Knock on the door of Bob Graham’s Melbourne home and you can be sure of one thing: a barking dog will be the first response. Any reader of his picture books will have worked out almost immediately that the author and illustrator loves dogs; loves all animals really.
After all, this is the man who when asked to list 10 of his favourite things included the sound of a dog’s ears flapping. That tells you a lot. His cocker spaniel (with a bit of springer) is a great exponent of flapping ears. “Alfie’s ears are a great comfort to me at times.”
Graham’s books have a warmth that is rooted in their affection for the texture of domestic life – chaos and harmony – slightly eccentric characters, the joy of animals, simple narratives and a sense of tolerance and community. And, of course, the illustrations which have an unerring eye for detail and idiosyncrasy.
He has won umpteen awards, including seven from the Children’s Book Council of , a PM’s award and Britain’s Kate Greenaway medal given for the best illustrated children’s book of the year. Nice to get, he says, but simply a byproduct of what he’s doing.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that a love of home is so vital to his work; it was there early on. At the start of each term at at primary school in the Sydney suburb of Beverly Hills the children would invariably have to write a little essay about how they had spent their holidays. His would always finish with “and home we returned. Tired but happy.”
Perhaps not much has changed. Think of books such as Home in the Rain, Queenie the Bantam, or A Bus Called Heaven.
“There does seem to be a thread through my books of some kind of home life and the story will often go out from there,” Graham says. He tries not to go very far from his desk to find his stories. “I like to find them in the front garden or over the side fence.”
He does a lot of gazing out from the front room where he works. The house has masses of wooden birds dotted around, loads of pictures on the walls and doors, and many prints created by his artist wife, Carolyn, lining the hall. (She’s working on a series of hunting-dog prints that are pinned up in their various iterations.)
But the boundaries of home life are no restriction to his imagination. His latest book, The Poesy Ring: A Love Story, is something different for him. Rather than focusing on people, it follows the fortunes of one such ring that has been jettisoned by a jilted lover into a meadow on the west coast of Ireland in 1830.
Somehow, through the agency of animals, plants, fish and people it fetches up in a New York pawn shop in the winter of 1967 where it is bought by Sonny and Jules.
“It is a departure,” he concedes, “albeit involved in the time process that my recent books have been. Like all writers or artists, you’re constantly trying to move forwards or move into other territories, not repeating yourself. I don’t want to write a book that might be attributed to me, that happens in spite of me. Once I got hold of this idea it presented so many visual possibilities and I could range far and wide and that was only limited by where I wanted to run the story, which was a freedom for me.”
The book is dedicated to Graham’s wife: “For Carolyn. Us. 50 years.” But he says Sonny and Jules are “not us, but maybe some strange, distant variation of us. I’m not sure.”
The characters in his books – dads with ponytails who knit, mums with tatts – are utterly believable.
“Maybe they’re entrenched in the ’60s and ’70s,” he says about them. “Perhaps I’m taking some of our early family beginnings with me for the ride. I have set up these characters and I put them in their house (or not, as in The Poesy Ring) and I put them in their room and I try to imagine other parts of their lives, which may not necessarily be seen in the text or the pictures.”
Surprisingly, some people have taken exception to the worlds he creates. Apparently one of his most successful books in the US, Let’s Get a Pup, prompted suggestions that Graham had some kind of agenda to his books.
“If I have one, I’d like to know what it is. Basically it’s people being kind to their pets; letting their dogs push them off the couch.”
It’s the sort of criticism that he remembers. Another objection to that book was the father has a lighted match on his T-shirt – “the match in the sad part goes out and in the happy part it’s lit” – but apparently some people saw that as a spliff. “I guess they’ve got me down as some sort of subversive.”
One wonders what they would make of a couple of his books being endorsed by Amnesty International, which he says is one of the best things that has happened to him.
The other is the publication in the same year of How to Heal a Broken Wing in Hebrew and Farsi. “I’m proud of that happening.”
Before publication in Iran, however, the local publisher asked for a few changes to his pictures. They wanted to lengthen the skirts on the women and cover a few people up a bit. “I got on my high horse and all pompous and was telling our son Pete about it and he said, ‘Bob, it’s not changing the book at all, the story’s still the same, it’s still got its integrity’. That became a wonderful event for me.”
Back in his primary-school days, Graham’s big hero was the Sydney Sun cartoonist Emile Mercier. He would carefully copy each daily offering and one Christmas Graham met the great man when his father took him to get his copy of Mercier’s annual signed. He was so overawed when asked who the book should be dedicated to he could only just croak his name.
Despite the passion for drawing, he had no plans to be an illustrator. He joined Qantas’ young-executive scheme when he left school at 17 and stuck with the airline for five years. But he started going to the Julian Ashton art school at nights and eventually dumped Qantas in favour of full-time study. It was there he met Carolyn, when she modelled for a drawing class.
His first post-art school job was with the government printing office in Sydney – his first task was to design the Opera House Christmas lottery ticket. He incorporated a reclining Santa and the print run was about 100,000, one he hasn’t subsequently exceeded.
“I never had any career plan or whatever, even up to the point of doing what turned out to be my first book.” Which was Pete and Roland, about a boy who rescues a budgerigar that flies into the family garden. “I sat down one day and there was a story happening in the house. The children must have been eight or 10 then. I thought I could make a little book out of what’s going on here at the moment and much as I do now started out not knowing what was going to happen.
“The mum and dad in the background are looking rather dishevelled; that was us. I got to the point in the book and thought this is fun but I don’t know what’s going to happen and as I was working, Roland, as many caged birds do, flew out of the window. There was my ending.”
I wondered how his son took the bird’s departure in real life. “Philosophically, I think.” In the book Graham adds a couple of extra pages about Roland to sweeten the end.
His working method hasn’t changed much: early illustrations and words in a notebook, then he creates small dummies of the eventual book. After toing and froing with his editor and publisher at Walker Books’ HQ in London, he scales the pictures up and starts on the final artwork.
Fifty years ago, Graham’s parents gave him The n Boy’s Annual for Christmas. He was only five, about to start school and couldn’t yet read. But he loved the illustrations. “There was beautiful pen work. That’s what probably sent me in that direction.”
He went on to comics imported from America and fairytales coming in from Europe. He loved the Grimms, but their stories “scared the hell out me”.
That’s one thing a Bob Graham book won’t do to its readers. He doesn’t do scary.
“Quite how I’ve got from the Boy’s Annual to my recent book, I’m not quite sure.”
The Poesy Ring is published by Walker Books. Bob Graham will be one of several authors signing their books at Books Illustrated, 74 Mills Street, Albert Park, on November 12, 2pm-5pm.