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“The story is about seizing the day and celebrating your differences” – Ros Haden and Tony Pinchuck discuss their phantasmagorical All Africa Wildlife Express

When Elephant receives an invitation to a party he fires up his steam engine for an all African adventure. More animals join him at each jungle station. It’s a rollicking trans-continental journey! Along the way they bicker, tell tales and play until they reach the magnificent gates of the Hotel Splendide where the monkeys are waiting with a huge surprise . . . Told in quirky rhyme with glorious, glowing illustrations this book will enchant children with Africa’s phantasmagorical wildlife.

Writer-illustrator duo Rosamund Haden and Tony Pinchuck chatted to us about this singular children’s book.

Rosamund is the acclaimed author of The Tin Church, the tween-novel Time Twisters, and the young adult novels Broken Promises and Sugar Daddy, among others.

Here she discusses the difference between writing a picture book and a novel, why they decided on using less-familiar African animals to join the monkeys’ party, and how we can encourage children to read:
 
 
 
You’ve written short stories, teen novels, children’s books and TV scripts, yet this is your first picture book. What made you decide on writing a picture book?

I have experimented with picture books before but most of them ended up in a bottom drawer. This one happened quite incidentally and ‘upside down’. It didn’t start as a story, it started as a series of Tony’s beautiful prints of animals. One day I was looking at a row of them on his living room wall: a zebra, lion and an elephant and said ‘What if you put them all on a train.’ It was a natural next step once they were on a train, to take them on a journey. The journey got longer and longer and so did the train as more and more animals climbed on board: ‘Caracal, leopards and lions and cheetah, crocodiles, porcupine, gnus and anteaters’ (and that was in just two of the carriages!)

Did you find writing a picture book to be more challenging than a novel or a short story?

For me it was light relief from writing novels that are a solitary, intense and often very lengthy process. This was light and fun, and because it was driven by the illustrations, and elephant of course, and it was a shared creation. It took the pressure off and I could just go to town. I loved writing in rhyming couplets as it forced me to express the story in its essence with the fewest but most carefully chosen words.

The rhyme scheme in The All Africa Wildlife Express is reminiscent of Dr Seuss’ classic children’s books. Was he in any way an influence on this book?

Yes, I think so. I read Dr Seuss as a child and to my son at bedtime and I really loved his quirky style that lets your imagination fly but has an underlying wisdom and truth.

How did the idea for a picture book about monkeys inviting a bunch of Southern African mammals to a jol at their all-pink Hotel Splendide come to you?

Once the animals were on the train and we had elephant as the driver the next obvious question was where were they going and why? I liked the idea of a postcard blowing in ‘on the tropical breeze and landing at elephant’s large wrinkly knees’. The postcard was sent from the monkeys ‘inviting all animals tall, short and wide to a wild monkey party with mad monkey rides’. Monkeys are mischievous animals and were the perfect culprits to have a ‘jol’. What’s more the monkeys, in their flamboyant style, provided the transport in the form of a steam train to take the animals to the party. It’s the mad kind of over-the-top thing that monkeys might do.

We chose animals that weren’t just the Big Five but were a bit unusual, shyer and less often spotted, like caracal and tree frogs and the bat-eared fox, as a way of showing children other interesting Southern African animals that often are overlooked, but have their own special characters.

The Hotel Splendide has been described as quite ‘Wes Anderson’ like the ‘Great Budapest Hotel’. I liked the idea of it being extravagant and the monkeys and animals taking over a hotel, in its faded grandeur, that was from another era and making it their party playground. The story is all about seizing the day, celebrating your differences and putting your fears aside to go on the adventure of a lifetime! Along the way, as on any long journey with children, the animals, play I-Spy, squabble, tell stories and sleep… “Warthogs tap-danced to the hyenas’ howls, big cats told fierce hunting stories in growls. But the best thing by far was playing I spy under the endless blue African Sky…”

Writing aside, you’re also the co-founder and publisher at Cover2Cover Books and the content developer for the FunDza Literacy Trust. What do you think are the best/most successful methods to develop a reading culture among young South Africans?

I think providing young South Africans with stories that are exciting, accessible, reflect their lives and provoke their imaginations.

***


Tony is a Cape Town-based designer and illustrator who left his hometown of Joburg for London where he studied at the Bartlett School of Architecture. He also illustrated Michael Rosen’s You’re Thinking about Doughnuts, When Did You Last Wash Your Feet? and Did I Hear You Write?

His love of drawing was mainly influenced by found images and Mad Mag, and has landed him in hot water (from being reprimanded by Mrs Hofmeyr in grade four, to being called into the vice-chancellors office at Rhodes University). Intrigued? Read on…
 

Your illustrations for The All Africa Wildlife Express differ vastly from your documentary comic books (Medicine for Beginners, Introducing Mandela) and your collaborations with Michael Rosen. Was it your decision to illustrate this book in the same style as your own fabric, furniture and wall art?

It’s a very good question, but I actually don’t think the chasm between this and my earlier work is as vast as it looks. It’s more like the latest stop on a long journey that began when I was living in London in the 1980s and was exposed to the work of a lot of artists who were using found images, such as the assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg, the political photomontages of Peter Kennard and earlier anti-Nazi photomontages of John Heartfield. The collages of Max Ernst where he combined Victorian engravings of birds and people struck a particular chord. I incorporated collage in the illustration work I did for the comic books and my punk-influenced collaborations with Michael Rosen. I see the All Africa Wildlife Express as the culmination of this journey: the illustrations consist almost entirely of hundreds of found images painstakingly stitched together and manipulated to make the whole.

What did you enjoy drawing most and why?

I enjoyed creating immersive landscapes such as the jungle scene, the river scene, the hotel, etc. I would start living in them while I was compiling them.

Your attention to detail is evident in the exquisite drawings of African mammals (including elephants, bat-eared foxes and giraffes), celestial cartography, and the dilapidated yet colourful Hotel Splendide. Do you attribute your years of studying architecture in London to this aptitude?

I think the architectural training gave me a sense of design, composition and space.

When did you realise that you’d like to pursue a career in illustration and design? Were you influenced by comics you read as a child? Any specific artworks or artists?

As a child I loved comics. My parents thought it would be better for me and my brothers to read British comics rather than American ones, so every week we would get our copies of Lion, Tiger and Valiant. I think they saw it as a kind of inoculation – a small dose of something mildly toxic to protect us from something far worse. But, in fact, they were the gateway drug that led me to read Mad Magazine, underground comics such as the Furry Freak Brothers and ultimately the brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning graphic autobiography Maus.

I drew incessantly from the time I could first hold a pencil. At school I drew comics as an antidote to what felt like the prison of the classroom – something that repeatedly got me into hot water, starting in grade four with a picture of Mrs Hofmeyr on her sheep farm (she was portrayed as one of the sheep). At high school I drew a comic strip of the outlandishly large-eared science teacher as a jumbo jet which led to a visit to the headmaster. At Rhodes University I was called in to the vice chancellor’s office for my cartoon strip mocking him for his ban on bare feet on campus; and at the 1979 Nusas congress I earned outrage in the pages of Rapport for my cartoon superhero Godman (which they thought was blasphemous). These encounters with the unwelcome consequences of drawing (and advice from my mother who was an art teacher not to try to earn a living from art) steered me away from a career in visual art for a while. But it’s a powerful drug.

Can we expect a picture book both illustrated AND written by you some time in the near future?

I don’t think any time soon. Ros is a very gifted writer – across a whole gamut of genres – and we work brilliantly together. And she’s prolific – there are several stories she’s written waiting to be illustrated. So I don’t think I’m going to have time to write. Or as my father used to say: why keep a dog and bark yourself?

All Africa Wildlife Express

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