Perfect pairing

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
Special needs were in the spotlight at yesterday's Nasen book awards. Elaine Williams talks to Tony Ross and Jeanne Willis, winners of the children's book award

There was no doubt in the minds of the Nasen judges that Tony Ross should get an award for his illustrations for Susan Laughs. What is surprising is that this master of line drawing has never received an UK award before, writes Elaine Williams.

An artist of biting wit, quirky detail and funny asides, Ross draws with remarkable knowledge, agility and insight into the minds of children. Indeed, he is more often than not on the child's side and, for all his 62 years, is still rebelling against a grown-up world. His rapid line, always fresh and full of mischief, is quick to mock adult pomposity and to depict the world as children see it. Perhaps this satire, mild-mannered though it is, is subliminally regarded as naughtiness and undeserving of book awards.

But Ross is deadly serious in his intentions, and his stories and pictures are full of little moral tales and revelations about children's lives. The thing about Susan, for example, is not that she is disabled, but that she is an extremely spirited, fun-loving person, like many other children of her age. In the text, by Jeanne Willis, we read that Susan sings; she swings; she's good, bad, happy, sad; she dances; she rides; she flies; she's proud. In Ross's accompanying pictures we see her teasing her grandmother, persecuting the cat, having a wobbler behind the living room curtain, being swung by her father, crying over her maths at school, making her maths sheet into a paper boat. Only in the very last picture do we see her in a wheelchair, a surprise that conveys an immensely powerful message.

Ross was clear about the way he wanted Susan Laughs to be done. "To start with there was another illustrator being considered who wanted to have the wheelchair in from the beginning," he says. "But for me this was not the story of a crippled girl in a wheelchair; it was about any child who is different, handicapped in any way, being more normal than abnormal."

One of the most powerful pictures in the book, the significance of which comes only with hindsight, is of Susan dancing, being held by her grandfather with her feet on his feet. Ross resisted pressures to research whether a wheelchair-bound child would be able to do such things. "There was concern about some of the drawings, but I didn't want a quasi-medical text where everything is checked out with doctors. I didn't want to get involved with experts. I'm not interested in correctness. That dulls the message."

Ross has collaborated with Willis, an author who shares his incisive wit, on many occasions, most notably in their Dr Xargle series. With this book, as with all the others, she believes he has instinctively captured the spirit of her intention.

The idea for Susan Laughs came when Willis was lying on her back, feet in the air, wheeling her new baby round in a game of helicopters. "When I was pregnant there was a one in 70 chance that my daughter would be handicapped," she says. "She has no handicap, but whe I was whirling her round it struck me that if somebody had come into the room just at that moment they wouldn't know whether she was handicapped or not and that if she was, I certainly wouldn't want them to pity her.

"I didn't set out to write an issues book. It just came out of a small revelation in my own front room. In that respect it's so good to work with Tony, because we think along the same lines."

Ross says he too avoids "issues", but amid the quicksilver of his hilarious scribblings he often makes some serious points. Many of his stories have come from the experiences of real children. He visits many schools and his wife, Zoe, is a voluntary assistant in a primary near their Cheshire home.

Ross sympathises with Roald Dahl's sentiment that children are human beings living in a world of giants and is naturally on the side of the child. He says: "If I go into a school and see a teacher telling off little George in front of a class of kids, humiliating him, I'm on the side of George, not the teacher whose rules have been broken." And his support goes further than his books. Ross gives artwork to three children's hospitals - Great Ormond Street, Westminster and Alder Hey in Liverpool. All the proceeds from his recent Little Princess book I Don't Want to Go To Hospital, for example, will go to Alder Hey.

Ross trained at the Liverpool Regional College of Art and worked in advertising and graphic design for the pharmaceutical industry before becoming an art lecturer at the former Manchester Polytechnic art school and a prolific freelance illustrator. He has created more than 70 books of his own and illustrated about 400 for others.

His interest, he says, has always been in the immediacy of line drawing. He is reluctant even to make roughs. "I like drawing to have vibrancy and life, to do a drawing quickly, in one shot, and then it's finished. I like immediacy. But every drawing has to mean something."

He aligns his rebellious tendency within the 18th and 19th-century tradition created by those other masters of satire and line drawing - Cruikshank and Rowlandson - and carried on into the 20th with the likes of Ardizzone and E H Shepard. As a "sickly" child, he spent a lot of time copying pictures of Winnie the Pooh on to a blackboard with chalks, and drew from his father's copy of Dore's Don Quixote.

Jeanne Willis understands that Ross likes to work "outside the text" and, in her writing, gives him "lots of margin". In Susan Laughs, for example, it is Ross's inspired interpretation of her simple but poignant sentences that set the book alight. As with many outstanding children's writers and illustrators, the power of Ross's pictures lies in the fact that they are not directed at children, that they are not in the least patronising. As he says: "I don't draw for children, I draw for me. I draw in the way I like to draw."

Winner of the Children's Book Award for a book of any genre that most successfully provides a positive image of young people with special needs: SUSAN LAUGHS. By Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross. Andersen Press. pound;9.99. Tel: 020 7840 8400

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