Chris Riddell: ‘Maurice Sendak taught us playfulness could be profound’

The author-illustrator on being read Tolkien at school, the perfect picture book and struggling to crack The Da Vinci Code

The book I am currently reading
James Holland’s magnificent account of the invasion of Sicily, Sicily ’43, filled with first-hand testimonies from private soldiers, generals, future princes and Hollywood movie stars.

The book that changed my life
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. It was read to me and the rest of my class by our teacher over the course of many weeks. I missed the battle of the five armies at the end because I had flu, so I borrowed the book from the school library and never looked back. The Hobbit turned me into an avid reader for life.

The book I wish I’d written
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It is the perfect picture book, as fresh and beguiling now as the day it was written. Sendak taught a generation of author-illustrators that simplicity and playfulness could also be profound. At 18, I chose it as my prize at my school speech day and the headmaster refused to hand it to me on stage, giving me a dusty copy of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from the school library. Outside I was duly given Where the Wild Things Are and, clutching it, I ran away to art school.

The book that most influenced my work
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. As a young child I was captured by Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations, and copied them, experimenting with dip pens and Indian ink to work out how he used cross-hatch shading so beautifully. My favourite was the white rabbit staring at his pocket watch. As I copied that drawing, I knew that I wanted to be an illustrator when I grew up.

The book I think is most underrated
Knight’s Fee by Rosemary Sutcliff. I could have chosen any of her magnificent historical novels, which I read avidly as a school boy. Sutcliff is a great stylist and her prose is rich and evocative as well as compelling.

The book that changed my mind
The Anarchy by William Dalrymple, a comprehensive history of the East India Company and the despoiling of the Indian subcontinent over four centuries. It changed the cosy assumptions I was taught at school about the British empire, and it is jaw-dropping in its clear, dispassionate unpicking of colonial myths and atrocities. Clive of India is a particularly nasty example of hypocrisy, racism and brutality.

The last book that made me cry
Michael Rosen’s Sad Book: a picture book that chronicles his grief at the death of his son Eddie from meningitis at the age of 19. It is beautifully illustrated by the great Quentin Blake and is profoundly moving and poetic. The last image in the book and the last line is one of the most powerfully emotional moments I have ever experienced in the pages of any book.

The last book that made me laugh
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, which I read in order to illustrate a new edition during lockdown. My favourite is the lost biros who find their way to a planet where they form a utopian biroid civilisation.

The book I couldn’t finish
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, a novel that is so poorly written that it fails to be so bad it is good, and it is simply bad.

The book I’m ashamed not to have read
Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, although I did listen to an unabridged audio book that ran to more than 20 CDs and loved it.

My earliest reading memory
Struggling through the staid adventures of Peter and Jane. I then found a copy of Agaton Sax and the Diamond Thieves by Nils-Olof Franzén, illustrated by Quentin Blake, on my teacher’s desk and Peter and Jane were dead to me.

Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, illustrated by Chris Riddell, is published by Macmillan (£25). To support the Guardian and the Observer order a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Contributor

Chris Riddell

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