Award-winning author/illustrator Terry Denton had been successfully working in children’s books for over a decade already when he was first teamed with Andy Griffiths, to illustrate an educational textbook Andy had written. It was the beginning of a beautiful partnership. Terry is a prolific writer and illustrator, creator of the Splash! and Wombat and Fox series, illustrator of the Maxx Rumble series, and much more. Jo Case spoke to him about his creative partnership with Andy Griffiths (the Just series, The Bad Book, The Cat on the Mat is Flat and The Big Fat Cow That Went Kapow, What Bumosaur is That?).
How did the creative partnership with Andy Griffiths come about?
We worked on an educational book or two together and they were looking for some funny illustrations, I guess, and they came to me. And we realised that we bounced off each other pretty well. And he was writing short stories and having difficulty getting them published, so we went together as a team and approached a publisher or two, and that got them started. [The short stories would become the Just series, starting with Just Tricking.] I think that they were a bit confused about his stories to begin with but I think that when they saw the package and how we were going to approach it, they understood.
I think it was just the two of us going together. It all evolved in that process. I think they just liked the idea of the two of us working together.
You must have presented well as a team.
Yes, we do work well as a team. It’s good fun.
Andy said that the fact that you were already a known and successful illustrator was probably a part of publishers picking up the Just series as well.
Yeah, I guess that’s true, because I had been there for about 10 years before. So, I did have an established name and I’d won a few prizes, so that probably helped. But in the end what mattered was that the stories were good. I think it made to look at them more seriously if I was prepared to illustrate them. But I think that the stories were just looking for the right publisher.
I guess my thing is that even though he needed me in some ways to get that first break, he was going to get that anyway. It made no difference.
But you sped it along. And the illustrations are obviously a big part of the package, especially the Just stories.
Yeah. But I still reckon they’d survive without them, though.
The good thing really since then is that we’ve really expanded our collaboration, and that’s been really good fun.
Yes, I wondered how that happened – how you branched out to The Cat on The Mat is Flat and The Bad Book?
Well, with The Bad Book, we decided to just do something really bad, to address that whole badness thing. We probably went too bad in the end. Though a lot of kids would disagree with that. A few adults thought we went too bad, but it gave us then an insight into another way of working. And out of that came The Cat on the Mat, which was an attempt just to get that level of humour without the badness, to see if we could spread it across a book in this different kind of form. It’s quite a bit younger, really.
When you started working on the Just series, did you realise you’d end up with such a long partnership with Andy?
No, we didn’t really know what we were trying to do in the first book. It was just the idea of marginal humour, I suppose. I think I did a lot more illustration than either of us would have imagined I would do at the beginning, and then it started evolving. And I suppose it really changed at Just Crazy, it started to expand in different directions. And then at Just Disgusting, it really took off.
We did a little book called What Bumosaur is That recently, and that was a lot of fun. We went away for a week down to Wilson’s Prom and worked for an intensive week, coming up with bumosaurs. So, that was really good fun. Not only because we work together so well, but just the other things we talked about and plans we made.
The margin illustrations in the Just series must be really fun to do.
Yeah, it’s a really intense process when it happens, because Andy spends nine months doing the stories and the illustrations to do in about a month, a month and a half. They come to me as double page spreads. It’s just a matter of that six-week, wild, coming-up-with-600-drawings, process.
You must have to really closely schedule that in around your other projects.
Yeah. It’s drop everything else and do that! While it’s sort of slightly nerve-wracking and intense, it’s an exhilarating process, too. Free ideas.
Andy told me that he told you to just do whatever you like in the margin illustrations, that they didn’t need to be too tied to what was happening in the story.
Yeah, that’s probably how it started. Some of them are linked to the story and some of them aren’t. But then there’s these characters we invent. Very early on, we had this character of Mr Scribble, who was just a pile of scribble, and for me then it’s a matter of working out what a piece of scribble can do. And then in the most recent one, Just Shocking, I invented this character of Spleen Boy, who’s just this spleen without a body who runs around creating havoc. I run into kids who just love that whole idea. Both of those characters, they just love them.
Have you ever been tempted to take some of the margin characters or illustrations and spin them off into something bigger?
It’s an idea I have, that it would be fun to do. A book which is a series of visual ideas. And we have talked about that. We’re about to start another series with a working title of Foolish Fables. They’re fables. But I think after that I’d like to try something visual using those characters and seeing what you could do with them. Going from a visual point of view, just inventing characters and doing stuff with them.
I wondered if you got stung by The Bad Book controversy as well? I know that Andy copped a lot of flack…
He took all the flack.
Were you surprised by the reaction?
Not really. To be honest, I thought there would be a little more than that. There was not a huge amount of negative reaction. There were a couple of bookshops in Sydney and a few schools here and there. Quite a few people defended it. Andy spent a lot of energy defending it. But he liked it like that. Deep down, he LIKED the idea of going out and defending it. In some way, he’s a crusader. My attitude was, they can say what they like, really. I mean, the book’s out there. And kids love it.
Did you have any regrets with The Bad Book, or is that something you’d do all over again?
I think, if we made a mistake with that book, it was our illustration approach. Initially, the idea was to illustrate it in almost stick figure-ish kind of way. And in the end, we chose to soften the approach to make it more palatable maybe. We decided that the text was BAD. The drawings perhaps didn’t need to be that bad. I think that now both of us think that was a mistake. We should have signalled the badness in the drawings as well. The book would have had a much more feral kind of look.
And there’s a couple … there’s the little boy who runs across the road and gets skittled. But I talk to children about that, and that’s one of the things they mention the most. They get the joke. But it strained the sense of humour of a few people. There’s one image … it illustrates the story of ‘There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Poo’ … there’s a picture of a lady who looks very much like my mother sitting down at a table like my mother may have and drinking a cup of tea and eating poo off a plate. And maybe, if it were a more feral stick figure-ish kind of picture, it might have worked better.
Your poor mother!
It’s out there, now. I think what I might have changed would be to do it in a more inventive and out-there kind of drawing style.
But I guess, I bet you can look back on any project you do and there’s some things you might do differently.
Sure. That’s really true. Every project I do, I look back and think ‘I could have done that better’. You always imagine you could do it better.
But I guess you have to finish it sometime and send it off.
That’s right. Yeah. I think both of us would not, NOT do The Bad Book. In fact, we’ve often talked about doing a second one.
I still love that idea. I think we should go there. It just may take a bit of time to get there.
Would you call it The Bad Book 2 or something?
Yeah. The Badder Book. I think we both have to realise that we can do softer stuff, but we shouldn’t lose that harder edge either, and we shouldn’t be afraid of going to places like The Bad Book. Because there’s a big readership for it out there. There’s a lot of people who want that sort of thing who get something out of it.
It sounds like you guys never run out ideas of things to do together.
I suppose that’s because you keep refreshing the model. Andy’s come back to doing Just books. He was going to stop about four, I think, and I think we’re at six now.
Yes, he said that it was because kids at schools kept begging him to do another one, so he ended up doing it.
Yeah. But I think, also, he likes doing them! He’s still getting something out of that. But you keep yourself keen by pushing off into other areas as well. That’s the challenge: not to stick with one thing, really. Keep moving.