JOHN VERNON LORD
Creating The Giant Jam Sandwich and
Thoughts about Making Picture Books
by John Vernon Lord
The Giant Jam Sandwich was first published in 1972. It has been reprinted many times in hardback and paperback in this country and it has been translated into several languages for worldwide publication (including Finnish, German, Japanese, Norwegian, Swedish, Welsh and others). It has been broadcast as a children's radio play, set to music for a children's chorus and made into television films in this country and abroad . It has also been adapted as a puppet play for Japanese television, has been the subject of a Master of Arts study by a student in an American University, and it has even been the theme of a float in a village fair!
I am often asked by children, parents and teachers what made me think up the ideas for my books. They are often interested to hear how I set about preparing a book and how long it takes to write and illustrate a picture book for children. Many of the ideas for my picture books seem to have come out of small experiences in my life that I have wanted to reflect upon and then the wish to turn part of these memory glimpses into fantasy stories for children. My father has a loose connection with some of the stories I've done: with his advice as to how to get rid of wasps at picnics (for The Giant Jam Sandwich); the fact that I was too scared to tell him that I had lost one of my new rollerskates when I was a boy at school (for Mr Ellwood's chase in The Runaway Rollerskate); His annoyance at his next door neighbour for chucking snails over the garden wall (for the exploits of Mr Mead and his Garden); and the relationship he had with my step mother (transposed to young nephew Bill's relationship with Miserable Aunt Bertha).
I am describing here the background and evolution of events that lead to the publication of The Giant Jam Sandwich, as this will probably be the most familiar of my children's books. The story tells how a village called Itching Down is invaded by wasps one hot summer and of the residents' efforts to rid themselves of their unwelcome guests by baking a huge loaf and spreading a slice of it with jam. As the wasps begin to gorge themselves on the strawberry jam, a second slice of bread is dropped on top of them from a great height (with the aid of helicopters and a flying tractor) and squashes flat most of the wasps, trapping them inside the sandwich. While all the villagers rejoice in a celebration, the wasp-filled sandwich is finally taken out to sea by hundreds of crows for the rest of the birds to feast upon.
The idea for this story was prompted by an event which took place during an August holiday in Devon. My family was staying at a fairly remote farmhouse in Milton Damerel with a couple of friends who had two young boys, Alexander and Jonathan, aged five and three years. These young lads were terrified by wasps and, whenever there was a buzzing sound about the dining table or picnic cloth, they would squeal with alarm until the offending insects were removed from the scene.
One afternoon, during a walk across the fields, Alexander started to scream and shout because a wasp insisted on hovering continually about him. In order to quell his anxiety and divert his attention I settled the two boys and our three girls on the grass and, on the spur of the moment, proceeded to invent the bare bones of the story of what came to be The Giant Jam Sandwich.
The germ of the idea must have sprung from my own childhood memory of my father's habit of placing a slice of jam-covered crust some distance away from where we were picnicking in order to encourage aggravating wasps away from our food. My father was a baker, who had a bakery and cafe in Glossop in Derbyshire and you can see his old shop at the end of the book when the villagers are dancing. In the book my father can be seen in his familiar white coat, puffing upon his pipe and standing at the door of 'Bert's Cafe'. I spent many hours working in his bakehouse on Saturdays and during the vacation period when I was an art student and I can remember hurling lumps of discarded dough at any wasp who dared to venture in and hover about the white tiled walls.
Incidentally, most of the buildings I bring into my picture books often have a personal significance. For instance, on the same spread in The Giant Jam Sandwich, the other shops include what used to be my local village butcher's shop and the two houses which have been converted into shops, used to belong to other relations in the family. Behind the shop called 'Wiggins' is the house in Brighton where I started planning work on The Giant Jam Sandwich. The dormer-window, in the roof of the house, shows where my studio used to be.
In the double-page spread, where you can see the loaf being placed into the old brick mill for baking, you can see 'R. Wild and Son' which used to exist as a corner tripe shop in Glossop's High Street and an old timber-framed building which stands in the village of Ditchling. In the opening page of my book The Runaway Roller Skate you can see Mr Ellwood rollerskating towards my local pub in Ditchling. This book also shows the house where I currently live as well as the building where my London agents used to have their business. I have just recently completed over a hundred illustrations for an edition of Aesop's Fables where nearly all the background scenes for the fables are set near my home around the village of Ditchling in Sussex.
Only occasionally do I include in my illustrations portraits of people I know. Mostly these have included colleagues at Brighton Polytechnic where I teach: John Biggs, my old head of department, sits among the villagers in the village hall; Geoffrey Hall, the Polytechnic's director, can be seen telephoning in The Runaway Roller Skate; myself and a friend can be detected inducing Dean Robin Plummer to drink caper sauce to soothe his remorse in one of the illustrations to a Lear limerick.
Visual reference is an important aid to creating illustrations and it is always a delight to draw whenever possible from direct observation and gather information from personal experience. This isn't always possible for practical reasons (who is going to find me a Nile crocodile lurking about the house or garden?) nor is it entirely necessary, depending on what sort of artist you are and what is needed in the picture. Most illustrators collect a storehouse of visual reference material to help them with their work. My illustrations depend on a variety of visual reference - ranging from drawing from life (I'm always getting members of my family to pose for me and drawing objects around the house) to using and adapting existing pictorial material, when it comes to wanting to know quickly and precisely, for example, what the interior of a Victorian railway carriage looks like. In the main, though, I tend to rely on my visual memory and I largely draw from imagination. Although my drawings of the wasps in The Giant Jam Sandwich were loosely taken from an insect that I happened to trap in a jam-jar for a day, they are intended to be more evocative of being a wasp than attempting to be an accurate rendering of one. They certainly wouldn't pass the scrutiny of any respectable entomologist!
Coming back to The Giant Jam Sandwich,when I was telling the story to the children: their reaction to my impromptu tale was so encouraging that I decided to develop the idea and, with repeated telling during the holiday in Devon, I managed to lay the foundations for the story as it now stands. These re-tellings enabled me to gather the strengths and weaknesses of the basic storyline through first-hand reactions from the children, when I could constantly adjust and reshape aspects of the narrative by adding or rejecting different episodes.
However, one has to guard against assuming that the success derived from the oral telling of a story will necessarily result in an equally promising picture book. Anyone who has a reasonable gift for acting can turn a banal storybook into a masterpiece in the eyes of an attentive young audience. Different factors come into play when a tale is transmitted to a child in book form. The fact that Alexander and Jonathan wanted every wasp in the world removed from the face of the earth, and that they also enjoyed the 'live-action' way in which I was able to act out the events taking place, were built-in domestic features that lent success to the story on its original telling. To have these 'homely' forces at play when telling a story can be misleading in the estimation of its worthiness when it comes to making an actual book, but the value of the initial improvisation should not be underestimated.
At the time of recounting the tale, the visual aspects of the story were lodged in the children's minds through several means: my personalised verbal description; exaggerated character acting; miming the action (particularly when it came to my over-the-top version of the buzzing wasps) and my relating the events to the surrounding Devon landscape where the fictional Itching Down was sited.
When a story has been published as a book, ideally the young child will have the initial advantage of someone reading the text out loud whilst referring to the pictures. However, a book worth its salt also needs to sustain the child's interest independently, without always having the intermediary agency of a lively narrator. Ideally a picture book for the very young child needs to fascinate the adult reader too, so that both parties can share the book with genuine conviction when they go through the book together.
In September 1970 Jonathan Cape had just published a picture book called the Truck on the Track, on which I had collaborated with Janet Burroway, and they were keen that I should follow this up with another book, suggesting that I should write the text myself. During the Christmas of that year I wrote the bald outline of the story and posted it off to Tom Maschler and Valerie Kettley of Jonathan Cape. Their responses to the idea were encouraging and I was asked to produce a pencil dummy-rough to go with the final text. Most children's picture books have to conform to a 32-page format so that the whole book can be printed on both sides of a single sheet of paper. In this instance, I worked out that I could tell the story in twenty separate episodes, using twenty-seven pages and allowing for five pages of prelims.
At this stage the publishers approved the general flavour and picture content of the book but rightly considered that my text was somewhat dull. The writing was awkward and merely described the illustrations I was intending to draw, rather than providing that vital complementary role between text and illustration. So I contacted my previous collaborator, Janet Burroway, a novelist who at the time was also teaching Literature at Sussex University. Janet was happy to adapt my text and decided to set it to verse, hoping that Cape would 'swallow the idea'.
The experiment went down well with the publishers; indeed they and I were enchanted with the results, for Janet's amusing verses had given extra life to the story. By March 1971 Janet had prepared the final draft of the text and the short comparison that follows shows how she managed to preserve the essence of my storyline whilst injecting into it a new spirit. Here's my text first:
In a village, one late summer, there was a plague of wasps. They spoiled everyone's picnics. They stung the farmers in the fields. They chased the Lord and Lady from their mansion. In fact there were far too many wasps. The village folk tried many different ways and means of getting rid of the wasps but, whatever method they used, they just would not go away. They gathered in the village hall and discussed what they should do to clear the village of those noisy insect nuisances.
It embarrasses me to record the feebleness of my own earlier text! Now we come to Janet Burroway's more lively version of the same passage:
Janet Burroway's simple but rich verse describes the action economically, using a few lines to sum up new developments in the plot, and keeping the narrative strictly in line with the illustration on each page. A story should be told with clarity in such a way that the visual relationship between pictures and text becomes part of the physical integration that forms a coherent book for the reader.The successful integration between text and pictures is a vital matter. In picture books, when text and picture are describing the same episode in the story I prefer to enforce their physical relationship by placing them on the same page wherever possible. The breaks in the text and the pictorial presentation on each page need to follow the natural stages of the storyline. The pacing of the illustrations with the narrative is of the utmost importance during the early stages of creating a picture book. One of the major considerations is to ensure that each picture relates to the other illustrations in the series, as well as complementing the text. The right balance has to be struck when revealing the essential elements of the narrative pictorially. The time-effects suggested in the story also have to be coordinated so that the notion of the varied time lapses between each picture are clearly conveyed to the reader. In a picture book the text and pictures feed off one another to realise the desired sequence of events - those which are pertinent to the helpful telling of the story.
The unfolding of the plot in words and pictures has to be timed in such a way as to sustain a child's easily-lost interest at the opening of each individual spread, and it should also manage to prompt the desire in the child to turn to the next page. At the same time there has to be something captivating in the story and pictures which will encourage the child to read and look at the book time and time again. A good picture book will survive a lifetime of repeated viewing and reading, so it must give continual fascination to children, despite their eventual awareness of the story's final outcome. The pictures must, therefore, absorb the child's interest, taking the reader, in his or her imagination, beyond the narrative itself. William Hazlitt wrote in his essay, 'On Reading Old Books':
When I take up a work that I have read before (the oftener the better) I know what I have to expect. The satisfaction is not lessened by being anticipated.
The introduction to a story, the scene setting, the lead-up to the climax, the climax itself and its aftermath, are all aspects of the narrative that need to fire the interest of the child-reader. Each stage of the plot must have individual appeal, without which the child will be always be needing to rush to the high points. Each page should have intrinsic interest and lasting qualities in its own right. Whilst developing a sense of plot through the careful pacing of events, the illustrator is also involved in considering the nature and action of the characters, details of the various components, and the setting of place and time. The content and essential elements included in the pictures obviously have to relate to the narrative itself, but I sometimes like to incorporate incidents or events that may lie outside the main story.
In The Giant Jam Sandwich, for instance, there are three particular fugitives who can be found being chased by wasps on several pages in the book; sometimes they may be mere dots on the horizon, but they are established as characters early on in the story and children can follow their progress.
It can be a problem for the illustrator to sustain the likeness of individual characters throughout a book. Sometimes the same buildings or areas of landscape have to be frequently repeated and in these matters it is important to maintain some sort of consistency. In The Giant Jam Sandwich I have my suspicions as to whether the old brick mill, as depicted on the jacket and first page, is entirely compatible with the representation we see of it later on in the book.
In The Truck on the Track (by Janet Burroway) I had to overcome the exacting problem of having to illustrate a story where the action takes place almost exclusively on the same plot of ground; in this case I had to weave around the stranded truck, depicting it from various 'camera angles' in order to avoid a monotony of viewpoints which could so easily dull the visual impact for the reader. In Dinosaurs Don't Die (by Ann Coates) it was necessary to draw specific locations in London, with nearly all the action taking place at night time. These are just some of the difficulties that face the illustrator.
The narrative itself may already offer a wide range of contrasting imagery in a book, but there is a lot to be gained from exploiting the possibilities of contrast and introducing changes of mood through the use of conventional pictorial techniques. These may include the choice of 'camera angles' or viewpoints, such as showing the action from different perspectival views or going in close to the subject or watching the events from a distance. It is also worth considering contrasting dynamic movement and busy action against more passive and quiet compositions. Varying the use of colour from page to page is another means by which an illustrator can provide contrast in pictures that follow each other in close sequence.
I often regret that I failed to make the most of these opportunities in The Giant Jam Sandwich. Perhaps I could have shown the changeability of the weather.
As it is, the events all take place on the same kind of sunny day, with a 'Hollywood' sunset concluding the tale!
I also might have taken more advantage of the scene where the six flying-machines are waiting to drop the top slice of bread on to the one in the field below.
The aerial perspective helps to add drama to the situation, but here I think a cooler range of colours and a better positioning of the helicopters would have heightened the tension further. This illustration is very much the pause before the climax and it is crucial that it gives the right effect. With hindsight I feel that the colour scheme adopted for these pictures is too similar throughout the book.
The use of contrast, then, is a vital force in the illustration of books and there is a whole range of compositional devices, some of which have just been described, that one can employ to add variety to pictures that follow one another in close succession.
In my picture books I usually draw the illustrations the same size as they will finally be reproduced in the book. I like to preserve, where possible, the true-size physical characteristics of the original drawing and, as one's work is seen in the reproduced state, this method helps to achieve a more reliably printed version of the picture. The drawings for the Giant Jam Sandwich were mainly carried out with inks and crayons. I managed to complete all the illustrations in fifty-five working days; each single page taking from ten to 15 hours to draw and paint. These were the days when I seemed to be able to produce my work relatively more quickly than I do now. The three hundred and thirty black and white illustrations I carried out for The Nonsense Verse of Edward Lear took 1,985 hours to draw in two hundred and ninety-four actual working days, spread over a period of four years!
In September 1971 I took the completed work for The Giant Jam Sandwich to the publishers at Bedford Square in London. Travelling with the original artwork for a book is always a nightmarish experience for the illustrator - one not only has uneasy qualms in the belly, anticipating the publisher's possible reaction to the final illustrations, after such a long gap from their first seeing the roughs, but also there is the dreadful risk of losing several months' work on the journey. Raymond Briggs once boarded a train having absentmindedly abandoned six months' of his original artwork for The Fairy Tale Treasury in the platform snack-bar at Hayward's Heath Station. He had been so wrapped up in gazing at the new decimal coins which had been issued that morning! I now tie my work to my wrist when delivering it.
On this occasion the publishers reacted favourably to the illustrations for The Giant Jam Sandwich and there was no request for alterations to any of them. The choice of title and the design for the jacket can often take more discussion time with the publisher than the rest of the book, but in this instance agreement to both was reached quite quickly.
A jacket and title should indicate the general tenor of the book without giving too much of the story away. Generally the design should be sufficiently arresting to stand out among the other two thousand to three thousand children's books that flood the market each year. The jacket for the hard-back version of The Giant Jam Sandwich acts as a prelude to the story showing a picture of the village with a hint of waspish possibilities as one of the menacing insects surveys the scene from a tree stump in the foreground. The artwork for the jacket was completed in October 1971 and the first proofs of the book were seen in April 1972. Following a visit to the printers (where Cape's production manager and I were critical of the poor registration in the printing) the book was finally published in October 1972, two years and two months after the initial idea was sparked off during that holiday in Devon.
John Vernon Lord