The last in the CBA Books for Younger Children shortlist category, here Helen Stephens tell us about the making of Gracie Grabbit and the Tiger. Click to discover more about the Children’s Book Award.
When I was a little girl, my dad was a small time rebel, not a robber like Bobby Grabbit, but a bit naughty, nonetheless. If we drove past a sign that said PRIVATE ROAD KEEP OUT, he would make a speedy u-turn and head straight down that private road as if it belonged to us. If we were told by a posh lady on a horse to ‘Get off her land!’ (which happened once) he would just give a friendly smile, then drive on while me, my brother and sister, and whichever cousins, friends and dogs we had in the car that day, waved and shouted out of the windows. It was so much fun.
As a grown up I came across a book called Burglar Bill by Janet and Alan Ahlberg. Have you read it? Burglar Bill sleeps in a stolen bed, eats stolen fish and chips and drinks a cup of stolen tea. He isn’t a bad burglar, it’s just his job and he does it very well. We enjoy his naughtiness, and don’t want him to be caught by the police. I think Bobby Grabbit in my book, Gracie Grabbit and the Tiger, is based on a combination of my dad and Burglar Bill.
I have always wanted to make a book about a zoo. I remember my grandparents had a book of drawings of zoos that they kept in the cupboard next to the chocolate brazils (separate from the other books because it was so special). I loved it, it was a real treat to turn the pages and find the familiar things: the penguin pool, the bear mountain, the Victorian bird house, the toucans, the flamingos and the baby elephant.
I imagined that one day I would make illustrations like that, I even told people at school that I had already designed zoo wrapping paper and people could buy it in the shops. (It wasn’t true, I was only eight, but I told myself I wasn’t lying because one day I would really do that.)
I wanted Bobby Grabbit to be a burglar, but not a realistic, scary burglar. I decided he would wear a stripy top, a little burglar mask and carry a bag with SWAG written on it, even when he’s eating his cornflakes. That way, we’d know he was a storybook burglar. And he’d steal silly stuff like babies’ rattles and cream buns. On the first picture in the book I surrounded him with kittens, so that we understand he is not scary, he’s just a naughty daddy.
My favourite part to illustrate was the endpapers. They are based on my memories of the book that my grandparents had. I also LOVED drawing the elephant’s wrinkly bottoms.
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