Children’s Books That Saved My Life

Alexis Deacon Q&A

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Alexis Deacon is perhaps the most significant creator of illustrated children’s books to come out of England in the early part of the twenty first century. ‘Not Since Mervyn Peake has there been an illustrator of such unique vision,’ says Professor Martin Salisbury.

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From his picture books Slow Loris and Beegu (above), through transformative illustrations for Russell Hoban’s Soonchild (below) and Jim’s Lion, to vibrant collaborations with Viviane Schwarz who has produced pictures for several of his texts including the sublime I am Henry Finch; his work takes the picture book into new and exciting realms.

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The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature sums up the appeal, describing his ethereal style as ‘reminiscent of classic English book illustrations whilst having a distinctly contemporary, often alien feel.’

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It’s a thrill to see Deacon turn to comics, breaking out of the strictures of the picture book format and luxuriating in the limitless possibilities of his epic fantasy trilogy ‘Geis’. In an interview he explained the core concept for the series of an ‘inescapable fate’ comes from a book of Celtic mythology and folk tales that he grew up with.

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Alexis talked to tygertale about the other books he grew up with that helped shape his work.

The book that first got me excited about reading

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I think the first book I read independently that really got me excited about reading would have been The Crab with the Golden Claws. It’s a Tintin story. There were many aspects of it that I found compelling. For one thing, I had inherited my mum’s copy from her own childhood and the print quality was absolutely breathtaking. I didn’t understand that at the time of course. I was just visually intoxicated by the richness of the blues and yellows. The scenes in the desert were so intense.

There is this one dream sequence where Captain Haddock thinks Tintin is a bottle of Champagne. I was fascinated by that. I have always loved moments of transfiguration and transformation and been inspired by the dreamlike and fantastic.

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Another thing that I loved about this story was the character of Captain Haddock himself. I always found Tintin a little dull. I think that can be a necessary thing for a hero. But Captain Haddock was never dull. His anarchic energy propelled the story in a way I loved. For some reason I identified with the big, strong hairy characters in stories, Obelix, Chewbacca and so on. Not sure why. I did grow up to be tall and hairy though. Maybe my child self saw that coming.

The book that my parents read to me

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I was lucky enough to have lots of books read to me. I remember one by Betsy Byers called the Eighteenth Emergency about a boy who is afraid of confronting a bully. The story is punctuated with accounts of what to do when being chased by various wild animals. I was fascinated by these. I think it was partly to do with the Quentin Blake cover. I wasn’t too concerned about the rest of the story but would hope each night that we would get to another emergency. I felt similarly about a lot of stories when I was young. I didn’t see the point of spending any time in the ‘real’ world. Some children are very taken with the idea of the gateway to the other world – like the wardrobe in the Narnia series. Not me. Why couldn’t we start in Narnia and skip all the normal stuff?

The book that I most wanted to write / draw

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Well I wish I had written something truly grand that you could lose yourself in for days. Something like Titus Groan or the Wizard of Earthsea. I was having a conversation on this topic with a student the other day. We were wondering whether it is actually possible to lose yourself in your own creation in the same way as you can in someone else’s work. I’m sure it is. I remember feeling that way when I was younger. I think perhaps for the moment I have become too aware of the form to truly get lost in my work. I should try and sort that out! I’m sure all my favourite books were completely absorbing for their creators. I like to tell myself that anyway. No one wants to imagine Tolkien fretting about deadlines and cursing himself for having put in so many characters.

The children’s book I read and re-read the most

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I read Green Eggs and Ham many times. I read lots of my stories over and over. When I was a bit older I used to love reading the Sherlock Holmes stories. I could live off those I think. I feel very protective of the stories I read multiple times. I like to say that the best books leave a good portion of the experience to the reader’s own imaginative investment. Fifty percent author, fifty percent you bringing the world to life yourself.

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As a result the books you like the most are always most vulnerable to other peoples louder, noisier interpretations, be they on film, television, radio or whatever. I feel such a generous and loving heart behind the Holmes stories. You can glimpse it come to the surface in The Final Problem, The Yellow Face (above) and The Three Garridebs to name a few. Very often Holmes is depicted as a sneering, glacial sociopath in adaptations of those books. I couldn’t disagree more and it gives me actual physical pain to see him treated that way!

The comic book I would save from my burning home

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The collected Little Nemo in Slumberland. If you’ve never read these old newspaper strips I highly recommend them. The drawing is so wonderful and the level of invention is like nothing else in print. What I said earlier about transformation and transfiguration in Tintin is magnified a thousand fold here. I would love to have the power to make worlds like these. Got to keep practising I guess.

A children’s book I discovered later in life and which had a profound effect

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I never read the Moomins as a child but I love them now. The emotional world of the Moomins is completely authentic. My favourite stories all have that quality. I have also developed a deep respect for the work of William Steig. I did in fact have his books when I was younger. A few anyhow. Farmer Palmer’s Wagon Ride and Sylvester and The Magic Pebble (below) to name two.

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As I began to teach illustration as well as practise it I started to study other practitioners. I was looking for work I could show my students to demonstrate some of the principles behind storytelling with word and image. Time after time I would find that Steig provided the perfect example. His drawing looks effortless but it is pure storytelling and that is the best we can aspire to.

One of my own books

You should read Geis parts one and two… and then wait for part three to follow! If you like any of the stories I have mentioned above they have all influenced me in one way or another. Read it and tell me what you think.

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Geis is published by Nobrow books

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