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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Book Review: Flying Furballs: Hot Air, by Donovan Bixley

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

See our review of Dogfight, number 1 in this series.

cv_hot_air.jpgThe second in the Flying Furballs series from Donovan Bixley is another laugh-out-loud action-packed read, set during the great war between CATs and DOGZ. The mission this time begins when Claude D’Bonair breaks a pigeon-message code:  he and his partner Syd Fishus are off on a top secret mission to supposedly neutral Switzerland.

Like all good secret missions, this one begins with a visit to the tech guys: in this case a canny cat called C-Four, who has a knack for inventing things that even he doesn’t know the real use of. This time, Claude & Syd take away an automatic hammock…but what could it be used for? As they begin their mission & figured that not everything is exactly going to go smoothly, it does come in handy for breaking the odd uncontrolled fall…

As Kyle Mewburn did in the Dragon Knight series, Bixley has made judicious use of the truth as applied to, for example, the types of planes flown in WW1. He also plays a little with the concept of goodies and baddies – we are frequently reminded via our hero Claude that “not all DOGZ are bad DOGZ.” And the secret weapon bears some resemblance to the Germans’ secret weapon in WW1.

Up and down gondolas, through the bellies of airships and into a handy one-seater plane, our heroes don’t have an easy job of saving the day. In fact, it’s not at all clear, once Major Tom gets hold of the facts, that they have. The next book is due in April 2017, and I’m pretty sure we’ll be figuring out who the spy is this time.

Highly recommended for action-loving kids aged 5-10.

Flying Furballs: Hot Air
by Donovan Bixley
Published by Upstart Press
ISBN 978927262542

Book Review: Flying Furballs: Dogfight, by Donovan Bixley

cv_dogfightAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Since winning the Junior Fiction prize for Monkey Boy at last year’s NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, Donovan Bixley has not stopped working*. He appears to be the busiest illustrator in the country at the moment, because not only can he illustrate, he has proven now that he can also write. Not only that, he can write brilliantly well, and book awards judges agree.

Flying Furballs is Bixley’s new solo series, set in 1916 Europe, with DOGZ standing in as Germans, and CATs as the allied forces. Dogfight introduces young Pilot Claude D’Bonair and his hilarious counterpoint Syd Fishus, seeing them work together – with the help of Manx the flight engineer – to save the hero of the CAT forces, Major Tom, who is missing in action. Claude escapes calamity by the tip of his tail more than once as he flies through the air in this action-packed adventure story.

There are more puns and idioms than you can shake a paw at, and many of the characters have very familiar names. There is Major Tom of course, and the scion of the flying CATs, The Red Setter. There is also a General Fluffington, a Commander Snookums, and Mr Tibbles. Plenty of levity to ensure the adults reading this to their kids are as entertained as the children themselves.

It’s hard not to compare this directly with the series’ that Bixley has illustrated previously with Kyle Mewburn’s writing, and there are similarities in tone and target age group. Both the Dinosaur Rescue and Dragon Knight are also highly recommended. What I think sets it apart is the freedom of space that having a whole book to himself has given Bixley. He can illustrate each page as lavishly as he wishes, with the result that the book is a riot of joyfully drawn (personified) animals.

Five-year-old Dan really enjoyed being read this book, and it was the perfect length to allow us to read a couple of chapters a night and still be finished within the week. He was ready for more as we finished, so I think we will be snapping Flying Furballs up as they come out, for the next few years.

This book is great fun for lovers of action-packed books – adults who grew up on a diet of Tintin, Peanuts and Biggles, with a side of Top Gun, will love it just as much as their kids.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Flying Furballs: Dogfight
by Donovan Bixley
Published by Upstart Press
ISBN 9781927262535

*Actually even before then, as by my count, there were upwards of 20 books illustrated or written and illustrated by Donovan Bixley released since the start of 2014. Phew!