ack in his high school days, a young David Roberts fell foul of teacher Mrs Whittle during a Commerce lesson. David was always drawing back then, and sometimes getting into trouble as a result. ‘I’d drawn
a woman’s face with eye make-up and lipstick,’ David explains. ‘Mrs Whittle held it up for everyone and said, “this is an example of what you shouldn’t be doing in lessons. This will get you nowhere.”’
Mrs Whittle couldn’t have been more wrong.
Over the past 10 years, David Robert’s quirky, stylish and distinctive illustrations have adorned all kinds of children’s books. From collaborations with authors such as Julia Donaldson (Tyrannosaurus Drip), Chris Priestley (Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror) and Sally Gardner (Wings & Co), David’s talents are in big demand. Then there are the updated fairytales he’s illustrated for his sister Lynn Roberts’ stories, and his own Dirty Bertie books (the chapter books written by Alan McDonald). And his reinterpretations of children’s classics such as Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows have made a huge impact too. And it all started back at school.
‘I was always drawing,’ says David in his gentle Liverpudlian lilt as we chat in his studio in south London. ‘I was absolutely rubbish at everything else at school. Looking back now, the teachers obviously recognized that there was one thing that they could encourage me with, one thing that I would feel confident at. So I can remember being given projects – to draw big pictures for the assembly hall. I did this one about death on the Thames with this skeleton rowing a boat. I must have copied it out of a book because I don’t think it would have come from my 8 year old mind; it had a dead dog floating in the water.’
Like many children with a genuine passion for art, David felt he just wasn’t cut out for school when he was growing up in Liverpool.
‘I hated it with a passion it didn’t deserve. It wasn’t that my school was bad, – it was a good school – but some children just slip through and you don’t necessarily get noticed, or you get noticed for all the wrong reasons, and school becomes unbearable for some kids.’ Part of the problem was the school’s attitude to art as a subject. ‘When I was at school, art was just overlooked,’ says David. ‘It was the subject that was given to the people who were basically the trouble makers. They’d choose art because basically it was an excuse not to do any work. The art teacher sometimes would just go and hide in the stock room because he was frightened of some of the kids in the class, and we would just spend our days copying pictures out of magazine. That was all we would do. We weren’t actually being taught, and that was a shame.’
One of the results of being a successful children’s book illustrator is that David Roberts is in huge demand to visit schools himself and talk to them about his work. The schools he finds himself visiting now are a very different proposition from the schools of his youth.
‘I went up to one private school in Peterborough and they showed me their art department and I was amazed. The resources that they had were incredible. There were all these oil paintings on the wall and I said “who did this?” and they
12 Books for Keeps No.199 March 2013
David Roberts interviewed by Damian Kelleher
said “the students!” It was a joy to see them being encouraged and pushed to express themselves – even the ones who weren’t particularly creative. There were amazing portraits and sculptures, too. We didn’t do anything like that at school.’
Following on from school, David studied fashion design at Manchester, and after graduating, began a career as a milliner. He worked for a company called Sunny Hats in Hong Kong (‘I had misheard the lady on the phone and turned up for my interview asking for Mr Funny – there were all these Chinese girls giggling behind their hands!’) and later the celebrated British milliner Stephen Jones. He’d initially envisaged a career illustrating fashion magazines, but after acquiring an agent, David got his first children’s book commission, and couldn’t resist drawing on his fashion influences.’It’s out of print now, but I illustrated Frankie Stein’s Robot by Roy Apps, for Wayland. It was a fun little book to do. It had this great character called Aunt Griselda. She was fearsome, but I made her look really glamorous with a little beret and fur stole, and high stiletto shoes.’
To a whole generation of kids, David’s most famous creation is one of the grubbiest trouble magnets in the annals of children’s literature. Over the past 10 years, Dirty Bertie has starred in more than twenty books, written by Alan McDonald, with titles such as Fleas!,Bogeys! and Burp!. But it all began with David’s picture book simply called Dirty Bertie.
‘I wanted to do picture books and I wasn’t being offered any at all. So I thought, I’ll see if I can write one. Writing isn’t my thing – I failed English ‘O’ level – but I had this idea for a little boy with really dirty habits. I thought it could be quite funny; I like humour in books. So I wrote this little story, well it’s more of a situation really, where Bertie would have these dirty habits and there would be a consequence. Amazingly, Little Tiger said they’d like to publish it. And it’s 10 years old this year.’
What is it about Bertie that makes him such a runaway success, I ask? David looks coy. ’He’s quite a likeable character,’ he explains. ‘He’s not horrible or mean, he’s just mischievous.’ When I ask David if there are any similarities between himself and Bertie, he smiles wryly. David Roberts, the immaculate and urbane illustrator couldn’t possibly be anything like a boy who picks his nose and delights in constantly farting, could he?
‘I think there probably is a little bit of me in Bertie,’ he confesses. ‘But I certainly don’t pick my nose and eat it! That’s what I always get asked by children. As an illustrator, people always say you draw yourself in your characters and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. You get so used to your own face – just looking at yourself – that when you draw, you instinctively draw yourself. When you see illustrators and you see their work, you would certainly be able to pick them out. So I definitely think there’s a bit of Bertie in me, yeah.’
But if Bertie’s disgusting ways revolt parents, it’s exactly that sense of naughtiness and mischief that children adore. ‘Yes, they’re being allowed to be cheeky with these stories,’ says David. ‘They’re not encouraging dirtiness. It’s saying, there are consequences to having these habits, however, you are allowed to laugh at this. It is funny as well. And you are
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