Welcome to another guest post. However, this is perhaps an author/illustrator you are less familiar with, but certainly one that I believe deserves the recognition amongst other great illustrators. Without even realising it, you may have already come across Tom's work if you have read or seen any of the Skulduggery series by Derek Landy - Tom has illustrated many of the book covers. However, he has now ventured into the writing and illustrating of picture books. His second book 'A Home for Mr Tipps' was published earlier this month and is certainly a book to read. The bold and vibrant illustrations accompany a beautifully poignant story.
Thank you to Tom for this very interesting and revealing blog post. Hopefully, this will help to establish Tom's creative talent into the minds and lives of many more adults and children.
I’ve enjoyed reading for nearly as long as I can remember.
My earliest memory (just in case you happen to be interested) is of staring down a circular ventilation shaft which was hidden away in a cupboard in the caravan that we had just moved into and was going to be my home for the next five years. (The cupboard wasn’t my home by the way, it was the whole caravan, things weren’t that bad…)
Anyway, not too long after that, I started to read - pretty standard fare at first, short tales about cats sitting on mats and such like. From this I graduated to Peter and Jane and their dog Pat, who seemed to be particularly adept at seeing balls and liking them.
Anyway, great as all these books were for teaching me how to read, none of them were got me excited about reading.
That first happened when I read the Tim and the Hidden People series by Sheila K. McCullagh. These were books filled with stories of witches, ghosts and magic. It would be fair to say my future reading habits were pretty much set in stone when I first read Tim and Tobias (which is what inspired me to name the naughty ghost in Tobias and the Super Spooky Ghost Book)
From that point on, it was all about the supernatural. I lived in a remote location in South Shropshire, pinned down by the Stiperstones on one side and the Long Mynd on the other – it was a place that easily lent itself to my flights of fantasy. Why wouldn’t the Devil be sitting in his throne on the Stiperstones when the mist fell? It all seemed perfectly plausible to me.
Fast forward a couple of years and hopefully this goes some way to explaining why I read a YA book about a nineteen year-old-boy when I was just nine-years-old. You see, the book was called Devil on the Road by Robert Westall and it was all about time travel and witches. My younger self was absolutely enthralled by it and it became one of those books that I loved so much it’s been tattooed on my brain ever since.
So it’s strange that until now I have never re-read the Devil on the Road. Having recently done a lot of design and illustration work on various YA books, I was curious to see how the YA world of the late seventies (Devil on the Road was originally published in 1977) would compare to today’s books for the same audience.
The book is narrated in the first person, so the first thing that struck me was the way in which the main character, John Webster, is portrayed.
He’s a young man with a big chip on his shoulder. It seems as though no-one can please him - everyone’s either a snob or a yob. He’s self-assured, difficult and aggressive, but also morally decent, intelligent and at times very tender. All of these conflicting traits serve to make him a very believable person.
He might not always make the ‘right’ choices, but the complexities within his character make you engage with him and ultimately want the best for him. To me it somehow means more if you grow fond of a ‘difficult’ character than if an author just creates someone everybody would immediately fall in love with.
As an exercise in pacing it’s a classic slow burn – building in intensity with each chapter to a dramatic climax. The supernatural elements of the story weave in and out, so subtly at first that you could easily miss them if the title didn’t allude to them.
Over time, you realise that the old barn that John Webster stays in on his summer motorcycle trip, links him directly with a distant time - a time of witch-hunts, Oliver Cromwell and the Civil War.
It’s the atmosphere that really pulled me in to this story - both as a nine year old and now at the ripe old age of thirty-three. I can still feel the tension in the air and John’s excitement as he feels himself being pulled out of the present and into an uncertain past. The ambiguous use of witchcraft and folklore draws you into a world of magic and excitement that you truly want to be a part off. I remember going off for long walks as a kid, hoping that when I came back to my village it would be 300 years in the past. To the best of my knowledge this never happened…
Halfway through the story John is thoroughly entangled with a C17th girl suspected of being a witch. So John does what any decent, right-minded person does and helps her clear her name – she’s got to be innocent, there’s no such thing as witches, right?
Over the course of the story, the author makes you question every character’s motives, including the narrator’s own, until you feel ultimately just as confused as John - falling in and out of time, never quite knowing who you can trust, or what is going to happen.
Events described early on in the book have a pivotal role in the story at the end, so the entire piece hangs together really nicely with a satisfying ‘Ahh, now that explains it…’ moment.
Ultimately, you half get what you want for John Webster - he escapes the time slip he’s caught within, but you can’t help but wonder ‘was it the best thing that would ever happen to him?’ Even he seems unsure, which ties in well with his contradictory character.
Apart from some occasional slang that seems a bit outdated now everything else about the book stands up really well.
I was wondering if this would feel ‘softer’ than more recent YA titles such as the excellent Department 19 and Divergent. Whilst the description of violence is less graphic, the brutal reality of the aggression described and the motivation for John’s violence is conveyed so unflinchingly that I certainly didn’t feel mollycoddled by the lack of splattered blood.
It would seem that the YA readers of 33 years ago had just the same passions for excitement, mystery and drama - and Robert Westall was more than capable of supplying them with it.