Lyndon explores his strong engagement with picture books and some inspirational works that feed his love of this art form.
I can’t escape picture books at the moment. I find that my life goes in cycles when it comes to writing—always a novel ticking away, but also poetry, theatre, comics and other things, depending on what mood has taken me or what supportive community of collaborators has stepped forward in a given moment. Recently, I have been working with Launceston artist Graeme Whittle on a picture book about a retired greyhound called Becoming Ellie. The process has been a strange chaos of words and images for the past few months, but it feels like the pieces are falling into place. Picture books are on my mind.
Of course, a great picture book is not simply an illustrated story: it is a story in two parts, where visual representations add detail and expand the narrative and its mystery. I love watching children looking intently at one of Martin Handford’s Where’s Wally? books for this very reason, as they learn the simple but essential message that art holds secrets. In terms of how long it takes to write a picture book, the jury is out. My own journey with Graeme has taken a few months of back-and-forth and continues, while Mem Fox states that even a 190 word text like Where is the Green Sheep? can take her eighteen months to a year to get right. Meanwhile, in a move that Fox would no doubt find savagely ambitious, this week also brought me the discovery of Matt Zurbo’s Cielo project, in which the Tasmanian writer is composing 365 stories for his daughter in a year (https://cielo365stories.com/), all while working his day job on an oyster farm at Eaglehawk Neck. The stories are all available for free online, and I’ve got to say that some of them are infuriatingly good.
In a couple of weeks, on Sunday August 4th, I will be heading to Hobart to launch Lian Tanner’s delightful new picture book, Ella and the Ocean. A copy arrived at my house last week, neatly wrapped in bubble wrap, gorgeously illustrated by Jonathan Bentley. It reminded me again that a picture book is an artistic object as much as anything else: when done right, beautiful and special (and doubly so when you get to read it before other people). This is Tanner’s first picture book after a great career of writing, and when I told her how much I adored it she replied: “It feels like my first book all over again.”
And it is that feeling that I feel that picture books still capture for us. So much of so-called “adulthood” centres around the putting away of childish things, but I don’t see a spectacular picture book as any less worthy to sit on a coffee table and be admired and pored over briefly in quiet moments. A Christmas present received from a close friend who knows me too well, Shaun Tan’s Tales of the Inner City, is the only book that has reduced me to tears in 2019, and a large part of its success in doing so was a heartbreaking companionship of text and image. Picture books are following me everywhere at the moment, and I’m not upset about it in the slightest. Their succinctness in offering a brief sense of wonder and nostalgia in a scattered and busy life cannot be understated. They are a unique kind of magic.
It’s enough to make you want to finish writing your own.