Illustrator of more than 100 children’s books, including some 20 titles featuring Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear, R.W. (Bob) Alley lends his lighthearted artistic touch to his wife Zoë’s debut book, There’s a Wolf at the Door. In this large-format picture book, just out from Roaring Brook/Porter, comic-strip style art follows a not-so big, not-so bad wolf through five classic tales, including “The Three Little Pigs” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” A phone conversation with the couple reveals that they make a spirited team off as well as on the page.
What was it that sparked this collaboration now?
Zoë Alley: Bob has been illustrating books forever—or maybe that doesn’t sound too good—shall we say for 30-ish years? And I’ve been writing for quite some time, but nothing that I’d published. We had heard that the graphic-novel type format for the picture-book audience is a market niche that publishers are looking to fill. So we mulled this over and decided that if we could come up with the right concept, we should do something together in that format. And I thought, what better stories to tell the four-to-eight age group than those that are familiar to them? So I decided to take some simple tales and adapt them so as to make them, well, un-grim.
Bob Alley: I’ve always liked telling stories in comic-book style and I’ve always wanted to do a children’s book in this format. But I wasn’t a clever enough writer to come up with the words on my own. Fortunately, I was clever enough to marry someone who could. Because of Zoë’s writing style and my drawing style, this seemed to be a wonderful format for us to work in together.
So what is it about your styles that lend themselves to this comic-strip format?
BA: Well, I often get criticism from editors that I give them way too many pictures when I’m illustrating a book and they have to edit down my art. With all the panels that fit on Wolf’s large pages, I can draw many more pictures than in a standard picture book, where I have to compress a half-page of text into one picture. This is freeing. And my art can be much more slapstick and I can really exaggerate the characters and create speech balloons to animate them. And Zoë is good at writing pithy, hilarious dialogue. Here she can strip away a lot of the basic description and go right to the jugular of the dialogue and make it read more like a play.
ZA: Actually, it’s kind of funny, but the way I write these stories is actually how I speak. When I talk to people, I often find myself adding sidebars, asides. Sometimes I think I’m doing it in my head, and to my horror it comes out of my mouth.
Did you envision the book in such a large trim size from the start?
BA: Definitely. The larger format gives me the possibility of doing a lot of graphics instead of, say, nine little panels on a page. I wanted to avoid the grid thing and let the panels really flow. I drew these wildly decorative pages, and if the book had been printed in a smaller format, you couldn’t have as easily seen all the details or read all the text.
ZA: The other big thing is that this is the right size for holding when children are sitting on their parents’ laps, being read to. I remember so well, as a child, sitting on my parents’ laps and reading the original large editions of the Babar and Madeline books. And though my own children are now too big to sit on my lap and read, the memory of them doing that, and listening to their comments as I read, remains strong. I like to imagine parents and kids reading this book together.
How did your collaborative process work?
BA: Well, when we proposed the book to Neal Porter, whom I’ve known for years—I did two books with him back when he was at Orchard—he wanted to see some sample pages. So Zoë wrote four or five pages and I did illustrations showing how I envisioned the book. She and I went back and forth for a bit to get the right balance of words and pictures.
ZA: From there, I finished the manuscript. The words came first, since that’s how Bob usually works when he’s illustrating books by other authors. As I wrote, I was picturing Bob’s illustrations—since we’ve been together so many years I knew exactly how he could illustrate these stories. And, to flip that, when he looked at my manuscript, he understood my words clearly. They were familiar to him. The process flowed easily and we didn’t have any knock-down arguments.
BA: I could never have come up with these characters that Zoë created. They are so there, so in your face. That was one of the nicest things about illustrating this book, since my art is so character-driven.
ZA: Well, in terms of these characters, I’d like to give a small but appreciative shout-out to our own children, Cassie and Max, who are now 18 and 15. The dialogue in this book was lifted from life, and they were the inspiration for some of these characters—on only the best level of course.
Surely they didn’t inspire the wolf character!
ZA: Well, probably not the wolf. But then again, you never know, since I believe there really is no such thing as fiction. So there may well be bits and pieces of my kids in that wolf!
Bob, for the past decade you’ve been illustrating Paddington books, including last spring’s Paddington Here and Now, the first new Paddington novel in close to 30 years. Do you think that these will be a key piece of your children’s book legacy?
ZA: “Legacy.” Wow, Bob! That’s quite the heavy word!
BA: It certainly is. I think I have to get up and strut around the room for a minute! It has been a lot of fun illustrating the Paddington books. Michael Bond’s ability with language is incredible. These stories are so character-driven. Paddington has probably got one of the strongest personalities in children’s books and Paddington Here and Now really shows it off. The picture books are obvious attempts to bring Paddington to a younger audience, but the novels are where he was born, where he lives. The chance to work on this new novel was really cool. So yes, I do think of the Paddington books as among the main ones I’ve worked on.
Are there any other collaborations on your writing desk and drawing table?
ZA: Yes, we are doing a sort of sequel to There’s a Wolf at the Door, in the same large-scale format and with the same comic-style art. The title—There’s a Princess in the Palace—is somewhere between tentative and carved-in-stone. The manuscript is ready to go, but I’m waiting for this slacker to get to work on the illustrations. I believe Roaring Brook has it scheduled for fall 2010.
BA: Uh-oh. I guess I should hang up the phone now and get to work! This is going to be fun to do, since again I love working in the paneled format, and also it will be something of a costume drama, with all the princesses and other residents of the castles. I’m thinking I’ll have to do a lot of research.
But it sure sounds like fun research, no?
ZA: I’d say so. Maybe we’ll get to go to Bavaria.
BA: Or at least to a German restaurant.
There’s a Wolf at the Door by Zoë B. Alley, illus. by R.W. Alley. Roaring Brook/Neal Porter, $19.95 ISBN 978-1-59643-275-8