Just perk up your ears, Barbara Else

The Life and Art of Lynley Dodd
Finlay Macdonald
Penguin, $50.00,
ISBN 9780143567967

A tousle on spindly legs has conquered the world. How did it happen? Finlay Macdonald’s biography of Lynley Dodd describes her journey from childhood in the Kaingaroa Forest in the middle of the North Island to her creation of the tousle, Hairy Maclary (from Donaldson’s dairy, as if you needed to be reminded) and on to the sale of many millions of picture books. Dodd has won numerous awards for her writing and illustration, including the LIANZA Esther Glen Medal, four Picture Book of the Year awards and the Margaret Mahy Award for Services to Literature. In 2002 she was made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. She is a publishing phenomenon, combining remarkable creative talent with the rarer ability to understand what pleases a child – and I include the child that lives on inside the best of adults. Her stories, mostly published by Mallinson Rendel and now with Penguin, celebrate ordinary events and illuminate the humour of everyday life.

In his opening paragraph. Macdonald suggests:

there are books that transcend even great commercial success and popular acclaim … that become somehow ingrained in a culture … so familiar to us now that it’s hard to remember what it was like to read them for the first time (books that are) cultural reference points available to all readers, regardless of their age or background.

 

True. My own children were beyond picture books by the time Hairy first set out for a walk. But somehow or other before our first grandchild was born I had absorbed the story and images of this canine scuff with the speaking eyes. Then what a literary delight it was reading and rereading Lynley Dodd’s books aloud to toddler Olive, anticipating the pages when we could all yowl like Hairy’s nemesis, the villainous feline, Scarface Claw.

Dodd’s books and their adaptations and delivery for sound recording, stage, film and now digital applications, connect with small children. At the same time the stories reconnect grown-ups with their own uncomplicated child-state. I remember booking three seats to the stage show for myself, my daughter Sarah and toddler Olive. “But what about me?” asked Granddad Chris. We bought a fourth ticket.

In documenting Dodd’s creative life, Macdonald retells her earliest memory. It was the family Alsatian. In Dodd’s own words: “this gorgeous hairy face looking down at me.” Macdonald goes on to detail the hard work behind Dodd’s success, with insights into the creative process. Since her beginnings as an illustrator for the Correspondence School, she has written and illustrated 32 of her own picture books. How is it possible that an artist so well-known for her vivid illustration is “still quite scared of colour”? The early chapters focus on the diffidence of the young artist feeling her way. Later ones move steadily into emphasising her firmness about the design and detail of the picture books. It is a pleasure to learn about the books’ designer, Margaret Cochran. Design, a crucial part of any publication, is often undervalued and overlooked. Cochran has the same insight as author and publisher into the values of clarity and simplicity which, taken with all the other qualities in the writing and artwork, result in a final authenticity in the production.

As most followers of Dodd’s work will already know, serendipity played an early part. Having brought out two picture books with Hamish Hamilton, Dodd was at a point where she needed to find a new publisher. At the same time, Ann Mallinson and her husband David Rendel were seeking authors for their new publishing company. A chance remark by someone else entirely sent Ann straight to find Lynley’s phone number. A little later, Ann and Lynley needed a new idea for a new book with a scant five-month deadline. Luck dealt the right card again or, rather, the right scrap of paper. Out of Lynley’s ideas notebook fluttered a line drawing of an untidy dog. The right idea at the right time can be as important as genius.

The most significant element in Lynley Dodd’s working process is her attention to detail, described in Chapter 15, “A Beginning, an End, and a Plan”. She begins each book by making a schematic outline with brief notes, then blocks out the verse. She has an instinct for rhythm and verse, but insists on writing many drafts over several months to reach perfection. As someone who often sees early drafts of picture book texts, I recommend this chapter alone to anyone who thinks writing and illustrating for children can be dashed off and dismissed. Authors and editors with cloth ears and wooden eyes produce only doggerel.

Behind the success of Dodd’s books is their apparent simplicity. In too many picture books these days, from commercial firms as well as self-published authors, the text is made to swoop in and out of the illustrations, fonts and their sizes change to no purpose. Words and story are buried. Reader and eye become mystified. Why should it be a struggle to see where a sentence ends, where the stress of a phrase should fall (verse or not)? Such picture books hardly help a child learn how to read. Dodd’s method is to let the picture speak to the child on the left-hand page while the adult reads the text, uncomplicated by image, on the right.

The Life and Art of Lynley Dodd is itself eye-friendly, lively, spic-and-span, designed by Jenny Hasilmeier. The subject of the biography is well-served by its author Macdonald in his own attention to clarity of writing and detail. Clever chapter titles (“A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl”, “Writing the Pictures and Painting the Words”) add zest. The end papers, the placement and variety of graphics – sketches, photographs, sample story boards – all help make Dodd’s creative progress and process tangible. Finally, what comes across is Dodd’s modesty, tenacity and clear vision. So what exactly in her work offers such reader-fulfilment? Maybe it’s the way the pictures and text combine realism and expressionist energy. The inventive words feel so natural and continue to surprise with every reading. They bounce. They move forward. So do the images. The story grabs the reader by his or her scruff and whisks onward.

To end by returning to the beginning of this piece, I have an anecdote to show how embedded Hairy Maclary has become in the New Zealand consciousness and how he has conquered the globe. Before I remember actually reading Hairy Maclary from Donaldsons Dairy, I travelled halfway around the world to a literary festival in Winnipeg. I knew nobody. I sought emotional rescue in a bookshop in a vast underground mall. There, in a line-up of posters for their 10 best-selling children’s books, was Hairy Maclary. I felt much better. His cheeky face told me, Us little guys from far away can do it. Just perk up your ears. Give a grin.

 

Barbara Else is a Wellington writer.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction and Review
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