When Siobhan Dowd passed away in 2007, she donated the royalties of her writing career to the Siobhan Dowd Trust, which brings stories to children who do not have access to books. It is in her memory that this lecture at the Edinburgh International Book Festival is given.
Children’s laureate, political cartoonist and illustrator of hit children’s books such as The Trouble with Elephants, The Story Giant, Coraline and Goth Girl, Chris Riddell is a fantastic choice of speaker for such an event. His cheery, humorous and often self-deprecating style turns the memorial lecture from mourning to celebration.
He first tells us how studying art at his school was seen as remedial, so when he decided to go to art college, he was quite the rebel. Moving on to graduation, Riddell laughs at his former self, who “knew everything” and moved to London with the idea of selecting a few lucky publishers to buy his illustrations. When reality strikes, he realises that he has to change his tack and create his own stories, if only so that he can choose the illustrator himself.
The audience gets an insiders view into the world of publishers with name-tag parties, eccentric editors and a lot of white wine. Riddell describes how he cannily drops small hints into writers’ minds, like a trail breadcrumbs that leads them to choosing the illustrations that he wants to do. The laureate also sheds some light on the relationship between authors and illustrators. His re-imagining of Neil Gaiman – who Riddell calls a “word wizard” – as Gandalf with himself as Bilbo Baggins seems a pretty accurate representation.
One of the most interesting points of this lecture is Riddell’s view of social media. Although he acknowledges the dangers of online life, he also notes how websites such as Facebook and Instagram can be incredibly cohesive, and admits to the warm pleasure of ‘harvesting some blue thumbs’. You can even see pages from his personal sketchbooks online, and he divulges a few instances in which posts have gained him a job.
‘A book is a doorway’, he concludes, and providing this doorway to those who need it is the most royal use of royalties. And it doesn’t hurt if the doorway is beautifully illustrated.