Stewart)
    • Books - as illustrator

      • The Graveyard Book, Coraline and Fortunately, the Milk (by Neil Gaiman)
      • Trickster Tales: the Pied Piper of Hamelin (by Russell Brand)
        • Awards

          • Kate Greenaway Medal, 2001 and 2004
          • Costa Children's Book Award, 2013
          • Hay Festival Medal for Illustration, 2015

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