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Look Inside Play


Bobo Pelican Sketch

As a young child I heard the myth that babies arrive in the world fully formed, brought in the beaks of storks. Some people think that this is how books arrive in the minds of authors: appearing as fully formed ideas that only need to be transcribed onto the page to turn them into a book. This is not the case in my experience.

Bobo Pelican Whale Sketch

My new picture book, PLAY had an especially long gestation period: I first tried the idea out about ten years ago. It started with the idea of Bobo being put to bed by his Mum and wondering where the sun goes at night while he sleeps. This sets him off on a long journey chasing the sun around the world, trying to catch up with it to find an answer to his question.  This is a long trip for a baby chimpanzee to take, so I thought Bobo would need some help from his friends along the way. The pencil drawing above shows Bobo getting a lift in the beak of a Pelican, below you can see him being carried across the ocean on the back of friendly whale. (Everyone wants to help Bobo; wouldn’t you?)

Bobo Whale Sketch

I like drawing in black and white, your brain magically converts shapes and textures into a visual language of dashes, squiggles and dots. Here you can see Bobo arriving on the other side of the ocean, meeting the Pelican who’ll take him further on his journey.

Once I feel confident with the layout of each scene I work them up a little using colour. At this stage my sketches are only about three inches wide. Drawing small stops me getting caught up in details; it boils the picture down to its essential elements of shapes, colour, light and shade.

Bobo Giraffe Whale

You might be wondering why the idea took ten years to turn into a book, especially as the idea is so simple. Bobo Giraffe sketchSimplicity is actually part of the answer: I find that the simpler the story, the harder it is to make it work. When I showed my sketches to an editor the response I received was: “Nice pictures, but the story’s not quite working.” As much as it pained me to admit it, I had to agree. The overall premise of the chase after the sun was strong but somehow I couldn’t quite translate it into a satisfying story. It was frustrating; I had the title (‘SUN’), I had the pictures, but no satisfying story to tie them together.

Bobo Giraffe

As time passed and I worked on other books those Bobo sketches niggled me. I felt in my bones there was a book in them somewhere, waiting to be discovered. About seven years later I pulled them out of a drawer in my studio marked ‘SUN,’ re-entered the world of Bobo and gave the idea another try.


Here’s a photo of my studio around this time; strewn across my desk you can see the pages of the dummy I was trying out. I make small-scale dummies at this stage (about a quarter of the size of the final book) because everything is in flux and rather than adapting a drawing that I need to change, I can just as easily start a new one. Working like this engenders a relaxed attitude in which nothing is sacred; by letting go of what’s not working and starting again I have more chance of finding what does work.

These new efforts found me a new editor who could see the potential in the story; Bobo Sleepingshe also saw the problem in it, but thankfully she was able to identify what that problem was. The other books in the Bobo series stayed in the reality of Bobo’s world: for example in ‘HUG’ he was looking for his Mum, but that search was in locations he could feasibly walk to. In my new idea, Bobo’s journey after the sun meant he travelled around the world. This afforded wonderful opportunities for illustrations but it didn’t quite fit with the convention of the series.

I tried to resolve this problem of stylistic incongruity by having Bobo fall asleep: this allowed him to make his epic journey around the world in a dream.  Although this addressed the problem of believability, my dream sequence simultaneously created a new issue in that it would alienate my target audience. Bobo stories are written with the very young in mind and three years olds haven’t yet grasped the idea of what dreams are. If a story confuses your audience, obviously it’s not going to work, so the dream idea had to be abandoned.  

My editor came up with the solution: it was all a matter of scale. She suggested that Bobo didn’t need to go round the world to chase the sun; he could simply travel to the other side of the lake and up a hill, because that was the limit of his world. (I drew the sketch below to illustrate the limits of Bobo’s world). It’s interesting how every story has its own world and a logic which fits that world.


Sometimes, in order to crack the story you have to make conscious what that logic is. It’s like when you play a game, you have to know the rules within which the game operates: only then does the game make any sense. With this guiding principle of ‘keeping within Bobo’s world’ in place, I could finally get stuck into the mechanics of my story and make it work. In the process some of my initial ideas fell away to reveal a much simpler story. Bobo scaredFor example, there was a shift of emphasis; the story no longer focussed primarily on Bobo chasing the sun; now it was more about him wanting to play. The sun only comes into the story because when it sets and the jungle gets dark, Bobo has to stop playing and go to bed. (With this change of focus the title naturally shifted from ‘SUN’ to ‘PLAY’). I realised that Bobo didn’t need to find out where the sun goes at night (when you think about it, that’s rather a big question for someone so little!) – all he needs to know is that when the sun sets behind the hill and everything gets dark, it’s ok because Mummy is there to look after him.

Bobo Pelican Moon

I made one more small dummy to check the new version of the story was working – you can never really tell until you see it played out on the page. In the example above you can see Bobo getting a lift from the pelican, looking back on the journey he’s made across the lake to the hill on the other side. (The reference to the moon was cut: in a book featuring the sun as a character it seemed like a complication which didn’t add anything to the story.)

Bobo wants to play

At last I was ready to produce a final, full-sized dummy: Mummy Bobothis is where I really get to grips with how the pictures are going to look. Once I’ve determined the size of each panel and I know what needs to fit into it the job is all about laying the story out. It’s a bit like a puzzle; I just keep moving those shapes of the characters, trees, hills and rocks around until the relationships between them feels natural. Next I start working into the picture more, adding texture, light and shade. Below is a sketch of Bobo sleeping with his Mummy; the pose of the feet clasped together was taken from a reference photo of a chimpanzee.

Mummy Bobo asleep sketch

Colouring the drawings is the last stage; it’s a very important job because if I choose the wrong colour it can ruin a perfectly good drawing. How do I know what’s the right colour? Trial and error. I have hundreds of bits of paper with colour washes on and I hold them up to my drawing and see how the colour fits with what’s already laid down. The colours that come in the bottles are rarely the exact colour that I’m looking for, so most of these washes consist of two or more colours mixed together.


Here’s how the finished illustration of Bobo and his Mum sleeping turned out:

Mummy Bobo asleep

I’m often asked how long it takes for me to create a picture book; in the case of PLAY it was ten years! Most of that time the idea was shelved in a drawer, in between I would occasionally take it out and have another attempt at making it work. The actual artwork took six months to complete.

It’s ten years since my last Bobo book (‘YES’) was published. I hope you think it was worth the wait.   

Play cover