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Irish artist Chris Haughton’s peripatetic route into publishing has seen him and his work travel the globe.
The day Chris Haughton and I talk over Zoom, he is preparing to fly out to Poland for the Sopot by the Book Literary Festival, which has an Irish Edition special focus this year. “Colum McCann is going, Sebastian Barry’s going—everyone’s there!” he says with a wry smile. It’s one of many occasions Haughton bumps into fellow Irish authors. This “small world” of publishing affords him regular opportunities to see friends from home; an Emerald Isle literary roadshow of sorts.
Growing up in south Dublin, Haughton is a full card-carrying member of the Irish literary scene, yet he is a man of the world. He has lived in the US (working in a diner), India (teaching art), Hong Kong (teaching English) and Kathmandu (for a non-profit), but he has been based in London, where he currently lives, longer than anywhere else. There is a deep and sustained attachment to Ireland, though, and the feeling is mutual: last year he was an ambassador for Irish Children’s Book Week and his work was the subject of a headline exhibition at Dublin’s Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI).
This year is another notable one for Haughton, perhaps topped by celebrations for the 10th anniversary of Oh No, George! There is an adaptation of his beloved picture book for the stage, with a touring show around England by theatre company Can’t Sit Still (it originally had a tour scheduled for 2020, but plans were shelved due to the pandemic). His publisher Walker also launched a special edition of the book to mark the occasion, bringing his colourful caper of a well-behaved dog lured into temptation by cakes and cats to a new audience. Walker says Oh No, George!, which has been translated into 23 languages, has sold 750,000 copies worldwide (it has shifted more than 80,000 units for £500,000 in all editions through Nielsen BookScan UK), while Haughton’s five other picture books have combined to exceed 2.5 million unit-sales globally.
Success, though, seems not to have changed Haughton one jot. He is relaxed and humble despite the sometimes spectacular acclaim for his work. As MoLI geared up for the Haughton exhibition last year, the museum’s director Simon O’Connor compared his work to Samuel Beckett’s for Haughton’s ability to convey so much meaning in his stories through his art and economic language. When Haughton won this year’s Oscar’s Book Prize, the annual competition for children’s books for under-fives, his title Maybe… was praised by the prize patron Princess Beatrice and the judging panel (which included Chris Riddell) for its “stunning blend of storytelling and illustration” and as a “stand-out example of how much power pictures—and relatively few words—have to convey a story”.
Haughton’s illustrations are unmistakable. If readers do not know his name, they will likely recognise his collage art style in trademark bold colours. His stories have their own signature flavour too: humorous tales of endearing animal characters whose quirks and quests seem fully formed at first glance.
It is no surprise his books are full of plucky personalities; when Haughton reveals how he broke into publishing, it quickly becomes clear his lovable creatures are a reflection of his own sensibility. Haughton starts off by telling me a story of Cho Sunkyung, a friend and fellow illustrator based in Korea, and his audacious attempt to land a job at Batty Berry Mackinnon Productions after seeing the studio’s animated work for the 1991 film “The Sandman”. Sunkyung’s gutsy move involved flying from South Korea to England with no prior knowledge of where their studio was (“this was pre-internet and he had no address for the studio”). Landing in London, Sunkyung was directed to Bristol and then to Manchester, where he eventually ended up on Batty Betty Mackinnon’s doorstep and incredibly inveigled his way in.
Sunkyung’s brazen move inspired Haughton. After graduating from the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, he worked as a graphic designer, mainly in advertising, while trying to become an illustrator. Haughton harboured ambitions to write a children’s book which he “never got round to”. Five years passed until a friend challenged him: “I had no idea about how to go about publishing a children’s book, but my colleague had heard of something called the Bologna Book Fair and suggested I use the next one as my deadline.”
Haughton booked his flight and finished his drawings the weekend before the fair. Rather than being a detriment, Haughton’s lack of knowledge of the book industry gave him a chancer’s confidence. “Twelve years ago there were hardly any illustrators hawking their work around,” he says. “Things have changed now, but I didn’t realise the purpose of trade shows.”
It paid off, but rather than an English-language publisher it was a South Korean company, Borim, which took an interest. So he went off to Seoul and sofa-surfed for months to work on his début. A Bit Lost was the result: a story of a little owl who goes in search of his mum, published in Korean in 2010. Armed with A Bit Lost—and better prepared—Haughton returned to Bologna two years later and met numerous publishers, including Walker, whom he has been with ever since. Looking back, he’s able to laugh at his naivety. “I kind of do everything backwards.” Haughton no longer does that kind of legwork, by the way, as he’s represented by the Debbie Bibo Agency.
Haughton’s confidence comes from his craft, understanding his powers lie in his pencil. “I’m definitely an illustrator who got into writing, not the other way around,” he says. He admits it took trial and error to find a style that worked: “Every time I went to write something, I’d end up erasing it. In the end, the writing got smaller and smaller and I was telling the story mainly through the pictures.”
Initially coy about the lack of words in his stories, he soon realised it played into his strengths: “Very young children can understand stories if they’re told through pictures; it can also work internationally, as there’s almost no translation. I think that’s the advantage.” When Haughton does write, it is with a blend of onomatopoeic words that sometimes “aren’t really words at all. They’re pre-linguistic, all of my books have that element to them; some sort of catchphrase like ‘shh’ or ‘woosh’. These are the moments of drama.”
Next up for Haughton is a story about penguins (catchphrase as yet unknown) called Well Done, Mummy Penguin, to be released in October. Like most of the general population, he credits David Attenborough for inspiring him. “I watched a documentary of his featuring penguins catching fish and waddling back past snoring seals. With a few tweaks, that was pretty much my story.” He is also working with DK on a non-fiction title for children aged 12+ about communication in the digital age. He says: “I really want to make it a book adults wouldn’t feel weird buying for themselves, either. I love infographics, and it incorporates my background in design with how computers work.”
Before the DK title, there’s another major project as Haughton was been chosen to illustrate the free bag for this October’s Bookshop Day point of sale kits (not to be confused with this year’s Books Are My Bag tote, designed by Jackie Morris). There is a bewildered look on his face as to what I’m talking about, but when it clicks, he says in his customary, understated way, “I was asked to draw a bag; I didn’t know it was a big deal.” Others, perhaps an army of animal-loving toddlers, may vehemently disagree.
Pub date: 06.10.22
Editor: Deirdre McDermott
Agent: Debbie Bibo, Debbie Bibo Agency
Chris Haughton | 'I'm definitely an illustrator who got into writing, not the other way around' – The Bookseller
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