The Top Hat, the Talent: Donovan Bixley talks at AWF Schools Fest

Donovan Bixley has been published in 28 countries, and is the author of over 100 books, many of them award-winning. He has been drawing, then writing the stories to go with the pictures, since he was eight (his mum was a school librarian) – but it was only in his late twenties that he realised that this may be a way to make a living.

donovan bixley

During this session, Donovan took his lucky Auckland Writers Festival school audience – the NZI Lower room at the Aotea Centre was PACKED – through the genesis of the Flying Furballs series, and the way in which his words and pictures grow out of each other.

When he began publishing, he realised that the rules to publishing implicitly stated that you were meant to write the story first, while months, sometimes years later, the pictures get added to the story. He doesn’t play by those rules.

He carried on to show a bit of live drawing, drawing a plane like that which Claude D’Bonair flies in Dogfight. He combines elements of things he loves drawing: he loves planes, he loves travelling (but doesn’t get to do much of it so likes to draw wonderful settings), and loves drawing animals: at this point he put a cat in the plane. The phrase “flying furball”arose in his head at that point: But “a pussy cat in a plane in Paris” is just an idea – he needed a bit more than just an idea for a series to grow.

FF4booksMany of the cats that star in Bixley’s series are based on his real cats, with their real characteristics. His inventor character C4 is based on his childhood cat – called C4 because he was the fourth cat in a short time, who ended up lasting quite a bit longer than the others on the busy road they lived on. The characteristic there was some odd sleeping habits. Manx is based on their current family cat, the lord of the neighbourhood. And Syd Fishious is based on an old fat cat with bad habits (mostly eating).

The advice that Bixley gave to his young fans was pitched perfectly at their level, and his tips were solid and valuable. He writes his stories (once he has drawn up his character ideas) longhand in a notebook. You can’t press a play button on a notebook. He says, “Writing longhand is a good way to get stuff straight out of your head and onto a piece of paper.”

When Bixley began writing junior fiction it was to combat the concept that when you start reading chapter books, you don’t want as many pictures. Being an author and an illustrator, Donovan doesn’t want illustrations to go away: “Pictures are an integral part of storytelling.”

Having read Bixley’s books, you understand how true this is for him– attending the Lauren Child session straight after, I understood that they had similar approaches to this. You are never without a visual anchor, whilst the story is also enhanced in more subtle ways by the detail of his illustrations.

Bixley showed a few examples in his work of the way that his words and pictures work together. For instance, he uses maps frequently to show where his characters are going. He uses the pictures to extend his words – he draws castles, chateaux, Venice… “A picture says a thousand words in a blink of an eye.”

He also uses comic strips occasionally; “you don’t get confusion during big fight scenes in comic strips – you know who is hitting whom.” And he sometimes adds back-detail on a character through examples of how their character plays out. Major Ginger Tom is meant to be a “hero” – but is he really? Perhaps he may be a bit of a flash boy, say the pictures. This expands the world of the characters – General Fluffington’s schedule isn’t quite as busy as you might be lead to believe. And the world gets bigger yet when he uses newspaper clippings – you get snips of other stories that are happening in the same world, expanding the universe in which the pictures exist.

And you want the readers to want to turn the page: Bixley showed how he created a ‘page-turner’ – the cat flying towards you off the page, to keep the reader on tenterhooks, like with all good action adventures.

By using illustrations in all these important ways, he leaves the words free to do the bits they do: dialogue, moving the plot along, set the tone of the book.

When the formal session ended, there were kids flocking to the microphones, at least 30 kids per mike, hoping to ask Donovan questions. They teased out details such as his favourite book as a kid (The Lorax – it still is), what he wanted to be when he was a kid (a film-maker, but he was too much of a megalomaniac), and what his favourite thing is to draw (octopuses).

If you haven’t yet seen Donovan live, why not invite him to your school through Writers in Schools (NZ Book Council), or via his own website. Check out his work here, and see a couple of details of his latest books below.

Attended and reviewed Sarah Forster on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Flying Furballs: Unmasked!
by Donovan Bixley
Published by Upstart Press
ISBN 9781927262931

Fuzzy Doodle
by Melinda Szymanik and Donovan Bixley
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775434061

The Great Egg Stink (Dinosaur Trouble #1)
by Kyle Mewburn and Donovan Bixley
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775433668

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