Chris Riddell: I told Tom Hiddleston that the new James Bond should be a middle-aged cartoonist

The illustrator-author on life as the children’s laureate, meeting Lauren Laverne and David Walliams and why having a wonderful working life is a nightmare

In my anxiety dream, the man from the ministry knocks on my studio door and produces an official looking document. “It is time to stop this mucking about,” he informs me, “and get a real job.” In fact, on a normal day, I wake early, pad downstairs and have a cup of tea listening to the Today programme and shouting impotently at the radio. Several cups of coffee later my wife will find me reading the Guardian at the kitchen table, and suggest that I “get on with some work”. I then open the kitchen door and walk down my garden path before realising that I’m still in my dressing gown. I then go back inside, get dressed, have another cup of coffee and finish reading the Guardian. It is serious work and someone has to do it. Many emails, phone calls, tweets and Instagram posts later I walk down the garden path for a second time and disappear into the bushes. I sometimes wonder what the neighbours in the flats next door imagine I’m doing.

My studio is a converted coach house and completely screened from view at the bottom of the garden. At the end of the day I often glimpse curtains twitching on my return and once my daughter’s friends, visiting from university, screamed as I stepped unexpectedly from the bushes. “Oh, that’s just my dad,” Katy told them insouciantly by way of an explanation. What I actually do at the bottom of my garden is sit at my desk drawing imaginary characters, making up stories and turning them into children’s books. It is so hugely enjoyable that is seldom feels like actual work, hence my anxiety dream.

Then, in 2015, I became the ninth UK children’s laureate, a post that has transformed my working life. It certainly got me out of the studio. I went to the LGBT conference on children’s books at the Museum of London, where I listened to Derek Jacobi reading a picture book about two male penguins who hatched an egg together at Brooklyn Zoo. I illustrated the Human Rights Act, My Little Book of Big Freedoms, in a hotel room in Dublin for Amnesty International’s campaign against its repeal. I drew live as poets performed their work at the Southbank centre on national poetry day. The event ended with PJ Harvey’s poem about an orgasmic goat – I didn’t see that one coming.

Illustration by Chris Riddell
Illustration by Chris Riddell Photograph: REVIEW chris Riddell/Chris Riddell

I drew at the all-day party parliamentary group for libraries at the House of Lords in an overheated meeting room. “What you’ve got to remember” one of the lords told me “is that this is an old people’s home.” I shared a box at the Globe theatre with Tom Hiddleston during the BBC’s 500 Words competition. “I think Tom,” I told him, “that the new James Bond should be a middle-aged cartoonist.” I illustrated Lauren Laverne’s playlist live on air on Radio 6 Music, sketched in David Walliams’s kitchen and was given a gold badge by Lindsey Russell on Blue Peter.

But what will stay with me long after I hang up my laureate medal are the libraries I have visited. It was in these inspiring places that I witnessed the extraordinary work librarians do, quietly and tirelessly in our communities and schools up and down the country. Their dedication and diligence made me feel humble but also profoundly grateful. Without the work of librarians promoting literacy and turning children into lifelong readers, I really would have to get a real job.

Now, two years later, I am about to hand over to the 10th Waterstones children’s laureate and return full time to the bottom of my garden where I will disappear into the bushes once more. The Arthurian legends retold by Kevin Crossley-Holland, nursery rhymes by Michael Rosen and a final Edge Chronicle with Paul Stewart are all waiting for me on my desk. There are also exciting new projects to be announced, characters to be imagined and stories to be written about Ada Goth and Mr Munroe among others. I’m going to be spending a lot more time at the bottom of my garden in the months to come, whatever the man from the ministry says.

• Chris Riddell is the Waterstones children’s laureate, the new 2017-2019 laureate is announced on 7 June in Hull, UK City of Culture 2017.

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Chris Riddell

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