Monday, November 26, 2012

The Incredible Picture Books of Roland Harvey

Roland Bruce Harvey (born 11 December 1945) is an Australian children's illustrator and author. He still lives in his birthplace of Melbourne. He is best known as an illustrator of children's books using pen, ink and watercolour. His illustrations are readily identifiable by their incredible detail that can keep you returning again and again to explore each carefully designed plate. His work (especially his own authored books) displays his quirky humour and sense of fun. He is a former architect who established illustration and design firm Roland Harvey Studios in 1978, to produce greeting cards, posters and stationery with a very Aussie flavour. In 1981 he established his own book publishing company Five Mile Press. The children's book division of the company was designed to publish entertaining and challenging books that make kids laugh and raise ideas and issues. I first became aware of Roland's work as a teacher when he published the 'Eureka Stockade' (1981) and 'The First Fleet' (1982) with author Alan Boardman. All 31 of the children in my one-teacher school loved them across all my seven grades (kindergarten to year 6). I've been enjoying his work ever since. I have had great fun in recent times enjoying the adventures of Uncle Kev with my grandchildren aged 1 to 10.

His latest book in the Uncle Kev series has just been released which was the motivation for this post and the interview which follows. It's a classic, so read it!

The Uncle Kev series (Allen & Unwin)

Readers first met Uncle Kev in 'To the Top End: Our trip across Australia' (2009). This funny travelogue (with a difference!) takes us on the perilous journey of the Aussie larrikin Uncle Kev. We start in Tasmania's dense forests, sail Bass Straight to bushland Victoria, cross the Snowy Mountains, and follow the mighty Murray River, before crossing Australia's challenging outback to the tropical 'Top End'.  In Uncle Kev's second book, 'All the Way to WA: Our search for Uncle Kev', Roland takes us on the search for Uncle Kev, who is seemingly lost. Our 'renowned lobotanist, inventor and ex-commando' has been reported missing after setting out to find the supposedly extinct Australian 'Night Parrot' [if you want to find out who Uncle Kev 'really' is, read the interview].

In the third book in the series we get up close and personal with Uncle Kev as his relatives Frankie, Penny, Henry and their Mum & Dad visit and are taken around his working farm. With a mix of prose, poetry and 'expository asides' (I think Uncle Kev would like this term) and of course Harvey's wonderfully designed and drawn illustrations, we learn what everyone needs to know about his farm. Just why do we all need a shed? How good is his 'bungee-pik' machine at picking fruit? We explore his 'simple and functional' headquarters (no super heroes here!) with his gymnasium kitchen, the secret entrance from his garage under the loo, and a room for his working pigs. We also meet many of his friends and family, like Paddy and Maria Antipasto, the great cook Miss Kellie Kelly, and his Dad (who tests the bungee-pik). But of course, like any farm, there are also lots of animals. Uncle Kev knows them and loves them. He speaks to his cows in 'cow' (the bulls of course just speak 'bull'), and he polishes his pigs. Of course, all his animals have a name and a purpose. There is Zorro the Shetland, Maisy the Clydesdale, and Sampson who is having a foal!

This is Roland Harvey at his amusing best. And all the while, within the fun and silliness, we learn some stuff along the way. What I love about this book is the multi-layered way he builds up his story. The academic in me wants to say that this book offers the 3 to 53 year old the ultimate multimodal, intertextual experience possible from a book. But then again, I'd sound like an academic. No, it's a complex, funny and rollicking tale about a type of Aussie character that many of us just might have hidden in our families. Then again, I might just say that this is a bonzer book about Uncle Kev!

The Interview

I have but one regret about this interview, it wasn't done over a beer in a quiet Melbourne pub. I've never met Roland but would love to. As you read his answers I think you'll understand why.

1. Did you have a love of story in your childhood years? Why or why not?

My father was run over by two trucks in Collins St. when I was three, so was out of action for a lot of my childhood. He was also very strict. I am sure I missed out on some positive influence as a result.

I was lucky in having excellent English books sent out by my Aunts after WWII. I absolutely devoured them and learned a lot from them. They were Information and Adventure books [Eagle Annual’ for boys was full of science, action, biography, comic strips, natural history (very British!)] and they certainly got me interested in nature and adventure. They also influence my storytelling to this day.

‘I Spy’ was a series on natural history beautifully presented and consummately English. It showed me they great differences between the European and Australian ecologies and landscapes. I have consciously set out to show readers the character and beauty of the Australian environment.

The ‘William’ series (Richmal Compton) was a great study of three or four grubby boys in a rural village during the war. The characters were very funny and finely drawn, as were the pen & ink illustrations. The subtlety of English humour has stayed with me, I think.

2. Why do you think children (and adults) love your work?

People say they ‘love the detail’. I find this embarrassing to be truthful, as I try to put a lot more into a book than detail.

In studying Architecture and Environmental Design I found I am a ‘Big Picture’ person. My illustrations reflect this in the inter-relationship of everything. I think people respond to the story within the story, and the strangeness of some of these situations.

I enjoy the caricature element of my work, and I think people respond to some of the characters. We all know someone like that!

So much of a story is influenced by context, and I feel a need to provide that perspective. I also try to show how things work and why something is happening, or what might happen next.

3. Did (or do) you have an Uncle Kev?

I have a brother in law Uncle Kev whom I admire greatly. My character is three people rolled into one: Kev who led adventure tours through Africa in the ‘70s and has the shed and Jag in the book; ‘Bucko’, who was an outdoor ed. Instructor and totally gung-ho without quite enough caution to moderate his actions, and myself, who is probably still trying to prove his manhood. One of us is an inventor and never quite finishes things but I can’t say which one.

4. Did you start drawing crazy characters early in life? Was there an inspiration for your marvellously detailed drawings?

I did drawings of people , cars and buildings all through school, and later realized it was an aid to concentration, not to mention a way of being popular with my classmates, if not teachers.

5. You say you love watching people. Do you spend long hours sketching a scene like Uncle Kev's shed from life, or is this and other images re-creations?

My better drawings are done from impressions and memory. If I get stuck I just go and have another look. Some things, such as water are very difficult to interpret so I may take five visits to a river to get an understanding of the factors at play: movement, reflections, shadows, sparkles, transparency, refraction, ripples and eddies etc.

I do make notes and sketches of characters at airports and beaches etc, for future reference. I need to be careful how I use characteristics like fat, sadness and posture and mafia connections.

6. What is the best response you've ever had to a book?

I get different responses but the ones I value are when kids say the book is ‘cool’ (or I’m ‘cool!’) which tells me they have read it for pleasure, particularly when the subject is not cool, or is difficult. Awards are good, but I am aware they may be made to a bit of a formula. From a personal point of view I appreciate an author’s endorsement, again particularly if was a difficult subject.

‘Sick As – the History of Medicine’ is one which has ticked boxes on most counts; it is the book that works for primary and secondary students; it is the one they will come back into class at lunchtime to read more; my illustrations were taken from Medical school textbooks and the author called them ‘genius’. The importance of that to me was that for most of my career the feedback from the marketing end of publishing has been shallow, negative (anti-intellectual) and self serving. It is difficult to maintain confidence and a positive attitude when so many egos are so involved. One comment of that type keeps you going.

The first series of history books ‘Eureka Stockade’, ‘The First Fleet’ etc (about 1980) are still in print and would have sold in the 2-300 000 area. This was despite being initially rejected by a major publisher.

‘At the Beach’ has been German, Chinese, a drama for children and a best seller according to the publisher, so that is probably as good as it gets.

7. Will there be more Uncle Kev books?

Uncle Kev is a good character, and I would like to see him take on some new roles as a philosopher, a diplomat, and a traveller to exotic lands. He also may become a father and raise a family, but all that is up to my esteemed publisher.

8. Are there authors and illustrators who you admire and find inspirational?

I have certainly been influenced by many: Bob Graham, Ronald Searle, Quentin Bake, Spike Milligan, Ralph Steadman, and my History of Architecture lecturer, Jo Bradley, who made it come alive for me, and taught me all about context.

9. What's the craziest thing you've ever done (that you can tell us about)?

I shouldn’t mention the things I did (in cars, boats and skis) to prove to myself I could look it in the eye and stare it down… because mostly they were plain stupid.

Finally I realized that calculated risks which involve skill, planning, preparation and no risk to anyone else were a better idea. That is the message (I hope) in my books.

The weirdest thing was a result of an impetuous serial habit of saying whatever comes into my head to complete strangers.

Eg.: Walking around Bologna Italy late at night with my editor, Scott Riddle. Scott needs a powder room, so I wait in a small bar. English voices in the corner; I introduce myself as Quentin Blake. Laughter: ‘No you’re not Quentin Blake, he’s Quentin Blake'.

They never believed that I had no idea what Quentin looked like, that he was in Italy at all, let alone in that bar.

It is probably a good thing that I am both big and ugly.

Complete List of Roland Harvey's Books

'Eureka Stockade' (1981), author Alan Boardman
'The First Fleet' (1982), author Alan Boardman
'The Friends of Emily Culpepper' (1983), author Ann Coleridge
'Burke and Wills' (1985), author David Greagg
'My Place in Space' (1988), with Joe Levine, authors Robin and Sally Hirst
'Milly Fitzwilly's Mousecatcher' (1991), author Marcia Vaughan
'Islands in My Garden' (1998), author Jim Howes
'Sick As - Bloody Moments in the History of Medicine' (2000)
'Belvedere Dreaming' (2002), author Kate Ryan
'Belvedere in the City' (2002), author Kate Ryan
'Belvedere Is Beached' (2002), author Kate Ryan
'Islands in my Garden' (2002)
'Climbing Mount Sugarbin: Aussie Bites' (2003) 
'At the Beach: Postcards from Crabby Spit' (2004)
'In the Bush : Our Holiday at Wombat Flat' (2005)
'In the City : Our Scrapbook of Souvenirs' (2007)
'The Secret Record of Me' (2007)
'In the City' (2007)
'In the Bush' (2007)
'The Shadow Brumby' (2007), author Alison Lester
'Circus Pony' (2007), author Alison Lester
'Racing the Tide' (2007), author Alison Lester
'My Place in Space' (2008)
'Roland Harvey's Big Book of Christmas' (2008)
'Saving Mr Pinto' (2008), author Alison Lester
'To the Top End' (2009)
'All the Way to WA' (2011)
'On the Farm' (2012)

Some of Roland's Awards

Roland's books have received many awards. Perhaps his highest honour was winning the 2005 Dromkeen Medal presented annually to an Australian who has made a significant contribution to the appreciation and development of children's literature. He has also been honoured by the Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA), including being short-listed for 'Burke and Wills' (1986) and 'To the Top End' (2010). 'Burke and Wills' also won the Clifton Pugh Award in 1986. 'Sick As - Bloody Moments in the History of Medicine' (2000) was shortlisted for the NSW Premier's Children's History Award.

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