BOOKISH TYPE: Ed Vere
ED VERE, the 35-year-old artist from London, (pictured left) could be one of the UK’s saviours of children’s picture books. Here the award-winning author of bold, modern and slightly subversive titles, Banana!, The Getaway, and latterly, Mr Big, talks morality, crime and idyllic childhoods spent in the Peak District…
LittleBig: How do you think you have got away with what some might consider risqué material for young children? For example, your Fingers McGraw mouse character in The Getaway who commits serial robbery (of cheese) and tries to enlist the help of the reader?
Ed Vere: I did wonder if it might be a problem – the fact Fingers doesn’t show any remorse for his crimes. But if you consider that as part of a mouse’s character they’re a bit cheeky and have the tendency to occasionally purloin the odd morsel of cheese, you could just about get away with it. Puffin were extremely encouraging. They wanted to do something less conventional, for which I’m very grateful. I think there can be a lot of pressure for English publishers to play it safe – particularly as they perceive the American market to be more conventional.
It seems sometimes that there’s also a perception that the book buying public in the UK aren’t particularly intelligent/sophisticated in their tastes, but I think that people who venture into bookshops to buy books for their children can be assumed to be intelligent people who want good, intelligent and challenging stuff for their children.
LB: Your books have a fabulous pre-war gangster feel to them (in a good way!). You’ve described it as Raymond Chandler for children. What other influences are in there?
EV: I had a lot of fun doing research, particularly for The Getaway and Mr Big [Ed's new book is about a very large, misunderstood Jazz/Blues piano playing Gorilla] watching old gangster movies like Angels with Dirty Faces, and anything with Humphrey Bogart in it to study the language of that period. I love it when I hear phrases like “No dice, Mister” [a Fingers McGraw phrase] in contemporary films now. I watched quite a bit of Top Cat as well. It was based on the Phil Silver show and had a lot of snappy dialogue. Top Cat himself was often on the wrong side of the law, and it could be morally ambiguous. I think that’s exciting to children – but you don’t see it that often anymore. It’s a shame that such a large section of books today tend to be quite saccharine.
LB: What about your illustrative style? Who and what have influenced it?
EV: I have a terrible memory so I don’t specifically remember any particular picture books when I was very, very young. A bit later on though I loved Maurice Sendak, Tommi Ungerer and particularly Richard Scarry. He made a totally believeable world for me. His characters really came alive, and for some reason the fact that they all seemed to have fairly prosaic jobs made it all the more realistic to my 5-year-old self.
E.H. Shepard, (Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh) is one of my absolute heroes. His Toad of Toad Hall is truly hilarious and particularly well observed: he’s a rather pompous chap, but with a ravenous appetite for life. I was looking at an illustration the other day of Toad, looking portly, sauntering into a pub whilst puffing on a large cigar, and it made me laugh out loud.
I was lucky to know Jan Pienkowski [of Meg & Mog fame] as a family friend whilst I was growing up. Visiting his studio was always inspirational, to know someone whose job was to draw all day long – incredible! One thing he said to me was that pictures shouldn’t be subordinate to the text. You should be able to tell the story through the pictures. I had that in mind when I did Banana, which is a story of two monkeys, one banana, and the ensuing trouble. There are only two words in the books so the story is told almost entirely by the pictures.
My books, so far, are completely character driven. I start the process of creating a book with a character rather than a plot. I need to find a compelling character who feels like they have a life of some kind, and then I’ll try to find out what their story / motivation is. In the above case it was a monkey who wanted another monkey’s banana.
LB: Your books seem quite cinematic too – particularly The Getaway with the real photographic background?
EV: I lived in Barcelona for a while, and it influenced certain things. The Getaway for example was inspired there. I started taking photographs at kerb level: the bottoms of doors and the drainpipes. The Barrio Gotico is a fastincating area to walk around – there’s so much texture at street level – the fly posters, the graffiti, and a certain shabbiness. I wondered who might inhabit this world – and that’s how Fingers McGraw was born.
I thought of the book cinematically whilst I was working on it – the spreads were stills that came from a larger narrative. I thought about all the possibilities in the narrative linking spread to spread. It was a shame not to be able to put all that in the book, but that’s the limitation of the medium. One day I’d love to do an animated version of The Getaway. I think Fingers deserves it.
LB: You don’t have kids yet, so who’s your audience?
EV: I have three godchildren, and lots of friends with children between the ages of 1 and five who tend to be an appreciative, if captive, audience.
And I really enjoy doing workshops in schools. I’ll read the book and then we’ll all draw a character together. I explain how to do it, and the children will diligently have a go. Most children seem to love drawing, and some of them are very earnest about it, which can be very funny! And sometimes they’ll go off on a different tack altogether. I’ll be drawing the monkey from Banana!, and they’ll add a plane dropping bombs on the monkey.
When I write I try to think about what would have entertained me when I was younger. I do sometimes think there’s not much out there for small boys, so I try to appeal to that section of the market. So much stuff out there is far too saccharine. Take Barney the Dinosaur for instance. It’s just too sugary. I can’t imagine many boys genuinely like that sort of thing.
LB: We’re assuming you had a pretty ideal childhood?
EV: I have got a very clear sense of it. I mostly grew up in the Derbyshire Peak District, in a small village near Bakewell, and I remember a sense of complete freedom – of being able to go out and play, long summer evenings exploring the countryside. I hope when I have children to let them have that sort of freedom. The time to daydream and not be too concerned with material things.
EV: I’ve just finished my next book, a very simple but fun pop-up, called Chick, due out next Easter. But I’m trying to resist the pressure to produce book after book. So I’m going to be painting for a while now, working towards a show I’m having next March in Cape Town.
From the age of five, and growing up in the country I had no doubt that I was going to be either an artist or a farmer. I’m an artist in London at the moment, but I still have plans to be a farmer… one day!
*Buy Ed’s books from all good book shops, and in our Amazon store. **For more information on Ed, his art work, or personal appearances, see his new website: www.edvere.com