Gavin Bishop by Karen Phelps
Children’s writer and illustrator Gavin Bishop is not new to the concept of creating books where words and pictures must leap off the page. But with his latest project he is doing this literally. Bishop is using his talents to explore the future of reading by helping create a world-first computer enhanced three-dimensional children’s picture book.
The project is part of a one-off Smash Palace Collaborations Fund, set up by Creative New Zealand and the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology, which involves collaborations between New Zealand artists and scientists. Bishop says the book - called Giant Jimmy Jones - will not be overly ambitious with just eight double page spreads. The story will center on a friendly giant that wants to walk around the world but can’t find a suitable pair of shoes. The book will be transformed using the MagicBook software developed by the HIT Lab, which enables readers to see three-dimensional virtual imagery popping out of real book pages. Reading the book will require children to view it with the aid of a special pair of goggles, which will interface with a computer.
“I’m not sure if I have to use special techniques in the illustrations but I will obviously have to think of the 3-D possibilities. The marvelous thing about this project is that it will bring two completely different worlds together – art and science.”
Bishop plans to have a couple of pages of the book completed to bring up for the up-coming Auckland Storylines festival to gauge reaction. This is where he also plans to launch his latest picture book, The Three Billy Goats Gruff (Scholastic, $15.95), which he promises is a traditional telling of the tale ending with a visual surprise.
“I like scary stories and so do children and the troll is a pretty grotesque looking character.”
Bishop himself admits since he first started writing and illustrating for children in the late seventies he has been lucky with the success he has experienced. His most recent accolade was winning the non-fiction section and the Book of the Year at the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards for Weaving Earth and Sky – myths and legends of Aotearoa written by Robert Sullivan and illustrated by Bishop.
“People kept saying the book was fantastic but I didn’t believe it. By the time it was finished I couldn’t tell if it was any good or not and if the illustrations worked.”
He chose hand coloured monoprints as his medium for the illustrations, a departure from his usual technique of pen and ink. Due to a tight deadline, the story was actually still being written as Bishop was illustrating – a process he says he found taxing.
“I had to re-do a lot of work as the story kept changing. I started illustrating in my usual style but then after reading it I knew I needed something looser, bolder and bigger.”
Bishop says the text has a “freshness” and is written in conversational vernacular language that lends itself perfectly to being read aloud.
“It is told in the way these stories were probably always told – as a form of entertainment. We have just become used to them being more formalized and tidied up for publication in books. I know kids will like it as it is slightly funny and cheeky.”
He says the book has pushed him into a new direction and he plans to use the monoprint technique again in another collection of Maori folktales (which he will write himself) for a younger age group.
Much of Bishop’s work has focused on writing books that are very New Zealand in flavour – a sticking point for selling his work in overseas markets (Bidibidi wasn’t published until he offered to take an initial cut in royalties; it then went on to sell 3000 copies in a couple of months).
“The average person on the street likes stories from everywhere [in the world] but they can’t get access to them because of the very careful and conservative publishers who are nervous about taking on anything foreign and different. That’s why they keep publishing the same types of stories in America. But that said American publishers don’t scrimp on the pay,” he notes.
He thinks that it is increasingly possible for children’s writers and illustrators to make their living while based in New Zealand:
“You’ve got to just get on with it and have faith that your work is going out there and opportunities will present themselves. I try not to think about it too much or I would immediately freak out and go and get a job in the shop down the road or something.”
Although most of his career has focused on children in one way or another (either as a parent, teacher or writer/illustrator) Bishop describes himself as “pretty boring, quiet and non-sporty” as a child. Writing wasn’t important to him until adulthood when he decided to write his first children’s story Bidibidi in order to give complete control over the process. Now given the choice between only being able to write or illustrate he says he would choose the former, which makes one presume for Bishop it is the story that is paramount. He says he typically over writes for a start but has lately developed an economical style writing texts of just a few hundred words which need little alteration.
“Generally people think because the stories are small, short and for kids they must be easy to write. I have often had people say to me they want to write a children’s book one day when they retire. I reply that I want to be a brain surgeon when I retire – to me this is a comparably stupid aspiration.
“I find stories quite hard to come up with and don’t have stories bursting out of my head all the time. Finding ideas is easy; deciding what is going to happen and how it will resolve is the difficult part. I flounder around and work really hard to get a good story. There are lots of other things I would rather be doing such as mowing the lawns. My books nag away at me like a pimple that needs squeezing or a wriggly tooth that you can’t leave alone.”