On ‘Monsters’ by Stephen Axelsen
This is Part Two of the story behind the story of ‘Monsters’. Part One is here. In Part Two, my very dear friend and talented illustrator, Stephen Axelsen, shares with us how on earth he took up the challenge to continue with illustrating ‘Monsters’, which Kim Gamble began illustrating before his death in 2016. Stephen and Kim were lifelong friends, but it is an epic task indeed to completely dive into the paintbrushes left behind by one of Australia’s greatest children’s book illustrators.
Stephen shared some fairly wiffy cheese and crackers on our front deck last year, and the girls and I had a sneak peek at the original illustrations for ‘Monsters’. Stephen was, as always, self deprecating about his work, but it was immediately apparent to me that this was going to work, and the girls were captivated by Tildy and her monsters, which reminded me ever so slightly of Sendak’s ‘Where the Wild Things Are’. When I read the final published work to ChickPea just last week and told her she was one of the first people to see it, she argued with me long and hard that she’d already seen the book…and I guess in a sense she had…and nearly left the greasy cheese marks on the original art to prove it. Later that night, I pulled the book out of her arms as she slept, to have a better look at it myself, and I spent far too long pouring over the words and images and remembering how I felt when I first read ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ as a child – a little scared but also deeply comforted that others had the same fears about imaginary but scary monsters that I had.
Stephen, you have done Kim so proud, the ‘Kimness’ is evident in ‘Monsters’ but I also love the touch of Stephen. You and Kim were and are Masters of Whimsy and Nonsensical and Anna’s heartfelt text is the perfect base for you two childhood friends to play on with your pencils, brushes and paints. ‘Monsters’ is picture book greatness.
Tildy knew there were monsters. They sailed in from outside and hid behind the curtains. Moonlight brought them in. Tildy hated moonlight. Mum and Dad said there were no such things. Her aunt and uncle couldn’t see them, and when Tildy wrote to her twenty-three cousins about monsters, only one wrote back saying she shouldn’t eat spicy food before bedtime.
Then a new boy came to school. Hendrik drew pages and pages of monsters when the class was writing numbers. He had a way of dealing with his monsters.
When Tildy dares to stay over at Hendrik’s house, she panics when the moon rises… but together they make the night safe, and Tildy can watch the moon sail through the starry sky.
‘Carrying a Book to the Finishing Line’ by Stephen Axelsen
Kim stopped work on the book the following Tuesday, too exhausted by his illness to go on. He asked his sister to ask me and his daughters to finish the book for him. He died on Friday morning. With Kim’s daughters’ blessing the task became mostly mine.
Kim did not follow usual practice for ‘Monsters’. There was no set of rough drawings. Anna and publishers were willing to trust that there would be a happy outcome. So Kim had been able to ‘luxuriate’, imagining and painting each picture one by one, and taking his time.
We had had, after all, a long, almost life-long, history of looking at each others work. We shared a very similar sensibility, love of humour, fantasy and the nonsensical. So I drew, literally, on my understanding of the Kimness in ‘Monsters’.
A ‘Kimness’ is a lightness of touch, a love of whimsy, of chooks, of backyards and childhood wonder – the commonplace rendered transcendent. And also of extravagant exaggeration, as seen, for example, with Aunt Beetle and Uncle Roy in ‘Monsters’.
I looked again at the manuscript and noticed that Kim had marked page divisions for a forty page book, eight more pages than the publisher had in mind.
– squeeze the unillustrated part of the story into the actual remaining space.
On the first point, Kim used a pure water colour technique, with just the occasionally bit of pencil outlining for strength.
I’d been working digitally for a decade or more, so I got out my stiff tubes of paint and dusty brushes and began to refresh. In the past I had used water colours too, but always between inked or strong pencil lines, like colouring-in.
I tried to find a paper stock similar to the one Kim was using, but had to do with something similar in the end.
It took me a long time to get started on the illustrations. Initially I’d felt blithely confident that I was up to the task. This much I said to Anna author and the publishers. But as time passed some slight trepidation grew, mixed with a soupçon of fear.
This was a most unusual commission.
It wasn’t until six months after he died that I began drawing in earnest.
Kim thoughtfully appeared in a couple of dreams. He encouraged me to relax and to enjoy myself. This is tried to do, but there were times when I thought “I’m not sure what I should be doing here. I know, I’ll ask Kim …Oh, no, I won’t.”
Once properly underway the job became easier. It was a pleasure to be reunited with watercolours and paper. My wife Jen celebrated the return of the tink of brush on glass water jar.
Kim was my first and biggest ‘influence’, so I hope he would be happy with my contribution, my fan art, in ‘Monsters’.