Oh No, George!: An Interview with Chris Haughton
How does it feel to have a book in publication that is celebrating its 10th year?
I can’t believe it has been 10 years since Oh No, George! came out. It’s been an exciting few months of birthday celebrations for my mischievous dog, including a special new edition of the book published by Walker Books, a nationwide tour of the stage adaptation from Can’t Sit Still Theatre and the launch of a brand new, free interactive adventure, What Will George Do?. Seeing children round the country engage with the story and enjoy the show after lockdown has been the perfect way to revisit my second book a decade on.
Did you choose the character George to be a dog because dogs are a favourite animal of yours, or was it a choice driven by children’s love of dogs as book characters?
I had three rescue dogs when I was growing up and George was inspired by one in particular: Tammy, who one year ate all of my sister’s Easter eggs when we went out. The poor dog was very sick, and my sister was very upset! The way I tell stories about animals is as a visual metaphor for the feelings of humans. I really wanted to take the issue of making a decision and slow it down to dramatise the moment of choice between the right thing to do, and what you want to do. For George the dog, this manifests as whether to eat a whole cake, or chase cats, or dig up the garden, but for children, it can serve as a great lesson in impulse control, and learning that what feels best now, might not be best in the long run.
When you work on a book that you have both written and illustrated, where do you start?
I always start with the drawing and the text comes after. Most of my stories come from sketches I draw and then wonder what comes next, or what might have happened before. I like getting the facial and body expressions by doing very small, rough sketches. If I do them very quickly it retains the emotion.
George has lot of mishaps in this story. Did you laugh at the story as you were writing it? Is that, for you, the sign of a good story?
Yes, I found myself having a good chuckle – the humour works because we all identify with George. We bring it on ourselves and just can’t help it.
Writing picture books cannot be easy as an adult. Do you have an audience to test the stories on as you work?
Sharing my in progress stories with others before they are published, especially children, is a really important part of my process. I always think of something to add every time I read a new story aloud. It makes such a difference if you have an audience. You see immediately what works and what does not.
How did you develop your illustration style and when did you know that you had found the style unique to you? Is it one you will always use or do you adapt it according to story?
I create various pieces of art by hand and kind of combine them all together in the best way I can. After my initial sketches, I make collages of each page with pieces of card – it’s easier to move everything around that way and make sure the characters’ poses are the simplest they can be. I then scan it onto the computer where I pick out the most eye-catching colours as possible to engage young readers. For George, I used the warm hues of pinks and oranges to show that, at heart, he is a friendly and lovable dog. The hints of red represent his passion (for cake, cats and rubbish) and his devilish side.
Do you have a favourite author and/or illustrator now? Do you have any favourites from your own childhood?
As a child I loved Richard Scarry’s books. Especially Busy, Busy World. I think that’s what made me interested in travel. Like everyone I love Maurice Sendak. Especially for the beautiful otherworldly atmospheres he creates. I love the simplicity of Eric Carle and Leo Lionni. I always look at their work when I feel my images getting too cluttered. It feels like a breath of fresh air to see how simply and clearly they can communicate. There is some great younger picture book makers working today too: Jon Klassen, Christian Robinson, Beatrice Alemagna, Carson Ellis.
Can you tell us some more about George becoming a stage production – have you been involved in this and what has it been like to have a book turned into such a production?
George appearing on stage is the most exciting thing that’s happened in the 10 years since the book came out. I was absolutely gobsmacked when I first saw it and I’m still in love with it. It’s been great to collaborate with Can’t Sit Still – we met in person a few times and exchanged ideas over email and Zoom. I’ve enjoyed seeing the clown-like elements of George and the slapstick humour play out on stage. I’ve also worked with the artistic director Cat Boot and her team on What Will George Do?, a digital version I narrate, which gives children the power to decide how George is going to behave. I think it brings out the best of the book and show!
You have had a fabulous career to date with some fantastic books, I hope we see more of your books reaching their 10th anniversary and beyond. Where is your writing and illustrating taking you next?
My next book Well Done, Mummy Penguin is published by Walker in October. It’s set in Antarctica and is dedicated to incredible mums. I’ve had loads of fun drawing the family of penguins and exploring the fascinating dynamic of penguin parenting as mum goes off to catch some fish for dinner.
The 10th anniversary edition of Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton is out now (Walker Books, £7.99).