Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell talks politics, poetry, and pictures

Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell brought a unique performance to Chipping Norton Literary Festival this week, delivering his personal style of talk through the medium of drawing.

 The talk was unusually structured by Riddell answering questions posed by the audience by drawing out his answers sat at a small desk. His working process and final illustrations were projected up onto the screen behind him for the audience to see. This set-up works well for a writer and illustrator who claims that, for him, “the drawings always come first” – most, if not all, of his storylines are inspired by sketches, notably the Ottoline series. Paul Stewart’s The Edge Chronicles and Beyond the Deepwood series both equally originated from Riddell’s spidery illustrations. “I write in order to do the pictures,” he claims. His unusual use of media is also carried through into his social media presence, in which he often live-streams himself sketching political cartoons in bed, “after listening to the news and getting angry.”

 Riddell’s powerful sense of identity is demonstrated in seconds of flicking through his sketchbook. The number of sketches of himself from behind is surprising, something rarely seen in portraiture. His self-portraits are surprisingly accurate, and relatively unflattering. He pictures himself “travelling around on [his] metaphorical donkey, Hubris”, mocking his own ego. Riddell appears to see himself as in some way aloof, or, perhaps more accurately, aside from society. A sketch portraying his response to the news of May’s snap election was captioned: “Upon hearing the brittle opportunistic sound of a snap election: “I’d better sharpen my pencil.”” Riddell sees himself as a commentator upon society, rather than at the centre of it.

 The talk opened with a sharply witty caricature featuring May, Trump, and Corbyn. Riddell identifies himself primarily as “a political cartoonist. The only thing I can say about the world at the moment is that it’s a very good time to be a political cartoonist.” When asked what he thought of Trump, he described his feelings as “complicated,” describing him as “a compelling nightmare with very, very tiny hands”, hinting at Graydon Carter’s 30-year-old claim that Trump posts him photographs of his hands, detailed with gold Sharpie, after Carter called him “a short-fingered vulgarian.” While Riddell avoids expressing too sharp an opinion on the president, he makes his personal opinion quietly clear in a pleasingly understated way.

When asked what he thought of Trump, he described his feelings as “complicated,” describing him as “a compelling nightmare with very, very tiny hands”

 Riddell’s love of stationary and keepsake, the power of objects, is evident not only in his giving drawn ‘answers’ out to the audience, but also in his answer to the question “What inspires you to draw?” He responded with an illustration of his favourite Japanese Pentel brush pen, complete with test of said pen. Any Oxford student who turns to new stationary to maintain the illusion of having one’s life together will be able to relate to his compelling love of pens and sharpened pencils. His mantra “stationary is important” will most definitely be used to justify an excessive number of trips to Paperchase this term.

 Riddell comes across as an incredibly generous author with a strong sense of identity. “Drawing takes me to another place,” Riddell said – his drawing most definitely took the audience somewhere else today.