The Book That Made Me: Chris Riddell

Published on: 18 November 2020 Author: Chris Riddell

Author, illustrator, and former Children's Laureate Chris Riddell found reading difficult at school, preferring instead to draw his favourite characters from fairytales and fables - but when he found a book he loved, everything changed. He tells us about the book that made him.

Chris Riddell and the book that made him: Agaton Sax and the Diamon Thieves

Filling up with stories

I remember the book that made me very well indeed. As a young child I loved books and looked forward to bedtime. That was when I was tucked up in crisp cotton sheets, beneath a heavy satin quilt, my head on a plumped up pillow and was read a bedtime story. My mother or father would read fairytales, fables and classic children’s books often accompanied by beguiling pictures, while I snuggled up, warm and safe, my imagination filling up with stories.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland made a particularly strong impression on me. The combination of my father’s voice, he had a great reading voice, and Sir John Tenniel’s densely hatched lucid illustrations, brought the story to life for me. I loved drawing, as almost all children instinctively do, and I used to open that copy of Alice and study the illustration of the white rabbit examining his pocket watch, then attempt to draw him for myself. It was the first time that I became aware that the books I loved were divisible - they contained two imaginations, that of the writer and that of the person who read their words and interpreted them in pictures. I knew I wanted to be that person.

Fifty years later, with immense trepidation, I read Lewis Carroll’s wonderful words, my father’s voice in my head, and drew the white rabbit, as I illustrated a new edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But much as I love this book, it wasn’t the book that made me.

My favourite time at school was ‘going home time’. My second favourite was ‘storytime’.

This was when, fifteen minutes before ‘going home time’, the teacher would choose a book and read to the class. There was no threat of tests, tasks or comprehension in ‘storytime’. All I was required to do was sit quietly, look out of the window or rest my head on the desk, and listen to the story. The Hundred Acre Wood, Narnia and Middle Earth joined Wonderland in my imagination. I loved stories. I loved drawings. Reading, though, was another matter.

Illustration for The Book That Made Me by Chris RiddellIllustration for The Book That Made Me by Chris Riddell

The world of Peter and Jane

Reading was hard. Unlike drawing, it didn’t come naturally to me. I struggled to decipher the words on the page. Reading was difficult, complicated and confusing unlike listening to stories and looking at pictures. But to help me in this task of ‘learning to read’, I had two allies. Their names were Peter and Jane and they lived in the idealised world of the Ladybird key words reading scheme. There were no rabbit holes or wonderful wardrobes in Peter and Jane’s world, just mummy and daddy and playing in the garden or having tea. But they were going to help me read. Starting with Peter and Jane 1A and then working my way slowly and painfully through 1B, 2A and 2B, I attempted the task and found myself failing. Reading was difficult and Peter and Jane remained stubbornly inscrutable. I had just got to Peter and Jane 2C, where Peter and Jane are playing in that garden, when I encountered the book that made me.

I was in a neighbouring classroom at school and glanced down at the teacher’s desk. There, on the table, were two familiar faces but the book I picked up was no ordinary book. This was ‘Peter and Jane 12C’ - the very pinnacle of the key words reading scheme. With trembling fingers, I turned the pages, full of complicated sentences, although judging from the pictures, Peter and Jane were still playing in the garden. If I could get all the way up to Peter and Jane 12C, I told myself, then I would have completed the task of ‘learning to read’ and then I would never have to read another book again - I could relax back into listening and drawing.

The book that made me

Then another book on the table caught my eye. It had an intriguing illustration on the cover of a man in a bowler hat and large moustache holding up a sparkling diamond. It was called Agaton Sax and the Diamond Thieves by Nils-Olaf Franzen. I picked it up and thumbed through the pages looking at the illustrations by Quentin Blake and knew that this was a book that contained something I wanted - a story. So I borrowed it. I took it home and slowly, patiently, deciphered the words, with the aid of Quentin Blake’s pictures. Not all of them, but enough to give me what I wanted, and I enjoyed the challenge. I wanted more. Peter and Jane were dead to me, I sought out books with stories and pictures and reading stopped being a task and turned into a pleasure. I still loved those bedtime stories and listening to my teacher at ‘storytime’ but now I was in charge and I had a library card, the key to the most magical kingdom there is, and I never looked back.

More from The Book That Made Me

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