Wednesday 18 February 2015

Storytelling and selkies with Gillian McClure

Korean Sketch Book. Image reproduced by kind permission of Gillian McClure.

On Wednesday 11th February, the Cambridge Library Group hosted a presentation by children’s author and illustrator Gillian McClure.  Gillian’s presentation entertainingly explored the many different facets of creating a picture book – from the initial inspiration, to the evolution of the idea, and then the capturing of the characters, energy and emotion of the tale through illustration, text, and typography.  This journey through Gillian’s creative process was accompanied throughout with illustrations from her works, conveying her creative range and celebrating the evocative nature of visual storytelling.

It was fascinating to hear about the creative process involved in formulating a character and a story.  Sometimes a story could begin with a simple image – like a hen nesting in the tail of a fox (Flood, 2014) or a line of sticks in the sand (Selkie, 2010).  Sometimes a story could begin with a friend recounting the antics of a kleptomaniac cat (Tom Finger, 2002), or from sketches of a South Korean village seemingly untouched by time (The Land of the Dragon King, 2008).  In each instance Gillian stressed the value of an organic approach to writing, and the importance of finding a personal connection with the story’s setting. Trying to pin down a story onto paper too soon can stunt its growth.  A story cannot be forced, but rather formed by countless experiences, images and encounters.  An unexpected remark from a stranger whilst waiting in a queue at the fish van, for example, took the story of Selkie in an entirely unexpected direction, ending up in a setting deeply rooted in memories of holidays in Colonsay and Orinsay. 

 Tommy Finger 'dummy', pages 6-7.  Image reproduced by kind permission of Gillian McClure.

Picture book story telling is a complex and diverse art form and part of Gillian McClure’s appeal is the stylistic variety of her work.  Gillian’s most recent book, Flood, is highly suitable for early years with large earthy images, sparing language and a simple story.  This contrasts sharply with Tog the Ribber (1985) a collaboration with her father, Paul Coltman.  Coltman’s frightening story, Jabberwocky-like word play, and fast-paced rhythm are complemented by darkly detailed illustrations that gradually break through the borders on the page as we reach the climax, undermining any former illusion of safety and containment.  This book is certainly more appropriate for older readers and it is no wonder it was highly commended in the Kate Greenaway awards, 1985.  Different again are works like Zoe’s Boat (2012) and We’re Going to Build a Dam (2013).  The former provides a great example of the use of graphic novel frames to capture a fast paced, action-packed story; the latter demonstrates the interdependence of illustration and typography, showing how playful use of type can enhance the narrative. Gillian works very closely with typographical designer Lisa Kirkham from an early stage to achieve this. It is also important to read the words aloud as you’re writing to hear how they sound. Words lie flat on the page until the tune or tone of the story is captured and the words spring to life.

This was a fun and fascinating event that also included a display of Gillian McClure’s art and an opportunity to buy some of her books.  We are both now in possession of signed copies of Flood (Jodie for her three year old niece, Annie for herself) and Jodie fully intends to hunt out a copy of Tog the Ripper. Picture books aren’t just for kids, you know.

Colonsay sketch. Image reproduced by kind permission of Gillian McClure.
Contributed by Jodie Walker, Librarian at Peterhouse College, and Annie Gleeson, Deputy Librarian at Magdalene College.

For more information about Gillian's work see her website and blog: