Show and tell

Tohby Riddle

Tohby Riddle

A detail demonstrating singular and plural from the cover of illustrator and author Tohby Riddle’s best selling book, The Greatest Gatsby: A Visual Book of Grammar. It took him four years and 18 months to complete the book. See page 3 for a report of his session, The Art of Language, for the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Tohby Riddle

Cartoonist, illustrator and author Tohby Riddle

Tohby Riddle

A detail from an illustration devoted to comparing adjectives in Tohby Riddle’s book, The Greatest Gatsby: A Visual Book of Grammar.

By: Thuy Hong Bui

Tohby Riddle is the Australian cartoonist, illustrator and author of a number of much-loved children’s picture books including Nobody Owns The Moon, The Singing Hat and The Great Escape From City Zoo. He has a longstanding fascination with words, images and visual information, which led to him illustrating the award-winning The Word Spy books of Ursula Dubosarsky. On Tuesday night, at Kings Cross Library, in ‘The Art of Language’ he spoke about the ideas and creative process behind his latest book The Greatest Gatsby: A Visual Book of Grammar.

“There are trees older than the English language. If the English language were a tree, however, it would make a very unusual one. Its many roots would reach far into the ground but what kind of tree would grow from such roots?” he asks in The Greatest Gatsby.

Mr Riddle always wanted to do a picture book about language, he told the audience. During the 10 years he spent drawing cartoons for The Good Weekend magazine he began thinking seriously about presenting visual information. “If I look back my whole works are based on words and images, to getting the idea and to working on how to combine and show those words and images together in order to deliver the messages,” he said. “Words convey realities which are really complicated and convince (us of) so many things, so again thinking about what does the word look like and how you must show that word. It’s somehow conveyed some of the ideas that the words it mean to represent.”

The 2007 Premier’s award-winning The Word Spy gave him an opportunity to further explore his ideas. “It was an interesting job because often when you do a non-fiction book they like to get the cartoons so they just break up the text and throw the cartoon on,” he said. “There are a lot of opportunities for the visual, cartoon and illustration structure to continue to express the idea within the text and show more meaning, maybe make the meaning even more accessible. I found that a really good exercise.”

The works of French author Tomi Ungerer, artist Ben Shahn, New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg and contemporary British artist David Shirgley are all about “picturing language”, he said. They take an ordinary word, put it in a particular context and give it extra meaning.

“Words are images, first of all you (are) trying to capture the images, so you keep writing and drawing.”

Picturing language “becomes an interesting subject to look at in order to think about how you could show a subject like grammar, which seems to be a tricky subject for people to grapple with, and I think partly it’s the way it has been taught,” he said. After four years of research, he ended up with a pile of notes and finally set down his idea into two main concepts: mnemonics or memory devices, and visual information.

“The mnemonics is trying to engage more of the senses in the delivery of the information so you remember it better. So either using colour, drama, visual ideas, humour or music,” he said. We are visual creatures, he added. “Our brain (has evolved) a very high visual function to survive and literacy is a very new function. And I think a part of our brain is designed to handle that; we do it very well but it’s not totally natural. So mnemonics is the ways of designing information actually in the way our brains really work.

“This leads to visual information … showing all sort of things like inter-graphics or diagrams or anything that people can think of but, basically, it’s about how to visualise the things in the way it’s more effective and easy to understand and memorable too.”

After his research it took 18 months to create The Greatest Gatsby. Mr Riddle used traditional techniques to achieve his aims: at first with pen and paper, and then when much of the typography and illustration were done by letterpress and ink pad – just as printing was done about 500 years ago.

“I think it’s interesting that with all those letters you just need to pick them up and stamp them and they create the images, and they just free of all the lines. I just saw the images just like stamps,” he said.