Leigh Hodgkinson's prescription for making the world a happier place
We chat to award-winning author, illustrator and animator Leigh Hodgkinson about Book Hospital and the inspiration behind her work
Leigh Hodgkinson is one of the most inventive and gifted picture book authors and illustrators that has ever existed. If that sounds like extremely high praise, that's because it's intended to be - it's also entirely well-deserved. We have Pencil Dog, Troll Swap, The Great Monster Snorey Book, Limelight Larry, Goldilocks and Just the One Bear and Goldilocks and the Three Potties (which helped us through a challenging time!) and love them all. We also adore Don't Dip Your Chips in Your Drink Kate by Caryl Hart (another favourite author) which was illustrated by Leigh too.
We were so excited when we heard about Leigh's latest release, Book Hospital (see ten reasons why we love it). We're delighted to learn the inspiration behind Book Hospital and Pencil Dog, as well as the Japanese art of “kintsugi” and how Leigh applies its philosophy. Find out why Leigh hugs books and keeps an old pencil in a matchbox, and discover her prescription for making the world a happier place!
Thank you so much for having us on the tour for this book and agreeing to answer our questions. Book Hospital is terrific! It’s such a wonderful story for young and old book lovers alike. How did you get the idea for it?
I remember when my kids were little there would always be accidents with books. We had one pop-up book which was my son's favourite that gradually over time all got ruined. All of the heads of the pop -p animals got torn off and lost (as enthusiastic little fingers couldn’t help but touch them). But the funny thing was that although eventually none of the animals had heads my son still loved that book and made me read it to him. Also, I remember buggy books (which are attached to the buggy so cannot escape) always seemed really mauled and chewed and I remember feeling really sorry for the books. Likewise, a lot of books we got from the library had torn and Sellotaped pages and the odd scribble in them. But there is a weird paradox here, as sometimes it was the most loved books that looked the scruffiest, as they had been read so many times. The title “Book Hospital” just popped into my head and I had to google it as was sure that it must have been done before! Lucky for me it hadn’t. I think by giving the books voices, it really helps encourage empathy and shows the value of treating all things with kindness, not just living creatures. And this also demonstrates that caring for and loving our things is ultimately about respect and helps us to appreciate what they can give us in return.
This is such a fun book to read and it looks like it was lots of fun to create too. What did you enjoy most about writing and illustrating this story?
This book was really fun to make! I loved creating all the book characters, their faces on their front covers, and also writing and illustrating the mini stories that sit inside the main narrative.
What, if anything, did you find most challenging about this project?
I really wanted to have an illustration of the main book character being read by the kid in bed. But every time I tried it looked really odd. As the book's face is on the front cover, and seeing the open book felt awkward. It seemed as though it must hurt the book as he was split in half! So in the end, I realised that I actually didn’t need to show this, and have the illustration of the kid hugging the book on the end page instead.
The titles of the books on the bookshelf are hilarious and we’ve had so much fun speculating about what the stories might entail. The Jelly Tractor, The Chip Ghost and Pineapple Brain sound particularly interesting. Are there plans to turn any of these into a real book of their own one day?
The spines of the books in the bookshelf was another really fun part to do. I had such fun thinking of all the bonkers book titles and felt a bit sad after that they weren’t all real books as they could all so easily have their own amazing stories! I am hoping I will get to do lots of “Book Hospital” events, and as part of that I would love to do a creative exercise getting kids to pick one of the book titles from that shelf and create their own characters and stories. I think that would be wonderful! “The Chip Ghost” and “The Shy Nit” are my favourites and I would love to make them into real live books!
My eldest child was a notorious page ripper and scribbler when they were a baby and a toddler, and even now, she occasionally makes some stories “more interesting.” I love the illustration showing the baby drawing all over the book - especially how delighted the baby looks! Why do you think some children enjoy vandalising books so much?
I think there are lots of reasons why children might draw in books. Sometimes I think their imaginations are sparked by the world and ideas that the book contains. They feel so connected to the story that they want to get involved and be a part of it or contribute to it in some way. Another reason might be that they just had a pen or crayon and it was the first thing that came to hand when they had the impulsive need to scribble (I think this happens a lot!). Another reason is that they know it is slightly naughty and exciting as they know they shouldn’t. And as children are brilliant at living in the moment and the reaction to their scribbling actions is delayed (as the parent might not find out till later), they can get away with it for a bit.
I love how this captures how books come to life for children. You seem very in tune with the child-like sense of wonder and a young person’s view of the world. Is this something that comes naturally to you or is this something that you have to work at?
I don’t think I have ever really grown up. Actually, I always feel like I am having to work at and pretend (really badly) at being an adult. I don’t really like it to be honest. I think a lot of the time when people grow up the first thing to go is playing. I think through my creativity what I am essentially doing is playing. Playing is where we get to explore things, try things out and use our imaginations. For me, that is where the magic and wonder of being alive and being human is. I think if more grown-ups had time to play (which could be through creativity, music, sport, dance, food, gardening or whatever), the world would be a much happier place.
The mouse in Book Hospital looks a bit like the one that appears in Limelight Larry. We noticed they both say “Crumbs!” too. Are they the same character?
Ha I have never really thought about or noticed that before! I think it is just the way I draw mice and I like idiosyncratic phrases like “Crumbs”. I think I like a mouse saying “Crumbs” as an exclamation as a crumb for a little mouse might be a really big thing.
“Sometimes a good book just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time” is such a brilliant line! As an author and illustrator, is it among your worst nightmares to imagine one of your own books being in need of treatment in a book hospital? And/or have you ever seen one of your own books after they have been in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or has disaster ever struck a favourite book belonging to you by another author?
I don’t think I would mind one of my books being whizzed off to Book Hospital if I knew it was because of an accident and that the book was loved and lived in a child's home. I have felt a bit sad in the past when I saw one of my books in a charity shop. I felt really sorry for it and picked it up and gave it a hug when no one was looking and then put it back on the shelf. Book accidents have struck on favourite books we love at home… the odd rip I can cope with as it is easy to fix and makes me think of “kintsugi” (the japanese art of fixing broken pottery with powdered gold). The idea that broken and damaged things can still be beautiful, if not more beautiful, as you can see their journey and life through the cracks. I love that idea and the books I have taped up over the years always make me think of that as when I see them, I remember all the bedtimes they were read and loved. The mended pages are like a visceral link to the past.
But mostly my children were always really careful with books. I think I was a bit mean actually as with the picture books that I cherished most, I would always tell them to let me turn the pages (to stop them getting bent and creased). And I would always keep those ones on a high shelf out of reach from grubby little fingers!
I love how all the books line up at the end of this story almost as if taking a bow on stage. Your picture books tend to have a theatrical quality which makes them ideal for reading aloud. Has working in animation and TV shaped the way you write and illustrate picture books?
I think when I started making books instead of animated films, I had to think of ways of making some really crucial things like sound, movement and time work on a flat page. For me, books and films share so much common ground (stories, characters, emotion, ideas, worlds). But the way to show and express those things cannot be the same in different formats. For example, books don’t make a noise but the people who read them can, so by using composition, different size/style of typography you can give a flat page with words on some energy that might alter the reading or performance of that story. And you can make the reader of a book pause like you can hold a shot or a moment in a film. But you can control the pace and drama of a book by composition, colour and create a moment and a pause by the physical act of necessity to turn the page. I think I do like there to be a moment at the end which does feel like a theatre curtain call. I think it is a nice way to give closure and to say goodbye to the characters. As they all in one way or another have been on their own journey throughout the story, it is satisfying to just check in and see how they all are before closing the book and putting it away.
Your stories are always so inventive, unique and funny. How do you come up with such original ideas? Do your characters and plots make you laugh as you are creating them?
Yes they do make me laugh - it makes me feel a bit guilty and confused that this is allowed to be my actual real life job! I have noticed when I illustrate my characters, I am pulling the same faces that they are. So, if a character is sad I look and then start to feel sad… at times it feels like in a funny way they are all extensions of me. About how I come up with ideas - I think I just have a really busy fizzy brain that never stops. It feels like the busier I am, the more ideas just pop into my head - which is really frustrating as I don’t always have time to jump on them and play. I always write things down - whether it is a snippet of an idea, a title name, or a fully fledged story. I quite like the alchemy of sellotaping two seemingly disparate ideas together and making them work- it feels like a sort of maths equation but instead of boring numbers you have funny characters and situations. I think you could make up a story out of any two things.
We were so excited to spot Pencil Dog on the bookshelf in Book Hospital. This is one of my all-time favourite books. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired it?
I am so pleased you like it! The inspiration actually came from my daughter when she was little. We were both tidying up a really messy drawer of pencils and then she found one that was really tiny. It was just a little stump with a broken lead. She picked it up gently and held it in her little hand and said sadly, “Aw mummy this pencil is dead.” This just shot right through my core as it seemed so perfectly profound and made perfect sense. So then we talked about life and death together and I started talking about that even though the pencil had run out, it must have had a very full and happy life. It must have drawn many lovely pictures that had given people so much pleasure and it must have been on lots of incredible adventures. That was the original inspiration for Pencil Dog. Then I began to develop the Pencil Dog character - by turning the pencil into a dog meant that it wasn’t just an inanimate thing anymore and would be easier for a reader to emotionally invest in. The story was also partly inspired by my Grandpa who died when I was young. I have fond childhood memories of sitting on his lap while he drew on a scrap of paper or on the back of an old envelope. He would talk about his life and doodle funny things to amuse me. He looked like an old man but the stories and told and the things he had done in his life were amazing. So for me, Pencil Dog could be interpreted as a pet, or a grandparent or any loved one. With the idea that the joy, magic and inspiration of that loved one never disappear, as are left to grow inside of you - to help you become who are are, when they are no longer around. In a quite symbolic way - I used one pencil to draw the whole book and watched that pencil get smaller and smaller. I still have it and keep it in a special little match box.
A massive thank you to Leigh and to Simon and Schuster for having us on the Book Hospital tour and for our gifted copy which we promise to take very good care of! We have loved reading the other reviews that were shared earlier this week. Here's a list of all the stops - don't forget to visit these brilliant blogs and Bookstagram pages to find out even more about this wonderful book: