As a bookbinder it is always tricky when you are faced with an illustrated text block: you want your design to be reflective of the content of the book which includes the imagery too but without the illustrations forcing your creative thinking too much. But what do you do when you are working on a book where the illustrations are so incredibly iconic? My most recent binding of the children’s classic, ‘Matilda’, is definitely one of these, written by Roald Dahl and Illustrated by Sir Quentin Blake.
Quentin Blake is an English cartoonist, caricaturist, illustrator and children’s writer. He has illustrated over 300 books and is especially known for his collaboration with Roald Dahl, having illustrated 18 of his children’s books which are among his most popular works. He was born in the suburbs of London in 1932 and makes his living as an illustrator. He also taught at the Royal College of Art, where he was head of the illustration department from 1978 to 1886.
To create his illustrations, Quentin Blake uses black ink and some watercolour for shading (which appears as black and white in the book). To draw the same character multiple times, he uses a light box to roughly trace the character. He tries to make the drawing look rough, as if he is always drawing the character for the first time.
Roald Dahl was a British children’s author who created world-famous stories such as this of Matilda, as well as The BFG and The Twits. His works are globally renowned for inspiring children, and his books have sold more than 250 million copies across the world. Roald Dahl and his wife had five children, and it wasn’t until he became a parent that he started to write children’s books. His first book to be published was James and the Giant Peach in 1961, followed closely by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Fantastic Mr. Fox was then released in 1970, and throughout the 1980s numerous other stories followed.
His stories are often written from the point of view of a child, making his works easily accessible and understandable for children. They also often feature evil adults, who hate or despise children, and at least one good adult who helps the children. His stories provide good examples of morals for children to learn and understand, while also teaching children about the world around them.
Some other fun facts I have read whilst reading about Roald Dahl in order to write this blog post are: he would only ever write his books in pencil and on yellow coloured paper; he had a little hut in his garden where he would go to write; he was a Hurricane fighter pilot in WWII; his favourite sweets were chocolate and gobstoppers, as featured in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Roald Dahl invented more than 500 new words in his stories and many of his characters were based on people he knew in real life!
When I was initially asked to bind a copy of Matilda, I was quite pleased with the timing of it as my eldest daughter had just started reading the Roald Dahl books at school so it felt very apt. I had read the story myself as a child more than thirty years previously, so reading it along with her was the perfect way to familiarise myself with the plot again, summarised below:
The story is about a young girl named Matilda Wormwood, who has an incredible intellect and magic powers, including the ability to levitate objects. She is a lover of books, and can read stories meant for adults by the age of four. Her clear intelligence goes unnoticed by her uncaring family, who often treat her badly.
The school that Matilda attends is run by the tyrannical headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, who is mean and abusive to the pupils, terrorising them with difficult maths and spelling questions. When children break the rules she locks them in the dreaded, ‘Chokey’, which closely resembles an iron maiden. The Chokey is designed to be so narrow that no one can sit or squat while in it and is filled with broken glass sticking out in the walls with nails on the door.
On one occasion Matilda’s friend Lavender places a newt in Miss Trunchbull’s water glass, sending her into a frenzy. She blames Matilda for placing it there even though she didn’t do it; this angers Matilda so much that she uses telekinesis to knock the glass over, dumping the newt onto Miss Trunchbull.
Matilda becomes friendly with her kind teacher, Miss Honey, who turns out to be Miss Trunchbull’s niece. Matilda has an idea to get back at Miss Trunchbull and help Miss Honey who has beem mistreated by her mean aunt. She practices her powers until she can make objects move in the air, and then when Miss Trunchbull comes into class one day, Matilda makes a piece of chalk move on its own and write a threatening message to her. Terrified that it’s from Magnus (Miss Honey’s deceased father), she leaves town for good.
At the end of the story, Miss Honey adopts Matilda as her family are moving to Spain to escape her father, Mr Wormwood, going to prison for selling stolen cars.
The majority of the story is set at Crunchem Hall, the primary school that Matilda attends. The book was set around the 1950s, where the teacher would stand at the front of the class and the children would sit at individual desks facing a chalkboard. Reading, writing and arithmetic (the three ‘R’s) were very important, as was learning by rote (a memorisation technique based on repetition to aid learning). Times tables were learnt by chanting aloud in class and neat handwriting was seen as very important and practiced daily.
With the concept of school so key to the book, I decided to make the whole cover of the binding like an old-fashioned blackboard in a school with chalk ‘writing’ on the board displaying significant parts within the book. The chalkboard was to be split across the front and back of the book with the title, “MATILDA” embroidered in large stylised writing down the spine.
I wasn’t sure how to achieve the writing on the front and back boards. My initial thought was to cut out some stencils through which I could then stipple some chalky acrylic paint but that would need to be tested out. Alternatively, I could cut letters out of thin white leather onlays. Whichever I went for I wanted to combine it with some embroidery too.
The sections of the book I chose to illustrate on the front of the blackboard were to be:
From the ‘Miss Honey’ chapter (page 60), the ‘easy’ sums that the children are expected to know, in this case the two times table written in regimented writing.
“For example, by the end of this week I shall expect every one of you to know the two-times table table by heart.”~ Matilda, page 63
These would be shown alongside the much harder sums that Matilda is already able to work out in her head (for example 14 x 19) scrawled onto the board. These numbers were to be written in children’s handwriting, the style of which were taken directly from a maths sheet belonging to my daughter.
“’You mean,’ she said, ‘that you could tell me what two times twenty-eight is?’~ Matilda, pages 65-68
‘Yes, Miss Honey.’
‘What is it?’
‘Fifty-six, Miss Honey.’
‘What about something much harder, like two times four hundred and eighty-seven? Could you tell me that?’
‘I think so, yes,’ Matilda said.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Why yes, Miss Honey, I’m fairly sure.’
‘What is it then, two times four hundred and eighty-seven?’
‘Nine hundred and seventy-four,’ Matilda said immediately…
…’What are twelve sevens?’
‘Eighty-four,’ Matilda said…
…’For instance,’ Miss Honey said, ‘if I asked you to multiply fourteen by nineteen…No, that’s too difficult…’
‘It’s two hundred and sixty-six,’ Matilda said softly…”
Above both of these is the sentence that Miss Honey writes to test her pupils. This would be embroidered in joined-up writing, using a school handwriting sheet as reference.
“Miss Honey went to the blackboard and wrote with her white chalk the sentence, I have already begun to learn how to read long sentences. She had purposely made it difficult and she knew that there were precious few five-year-olds around who would be able to manage it.”~ Matilda, page 70
On the back of the blackboard I wanted to focus the chalk writing here on the menacing words that the ‘ghost of Magnus’ scrawls on the board, with the broken chalk lying on the floor beneath. In fact this is actually a “message” that Matilda writes out in chalk with her telekinetic powers for Miss Trunchbull to read.
“Give my Jenny her wagesMatilda, page 217
Give my Jenny the house
Then get out of here.
If you don’t, I will come and get you
I will get you like you got me.
I am watching you
Miss Trunchbull reads this believing it is being written by Magnus, her brother and father of Miss Honey, whom she murdered. Because she sees the chalk floating and writing on its own she really does believe it to be Magnus’s ghost and she has a panic attack and faints. The children and staff revive her, but she storms out of the school the next day, scared out of her wits, she is ultimately defeated by her superstitious and ridiculous fear of ghosts. The broken chalk that Matilda used to write the words is to be shown at the bottom of the binding, broken in two after it fell to the floor.
I ran these initial ideas past the client, who had opted to be part of the design process for this binding. When working on commissions I either offer for the completed book to be a complete surprise, or the client can be involved in the design process. In this case he wanted to be involved and so we initially exchanged emails and I sent images of my design drawings. I explained about the concept of the chalkboard idea, which thankfully he loved. He asked that, like in the first film adaptation of the book, whether in some way it would be possible to have a series of colourful children’s drawings ‘hidden’ behind the boards, perhaps by making a double board binding of some description which would mean that the chalkboard would be able to open up. I loved this idea and began to think of ways that this might be possible, cue making a sample board!
As with all the books I bind, I first work on a sample board to test out the idea which in this case would be vital for working out how the hidden drawings behind a hinged board could work. I planned the cover design with a chalk board running across it, with the possibility of a hinged panel on both the front and back boards of the book.
The idea was that each board would be able to open up from within an outer frame to reveal a series of colourful drawings behind them, like in the below image.
I thought that I could try and work with little brass hinges to allow this to happen. As with all the books I bind, I first work on a sample board to test out the idea which in this case would be vital for working out how the hidden drawings behind a hinged board could work. In order to create the sample board I chose a section of the cover design and scaled in down so that I had an appropriate sized-piece to fit onto the sample board (they all measure 124mm by 78mm).
I decided to play around with using sheet brass as a core for the hinged chalk board panels as I knew it would remain nice and flat whilst also giving a satisfying weight to the boards and book. First I cut the brass panel to size using a jeweller’s piercing saw. Some small brass hinges were then glued to it using Araldite and further fixed using thread that I fed through drilled holes. I had created a channels for the threads to sit in too, to try and conceal the connection as best possible as the board would only be able to be lightly lined. If too many lining layers were applied the hinged chalk board wouldn’t be able to close flush to the front of the sample board.
I thinned down a piece of black calf to 0.4mm in thickness which would be used to cover the hinged panel. This was washed with a watered down layer of white acrylic paint to give the appearance of chalk residue on the surface of the board. I cut small number onlays out of white leather and stuck them down in the right position to the calf through a tracing paper template. I also embroidered the ‘scrawled’ numbers down the other side of the leather piece.
Through working at the V&A I learnt about a glue called Lascaux that allows paper and leather to be stuck to non-porous surfaces. Once the hinges were attached to the brass panel I sanded it with some course sandpaper and then stuck some Zerkall paper to the brass panel using the Lascaux. Once this was dry I was then able to stick the calf onto the paper surface of the board using PVA glue which worked very well.
The calf was turned in around the edges, and infilled using a piece of watercolour paper which was the same thickness as the turn-ins. I added a little ‘handle’ to the chalk board by covering a piece of brass tube in thin black leather and then wiring it through some drilled holes in the brass panel.
The sample board itself was covered in black goatskin which contrasted well with the whitewashed black calf. A small newt was embroidered onto the goatskin before sticking it onto the board as on one occasion Matilda’s friend Lavender places a newt in Miss Trunchbull’s water glass, sending her into a frenzy.
Once dry, the goatskin was marked in the correct positions and cut with a scalpel. The leather was then peeled off to allow for a tulipwood wooden frame to be cut to size, in order to form a border around the hinged chalkboard.
I mocked up the placement of the hinged panel in relation to the wooden frame, and realised I needed to bevel the wood a bit to allow the board hinge to open properly. Once they were at the correct profile I painted the pieces black, so as not to distract from the rest of the design, before sticking them down.
The void where the hinged panel would sit was painted out black at the edges too, so no white would shine through where the goatskin had been peeled from the board. The free parts of the hinges attached to the panel were then glued into recesses I had cut into the laminated main board and left to cure. Once dry I further secured them using wire pushed through holes drilled in the board.
Once this was done, I used Zerkall paper to line the board to conceal the hinges and level them out before sticking in a piece of 300gsm paper that I had stuck colourful leather bunting onto. I chose to line the inside of the hinged panels using this fairly thick paper, in order to then be able to inlay a set of children’s ‘drawings’ into it. This way it was not adding more thickness which would have affected how well the hinged panel closed.
Any parent knows the stacks and stacks of drawings and colouring-in sheets your children come back from school and clubs with, many of which go straight in the recycling (sorry kids!). However this project sparked a new interest in these papers and I delighted at looking through them all to work out which ones to recreate on the Matilda binding! The drawings on the sample board were therefore largely directly based on ones that my girls did (aged 6 and 7 at the time I made this book), apart from one that was taken from another of Roald Dahl’s tales, Esio Trot.
The story of Esio Trot is about a lonely old man who over the course of weeks keeps stealing his neighbour’s beloved pet tortoise (‘Esio Trot’ is tortoise spelt backwards) and replacing it with others with the ultimate aim of winning her heart and tricking her into marrying him. I recreated one of the illustrations using leather onlays and embroidery stitches.
Others that made it were these lovely fruit and vegetables (and no, I have absolutely no idea what “I hed a poo haw” means – not even my daughters know, ha!).
I loved this ice cream, with all the colourful sprinkles all over it so that made the cut too.
And finally, one of many, MANY rainbows that come home. What is more quintessentially childlike than a colourful rainbow after all?
To finish this section of the blog post is an image of the completed front and back of the sample board (number 64 in my collection). The next part of this series of blog posts will explain the reason behind the bingo cards that appear on the paper doublure…