Children’s Book Blog: Ask the Author – Dave Shelton
It’s a beautiful book, both in terms of its cartoon-like illustrations and its deceptively simple prose. It’s also, quite honestly, unlike any other children’s book I’ve ever read: part picaresque, part fable, part high-seas adventure, part comic book, part heart-warming tale of an unlikely friendship surviving against all odds.
The surreal premise – a boy sets out to sea in a small wooden boat, captained by a talking, sandwich-loving bear – is as deceptively simple as the prose, and will leave you pondering its meaning for days, or perhaps forever.
Children will be fascinated by the brave, funny and at times menacing bear while more mature readers may well detect undercurrents of Beckett and Kafka lurking beneath the surface. Born and raised in Leicester, Dave Shelton now lives in Cambridge and is also the creator of the successful comic strip, Good Dog, Bad Dog, published as a book in 2010.
Where did the idea for A Boy and a Bear in a Boat come from?
I’ve been an illustrator much longer than I’ve been an author and as such, I’ve long been in the habit of filling sketchbooks full of drawings. Sometimes these drawings will be to do with a job I’m working on, occasionally they’ll be drawings from life, but mostly they’ll be characters and things that I’ve made up, drawn from the imagination.
In one such sketchbook I’d been drawing bear characters for a little while, on and off, and then I drew one in a boat with a boy. It was only a tiny, not very good drawing, but I thought it was an interesting situation: a boy and a bear in a boat, stuck together in a small space. So I drew it a few more times over the next couple of days with the boy and the bear doing a few different things, and I started to wonder what they were like, and how they acted together, and I found I was quite interested in them, and started to wonder what might happen to them. Then the story, such as it is, grew from there. It was pretty much all an exercise in finding out about their characters.
The basic premise of the story is quite simple, at least on the surface. Did you ever worry that it might not be action-packed enough for today’s young readers?
My original intention was that it would be even less action-packed than it ended up. I considered making it almost entirely about the two of them trapped together, bored and bickering. But it turned out that that’s a really hard thing to write if you don’t want it to be very boring itself (and besides, I knew I’d be drawing the pictures eventually and I really wanted to draw a sea monster) so I introduced a lot more incident into it than originally planned, which was good, really, because it meant I could put the boy and the bear under various different types of duress and see what that revealed about their characters. Even so, I did wonder if young readers would still find it boring. And some do (and have said so in no uncertain terms), but a lot have liked, or even loved, it as it is.
Prior to A Boy and a Bear, you were perhaps best known for your comic strip Good Dog, Bad Dog. How challenging did you find it to move from writing snippets of comic book dialogue to a full-blown novel?
Oh, I found writing prose really hard (and I still do, as the lateness of my next book testifies). I found the dialogue relatively easy to tackle most of the time, because I had a pretty decent idea of the two characters from quite early on and I could just set them talking to one another and it would often flow relatively naturally. But everything else I found difficult.
It’s quite unusual for an author to illustrate their own novel. Did you come up against any opposition from the publisher when you first pitched A Boy and a Bear?
On the contrary – I was given very free rein in how I illustrated the book and it was always understood that I’d be doing so. I suspect, in fact, that had I pitched it as an unillustrated work then I probably would never have got it published. But as David Fickling, my publisher, knew my writing and illustration from Good Dog, Bad Dog, he was happy to sign me up to do both.
Do you have any advice for other authors who would like to illustrate their own work?
My advice for authors wanting to illustrate their own work is this: whatever you rashly write into the story now, remember it’s you who will have to draw it later. For instance, if you don’t consider yourself especially adept at depicting boats or the sea then don’t write a book almost wholly set on a boat at sea. That would be foolish. Many, many times (and this happens with my comics work a lot too) my illustrator self curses my writer self for his lack of understanding and foresight.
What’s your top tip for any aspiring authors and illustrators reading this blog?
Writers: finish things. Don’t write the beginnings to 20 different stories. Write all of one story. Keep going to the end, even if it’s bad. Then go back to the beginning and change it. Even if it’s awful, it’s a better place to start from than having just a blank page.
Illustrators: draw. A lot.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing a book of ghost stories (which may or may not end up being called Thirteen Chairs) for slightly older readers than A Boy and a Bear in a Boat. And I’d rather not say any more about it than that. It’s been taking me far too long (partly because I hadn’t properly considered how much more difficult it would be to deal with lots of different characters this time around instead of just two) but it should be out early-ish next year, with a bit of luck. There’s also a second book of Good Dog, Bad Dog to come out some time. The story was serialised in the very excellent children’s comic The Phoenix last year so it’s kind of all drawn already, but it wants a few tweaks and adjustments before it gets put into book form.
Find out more about Dave Shelton and his books here
Rebecca Davies is a journalist and children’s author and completed her middle-grade novel, Shirley Smart and the Nix’s Curse earlier this year. You can read more of her children’s book blogs here
Follow Rebecca on Twitter @TheStoryMonster
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