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allowed to revel in the revoltingness of it, to say “yuck” and “urgh”! I’m not saying, “go off and eat your snot!” I’m saying “no, you don’t do that, it’s horrible and disgusting. Bertie does it and it’s not nice!”’

After Bertie and his bottom burps, David’s latest project is like a breath of fresh air – literally. Last Christmas, his reinterpretation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic The Wind in the Willows was a major hit with young and old readers alike. Was he nervous about tackling Grahame’s evergreen when so many of us identify Ernest Shepard’s illustrations with the original text?

‘I was a little bit worried, but I had never read it,’ David explains. ‘I knew it – I knew the characters – because I’d seen it on telly but I didn’t know the story as such. I hadn’t actually seen Shepard’s version and I made a point of not looking at it, or any of the other well-known versions. I was just so excited to be given an opportunity to reinterpret a classic like that. Helen Mortimer at Oxford approached me with the idea, and I’m always interested in what other people think I can do. As an illustrator, you often stay within the realms of your own imagination. Then when someone suggests “what about this?” you think, oh wow yeah, maybe…’

The Wind in the Willows demonstrates all the hours of planning and research that go into David Roberts’ work. Determined that the drawings should be true to the era, he resisted any temptation to ‘modernize’ the illustrations.

‘I did a lot of research to make sure I stayed within the boundaries of that period, the turn of the century. So the patterns I used for the wallpaper, their clothes, I was very particular that I didn’t do anything that would be recognizable from a different period. But then again, I didn’t want to just copy a William Morris wallpaper. So I took a more stylized approach; I looked at Gustav Klimt – he was around at the same time – and how he used repeat patterns of triangles and circles. They’re quite simple shapes and I thought, I’m going to use that, that’s what I’ll take from that era. The circle motif is used throughout the book as a chapter heading, and the circle is also mirrored in the shape of the doors for Badger’s and Mole’s houses to show they’re like warrens, and then the triangle print on the wallpaper in Ratty’s home.’

The great problem with research, of course, is knowing when to stop; when to put down the books, log off the computer and pick up the pen. David agrees.

‘Oh especially with Google, it can be endless, it can take hours. I enjoy going to buy books on pattern. I love Dover Street Bookshop because you can find fashion books on costume from 1910, surface pattern, wallpaper and design. Those things I like looking at, and I take inspiration from there. But I’m always keen to start the drawing process.’

It’s that planning stage that David admits is his favourite part of the job. For him, much of this phase will take place not at his desk, but in an altogether more unorthodox environment – immersed in a pool of water. ‘I think I’m at my happiest when I’m swimming and I’m thinking of planning the pictures. When you’re swimming (as long as you’re not counting lengths, which is the most boring thing in the world!), it’s just that freedom where you can think, there’s nothing else to do other than think. There are no other distractions – there’s no radio, no music, no TV – so you can just plan things. The whole of The Wind in the Willowswas planned in the Marshall Street baths in Soho. Every single illustration was worked out, chapter by chapter, quite methodical.’

Having tackled one classic, David says he now has the bug. When I ask him which other texts he’d like to tackle next, there’s no hesitation.

‘Oh, The Wizard of Oz, I would dearly love to do that. And Beowolf. If anyone would like me to do Beowolf, I’d be thrilled. But it’s what somebody else might see that I could do. Somebody else might present me with something I’d never even thought of, and that would then spark my imagination. That’s why I like working with authors rather than writing my own stuff. It’s that moment when you get this text and suddenly it paints all these pictures in your mind that I would never have thought up myself.’

Time might be an issue for David over the coming months. He’s just finished illustrating a Peter Bently story about a group of sheep that steals an aeroplane and flies off round the world (his research sent him back to the pastoral works of Eric Ravilious for inspiration) and there’s a new Julia Donaldson story about a flying bathtub on the horizon, too. Is there anyone

whose writing he’d like to illustrate that he hasn’t already done?

‘There is one author I’d dearly love to work with,’ David admits with a grin as cheeky as Dirty Bertie’s. ‘I have worked with her before on an educational book called Hairem Scarem, about a creature with long hair. That’s Jeanne Willis. She’s such a character – the stories she tells about the pet snake that used to live in her hair! That’s my next campaign – to work with Jeanne.’

Despite all the demands on his time, David still manages to get out and about to encourage children to pick up their pencils and draw, and his enthusiasm is infectious. At a recent event at the Discover centre in Stratford, East London, he managed to persuade even the most reluctant young artists to try out their skills.

‘It was great, the kids were hilarious. I always get them to draw and I tell them there’s no wrong way to do it. If you think you can’t draw, take that out of your mind. Because you can’t do it wrong. I said “it’s not like maths! You can do a sum wrong, but you can’t do this picture wrong. However it turns out is your style and your interpretation.” Some children will launch straight into a picture, they wont be frightened of that white expanse of paper. But others say, “I don’t know what to do, I don’t know how to do it,” and you say “well just saw a circle and another circle and build up a face that way.” That’s satisfying, seeing all those different pictures although we’ve all drawn the same thing. I love that.’ n

The Books The Dirty Bertie books are published by Little Tiger Press.

Tyrannosaurus Drip,Macmillan Children’s Books, Julia Donaldson, 978-0230015500, £6.99 pbk.

Wings & Co books by Sally Gardner are published by Orion Children’s Books

The Wind in the WillowsOxford Children’s Books 978-0192732347 £12.99 hbk.

Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror, Bloomsbury, Chris Priestley 978-1408802762 £6.99 pbk

Damian Kelleher is a journalist and writer.

Books for Keeps No.199 March 2013 13

Lynn Roberts

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