Video transcript
2017 NSW PRC author interview - Leigh Hobbs

Back to video Back to NSW Premier's Reading Challenge (PRC) 2017 author interviews

[music playing]

- Welcome, guys, to Book Fest. We're so excited today to have Lee Hobbs, the amazing author/illustrator extraordinaire. And also, just as a casual thing that you do, Leigh, you're the Australian Children's Laureate.

- That's right.

- 2016/'17.

- That's right. So I'm weaving all that in with everything else.

- We're really excited to have you here with the New South Wales Premier's Reading Challenge.

- Thank you.

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: We've got some of your books here. Some of these characters have taken over Australia, the world, Paris definitely. Where do they come from, these amazing characters? I'm talking Old Tom. We've got Horrible Harriet. We've got Mr. Badger.

- And Fiona the Pig.

- And Fiona the Pig. That's right. And tell us. Have these guys always lived with you in your head?

- That's a perf-- that was what my answer was going to be. I suspect that, in one form or another, they've always been swirling round in my head. And what's happened is, through kids' books, I've got a wonderful way, fortunately, of getting them out in the open and letting them run free.

- Are you just working 24/7 on painting, drawing, writing?

- No, I do sleep and eat.

- How does it all work? OK, just checking.

- Yeah. No, I fit it all in. And I don't need much sleep. I get up early in the morning. I've got two Blue Heeler dogs. I walk them, have breakfast, read the paper, then I go to my studio and work.

- And you are a visual arts high school teacher for a long time.

- Tech teacher, which is secondary in Victoria.

- But while you were working as a teacher, were you thinking about writing books? Or no?

- No. Well, in the '80s, what happened is that I started doing drawings for 'The Age' newspaper, freelance. Kids, that means that they'd ring me up and they're say, Leigh Hobbs, we want you to do a picture for the paper. And they'd send the article out with a bloke on a motorbike, because it was pre-computers. And they'd say, right, you've got an hour or two hours to do the drawing. This is the space. And the fellow would come back and pick the drawing up. And I didn't understand what the article would be about. It'd be about finance or something. I wouldn't know.

So what I'd do is I'd do a weird drawing, then get a line of text, text of the words. And I'd do the drawing, put the text down, and the bloke would take it back. And often what happened is the picture would say one thing and the writing would be about something completely different. And they would think it's funny, but I was doing it because I was in a hurry and panicking. But that's why, in my books, the words say one thing and the pictures say something else. So I discovered a way of saying two things at once.

- That's a really--

- That's the really long answer. I know.

- It's a really long answer. But for the readers out there that are watching, a lot of them have said to us that they want to write or they're good illustrators themselves. So a lot of students out there are thinking about making their own books. So that's probably some interesting or good advice to give to them.

- Well, and further to that, kids, if you want to write and illustrate your own books, it's silly to say-- if you've got a picture of Daphne the Platypus picking up a cup of tea, you don't say in the writing, Daphne is picking up a cup of tea, because we can see it. You say something else. You might say, Daphne was really thirsty or something like that. Yeah.

- What we're going to do is we're going to show the students also how you draw a little bit down in the track.

- Sure. I'm happy to do that.

- So we'll be able to show them some of your skills. And I think you're going to show them how to draw one of your characters, one of your new characters.

- Yeah. So I think we'll do Old Tom and Mr. Chicken. I think the kids would like to see Mr. Chicken.

- Well, Mr. Chicken is sitting here just out of the corner of my eye.

- Mm, there he is. What a sweetie.

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: Isn't he just? Slightly terrifying. He's a larger-than-life presence. Tell me about Mr. Chicken. Did he just come to you in the night?

- Well, there's a book which we haven't got here called 'Hooray for Horrible Harriet.' And the Horrible Harriet books, really, they're not about a bully. Some people think-- it's nothing to do with bullying. It's about being different and not fitting in. And Horrible Harriet is like the school freak. She is different. She looks like that, for a start. And she lives at school. She's got a room in the roof, and she sleeps on a nest. Actually, that is pretty different, though.

- [laughs]

- And she hasn't got a friend. She can't make friends, because she's scary looking. And everyone calls her Horrible Harriet. So in 'Hooray for Horrible Harriet,' she's sick of waiting for someone to be her friend, so she makes one. She buys a chicken, adds some secret ingredients, and it ends up being Mr. Chicken.

- That's right. That's right.

- And I liked him so much that I thought he needs to have a life of his own.

- Mm-hm.

- And that's how he came about.

- OK. And is it the same with Old Tom? Because he just wandered in the door almost into Angela Throgmorton's life.

- Yes, but he looked very different in the first drawing.


LEIGH HOBBS: When a lot of publishers-- publishes are the people that publish books, print the books. When I was sending out my first drawings of Old Tom to them, five of them, I think, said no, we don't like him and we won't publish him. But at that stage, I've still-- well, the drawings now are in the state library. You know, he was fat, and scary, and smoking a cigar. So he looked a bit scary. So no wonder they said no. Mm.

- OK. I still think he's actually-- he's got a lot of character. Let's put it that way.

- He's naughty rather than scary.

- He is very naughty. He does remind me of a lot of cats that I do know and animals that I do know.

- Well, he's meant to be a seven-year-old boy. I never mention the word 'cat' in the books.

- No. Sorry. I shouldn't have said the 'cat' word.

- No, no, no, that's good that you did, because it gives me a chance to tell people. But nowhere in the books do I mention the word 'cat,' because he's like a seven-year-old boy. And the Old Tom books are love stories between Angela and him, or a mother and a son. She adores him.

- Yeah, she does. She puts up with a lot, but that's because she loves him.

- Mothers do.

- [laughs]

- My mother did. Hm.

- Can we get back to Mr. Chicken? Because he goes on these fabulous adventures around the world.

- He's coming to Australia next.

- Is he?

- Yes.

- How exciting. When are we going to see this story?

- Oh, well, when I've finished being the laureate, I'll be able to really do it.

- Yes, it's a very busy life, because you're out around the country.

- That's right. And a little bit internationally.

- A little bit international. You're just back from Italy. Would you like to tell the readers where you've been?

- Well, that's why I'm a little bit-- you don't know me, but I am a little bit jet-lagged. So I've been at Bologna. There's a huge, big book festival every year, and publishers, the people that print the books, go there and try and interest other people in their books. And illustrators go. And I went this year as the Australian Children's Laureate to meet the other laureates, who were like ambassadors.

- So they're other ambassadors from around the world.

- Ireland.

- Did you find you had things in common with them?

- Very much, especially the Irish. In fact, they've invited me to Dublin when I go.

- Oh, that'll be fantastic.

- So I'm going there next month.

- Oh, great. Well, we're so lucky to have grabbed you just for this very short time that we've got you.

- I would have cancelled the trip to come here.

- That's right. That's great. Thank you, Leigh.

- Sure.

- Leigh, because you do a combination of things, when you're writing your stories, say with the Horrible Harriet, you're concocting a story in your head, and you're thinking about the illustrations, and you've just explained to us a little bit about how those stories and illustrations match up. But with the process of writing, do you use a computer, do you write longhand? How long does it take you to come up with a story? Or is it just different for every book?

- Now, it's sort of the same. The process is the same with every book, and it has been for over 20 years. I get an idea that I'm excited by. And I do some sketches and think of some words that might go with the different drawings. And I use a computer with the text now. I write the computer out with text, but I'm actually starting to think that I might go back to actually writing the words in a sketchbook--


- --rather than use a computer. And then bit by bit, the story takes shape. My books are different to a lot of people's books, because they are really character studies. Like, the Old Tom books are about Old Tom, not really what he's doing. Each book about Old Tom, the idea is that the kids get to know him better. And through Mr. Chicken's adventures, that's the idea too. Like, when Mr. Chicken goes to Paris, that's basically-- if you want to look for an issue, that's about friendship, because he meets Yvette, they spend the day together, he looks weird, and everyone in Paris is staring. But Yvette doesn't care, because she's with her friend. Our mates, we don't care what they look like.

The big difference in 'Mr. Chicken Goes to London,' the secret of that, which won't be a secret now, is that that's about me. London is the city that I love more than anywhere in the world. I see its faults, of course, but I love it. And 'Mr. Chicken Lands on London' is a love story about a place. Like, an indigenous person equivalent would be about an indigenous person feeling connected to the earth here. I feel very-- oh, I love Australia, of course. It's home.

But I feel very connected to England. And in that book, there's one page where he has to get to-- Big Ben is, in fact, the bell inside. I'll hold it up. The bell inside, that's not Big Ben. The bell's Big Ben, but we all call the clock Big Ben. Mr. Chicken has to get there before a quarter past 9:00, because one night when I was in London, I looked at quarter past 9:00, and I could just picture Mr. Chicken's face fitting into that clock. And so that's what, really, the story's about. Because at that instant, he feels that he's part of London. He's not just on the surface, a visitor. He really feels that he's part of it. And that's how I feel at certain times when I'm in London. That's a very long answer. I apologise.

- No, that's totally fine, because I feel the same way about London. A lot of Australians do.

- Do you?

- I did live in London.

- Oh, right. I love it.

- And I just love it. But I think a lot of the readers are going to go to these places in the future, and maybe they'll be taking Mr. Chicken along in their head.

- Well, kids take the book. When I was a little boy, the two things that I wanted to do-- I wanted to be an artist, because drawing is what I loved doing. And I wanted to go to England. And even now many years later, I love old buildings. I'm fascinated by old buildings and history. And the one connecting thing through all of Mr. Chicken books are the things that he sees. And in the Rome book, he goes to St. Peter's, and he goes to see Trevi Fountain, which is this big fountain in front of an ornate old building and has a bath in front. But what I love the idea is that kids will look at these books and think, wow, that's an interesting picture, I'd like to go there, and then look it up. Because that's what I did as a little boy. I would be in the library looking at history books, and I'd think, gee, I want to learn more about that. So in a way, I like the idea of maybe passing things on, making the kids feel interested in, as well as laughing, with the characters.

- Well, they're quite funny as well, so that's a good side effect, really.

- Well, that sort of comes out accidentally. It's just how I think.

- Well, it's great. Are you the kind of creative person that does carry around a sketchbook with you?

- I do sometimes, but I never sketch out in the open in front of people. I don't like--

- Why is that?

- Well, I feel-- for two reasons. Firstly, like, when I was in Rome, I carried a sketchbook, but I'd sketch back-- I went to Rome for 11 days two years ago. And I filled a sketchbook with drawings, then came back to Australia, and did the book. But I did lots of drawings back in the hotel room from memory and that. I get embarrassed standing out in the street touring. And also, when I'm outside, I like to look. And my head is like a computer. So all the pictures and the images go in here, and the ideas. And then I go and sit down, and they all come out again on the page.

- Are you the kind of person also that if you hear a great or you overhear a great conversation, do you write things down?

- Sometimes. Sometimes. But most of them come from in my head.

- Are these characters based on people that you know or are they elements of people?

- They're elements. And people often say, are you one of them? And if I said no, well, obviously, I don't look like Mr. Chicken or Horrible Harriet. But there are bits of me, I think, in all of them, because it all comes from me. So it's how I think. When I was a little boy, I had always had friends, but I was really skinny and shy, and knew what it was like to feel embarrassed. So you'll find that comes out in the books. And also, having friends was always important, because when I was a little boy, we shifted from Melbourne to a country town.

And there was a time before I made friends that I felt uncomfortable at school. And I didn't want to stand out because I didn't have friends. And those things-- even though that's a long, long time ago, those sorts of things stay with me. And I find, even though I don't say, right-oh, Leigh Hobbs, we're going to do a book about feeling lonely or feeling frightened-- I never do that. I think, I'm going to do a book about Mr. Chicken going to Rome and having an adventure or Old Tom having an adventure. All those little things come out somehow in the books, in the stories. [inaudible] but they do.

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: Well, I think that's interesting. You can reflect on your stories and still see--

- Well, sometimes the kids tell me.

- --things in there.

- The kids tell me.

- Yeah.

- You know, I saw this.

- And you see kids a lot every week, talking to school kids, readers.

- That's right. Mm.

- It's busy.

- Yeah, it is busy. But the thing is that my books are-- where they are different is that they're character studies. Rather than them being a story about refugees or a story, in fact, they're a story about the character. And if you've got a good-- this is for the kids too that want to write books. If you want to write books, kids, and draw them, if you have a character that's interesting enough, you can have a story about that character having breakfast and make it thrilling. So you don't necessarily have to have some incredible story that's very complicated.

- Mm-hm. Were you the kind of student or kid, really, that just absolutely loved books from day one?

- I've got tonnes of books at home. I've always loved books. When I was a kid, I didn't read many children's books. I loved Noddy, and I loved The Famous Five, and The Secret Seven, and 'Treasure Island,' and 'Kidnapped,' and Ping, which no one now would know about. But the books that I read were about history. Even when I was seven, I'd be writing about Pompeii, and things like that, and pirates, and castles, and battles. I loved books like that.

- OK. So lots of nonfiction even?

- Lots of nonfiction. That's the word that I was after. Good term. Yeah.

- Because the challenge encourages students to read acrosh-- acrosh? Across genre.

- Well, the thing is that what I think's important is that, like with drawing, when I work with kids and they're drawing, I say, kids, drawing with me is not about who's best. It's about how different we all are. Like, say if 50 kids-- I've done a thing at the Sydney Town Hall, where 2,800 kids were all drawing Old Tom and Mr. Chicken. And I said to them, there will not be one drawing in the room that doesn't look like Old Tom, but there will not be one drawing that looks like anyone else's, because you're all different. Some are big, small.

Everyone holds the pencil different shades. And that's a really important thing to remember. That's why reading and books are such a great adventure, because you discover what you're interested in. And that tells us what sort of person you are. And we're all different. So one boy, his best mate might like reading about the Crusade, whereas this other bloke might like reading a story by Paul Jennings or Morris Gleitzman. And it's not a matter of one's better than the other. It's we're all different, and you find out what you love reading.

- Ah, well, on that--

- I must write that down and remember.

- On that note, we'll get the transcript back to you, Leigh.

- Yeah. I might learn something.

- Thank you, Leigh.

- It was my pleasure, Yvette.

- Leigh Hobbs, thank you so much.

- It's just wonderful to have you here.

- And lovely to speak to you, kids.

- And we're going to learn how to draw some of your characters now. Thank you.

[music playing]

- Kids, I'm going to show you how I draw Old Tom. Now, when you look at my drawings in the books, what I want you to notice or try and notice is that, in fact, every line is there for a reason. Some people mistakenly think that my drawings are scribbled. They're not. There's never a line that isn't there for a reason. And to prove it, I'm going to show you with this drawing of Old Tom. Because one little line can make the difference between one of my characters looking happy, or sad, or angry, or whatever. So basically, Old Tom is like a naughty seven-year-old boy in the shape of a cat. So I wanted a scruffy-looking cat that doesn't look scary but is not a goody two shoes.

So this is Old Tom's black guy. It's what we call a spiral. So you go round and round like that. Here's Old Tom's good eye. It's a circle with a big black dot. Old Tom's nose is a capital Y. Look. Down and up, and down again. Here's his mouth. This makes him start to look a bit cheeky up here. And remember, I'm drawing this on the side, so it's going to look a bit funny. He's got two teeth that make him look feral. 'Feral' means a bit wild. Tooth number one, tooth number two. He often eats flies. Look, there's his tongue. And here are his whiskers. One, two, three. Now, have a look-- as soon as I draw Old Tom's eyebrows, have a look and see how the look on his face changes and he starts to look really naughty. Look at this. Just two little lines. See that? There's the Old Tom that you know.

His ears are like two pointy mountains. So what we do is up, down, across, up, down. He's got a big, fat tummy. I've just got to make sure everything's in place. Look. Look at this. That suggests that he eats a lot. And he is a bit of a glutton. He's got a big, fat, bandaged foot. That's to suggest he's like a little boy getting into all sorts of strife. Injured. There we are. And we add four lines, and that makes it look like, excuse me, a bandage. His other little foot isn't wrapped up, so it's skinny, because it's not wrapped up. But also-- have a look-- this makes his tummy look bigger. Down, around, and up. Here are his arms. A line here and a line there. Hand number one. The other hand or arm is going up in the air. It's going to be holding his fish bone, which is really his dolly or Teddy bear. Look. A line here and a line there. Hand number two.

Now, I'm going to make Old Tom look really naughty. I'm going to add one line and two little marks to his good eye. Look at this, kids. Look at that difference. Naughty. Look. Naughtier. Look at that. Now, instead of me writing in the books, 'Old Tom was looking naughtier,' I don't have to do that. I do it on the drawing and you kids know. Because kids are looking at these books here, and in England, and in Tasmania. Right. Here are his whiskers. One, two, three. One, two, three. And I can't fly to Tasmania or England every time someone looks at an Old Tom and say, this is how he's feeling? I have to show it on the page.

Now, here's his tail. Big and bushy. He's got stitches on his tummy and a bandage. That's to show him knocked around and a bit wild and rough. Here's his fish bone. Look. A line here and a line there. The head is like a big D, a capital D. And a line like that. So we go over here, back like that. The tail is like the back of an arrow-- down and out. And we do-- oh, it's a pity that that touches there. Here are the bones. Here's the eye, because the fish bone is Old Tom's mate. And five dots. These are fleas and flies. One, two, three, four, five. And we add a little bit of shadow under here. And a couple of bits of fur. And maybe a bone, because that suggests that he's really messy. And there he is. I mean, of course, every drawing that I do of Old Tom is different too. You know. So there's Old Tom. And here is my signature. Leigh Hobbs. And there you go.

OK. Now, kids, I'm going to talk to you about Mr. Chicken. Mr. Chicken really-- I mean, that's the Mr. Chicken that you kids know. I'll sit him here. But I got the idea for him when I went into a supermarket and saw a chicken that looked-- it was quite sad, really. It looked like that. I mean, imagine looking like that on a plate. I saw it in a supermarket. And I went home. And from that, I made up Mr. Chicken. I know, it's hard to believe. That's how it happened.

So Mr. Chicken-- usually I start off with his eyes. So I usually start off with the character, all their eyes. I always start off with the eyes. Here's the eyes. Look. There are his eyes. See how I have them right up at the top? He's slightly not cross-eyed. He's the opposite of it. His nose, it takes three lines. Look. Line one, two, three. He's got a surly look on his face, which is understandable. If you had a head like that and you looked in the mirror every morning, you'd be very grumpy. And he's got two huge teeth. Look, they're like fangs. Look at that. What a sweetie. There's Mr. Chicken.

Here's the top of him. Look. It goes like this. Now, some people mistakenly think those things are his ears, which is ridiculous. Chickens do not have ears. They're what's left of his wings. I know it's sad, kids. Everything's cut off. It's quite sad. But he's still got his legs, what's left of them, really. This one's very fat, this Mr. Chicken.

And even though everything's gone, I felt that he should look nice and have a hat. So he's wearing what's called a top hat. That's a hat that men used to wear in the olden days when they wanted to look really dressed up. So you see how simple that is, but it's deceptive. 'Deceptive' means it's sort of not really as simple as it looks, because if you don't get the lines in the right spot, it's going to look like something else. But that's basically him. If you want him licking his lips, he can do that. Look at that. And when he goes to London, Paris, and Rome-- and he's coming to Australia next-- he carries his camera. Doesn't need clothes. There. What a sweetie. So there's Mr. Chicken. Mr. Chicken.

[music playing]

End of transcript