Listening to Alexis Deacon

Listening to Alexis Deacon


born in New York this award-winning illustrator and writer loves storytelling

“I always knew I was going to be in illustrator because sharing and trying to communicate was so important to me. understanding of the stories help us to do that”

Alexis’s number one tip for writers: “start as close to the end as possible”

Alexis read some of his stories to us and took us on a very cleaver memory trail which turn out to be completely made up. Why? To teach us in his own words… “imagination and forgotten memories, like my best friend being a chocolate rabbit are boundless sources of stories and images.” Alexis encourages us to live our imagination out and play with our own imaginary friends in our heads

We transport imagination through line drawing and image making.  “make it as real to you as you can and thoughts can be shared. draw and draw all your life children do this without being told as we get older we stop drawing and stop imagining but true illustrators don’t, so keep going nothing you do is a waste.”

Alexis went to art college at Brighton he found it hard to make drawings for other people thus he tells us his first book – monster zoo- was a big learning curve.

Watching a couple of Slow Norris’s one day gave him great pleasure and started his imagination going. “the two were just wondering towards each other down the same rope. They met in the middle had a staring contest, they both made a face and went the other way. This one moment inspired my first published book – Slow Norris” Alexis advise us to take moment like these and let your imagination go wild if you find it entertaining the chances are it will engage your reader too.

What is illustration? He asked us then answered “It is universal communication. The face is universal and universally understood. looking at the face we filter out other things and we see just the expression we only need simple values to tell this story. we are hardwired to understand expression from an early age. You need to keep that in your mind when you produce your character’s form on to the page.  just like the face gestures transporter and give us information too. Learn to love gestures as the context is strong. this gives you a good story and an expansive narrative from these simple ingredients of image.”

Alexis closing advise to us who are studying illustration this year – “By illustrating you give your story to someone else so you need to leave enough space for the reader to imagine too”


Poems from writing retreat


Her home in two places can be

One her family, is she?

The other a mother.

Life can be smothered

I ritual suffered.

Her fresh bread dedication

A clean house meditation.

Church and then home

Regulated, lovingly grown.

I fail.

I fail the ‘I do’s.’

I fail to choose.

I’m wanting more

I’m taking it all.

She is not me.



Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner 

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner 

Winner, Winner, chicken dinner! That was what we would call out when we guessed correctly which form the potatoes took every Sunday as a child.

 Sunday dinner was a must in our family. It was the only time we were allowed in mum’s kitchen to cook with her. It was mom’s belief that if she taught us to cook a Sunday roast everything else in the world would fall into place. Nothing could be more difficult than a perfectly cooked wonderfully timed Sunday dinner. If you could complete this task then nothing in the world would ever seem too complicated.

Potatoes were a debate. Mom hated peeling potatoes so that was always the assistance task. As the assistant we could decide if we; boiled the ‘Spuds’, boiled then roasted or Mashed. We could roast them in their own tray or next to the roasting joint. We could add onions or other vegetables too. Options like weather to salt the boiling water or the potatoes before we roast them and should an assistant add milk and butter when mashing or just salt and pepper? All was part of the game.

Everyone in the living room would take a guess and as we grew older we would bet our pudding on the result. This continued for many years as we were seven children strong. But dad never had to assist, he always got to guess.

4 1/2 pounds russet potatoes, rinsed, peeled if desired, and cut into 2-inch chunks

1 tablespoon white vinegar

Kosher salt

1/4 cup duck fat 

Freshly ground black pepper

12 sprigs thyme



Adjust oven racks to lower and upper position and preheat oven to 500°F. Place potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with cold water by 1-inch. Add 2 tablespoons salt and vinegar. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce to a simmer, and cook until exteriors are tender, about 5 minutes. Potatoes should show a slight resistance when poked with a paring knife or a cake tester. Drain potatoes and transfer to a large bowl.

Add fat to bowl with potatoes. Season with pepper and more salt to taste then toss with a large metal spoon until exteriors are slightly bashed up and coated in a thin layer of potato/fat paste. Divide potatoes evenly between two heavy rimmed baking sheets. Spread thyme sprigs over potatoes.

Transfer baking sheets to the oven and roast until the bottoms of the potatoes are crisp and golden brown, about 20 minutes total, swapping top the trays top for bottom and rotating them once half way through roasting. Using a thin metal spatula, flip the potatoes and roast until the second side is golden brown, another 15 to 20 minutes. Discard thyme sprigs, and serve.

Axel Scheffler @ the Hive Worcester


An open day at university leads to an awesome moment in my life. A tutor from Worcester University had chatted with me and we had laughed at my eagerness but lack of portfolio. He later called me to see if I wanted to join the class in meeting Axel Scheffler at the Hive later on in the week.  At first I did that classic, but very common “you don’t mean the Gruffalo guy, right?” Yes, (more laughing at me.) And yes that is just one of his famous illustrations but my no means is it all he has done.

Axel Scheffler started by fondly telling us about his move to England in 1982 to study Visual Communication at the Bath Academy of Art. How meeting others with creative and open minds can really get you going. Axel had a tone of honest reality as he relayed the accounts of taking his portfolio around to different publishers and magazines. He recommended always taking your current sketch book with you. “Often people like the more free and flowing look of a sketch book” Alex spoke about sending images off in the post and hearing nothing back for ages if at all. Then he got his first commission. Faber commissioned him to illustrate The Piemakers by Helen Cresswell . In 1989, Walker Books from London asked Axel to illustrate a text by Jon Blake; You’re a Hero, Daley B.

The successful collaboration of Alex Scheffler and Julia Donaldson happened in 1991. “Julia had been writing songs for the BBC when a friend told her they would make great children’s books” Alex told us “when Macmillan Children’s books took her up, they introduced us to each other.”


Q: When did you know the Gruffalo was going to look like he does?

A: Lots of sketching based on Julia’s description in her text was the basic starting point. I had done him with clothes; in fact I had done all the animals with clothes. But Julia looked them over and just did not like it.

Q: How does the text come to you?

A: Sometimes it is just emailed and you decide the layout and what to draw creating a kind of dummy book which you send back. Publishes then look at that and make changes. They always make changes. Other times they send me the dummy book with the layout and text and I will know there they what the illustration and how much of the page to illustrate. But that’s never the end, because publishers sell to other countries this is called co-addition sales. They too can ask for anything to be changed.

Q: What sort of things have you been asked to change?

A: Lots of things, anything. An example is with the book A Squash and A Squeeze in the Macmillan book the goat had udders but when it was sold to the American publisher they wanted the udders removed as they didn’t find it appropriate. Just lots of things like that and practical things like moving the layout because the amount of text or even direction of text is different.

2 3 4

Q: Have you ever written a children’s book?

A: Only one as I’m not a writer. Pixi publishing who make little books were doing their 1000 print and they asked me if I would give then a picture book. The story was about a squirrel that got blown out of a tree. But it was not amazing like I said I’m not a writer.

Q: What one piece of advice would you give to those illustrators who are now leaving university?

A: Never say no to work; you just never know where that will lead. Illustration is an applied art. So listen to what they (publishers and editors) say to you it is in both your interests to make the work sellable. Compromise is good, yet you should always keep your own style. (He smiles) That’s all my advice.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Just completing another picture book with Julia Donaldson; The Scarecrow’s Wedding.

Week 8 Creative Writing with WEA

Q; Chose a picture of a character. In your mind, try to think like the person (or animal). Then working in pairs, ask questions about them in a type of dating game. With the information write a short story introducing the character you have interviewed.

Me and my shadow

My father and mother took the job in Berkshire because it came with a house.  I was born the year after and they called me Randall. It soon got changed to Randy and my brother just called me Rad. Thomas was older than me by six years, he loved trouble.

The best thing about your dad being the caretaker at your school is that late in the evening, when everyone has gone you can play in the hall and art room. Thomas even skateboarded down the corridor, well until Mom caught him. She made him clean all the floors in the school.

“Be thankful your Father didn’t catch you and that Curridge Primary is small” she lectured him. It was that night I first saw George Randall Levette.

Thomas was angry with me for not spotting Mom on the approach and for blabbing about his new girlfriend having a nose piercing. I decided it was best to stay out of everyone’s way and hide in the cafeteria.  Mom and Dad didn’t bother with cleaning there unless Mrs James the cook asked them.

I had fallen asleep while reading my comic in the ever fading light, the cold floor where I sat had travelled up my spine and down into my knees so both were stiff.

“Get up boy; you cannot sit there in the dirt. Think of your mother having to wash you and your clothing” the voice was not my father but a man’s, the tall squared jaw man stood in the kitchen looking down at me. My eyes tried to focus wearily but still he seemed blurry, not altogether real. Only then did I hear my Mom’s voice calling me, the concern almost panic in her tone much clearer than even her words. I called back knowing it was more than my life’s worth not to answer her at this moment. Mom burst into the cafeteria as I left the kitchen and the man behind. Her voice enveloped me as it bounced around the curved end wall then her arms followed.

“Good lord where have you been I feared allsorts when we couldn’t find you” I still don’t know how long they had looked for me, but it was the middle of the night and I was exhausted. My limbs, every one of them, were painful and I had a cut on my head that I didn’t recall doing.

At breakfast the next day I had to give my Dad the explanation he had been waiting for. He was always a calm man but very firm with his rules and enjoyed the satisfaction of a well done methodical job his eye for detail evident in all things. I knew my account of the night before would be less than satisfactory but lying would only make things worse as I said my Dad had an eye for detail.

“Tell me again son, what man?” he asked in disbelief

“Tall, dark hair tightly curled with a parting right down the middle, kind of old, but that was his of his jacket too. It was old looking, like in history books and one of those floppy bow ties. Not like James Bond, the other ones.” I rambled in desperation. The fact my Dad had no idea of whom I was talking about scared me more than having woke up to find a stranger in the room.

“Rad mate there ain’t no Charlie Chaplains’ around here, you’ve gone mad from that knock to your noggin” Thomas taunted as dad shuck his head still in disbelief. Of course at the time I didn’t know it was George, not even the second time did I know.

Only a week later I was running down the hall to lunch, the sunlight flickered as I sped past each window chasing my friends. I didn’t see George at first, I heard him

“Slow down Arthur!” he called to me; I knew he was talking to me even though it was not my name. I glanced over my shoulder and saw him half absorbed by the beam of light from the near window.

“Brace yourself Arthur. Put your hands out boy I’ll help you down, stay calm and breathe” it was that moment my mind burst into all colours and sounds. The stiffness hit my limbs in seconds then out like a fuse had blown. When I woke two paramedics were over me and I was exhausted. Every part seemed to ache, my mouth was full of blood and my ears rang with a piercing pitch.

Epilepsy the doctor explained as I lay in the hospital bed. I couldn’t care less at the time what it was called I just wished it would go away. I didn’t even mention seeing George.

In the four months that followed I had to endure a further seventeen fits while the right medication in the right amount was found for me. Each and every time George Randall Levette was with me, I yelled at him to go away thinking he was the one to blame. George didn’t leave; the strong well dressed handsome man stayed and comforted me.  I began to trust his calm even tone like my Dad’s voice, I could tell that he too had worked hard to care for the ones he loved. He called me Arthur and spoke of Marie, Ethel and Olive, sisters I should know. One thing that always stuck with me was how once or twice I wasn’t sure but he asked had I found Lillian? Did I meet Amelia? Over time I thought this all some crazy dream from my Epilepsy a sort of coping or my brain trying to make sense.

Some years later while helping my Dad clean at the school I saw a picture displayed as a project by year five pupils. Well could you believe it? There in lovely sepia was George; turns out he was my great- great grandfather. In 1881 he had been the schoolmaster living in the same house my Mom and Dad now inhabited. I’m still waiting to see him again.

Week 7 Creative Writing with WEA

Q Write a short story introducing characters to the reader, please use the theme of spring.

Spring into action

Paige sat waiting; the sunshine broke through the clouds right into granddad Gordon’s living room. She watched as it showed the dust in the air floating slowly “maybe it’s magic and not dust at all” she wondered to herself.

Gordon wasn’t really her granddad Paige knew that, he was someone mom knew. Paige was here because it was a teacher training day. Her mother had already read her the lecture on being very good for granddad Gordon and being respectful. This was because he wasn’t just nice. He was a hero, a very special kind of hero.

Gordon limped from the hallway to the living room door and as he opened it in bolted max the collie dog. He ran strait to Paige with excitement and began his little dance asking her to fuss him.

“Good it’s you. You’re lucky not to be a burglar you know?” Gordon’s voice was still broken a sort of croaky sound. Paige knew this meant he had only just got out of bed. She gave him a smile and continued to fuss max. “that’s right you hold him back whilst I make a run for the tea pot, make sure you have him tight I don’t want to have my leg ravaged in an attack” Gordon pretended to be fearful he rolled his shoulders as if to limber up and licked his lips in anticipation before miming a sprint for the kitchen.

Paige laughed and shook her head “you say the funniest things granddad, Max is so gentle and far too smart to be an ordinary dog” Gordon retuned her smile as he lifted the tea pot down from the shelf. How right she was about his dog, but she didn’t know that, she would never know truly.

Paige fed Max, carried Gordon’s tea and breakfast to his table next to the old blue chair he always sat in. She ate some toast and sipped the bitter tea. There was no sugar in granddad Gordon’s house because he was diabetic so not allowed any. Paige waited quietly for Gordon to finish.

“So Miss Paige what are we reading today, Black beauty, White fang? Or would you like to read some of the Michael Morpurgo you mother sent me for Christmas? They are nice tell her, Max read two in one day. Didn’t you Maximus?” Gordon settled into his chair ready to read to Paige. He loved to read, reading to Paige was especially good fun he liked to do funny voices and add dramatic sounds he so enjoyed her company she wasn’t like others.“No, she wasn’t a spoilt like those little brats with their head permanently attached to a mobile phone” he thought to himself “there the reason we can’t go outside anymore, nasty roller boards and villainous spite”

“Maximus, is that his name today?” she asked Gordon with a jolly tone.

“Maximus Speedius” Gordon proclaimed “he was a gladiator in his puppy days you know? Just like in that film on the telly”

“Is that before he was a shark wrestler? Or after he was the first dog to climb Mount Everest?” both broke into laughter and Max barked joyfully. “We can make a deal. If we cross the road to the park together I will walk Max and clean the whole yard, even give him a wash and you can then read us any story you like. Deal?”

“Outside?” Gordon wasn’t laughing anymore

“Yes, just for a while. Its spring at last, the park is truly pretty with snowdrops and crocuses. I saw them on the way over. It isn’t far to the bench I promise. Please Granddad be brave just this once.” Paige begged, to make matters worse clever old max did the same putting his head in Gordon’s lap.

Gordon looked out of the living room window, it was sunny, and it was spring. Paige couldn’t know how he feared the outside. It wasn’t the weather, the cold, or how far it was to the bench. What kept the retired Search and Rescue handler, and his wonderful Red Spanish collie at home, it was people. Gordon and Max had saved countless lives over the years in so many different natural disasters and war zones, that it had cost them their own life in away. Injured, old and unable to find suitable work. Life in their home country was not what they had hoped for. The people outside these doors now were horrid monsters, judged and evaluated your whole being on what you looked like. These were not the relived faces of trapped individuals, without his uniform he was just an old man with a shattered knee.

“Please? I will go with you, I we will stay with you if you want. How about just ten minutes out on the bench then we will read?” Paige’s tone was calm and sure. It reminded him of the day he had to talk a little Mexican boy into crawling out of his broken home. Gordon’s Spanish was terrible back then. It was no use trying to explain to the little lad, Gordon had to risk it, he had to get close and worse he had to send his beloved Max in to a hole that could collapse at any moment. Calm and trust that’s why Max when in, that’s why the boy came out safe.

“Ok Miss Paige we will take the air for a bit, it’s time to feel the sunshine again. After all spring is Max’s favourite season”

Week 5 Creative Writing with WEA

Q; Write a scene in which two people engage in a heated quarrel, include both dialogue and descriptive body language, try to portray feelings as well as telling the reader about the characters.

He was in the house again. Sophie could hear the heavy steps of her father in the hallway, she could hear the soft scuttling of her mother in the kitchen. Tonight was going to be different. He had promised them, no more, no more arguing or fighting.

“Kristie did you need something?” David could see the papers, his papers, on his desk, they had been moved.

“No, I’m fine the children are all in bed. How were Frank and Grace? Did you fix their computer?” Kristie asked as light hearted and natural as she could, although in the back of her mind she wondered. Had she moved the papers? Had she been cleaning near there today and knocked them? Or had the children run past the desk when playing, maybe they had moved them accidently?

“What? Do you really want an answer to your stupid questions? Would I be here now if I hadn’t fixed the god dame computer? Frank and Grace are the same as yesterday when you saw them in the supermarket. They thought that I would like to hear all about the wonderful afternoon they spent talking to you in Wal-Mart” He dropped into his office chair and put his black leather bag beside it. He looked at the coffee rings on his desk, typical he thought. she’s out shopping all day and hasn’t even wiped the desk over. He dared to look over at the sink, yep washing up still waiting on the side from dinner. He had been able to fix a hard drive and explain office 2000 to an old man yet again since dinner, but what had she done? Not even the dishes.

“Would you like a coffee? Have you got much more to do?” Kristie thought it best to just change the subject. She realized too late she done that double question thing he hated so much. Her heart began to beat a pace faster she clenched her teeth. Had he noticed? Of course he’s noticed but will say anything?

David rolled his eyes to the back of his head. Why did she do that? She didn’t used to that dumb, babbling question after question. Kristie used to be funny and smart, most of all she used to be helpful. He took a deep breath in and spun his chair around to face her. Oh god she was doing the face, the face told him she was either going to walk away or start crying for no reason.

“How about you answer my question first” he began

“Sorry, which question?” Kristie couldn’t recall not answering a question, she was always careful to listen. She knew how important it was to David that you must listen. His eyes were beginning to burn into her, best look at the floor. I mustn’t give him cause to be angry with me. I mustn’t wake the children.

“Why were you snooping in my papers?” he was sure now, Kristie was defiantly up to something. She couldn’t even look him in the eye that said everything he needed to know!

Sophie hugged her legs behind her bedroom door, she listened in the darkness. Yes, he was in the house again.