Tony Ross – interview

There are only a handful of book illustrators whose work is so distinctive you know immediately who has created the drawing.

Shirley Hughes and Quentin Blake certainly fall into that category, as do EH Shepard and Chris Riddell. Tony Ross is another and despite more than 30 years in the publishing business, he still pinches himself whenever he thinks of his success.

The creator of the Little Princess and Howser, as well as bringing Francesca Simon’s character Horrid Henry to life, he has illustrated dozens of books over the years and has written 20 or more.

Yet he is still surprised when the publishers say “yes” to bringing out another book.

“I’m always amazed when they do well,” says the unassuming writer.

But why?

It is, he laughs, because he is “amateurish”.

It is a startling admission from the 70 year old author and artist, but he is determined to convince me.

“I can’t concentrate properly,” he reveals.

Once Roald Dahl, for whom he drew the illustrations for Fantastic Mr Fox, wrote to him to say that on page 43 there were six whiskers on Mr Fox, while on page 12 there were five.

“He asked me to go back to page 12 and add another whisker. It drove me mad, but he was wonderful,” he says.

“I always forget to do things properly. I wrote one book and dressed the people in the wrong colours. I did one where I forgot to colour in the beard on one page,” he adds, lightheartedly, but refusing to give away the titles (“Look for yourself,” he jokes).

It says something, though, for an “amateur” like three-times-married Ross that he has been awarded a raft of prizes for his work, including a silver medal in the Nestle Smarties Book Prize for Tadpole’s Promise and the German Children’s Book Prize for I’m Coming to Get You.

Dr Xargle’s Book of Earth Tiggers was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal and he was the British choice for the Andersen Medal 2004.

He has just finished illustrating a book with Jeanne Willis, an author with whom he has collaborated many times and one, he professes, enjoys working with very much.

“She’s bloody gorgeous and very, very funny,” he says, unguardedly. “She writes terrific stuff. Very simple concepts, but things that no one has done before.”

The Nottinghamshire-based author, who lives with his partner Susie – a woman who was a long-time admirer of his work before they even got together as a couple, has also put the finishing touches to a book he has written and illustrated.

He admits he finds easier to both write and illustrate his own books and becomes typically self-deprecating when he explains why.

“When I’m doing the writing, I can leave out all the things I can’t draw,” he smiles. “I’m not good at drawing pretty women, so I don’t have any in the stories I write.”

The trick for a children’s author is not to assume the reader is less sophisticated than an adult booklover. In fact, trying to get a message across in under 1,500 words (and sometimes just 100 or so) and entertain is much trickier.

“You certainly have to be more succinct,” says Tony, who was in the Midlands for a storytelling session at John Lewis in Solihull.

“That is quite difficult.”

He created his popular Little Princess character after a conversation with one of his daughters when she was a youngster and he called her “a princess”.

She disliked the moniker, screwed up her face and told off her father. It was soon afterwards that the ebullient and feisty personality came to life in the first book, I Want My Potty, which was published in 1986.

Another 14 Little Princess books have followed – and it is hard to believe that anyone who became a parent from 1986 onwards has not read at least one of them to their young charges.

Ross certainly makes his job look easy.

He stands in front of dozens of youngsters as a storyteller reads from the latest Little Princess book (adapted from the TV series and not penned by him) and churns out at least seven huge drawings of the characters, handing them out to the enthralled young audience.

The outlines are deceptively simple, yet the faces are full of expression and the characters alive with movement.

His partner Susie, an attractive woman with a Cornish lilt to her voice, is full of admiration with every deft sweep of the pen.

“Oh, that one is wonderful,” she whispers to me, as yet another picture is ripped off the A-frame and handed to a toddler, who is sitting on a beanbag on the first floor of the department store, watching the man at work.

Yet, he doesn’t really care for the accolades or the applause.

He just loves to draw and wants to make his young fans happy.

Nothing more.

This article appeared in The Birmingham Post in September 2008. It must not be reproduced without prior permission from Jayne Howarth