Chris Haughton's Deceptively Simple Storybooks
Every month we focus a blog on an illustrator that we love, giving you the opportunity to learn more about your favourite authors' background and influences, or to discover great picture books you may not have heard of. So far we've covered everyone from beloved Swedish children's author Sven Nordqvist, to the Australian artist Shaun Tan. This month we've chosen an Irish illustrator and one of the most popular children's book authors of the last decade, Chris Haughton.
Chris Haughton was born in Dublin and is now based in London. His books are pitched at a very young audience, and designed to be enjoyed by children even before they develop language. But his unique art style, and his use of build-up and humour to create a story, make him very popular with adults too.
A colourful start
Haughton’s books for children to date are A Bit Lost (2010), Oh No, George! (2012), Shh! We Have a Plan (2014) and, most recently, Goodnight Everyone (2016). They immediately stand out on any bookshelf because of their vibrant and unusual use of colour and shape. Haughton's colour palette is full of vibrant pinks, purples, greens and oranges. He uses all of the primary and secondary shades on the colour wheel at once on some pages, sometimes placing sharply contrasting colours side by side.
Primary and secondary colours in Goodnight Everyone
Haughton makes these colour clashes work with his keen sense of design, and the way he can seamlessly balance a variety of block shapes into a cohesive overall picture. To make his illustrations, Haughton first sketches out the scene by hand, then scans and fills them out digitally with block colour. He likes to hide shapes within shapes, so there are often animals hidden in his forests, and his books reveal new details every time you read them.
Chris Haughton creating characters from cut paper, (via CLPE on Youtube)
Colour also helps to tell the story. In Oh No, George!, tangy oranges and reds go side by side with purples, but instead of seeming incongruous, the loud tones just add to the sense of urgency and danger George the dog feels while trying to resist his base urges to eat cake and dig in the flowerbeds!
Character sketches for Oh No, George! From blog.chrishaughton.com
These vibrant colours might partly explain Haughton's wild popularity with very young children. (We can barely keep up with the demand for his books in Tales for Tadpoles!) In Shh! We Have a Plan, small children can enjoy pointing out the colourful pink bird in a landscape of blues. And they get a great payoff in the double spread near the end of the book where there are suddenly dozens of birds to point at. Speaking to picturebookmakers.com, Haughton said that he tries to tell stories “as much as possible through images rather than through words”. This means his books can be understood by the youngest children, who can read visuals long before they can read text.
From Shh! We Have a Plan
A little owl who made it round the world
Chris Haughton’s ongoing work in design and fair trade textiles brings him around the world, and his work combines a homeliness with a universality that has made him popular worldwide. His first book for children, A Bit Lost, was first published in Korean in 2009 before it was published by Walker Books in 2010, and has since been translated into 20 languages to date, including into Irish as Ar Strae Beagán. It tells an old story in a new way; the story of getting lost and trying to find your parent.
Little Owl falls out of the nest, “Bump…bump…BUMP!” and a neighbourly pink squirrel decides to help him find his way home. The squirrel keeps getting it wrong, leading the little owl to a bear and a rabbit, before a frog eventually recognises him and leads him to his mother. The reader turns the page to witness this emotional reunion!
This is one of our most popular board books, and sells like hot cakes (or biscuits, which as Squirrel and Frog say at the end of the book “are our favourite thing”). And like all the best picture books, there is always something tucked in for adults to enjoy, too. Chris Haughton likes to include a relevant philosophical quote at the end of his books, which help to illuminate the deeper meanings of his seemingly simple stories. In A Bit Lost, it's from Robinson Crusoe:
"Thus we never see the true state of our condition, till it is illustrated to us by its contraries; nor know how to value what we enjoy, but by the want of it."
Playing with pages
Although he didn’t start out in books, the format suits Haughton’s work perfectly. He has a lot of fun with the drama of the page-turn, and he uses half-pages to add a sense of physical play to the act of reading. In a blog he keeps about his work processes, he writes that he often formulates the stories in his book around page-turning moments. When making Oh No, George!, about a dog who tries to be well behaved but fails spectacularly, he realised that it “can be great fun when reading aloud if there is a bit of a build up, so [he] decided to build up to a page turn where the dog messes up somehow… that was how the basic idea came about”. Haughton has said he is most proud of these two double spreads from the book; where three images build up to us wondering what George will do, and the next spread shows us exactly what he has done!
His latest offering, Goodnight Everyone, has a more reflective tone than previous books. Perhaps influenced by his travel and work in fair trade, witnessing the long supply-chain that many Western consumers take for granted, Haughton had for years wanted to create a book about scale and connections. But it took the author years to find his way to this book. He abandoned earlier versions before coming back to the idea a couple of years later, after becoming an uncle. His young nieces who were visiting for Christmas were having trouble sleeping, and so he created this deceptively simple bedtime story.
Goodnight Everyone is a book about going to sleep, but it’s also about the scale of the universe. A contagious yawn moves from the smallest animal to the biggest, and Haughton uses a series of mini-pages to reveal bigger and bigger animals behind the leaves.
Each new colour here marks a mini-page to turn in the book.
His nieces enjoyed being able to turn the smaller pages, and being included in the story when the yawn caught on to them too. When Little Bear eventually decides to sleep, the reader says goodnight to all of the animals individually, and as we move on to the next page the books “zooms out” to include the animals from the previous page in the background. This is a clever way to visually introduce children to the scale of the world, and how we all relate to each other. The main characters are Little Bear and Great Big Bear, and in the end papers we see their shapes in the constellations of the night sky. The maps of the stars and solar system either end of the book provide a great opportunity to teach children about the rotation of the earth, and to explain that on our side of the planet, it is time to go to bed!
Chris Haughton’s books are visual enough to be enjoyed by the very youngest readers, but they are far from simple. They can be enjoyed on so many levels, through everything from colour theory to philosophy.
You can buy all of Chris Haughton’s books from us here.
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