Updated: Jul 15
A few months ago I was approached by my friend, Jack Spencer Alford, with a short story that he had written about a fictional town called Biggleswick. Jack has already published before, Infection - Outbreak, and I initially felt that the illustrations needed would revolve around a similar themed work. However, the story I was presented with was very different. Welcome to Biggleswick is a rhythmic description of a town that is carried along on a gentle tide of surrealist humour. For me, it is reminiscent of Roald Dahl's revolting rhymes or the poems of Spike Milligan, where word by word, an imaginatively funny scene develops within your mind's eye. This was the same feeling I got when reading Welcome to Biggleswick.
Needless to say, I was excited beyond belief and honoured to be asked to be involved. One of our initial discussions clarified to me that we were both in similar mindsets when discussing the images for the book. Jack wanted animals to be an integral aspect to the story, and I remember our initial conversations, bouncing around ideas that elaborated on the other's previous comments. This back and forth between the two of us within those initial conversations helped me build a picture of what Biggleswick looked and felt like, and these discussions were the initial building blocks to how the illustrations have developed so far.
I also feel that there is another side to our shared vision with this project. Both Jack and myself have worked as teachers in junior and early years schools internationally, and have witnessed the impact that storytelling has on children, particularly its ability to generate discussion and inspire imagination. This has been incredibly useful in helping me consider what goes into the work as well as providing an insight into what else could be added. There have also been a few times that Jack shared his ideas and rhymes with his class, which in turn helped influence the characters within the story. There is nothing better than direct feedback and suggestions from your target audience.
With regards to the illustrations, those that have come across my blog before will know the admiration I hold for illustrator/authors such as Sean Tan and Anthony Browne. Tan's ability to bring light to issues of belonging in society and addressing the idea of cultural norms or Browne's work on gender stereotypes and representation through his surrealist images are of particular influence contextually to what I do.
As such, I couldn't help but be inspired to bring this into Biggleswick in some small way. I have, for example, looked at the characters from the story and tried to not go for obvious, gender or cultural stereotypes, although there is a natural lean towards a British environment. Mostly because this is where I have grown up and what I know and can therefore confidently respond to it. I suppose, with these illustrations, I have looked at how a multi-cultural city, such as London, would have influenced many of the characters and environments that shape the look of the town. Throughout, I have been conscious to vary the gender and ethnicity of the characters to enable children to see inspirational characters within a range of cultures. Some of the characters have been based on real life examples, for example Chocolate and Percival Piggy are based on on a friend who's individuality, self-belief and effortless ability to go against the grain of society seemed to be the strong willed kind of character that would definitely open up a sweet shop across the road from a dentist. Or Dr. Healy who reflects the large number of people I met through the pensions in Cuba, who were also qualified doctors.
On a personal level, to say that this project has been exciting and inspirational would be down-playing it a bit, I have loved the creative license and trust from Jack with regards to what I am doing, and hope that my efforts live-up to the quality of his storytelling. Jack has already written a couple of follow ups to Welcome to Biggleswick that build upon the characters introduced within the initial short story, which I am eager to get my teeth into. But first things first...
Jack can be followed on instagram @jackspenceralford and his book Infection - Outbreak can be found on amazon for kindle or paperback.