We sit down with children’s author/illustrator Jack Noel to find out more about his Comic Classics series, his inspiration, and his creative process. He also offers some top advice for parents with creative kids!
Can you give us a brief introduction on who you are and what you do?
I’m Jack. I live in South London and I make kid’s books!
And can you tell us a bit about your Comic Classics series? Where was the idea born?
I love books with pictures in and I was really inspired by some recent kids books – eg. Tom Gates and Barry Loser – that have a really wild and free take on the way the text and images work together. I have a secret theory that all books would be better with pictures, and so I just wanted to test that idea out. I tried it with Great Expectations and shared the results on Twitter, Egmont Books saw it and the rest is history!
What inspires you to continue working on the Comic Classics series?
With each title I get to spend several months with these stories which are *truly* some of the best books ever written. I have to deep dive into every line as well as do visual research into the time period. Each book is a voyage of discovery for me, and hopefully for the young readers too!
Your style really helps to make the classics more accessible – but how do you see them being read?
They make them more accessible, but they are still very much the actual classic books. They’re not retellings or updates – all the text is the original text from the actual authors (just cut down a bit). The pictures and notes from me make everything easier to follow. I think of it like having a fun uncle at your side, reading you the classic text but also pausing occasionally to explain bits (and also to make silly jokes!)
How do you select which texts are going to get the Jack Noel treatment?
There are so many great books that I would love to work on. The best ones are those that at their heart are solid-gold stories that maybe are a bit daunting to the audience of the day. Maybe they’re only available in fusty old editions with tiny type. If they have 1. a central character that kids will love and 2. a thrilling plot (and 3. are out of copyright!), then they’re perfect! We also consult with teachers and librarians to see which books they would like to see us work on.
Tell us why you think Treasure Island in particular works well in this new format
Treasure Island is the original pirate yarn (well … it wasn’t the first, but everyone says it’s the best). It has given us so many ideas that have become fixed as our collective idea of what pirate tales should have – parrots that say “pieces of eight”, maps with an X marking the spot, blokes with peg-legs singing shanties and drinking rum … it’s all there! There’s so much action packed into it too. The fact that we follow a young boy through all the adventure too makes it just perfect.
Tell us more about how you go about bringing a classic to life
The key is to try to get to the core of what the story is about. In Treasure Island, it’s about a young boy going on a wild adventure, and all the colourful characters he meets along the way. You can strip back extraneous bits and fiddle around the edges, but you have to keep the best bits.
How old were you when you started to doodle, and what is it that you love about drawing?
My mum tells me that I could draw a perfect Batmobile at 3-years-old, but then she is my mother. I loved drawing all through my childhood. I read the Beano and Tintin and Calvin & Hobbes comics constantly, and copied drawings from those all the time. Then, as now, I found it relaxing. You can really lose yourself in it!
Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for children who love to draw?
It’s such a great thing to love to do! Most fun things involve asking your parents’ permission; getting a lift to the place; trying to find friends to do it with; charging up the batteries; and so on, and so on. But with drawing, it’s just a pen, some paper … and you’re good to go!
Is there anything that parents can do to support artistic children?
Lots of people like drawing when they are kids, not that many grown-ups do. The key is not giving-up – the best way to keep your kids drawing is to keep it fun. Everything should be encouraged – copying from cereal boxes, making fan art, using messy inks, silly doodles … it’s all good stuff!
How would a child (or parent!) who loves to doodle go about making their hobby a job?
You need to consider who might want to pay you for your drawings, and then create work to suit that person. It could be kids books, it could be a local dog walker, it could be a tech start-up, a website – there are so many places for illustration these days. Just keep practising and show your work to the right people!
And, we’ve got to ask… How do you end up studying Mathematics at Bristol University by mistake?!
I was all set to be an artist when I was nine. Then I started to veer towards medicine at around the time George Clooney was in ER. Years later I was doing all the science A levels and work experience in an A&E department in Brighton. It was a bit shocking … I veered away from medicine quite quickly after that. The next time I looked up I was in Bristol trying to keep up in a lecture about Group Theory.