Meet the Author: R.W. Alley
Welcome to Elephant Notes . . . our periodic take on some of the ideas, issues, and news impacting parents, children, and reading. This week, we meet the author of Clark in the Deep Sea, R.W. Alley.
For our April author interview, we are delighted to bring you up close and personal with R. W. Alley and his wonderful book, Clark in the Deep Sea. As you read about Clark and his adventure on one rainy afternoon, make sure to pay close attention to the wonderful illustrations. Mr. Alley was the long-time illustrator for Michael Bond’s famous Paddington Bear books along with over 150 other books!
How did you decide to write your first children’s book?
I’d always written stories. At first just in pictures; before letters made sense to me. As I drew, I’d narrate the story. Apparently sometimes aloud. Mostly I spoke the characters’ dialogue. Like a play. The scenic and action details, I just drew. Then, I’d add scribbles around the art to mimic actual text. Sometimes, I’d feed the drawings into the typewriter and bang away randomly at the keys to make pretend text blocks. Layout and page design were important early on.
For over 20 years you were the illustrator for Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear books, what did you learn from working with Mr. Bond and being the illustrator for such an iconic character?
Michael Bond was a terrific writer. He wrote in all formats for all ages. Before he was a full time writer, he was a TV cameraman. He brought that visual sense to his picture books. From his example, I learned how to frame a character with consistency, and most importantly with heart, to a range of ages and reading levels. Paddington was very real to Michael. And he has become very real to me, too.
Since you both write and illustrate—what comes first as you create a book?
A story most often begins as a note in my sketchbook. Maybe it’s a character doodle. Maybe it’s an odd phrase or twist of words. Maybe it’s a snippet of dialogue. There’s no particular pattern. The main thing is to keep working on an idea until it sprouts a satisfying story arc and characters grow full and round. One of my early self-authored books, The Clever Carpenter, sprang from a doodle and an illustration for a textbook. I found myself thinking and thinking about the kind of things this character might build and how they would be viewed and eventually a full story developed.
Your illustrations are not just beautiful, but very approachable for kids — is that an intentional design direction?
That’s a lovely compliment. Thanks. I find that I’m drawing best when I inhabit the characters, actions and spaces of a story without thinking too much about art style and design. I don’t want to be clever. I want to clear.
What inspires your design process?
I’m not sure I have a design process. I just try to keep my eyes and mind open to new things. You never know what you’ll find around the next bend in the road. Also, I read a lot.
In Clark in the Deep Sea, the characters are especially fun (Hungry Fur-Shark, MillionMile Eel). How do you come up with these fanciful creatures?
The sketchbook – always the sketchbook. You can do all the thinking you want about an idea; churning it and turning it over while you’re out walking or shopping or doing the dishes, but you’re not going to get anywhere until you put pen to paper. That’s how these guys popped out into the story. I didn’t really know them until I drew them.
It’s sweet that the imaginary world of these children takes place in their backyard on a rainy day. Are you drawing from your own childhood?
Absolutely. I was an only child in a neighborhood of many, many kids. Suburbia. Tree houses, lawnmowers, pickup baseball games in the vacant lots and paper routes. And, being bored on rainy days until one of us thought of an adventure and pulled the others into it.
Subsequent books in this series follow the friends to other adventures on the beach, the moon, and even the South Pole. How do you decide where to take these characters?
Did I mention my sketchbook? Since these books follow the four seasons, I began doodling seasonally. The winter story came together first because snowmen are fun to draw. Penguins, too. And, my doodles told me a race to the South Pole would offer good possibilities for defining the sibling’s individual personalities. The other stories were not so much planned as they just happened. I remember in doodling for Clark’s book, I was washing the dishes after lunch, it was raining and the movie channel was chortling on the TV. I wasn’t following the film. I had planned on watching the news. (Remember when you could watch the news without your head exploding?) But, suddenly a mad scientist was hunting a sea monster. I put down sponge and opened my sketchbook. Clark had a mission.
Who were your favorite authors or books when you were a child?
My favorite picture book was Sailor Dog by Margaret Wise Brown and Garth Williams. Later, Kenneth Grahame and Ernest Shepard’s Wind in the Willows was a fav.
Did you love to read as a child and what would you most recommend to parents who want to develop a love of reading in their children?
I was not a good reader early on. I’m very happy that the graphic format of storytelling is considered okay today. That it’s not just superheroes and slapstick. Also, it’s great that nonfiction has become more fun. But still, as always, the best way to create a curious reader is to read to a child from an early age.
When you look around at the current state of kids and reading, what are the biggest challenges or opportunities to address?
Following on the last question, I’d be sad to think that the graphic format might lessen or delay a young reader’s interest or understanding of descriptive language and the nuance of words. Reading Dickens aloud is one cure. Or Mark Twain. JK Rowling isn’t to be sneezed at either. Another concern for me is in the land of picture books. The texts have shrunk and the storytelling has lost some layers. The experience of reading a full book has become much quicker. I’m not convinced this is a universally good thing.
What is the best thing about being a children’s author and illustrator?
Making up worlds and sharing them with new readers.
Any new projects in the pipeline we can look forward to?
Yes, there is a new book coming out this fall in the UK –Paddington Post – a novelty book with envelopes bound into the pages filled with this and that for the kids to immediately misplace. It will be fun.
Thanks to R.W. Alley for sharing what inspires his creative work and his take on reading during childhood. We can’t wait to see what stories come next! To learn more about Clark in the Deep Sea and other publications and illustrations, visit http://rwalley.com/ and follow R.W. Alley on Instagram @rwalleyillustration.