Briggs rarely touched non-fiction subjects, though as we saw with Sledges to the Rescue he was constantly drawing on his own family history. In 1967 his Mother Goose Treasury won the Kate Greenaway Medal, and the increased profile gave his editor Richard Hough the chance to push a long cherished project. As it says in the blurb these are ‘True accounts of outstanding and stirring achievements by men of courage in a wide range of activities, from car racing to mountaineering, from flying to sailing.‘
The two racing car titles were asking a lot from someone who preferred fairy tales to ‘drawing boring things like cars.’ But in fact it’s his depictions of motorised transport that give the books their energy. Just look at the outlandish flourish of the swirling vapour trail left by Charles Lindbergh’s plane as he sores above the city lights.
But even when he’s dealing with technology there are some classic Briggs touches to be found. He offers up the technical specifications of Lindbergh’s record breaking plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, with all the necessary information any boy on the autistic spectrum would need. Periscope: check. Adjustable stabiliser: check. Earth inductor compass: check. Five Ham Sandwiches: check. He’ll want to stop off and have lunch with Father Christmas no doubt.
There are other hints of things still to come in the book. As Lindbergh nears the end of his 3600 mile journey from New York to Paris he circles the Eiffel tower. The plane is shown in the distance, all in white, with wings reaching outwards. It’s hard not to think of the iconic flying sequence in The Snowman.
In First Up Everest it’s not Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay who are the stars, but the great mountain and snow streaked sky. Great swathes of the book are given over to these beautiful wind blasted panoramas, and set against them the climbers in their goggles and oxygen masks look truly vulnerable .
There was one title which Briggs wasn’t entirely comfortable with and which seems a rather odd choice for a series on Champions: Richtofen the Red Baron deals with the WW1 German fighter pilot who Briggs describes in Blooming Books as ‘a killing machine’. Biographer Nicolette Jones points out that ‘this was not comfortable territory for the artist who went on to take an anti-war stand in When the Wind Blows.’
The Champion Books marked Raymond Briggs’ arrival as a major name in children’s books. On the front cover it is Briggs who gets top billing – unusual even today. And inside it’s clear that they are a showcase for his work, with the text integrated beautifully into the great double page spreads.
I read the Lindbergh story to my children recently and they loved it. The text is by Nicholas Fisk, who went on to write the super creepy Grinny. Although it feels of its time (but not dated), the words bring this 85 year old adventure back to life and complement the energy of Briggs’ art brilliantly.
It’s a shame the Champion Books are now long out of print. Every school should have a set, they contain great history, storytelling and are of course a masterclass in amazing illustration.