Monday, 19 December 2016

Dear colleagues and creatives, readers and rebels, fans and fantasists. To all my readers and friends,

Warmest Wishes for a sparkling festive season!
Illustration adapted from
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus
by L. Frank Baum (Hesperus Press, 1st Dec 2016).

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Poster Competition to save Sutton Coldfeld Library

(photo © Sutton Coldfield News)

 The Campaign to save Sutton Coldfield Library has launched a poster competition open to anyone aged under 18, to raise awareness of the proposed closure of the library by Birmingham City Council.

I've been asked to judge the entries, more details are in this local newspaper article, deadline for submissions is 19th December.

Sutton Coldfield library was my portal to the world as I grew up, I discovered art, design, history and fiction through browsing the shelves. I can honestly say that had it not been for the fantastic service provided by the library and it's full-time professional staff I would not have followed the path I have. The library played a key role in making me an illustrator.

Today it's just as vital a service. Despite the growth the Web, the internet is not a replacement for a well-run library, Sutton is a substantial town, it needs it's library service!

"It the right of all children, regardless of ability to pay, to have access to the knowledge and understanding they will need in their lives. Libraries can provide this. Libraries do for the intellectual and emotional development, what hospitals do for body and mind. To deprive children of their right to knowledge and understanding is to deny them their future". (Michael Morpurgo)

The group are looking for poster designs (any size, any medium) to use on their website, twitter and facebook accounts to highlight why it's important to keep a library in Sutton town centre, and what the library means to residents.

Three winners will be selected from all entries, one each in the following categories: 0-7 years, 7-11 and 11+, with hundreds of pounds of books up for grabs.

Competition entrants are asked to email a photo of their submission to this email address  by Monday 19th December including the name and age of the person who designed the poster.

More information on the campaign is on the group website.

There is an online petition against the library closure.

Monday, 12 December 2016

The Day I met Bob Dylan

The news is so full of unbelievable and depressing stories lately, it's a relief when something comes up that warms the heart. Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel prize for literature is one of the more encouraging bit of news to hit the headlines, the other night I watched BBC4 broadcast the Martin Scorsese documentary of Dylan, this weekend the radio (which I spend far more attention to than TV) was full of Dylan celebrations.

Believe it or not I actually did meet him, once, in a North London cafe. This is a true story.

Stained glass panel made for Façade on an interior door

If memory serves correctly it was 1985, or possibly '86. I was working freelance in Façade Studios, a cooperative of illustrators and graphic designers who shared space in the converted aisle of disused Park Church on Crouch Hill, Crouch End, N8. I've mentioned Façade a couple of times before, but to summarize - Park Church was a 19th Century structure, long disused as a church, though the Nave was still used by the gospel church of Cherubim and Seraphim. The aisles had been blocked off and rented out as shared space for illustrators, on the west side of the church cartoonist John Minnion worked, on our slightly more rowdy east side facing the street, were graphic designers Andy Royston and Chris Millett, and a fluctuating number of illustrators including Jane Ray, Willie Ryan, Simone Lopez and myself. Next to the church itself was the church hall, originally the animation studio of our landlords Bob Bura and John Hardwick (of Trumpton/Camberwick Green fame).

Soon after we set up our studio Bura and Hardwick retired, sold the hall to pop supremos the Eurythmics (Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox), who turned it into their recording studio, and sold the church to the Nigerian Gospel movement Cherubim and Seraphim, who became our new landlords.

Park Church with the Church Hall (Eurythmics studios) beyond. The door behind the lampost was the entrance to Façade Art Studios, which stretched parallel with the street uphill towards the door on the left,  the entrance to Cherubim and Seraphim Gospel church.

It didn't take long for things to get very busy at the recording studios next door. Sound engineers used the spare art studios on the West side. Dave Stewart was often seen around, Annie Lennox less so, I think I only caught sight of her once in the 3 years I was at Façade. Our studio door was more prominent on the street than the music studio, so it always attracted attention - not all of it welcome. Happy memories are of responding to a knock on our door to find Paula Yates (RIP) from The Tube with a film crew pointing a camera into my face - they thought we were the music studio next door. The postman sometimes shoved materials meant for the Eurythmics through our door too, including once Annie Lennox's precious childhood photos from her mum. One of the temporary illustrators in our group thought it was somehow okey to open the package and look through the photos, which were quickly recovered and re-directed next door with apologies.

So, its summer, the word was out that Bob Dylan was in town recording with Dave and Annie. Nothing to do with us of course, but people kept knocking on our door - fans who'd heard a rumour. One particular die-hard Dylan fan kept knocking on our door every day, claiming she was his long lost relative and needed to see him urgently. "He's not here, we're an illustration collective, nothing to do with music" we insisted, but she wouldn't take no for an answer - even when one of us let her in to look around our studios. "see - no music here" we said. "You're lieing, where are you hiding him?" she insisted, I wasn't there at the time but I heard it was a struggle to get her to leave.

It was starting to get a little scary, we just wanted to be left in peace to work.

Me in the studio, 1985
Over the road from our studios was a small hole-in-the-wall cafe, run by retired celebrity strong-woman, Joan Rhodes. Joan was a former wrestler, music hall artiste and actress who in the 1950's and '60's became a household name for bending iron bars and ripping up telephone directories on stage - here's a clip of her in action, and another here on German TV in 1975. She was a close friend of Quentin Crisp, and appeared with minor roles in films like Burke & Hare, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, and Elephant Man, also the TV series Dick Turpin.

By 1985 Joan had long since retired, but all of this glittering career was displayed on the walls of her tiny cafe on Crouch Hill, photos and memorabilia of the golden age of stage and British film, it was a unique place. Naturally Joan's Cafe was a magnet for us creative types, our closest hang-out at lunchtime. The basic food may have left something to be desired, but Joan was a unique character.

When Joan died in 2010, the Telegraph ran a fascinating obituary here.

So, it was a quiet, sunny day, no-one else was in my studio, so I nipped over to Joan's for my regular cuppa and sandwich. There were just two other people in the cafe hunched over the corner table, one I instantly recognised as our neighbour, musician Dave Stewart. The other was a man wearing a heavy parka with the hood pulled low over his head....  it was the middle of summer, t-shirt weather, so this alone drew attention. I sat on the next table (there were only about four tables in the cafe), and chatted nervously to Joan. Dave said something to Joan too (I don't recall what), but all talk was directed towards Joan, not to me of course...

Such was the scenario of my encounter with Bob Dylan. What do you do in that situation? - "Hey Bob, hows it going? I loooove your music" - no, I wasn't going to say that. I wasn't going to say anything! Let him eat his lunch in peace, he doesn't want to be disturbed, he's incognito, can't you see he's trying not to be spotted? Just mind your own business John, eat your sandwich, pay your bill and leave, that's the dignified thing to do, of course, he doesn't want to talk to local riffraff.

Hey, I don't even like Bob Dylan's music.

Dave and Bob (not my photo- happy to credit if photographer identified)

The sandwich is on the table, I examine every detail of the thing on my plate, and begin to eat in silence.

"Arn't you hot in that coat?" I blurt.

Dave glances at me out of the corner of his eye then at the hooded guy, but says nothing. "Yeah, but you know" comes a slow drawl from under the hood. Know? know what? That he has to hide in the corner of cafe's under a cowl to avoid mad fans? Am I a mad fan? No! I don't know anything about him. Why am I saying anything? Shut up John!

"It's quite warm today isn't it" I say to the room at large.

Joan grins and agrees. Bob shifts in his chair.  Dave is impassive. I can't remember exactly what was said next, but I think Joan explained to Dave and Bob I was their studio neighbour - an illustrator working next door. Bob or Dave (not sure which) asked me what kind of illustration - all kinds, children's books, editorial, say I.... "That's good", says Bob.

I mention our old landlords were Trumpton animators Burra & Hardwick, who sold the old hall to Dave's studio. Dave nods - we have a mutual connection. Are you here for a while? I ask Bob. "No". I mentioned that we were being pestered by people looking for him. "Just ignore them", says Bob.

We left the cafe at the same time, I held the door open for him, wished them good luck with the sessions and he shook my hand. And that was that.

I'm glad I wasn't a particular fan at the time (though later grew to love his work), had I been more aware I'd probably have asked even more stupid questions than I had already, but brains turn to mush in these circumstances, I had no idea....

That evening I met a friend of my house-mates who was a total Dylan fanatic, and said "here, shake the hand that shook the hand of Bob". By that time I'd repeated my story to several people, it felt like some kind of spiritual experience rather than the rather mundane encounter of reality.

Next time pop-pickers I'll have to tell you about the time I unknowingly met Kylie Minogue, blissfully unaware who she was... but that's another story.

I wish I'd got to know Joan a bit better though. 

Sunday, 4 December 2016

New Book Release! 'The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus'

I've a new book out for Christmas! The title kind of gives away who it's about!

John Shelley Santa 01

Most people will think of L. Frank Baum as the author of The Wizard of Oz, but he was an incredibly prolific author who created many other wonderful and classic titles, one of which is The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, first published in 1902.

Hesperus Press, which focuses on publishing neglected classics, has just released a new paperback edition of the book with interior pen drawings by me.

Released on 1st December in paperback,  I contributed 22 black & white drawings (note: the cover however is not my illustration).
Book details are here:

ISBN 13: 9781843915904

Here's a taste of some of the interior drawings:
John Shelley Santa 02
John Shelley Santa 03

The blurb from the publisher's site: Who is Santa Claus? We all know he is real, but where did he come from, and how does he deliver presents to all the children of the world? In this wonderful book, L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, tells the true story of Santa Claus, from being found as a baby in the woods to making the first toy the world has ever seen (a carving of his cat Blinkie), to the invention of the dolly, the Christmas stocking, the Christmas tree, his battles with the evil Awgwas and being granted the mantle of immortality so he can keep bringing joy to children for ever. Beautifully written, and with glorious new illustration by John Shelley, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus brings the magic of the Oz books to the life of Father Christmas. Introducing unforgettable characters like the Master Woodsman, Necile the Wood-Nymph and little Mayrie, who just wants a toy of her own, this is a book for children of all ages, and is as immortal as Santa Claus himself.

John Shelley Santa 04

John Shelley Santa 05
You'll have to buy the book to see more!

This was a fun book to illustrate, the narrative rolls on quickly with many scene changes that could have been illustrated. With limited space for illustration though it was a struggle to decide which passages to illustrate and which to leave. Inevitably I drew more than were initially commissioned, thankfully the publisher found room to include all.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Facing up with the SCBWI Conference

Last weekend was the annual SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) conference in Winchester, which was as ever educating and inspiring.

Sunrise over Winchester on the first morning of the SCBWI Conference

I've volunteered with SCBWI for very many years now, initially when I was in Japan, and, since my return to the UK, with the British Isles chapter. Apart from supporting Anne-Marie Perks on the illustrator's committee I co-run our network in East Anglia with writer Helen Moss, and edit the Friday (illustration themed) page of our web-journal Words & Pictures. As the Conference is such a key part of the SCBWI calendar I wish I could go every year, but picture book deadlines and other concerns have often intervened. As a volunteer I try to attend once every other year at least, though I'm not directly involved in organising the Conference itself (I may be raising my hand next year though!).

One of the highlights of the weekend - and there were many - was receiving a prize in recognition for volunteering, I was greatly surprised and absolutely delighted - thank you SCBWI!!

John Shelley award

There are full reports of the Conference on Words & Pictures, so these are just my thoughts. This year I was there to help out, but also on a personal level with the hope of reviving interest in my own picture book ideas. All my children's book work over recent years has been commissioned texts for publishers in the US and Japan, written by others. These titles have been sometimes complex projects that completely absorbed my attention, just looking at the past three years -  Stone Giant - Michelangelo's David and How He Came to Be (written by Jane Sutcliffe), Crinkle, Crackle, Crack - It's Spring (written by Marion Dane Bauer) Will's Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk (also by Jane Sutcliffe) Yozora o Miage-yo (written by Yuriko Matsuoka) and,  forthcoming from Holiday House in 2017,  Magic For Sale (written by Carrie Clickard). 

All of these books have been wonderful projects, fine texts by marvelously talented writers, but concentrating on these has meant I've neglected my own stories, which remain as rough idea notes and little more, I've not submitted dummies to publishers for a very long time. However right now I'm working on black and white ink drawings for novels, so taking a break from commissioned picture books, this slight breather is encouraging me to once more look over my story concepts and ideas.

It's hard to believe I've been back in the UK for almost nine years now - my life in Japan still seems like just yesterday (though I do go back whenever I can). After an initial period of re-adjustment I enthusiastically pursued UK publishing, but the obstacles of the book trade in this country compared to the relatively easier markets (for me at least!) of Japan and the US led me to focus on my Japanese and American connections, hence most of my work still comes from overseas. It's about time I really tackled British publishing head on and started submitting again!

Will's Words on sale through P & G Wells bookshop at the Conference

So, was the Conference as inspiring as I'd hoped? Absolutely! The activities for illustrators were brilliant, from the fringe event Sketchcrawl around Winchester, which really got the creative cells buzzing, to the illustration keynote from Leigh Hodgkinson, and really excellent Pulse events - a hands-on picture book workshop from Viv Schwarz, and thorough session on promotion from Paul Stickland. Plus the sheer energy of seeing all my old friends, new faces, discussion, companionship - it was terrific.

Industry Picture Book Panel talk, with Miranda Baker (Nosy Crow) seen here with the book, David McDougall (Walker), Caroline Walsh (agent) and Polly Whybrow (Bloomsbury)
Some of the costumes at the Mass Book Launch (photo: George Kirk)
Hard at work during Viv Schwarz's workshop
Leigh Hodgkinson artwork
The Marvellous Paul Stickland

But what about my plan to get writing? In addition to the illustrator activities, two key-note presentations particularly inspired me, one from author David Almond (who I've known since he presented to our Tokyo SCBWI group many years ago) and another from Sarah Davies of the Greenhouse Literary Agency. Both these had me squirming in my seat, their passion for the story really shook me up, I've got to write, I've got to write!!!

David Almond (photo: Candy Gourlay)
This isn't the first time I've been to an SCBWI conference and been inspired to write, but with no major picture book projects on now I've no excuse NOT to write now, to actually do something about it.

My problem is that I regard myself as a professional illustrator, with years of experience and a back catalogue of over 50 published children's books illustrated, and the confidence that brings. I've struggled with creative writing though, it's not my natural form of expression, although I can write, I don't feel I'm a comfortable picture book writer. My pictures already tell stories, but expanding them to create a binding narrative is a struggle. When I write, pictures kind of get in the way, I'd rather write without thinking of images, then once the story is there come back to illustrate it with my 'artist' hat on. This may not be the best way for an illustrator to go about writing picture books!

I wonder if I'd feel a little more comfortable writing longer fiction than picture books. Because I don't feel my words are as professional or instill me with as much assuredness as my drawings, I've not much confidence when it comes to submitting to publishers. Also I don't take story rejection well, my one attempt at writing a novel when I was 16 was shelved after two publisher rejections (it really was not very good though!), previous picture book dummies sent to publishers have also been shelved rather than worked on and improved.

Although I've had stories published in Japanese through children's publishers in Tokyo, I've not been published as a writer in the West, only as an illustrator. This really has to change!

Anyway, the Conference really helped me feel a bit more focused on this, I've a lot to thank SCBWI for, not only the award, but the companionship and encouragement. Maybe this time I will get writing again, it really is about time! As a US editor once told me, "if you want to make a mark you have to produce your own stories, it's no good sharing your royalties and glory, your books should all be yours".  Indeed!

Monday, 31 October 2016

Inktober Day 31: Into the Woods

Into the Woods. Day 31 of #Inktober2016.

It's the last day of Inktober, so here is my final offering. Happy Halloween everyone!

John Shelley inktober 31

Friday, 28 October 2016

Inktober Day 28: Poor Children

Poor Children. Day 28 of #Inktober2016.

Today's Inktober is a little different - rather than personal sketchbook doodles here's an extra illustration for a current book project, a new edition of L. Frank Baum's The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. This was a 'warm-up' drawing to get me in the groove and test nibs, so a little rough and ready, though often first drawings have an energy that re-draws somehow miss! Unfortunately, although there are several sections featuring children in the text, this drawing doesn't quite fit with any specific passage, so I've not submitted it to the publisher with the other cuts.

I can show it here though!

The book is in production as I write, more news on that to come.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Inktober Day 16: Tree

Day 16 of #Inktober2016. Last night's sketchbook while half-watching the telly.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Inktober 2016

I'd not heard of "Inktober" before, but after a few recommendations, one of them from everyone's favourite anthropologist @DrAliceRoberts I thought I'd give it a go this year. The idea is to post on social media an ink sketch every day throughout October and tag it with #inktober2016 and #inktober. I wasn't sure at first whether the sketches have to be created the same day you post them or can be older, for the first five days of October it overlapped my series on Archives, which included ink drawings, so I just tagged those posts, but this week from 6th October onwards I've been tweeting fresh sketchbook doodles.
Day 6
Looking at the splendorous work from other artists tagged with Inktober some has clearly been laboured over for several hours, but I'm keeping very much within the spirit of the idea and just posting coffee-break doodles, and other down-times grabbed during the day, so these are very rough around the edges.

Day 7
In case you don't follow me on Twitter (@Godfox) here's a summary of the last few days worth of Inktober sketches. Anyone can join in, and it's not too late to start now... here's more information

I was offline on Day 8, but this for Day 9.... feeling somewhat adrift perhaps

Day 10. In retrospect I think I might have been subconsciously channelling Mervyn Peake's Captain Slaughterboard

Day 11 - messing about with faces on the TV last night

I'm thinking, well, if I'm going to do it I shouldn't just limit to Twitter, let's put them on my blog, so for the remainder of the month I'll post one a day. Provided I can keep up that is .... lots to do, so few hours in the day....

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

A History of my Archive in 10 Objects. No.10: Tokyo Sketchbook, 1987

The final item in this History of my Archive in 10 Objects found in my father's loft are two sketchbooks from my earliest days in Japan in 1987.

Just after I arrived in Tokyo in January 1987 I bought a number sketchbooks of various sizes and spent a lot of the first year in particular being the sketching tourist, drawing, painting and photographing downtown Tokyo, the people around me, the whole experience of being in Japan. I didn't think any sketchbooks from early days in Japan had survived, I had a series of major purges for one reason or another over the 21 years I was there, the biggest down-size being at the very end when I left most of my belongings behind and threw away much of my commercial illustration artwork.

These two sketchbooks survived because I brought them back from Japan in the early '90's after buying a house in London, they stayed there until I later gave up the house, then found their way with a few other items to my dad's loft.

Iidabashi, 6th May 1987. This old building stood near the West exit of the station (the Kagurazaka side), and was I believe demolished in the early '90's development of the area. pen & ink.
Street vendor's cart, Yotsuya, 6th May 1987. pen & ink
There are so many memories wrapped up in these pages, that first year in Tokyo was a roller-coaster of experiences - I had a sponsor when I first arrived in the country, they had no real work for me but nevertheless required me to sit in their dingy downtown office every day, doing literally nothing except breathe in the permament fog of tobacco smoke (I was a non-smoker) and hope the editor would come back to the office and give me permission to go out. Initial joy at being in Tokyo was soon replaced by deep unhappiness, after six frustrating months of this our relationship finally unravelled, and I was out on my own in Shitamachi, free but penniless, fraught with fear over the future. These two sketchbooks cover that period.

The office, waiting for permission to leave, 17th June 1987. ballpen

Because I was under-employed (and yet tightly under the watchful eye of the sponsor), I leaped on any opportunity to slip out of the nicotine stained office in Iidabashi and study Japanese in the quiet of the British Council building, or go walk-about in downtown Tokyo. When I eventually found my own place to rent in Yanaka and parted company with the sponsor these sketchbooks were both a comfort and way to come to terms with Tokyo, it's architecture, atmosphere, details, all things that would serve me well later on.

Roppongi, 18th April 1987, ballpen

On the Hibiya Line, 8th October 1987. ballpen
So these drawings were at a point of change for me, initially a creative escape from my sponsor's office, they then became a comfort when I was on my own in Yanaka, it was a time just before things started to move for me, so looking back at them now brings a mixture of nostalgia and vivid memories of the turmoil I was in then.

Mishima village near Sendai, painted during a volunteer weekend with UNICEF, Summer 1987. watercolour
With these drawings I come to the end of the 10 pieces from my archives. Discovering all of these things in my late father's loft has made me very contemplative about my current position in life, especially after his passing. They're a reflection not only of my early development, but also how creativity tends to mirror physical changes in life. It's never a smooth path, often creative progress happens in spurts, due to some factors affecting life or physical circumstances. But experience and volativity in circumstances alone can't force your creativity either, it's equally possible that change in the wrong direction can herald stagnation or artistic cul-de-sacs. There are no easy predictions.

If there's anything these old archive things has taught me though, it's that on the whole change is generally good, provided you establish a goal that's just out of reach.  Provided you maintain this goal and keep pushing towards it, things will most definitely get better!