Letter from a Laureate: Quentin Blake

To celebrate 20 years of the Waterstones Children's Laureates in 2019, we asked every Laureate to tell us their thoughts, memories and aims while holding the most inspiring post in children's literature.

Here is what Quentin Blake, the first-ever Children's Laureate, had to say.

Dear reader,

In May 1999, I was appointed the first Children’s Laureate. There was no precedents and no prescription. I wanted to go and talk to school children but I was worried that I might exhaust all my energy on doing that and I wanted also to draw attention to the skill involved in writing and drawing for young readers; to emphasise that it was a professional activity and I hoped to do that by also talking to parents, teachers and librarians.

However, my first publication, produced with the cooperation of my publishers, Jonathan Cape, was for young readers; a paperback called The Laureate’s Party. It suggested not 50 best books, but 50 favourite children’s books. As soon as I set about preparing it, I realised how little I knew about the children’s book scene beyond what was happening immediately around me. 

Queues around the block

I also had the ambition to get illustration alongside works of fine art. I thought I could do that by creating an exhibition that showed them in alphabetical order. To do this, I approached two or three museums, and to my delight the National Gallery accepted. They had a suitable room available and Michael Wilson, the director of exhibitions was enthusiastic about the project. When I observed that I would have no chance getting in alphabetically with either Bruegel or Botticelli as competition, he suggested that I should draw on the walls and so I did. Though in fact the drawings were actually on acetate, which could be stripped off afterwards.

I observed to my friend John Yeoman: 'all we have to do now is to hope that someone comes.' He replied: 'Never mind that, are they any good at crowd control.' And indeed, when the show opened, there were queues up the steps of the gallery and a quarter of a million visitors saw the show in its four-month run; some, I suspect and hope, who had perhaps never stepped inside the National Gallery before.

There was also a book, with the same title as the exhibitions: Tell Me a Picture.

50 years of illustration

Jonathan Cape were also cooperative in publishing Words and Pictures. This was a book which I had had on the stocks for some time and now I quickly brought it to a conclusion. I confess there was something of an ego trip about it, illustrated with my own work from 50 years, and a self-portrait on the cover in a magician’s dressing-gown. Nevertheless, its raison d’etre is a discussion of all the things that an illustrator has to take into consideration when setting about creating the pictures for a book.

Another exhibition, Magic Pencil, which I helped curate for the British Council, showed the work of 15 British children’s book illustrators, which opened at the British Library before setting off on extensive travels abroad.

At the end of my two-year tenure, I produced a book about what I had done. It is called Laureate’s Progress and I am looking at it now to remind myself what happened 20 years ago.

It reminds me that there was one rather special talk that I gave at the end of my tenure, at the invitation of Police Commander Dal Babu, to children in King’s Cross. What was special was that he assured me later that the statistics of juvenile crime in the area fell significantly in the following few months. Maybe there is something there to think about.

Best wishes,