Interview with author and illustrator Michael Foreman
by Marjorie Coughlan*
Michael Foreman grew up in Pakefield, a fishing village on the Suffolk coast in England. He studied at Lowestoft Art School and at St Martin's School of Art, and was a student at the Royal College of Art in London when his first two children's books were published in 1961. One of them, The General, was recently reissued in a 50th Anniversary edition, and is captivating a whole new audience.
Throughout his career, Michael has worked with many well-known authors, as well as creating his own stories. To date he has published some 250 books and has garnered much recognition along the way. His collaboration with writer Michael Morpurgo has been particularly fruitful, and he has also illustrated many English children's classics.
Growing up during the Second World War and then living through the Cold War have both influenced his work, which often carries strong anti-war and environmental undercurrents. His autobiographical War Boy: A Country Childhood won the Kate Greenaway Medal in 1989; and War Game set in the First World War won the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize and has also been turned into an award-winning animated film. Through books such as these, Michael has contributed to breaking down preconceptions that picture books are only for small children.
Michael's picture book A Child’s Garden: A Story of Hope has been selected for inclusion in the 2011 Spirit of PaperTigers Book Set
Michael lives with his wife in St Ives in Cornwall, England.
What inspired you to write A Child’s Garden: A Story of Hope? The architecture in the illustrations gives the story a Middle-Eastern feel; is it a response to specific events?
I wanted the setting to be non-specific. When I started the idea several years ago it was during the Bosnia mess but, as I simplified it to the wire and not much else, it has the feel of the Middle East. I hoped it would feel universal.
When I was a small boy growing up in World War II, I thought that was what life was like. I did not know a world without war. I thought war was normal. My very first memory is of a bomb crashing through the roof of my bedroom. It was 10pm, 1941 and I was three years old and asleep. The bomb missed my bed by a few inches, bounced on the floor, bounced over my mother’s bed, hit the wall and then dropped into the fireplace and exploded up the chimney. My mother and two brothers rescued me.
When the war ended I thought we would enjoy a world of peace but my teenage years were lived under the threat of nuclear war. My first book, The General, written by my first wife Jane Charters, was about a General who made his country the most beautiful in the world instead of the most powerful. Since then, I have written or illustrated more than two hundred books about many different themes and still there is no subject more important than peace.
The book is dedicated to “my friend Dr. Martin Bax, who has improved the lives of so many children around the world.” Can you tell us something about him?
Dr Martin Bax has been a friend for 50 years. We met as students and started a small arts and literature magazine, AMBIT, which has continued to this day. Martin is still Editor, and I am still Art Editor (both still unpaid!). Meanwhile, Martin became one of the world's most eminent Paediatricians, working and lecturing all over the globe, including the US.
Your use of color has huge impact and is more complex than a first glance might convey, underpinning the notion of hope that is carried through the whole book. What was your vision for the monochrome elements versus the use of color in the illustrations?
The use of colour was an important element. The boy’s world of rubble is without colour until the tiny green plant appears. As the plant is nurtured, colour gradually comes into the ground. Colour spreads as the plant grows and recedes as the plant is pulled down. Fortunately, roots are deep and seeds spread – and so does the colour.
The barbed wire that separates the little boy from the hills he had once walked with his father is a chilling symbol of oppression, especially as it has obviously become a normal part of the children’s landscape. Was it deliberate to have the boy and girl mirror each other’s responses to the tiny new shoots on either side of the fence?
Barbed wire was a feature of the landscape of my childhood during WWII. I grew up by the sea but could never go to the beach. The beach was the wrong side of the barbed wire and the sand was full of mines. There was so much of it around for years after the war that we made sculpture from it in art class.
It was deliberate to have the boy and girl mirror each other’s response to the new shoots on either side of the wire. The fence was as pointless to them as it was to the plant. As it says in Dinosaurs and All that Rubbish (1972), “the Earth belongs to everyone, not parts of it to certain people, but all of it to everyone, to be enjoyed and cared for.”
You recently illustrated a moving poem Say Hello (2007), about including those feeling left out, written by your son Jack when he was only nine years old. What did it mean to both of you to put the book together? Your simple drawings in black, red and blue, seem to anticipate the style of your illustrations for A Child’s Garden. Was Say Hello in any way a stepping stone towards A Child’s Garden?
There was a twelve year gap between Jack’s writing of the poem and the making of the book. The poem is the result of the tough time Jack was having at school at the time. Because of the very spare, but moving, language of the text, I felt a spare pencil line was appropriate – the kind of rapid drawing a child might do in the back of a school exercise book. The only strong colour is the red ball, the ball which ultimately unites everyone. By the time Say Hello was published Jack was a mature young man, happy to have made lifelong friends of some of the boys who had been unkind to him at school. Say Hello was not really a stepping stone stylistically to A Child’s Garden but follows the same idea of colour helping to reinforce the unfolding story.
As you have said, peace and war have been recurring themes in your work, and you mentioned your first book The General, that has recently been re-released in a special 50th Anniversary Edition. What do you think young readers will draw from the book today, compared with 50 years ago?
I hope that children seeing The General today will see the world as a place to care for and not conquer. I want them to feel that they can do something about it and take a long-term view. Petty politicians, like borders, come and go. The children who read The General the first time round became the generation that pulled down the Berlin Wall. The Cold War, which overshadowed my youth, evaporated and the 50th anniversary edition of The General is now published in Russia. A reviewer of the first edition of The General in the US said it was “a Communist tract for the nursery.” When I first travelled around the US (by Greyhound bus,) in 1960, the southern States were still segregated – now there is a black President. Hooray! Things change. Children have more time than the rest of us, but less power. Give them hope and they will become empowered.
Your award-winning War Boy is based on your own childhood during the Second World War. It’s a valuable record of civilian life in Britain at the time. Humor and irrepressible antics are tempered with sobering facts that remind us of the constant spectre of war. How did you find it, recording (both in words and picture) your experiences through the eyes of a child but with the perspective of an adult?
War Boy was a wonderful experience for me. I could honour my mother, who kept us safe, and my brothers and my boyhood friends. I could wander and linger in the lanes and fields of memory. The war was a special time to be a child and has coloured my view of the world. It has made each day more precious.
Its sequel After the War was Over ends with you leaving art school. You talk about the foundation in art that your training gave you. How did it prepare you for becoming a book illustrator, where throughout your career you have blended reality and imagination?
I was fortunate to go to a small traditional school where great importance was given to the ability to really look and draw in an academic sense. We studied anatomy, perspective and the history of art. To fund my studies I did drawings for the local press, and later the national press. For several years after leaving art school I continued working for newspapers and magazines in the UK, US, Europe and Japan. This experience feeds the ‘reality’ in my books. The ‘imagination’, I think, comes from ‘tapping in’ to the child inside me.
You have also written stories that raise concerns about the future of our planet – your 1994 book One World has just been reissued; and last year Why the Animals Came to Town was published. These are both powerful bedtime stories that call children to take positive action. What is the background to your writing these stories?
One World came from observing our children playing in a Cornish rock pool. They began by filling the bucket with sea water from the pool and then proceeded to collect the things from the pool, a couple of tiny fish, a shrimp, a crab and seaweed, thus creating their own little watery world in their bucket, a world they could hold in their hands. The more they put into their bucket, the poorer the pool became. Floating on the surface of the pool was a blob of oil and, at the end of the day when they left the beach, when everything had been returned to the pool, the only thing left in their bucket was the blob of oil. The pool was a microcosm of the world. It told a very big story on a very small and personal scale. Everyone, however small, can do something and if we all do a little, we’ll all do a lot! We all hold the real world in our hands.
Why the Animals Came to Town is a rhyming tale of “every kind of animal from all around the world, all coming down our street. The animals have come to complain about the sorry state of their environment, and a child vows to help them.
I have always felt that children would be very receptive to ideas about the environment and, with their constant access to television, knew as much, if not more, than their parents about the growing problems of pollution. Certainly they seemed more concerned. The children who read my early books now have children of their own and often tell me that they share the same books with the new generation.
Another recent book is Mia’s Story: A Sketchbook of Hopes and Dreams, about Mia a little girl who lives in the Andes in a village that “used to be farmland but the city grew bigger and bigger and now they can only harvest what the city throws away”. Mia’s Story is a voyage of discovery towards new horizons that changes the village landscape and her own dreams for the future. Can you tell us how you came to write the story?
I was flying into Santiago, Chile, and saw smoke rising from the dumps around the city. I caught a local bus out to the dumps and came across an amazing village built from scrap. A young teacher from the wood-built school showed me around and introduced me to local families. The spirit of the people, the fields of garbage against the snow-capped Andes, was striking.
I have worked on assignments from the Arctic to the South Seas and always travel with a note/sketch book in my pocket. On my first attendance at Saturday morning art class, aged about 11, I was handed a sketch book and taken outside to draw the real world. I loved it. Still do. Even so, during my travels I have often sketched on local ephemera – beer mats, napkins, backs of menus etc. It gives a touch of local colour. The Chilean dumps were strewn with a rich supply of scraps of paper, which I picked up for on-the-spot sketches for Mia’s Story.
You have illustrated most English children’s classics. How do you go about putting your own stamp on such well-established texts, and do you have a favorite?
When illustrating a Classic I like to bring something personal to it. I set Alice in Wonderland in Cornwall, where I have a studio. The Wind in the Willows I tried to give a ‘sketch book feel’ as if I was there on a riverbank and sketching the action as it happened. A Christmas Carol has scenes of my mother’s shop. My favourite Classic remains Treasure Island – the first proper book I ever read. Again, it features the Pub and some local characters from St Ives in Cornwall.
How did becoming a parent affect you as a writer and illustrator of children’s books?
Several of my books have been inspired by the interests and enthusiasms and questions of our children. The Angel and the Wild Animal, for example, is based on our son Ben, who, being a typical boy, could swing from Angelic to Wild.
In your own author-illustrated picture books, which comes first, the story or the illustrations?
With my own books the idea comes first, of course, but it could be a ‘visual’ or a ‘story’ idea. Either way, I work out the texts and visuals at the same time in my pocket notebook, as I am travelling around. As I develop the pictures, I can usually get rid of some of the text, since the pictures will tell some of the story.
You have also illustrated many picture books by a variety of different authors. Of all the authors you have worked with, your partnership with Michael Morpurgo has been enduring and hugely rewarding for your readers. Can you tell us how your relationship has grown over the years? Which books particularly stand out for you?
When working with other writers, of course the story comes first and I see pictures in my head as I read it. It is rather different with Michael Morpurgo, as we tend to talk about our next project while working on the current one. So there is a degree of ‘give and take’ in formulating the idea. The idea might start from either one of us, and sometimes MM changes a story after seeing some of the preliminary pictures. We have made 25 or so books together and one of my favourites is Billy the Kid,which tells the story of a young soccer player thrust into WWII and follows his story until his 80th birthday. The Mozart Question is the most harrowing book I have had to draw as it covers the Holocaust. Little Manfred, again set against the background of WWII, is set in my boyhood stretch of coastline in Suffolk; a mix again of reality, personal experience and Michael Morpurgo’s gift of storytelling.
There’s one shade of blue I find particularly characteristic of your work. Still thinking about your collaboration with Morpurgo, it’s there in such diverse books as The Rainbow Bear and The Mozart Question. Is this just a coincidence, or is it a color you feel drawn to?
That blue is the blue of shallow seas over white sand – the blue that lifts your heart. The blue of our family’s happiest times.
Can you tell us what you are working on at the moment?
I am currently writing and illustrating a book based on the experiences of an old chap from my childhood. Henry was one of the bus drivers who used to come into my mother’s village shop for cups of tea. As a 19 year old, and under machine gun fire on the beach at Gallipoli during WWI, he befriended a tortoise. He protected the tortoise throughout the Campaign and subsequent action all over the Mediterranean and Egypt and eventually brought it home to our village in Suffolk. Henry named the tortoise Ali Pasha. I met Ali Pasha when I was a boy and he lived on into the 1990s surrounded by concubines, as befits a Pasha. At the moment I have not decided the title for this story.
If you could send A Child’s Garden anywhere in the world, where would it be?
To any land divided by a fence, race or religion.
* Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers Editor
Posted September 2011
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By Michael Foreman (selected bibliography):
Oh! If only…
(Andersen Press, 2011)
Little Manfred, written by Michael Morpurgo
(HarperCollins Children's Books, 2011)
Painting Out the Stars, written by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham
(Walker Books, 2011)
(Anderson Press, first published 1990, reissued 2011)
(Andersen Press, 2011)
(Andersen Press, 2010)
Cat on the Hill
(Hinkler Books, 2010)
Can’t Catch Me!
(Hinkler Books, 2010)
(Templar Publishing, 2010: 50-year commemorative edition; first published by Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961)
The Little Ships: A Story of the Heroic Rescue at Dunkirk, written by Louise Borden
(Frances Lincoln, 2010; first published by Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1997)
Why the Animals Came to Town
(Walker Books / Candlewick Press, 2010)
A Child’s Garden: A Story of Hope
(Walker Books / Candlewick Press, 2009)
The Mozart Question, written by Michael Morpurgo
(Walker Books, 2007 / Candlewick Press, 2008)
Say Hello, written by Jack Foreman
(Walker Books, 2007 / Candlewick Press, 2008)
(Walker Books / Candlewick Press, 2006)
Beowulf, written by Michael Morpurgo
(Walker Books / Candlewick Press, 2006)
Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, written by Michael Morpurgo
(Walker Books / Candlewick Press, 2004)
The Best Christmas Present in the World, written by Michael Morpurgo
(Egmont Books, 2004)
Gentle Giant, written by Michael Morpurgo
(HarperCollins Children's Books, 2003)
Evie and the Man who Helped God
(Andersen Press, 2002)
Toro! Toro!, written by Michael Morpurgo
(HarperCollins Children's Books, 2001)
The Shining Princess and Other Japanese Legends, written by Eric Quayle
The Rainbow Bear, written by Michael Morpurgo
The Merrymaid of Zennor, written by Charles Causley
(Orchard Books, 1999)
Kensuke's Kingdom, written by Michael Morpurgo
The Songs My Paddle Sings: Native American Legends, retold by James Riordan, with a Forward by Princess Shirley Little Dove Custalow
(Chrysalis Children’s Books, 1997)
Creation: Read-Aloud Stories from Many Lands, written by Ann Pilling
(Candlewick Press, 1997)
After the War was Over
Land of the Long White Cloud: Maori Myths and Legends, retold by Kiri Te Kanawa
(Pavilion Books, 1989)
War Boy: A Country Childhood
The Angel and the Wild Animal
(Andersen Press, 1988)
Tales for the Telling: Irish Folk & Fairy Stories, by Edna O’Brien,
(Atheneum Books, 1986)
War and Peas
(Hamish Hamilton, 1974)
The Living Treasures of Japan, written by Barbara Adachi, photographs by Harri Peccinotti
(Wildwood House, 1973)
The Living Arts of Nigeria, edited by William Fagg, photographs by Harri Peccinotti
(Studio Vista, 1971)
More on PaperTigers:
See our Gallery feature of Michael's work.
Find out more about the Spirit of PaperTigers project and the 2011 Book Set.
More on the web:
Read this Book Trust interview and this article by Joanna Carey, celebrating The General's 50th Anniversary; and take a look at some of his illustrations.
Read this interview with Just Imagine: find out how Michael met Michael Morpurgo, and about Soggy Bear; then take a photo tour of Michael's studio at interviewer Kim Toohey's blog here.
Read this 1983 Books for Keeps interview with Michael for insight into his early career.
View Michael's page on the British Council's Contemporary Writers website.
On the PaperTigers blog you will find our current and past themes unpacked and expanded, as well as news and views on multicultural and international books, world literacy, bedtime stories, children's literature events, and more... Come along and join our ongoing conversation!