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'If students can't learn the way we teach, we must teach the way they learn' (Tomlinson)

SLAV Conference: Tohby Riddle

Posted by Lisa Hill on November 16, 2008


This keynote address was brilliant. tohby-riddleTohby Riddle is a wonderful author-illustrator of quirky picture books that never fail to engage children’s interest.   He uses literature and art to break out of habitual thinking and enter the world of imagination – with humour, enchantment and surprise.

Fiction, he says, is a word that can be used perjoratively.  The world created must not seem false – it must feel authentic and real.  To create his worlds, he starts out with a real situation, then mixes in the imaginative elements in small steps.  While his animals are metaphors for humans, he says it’s important when anthromorphising animals not to overdo it – he tries to keep his animals as close to reality as possible, and he retains their essential natures: in The Great Escape from the City Zoo, for example, they don’t talk and their undoing happens because they are true to their natures.  (The elephant can’t resist playing in the fountain). 

irving-the-magicianTohby recognises that sometimes the ‘emotional feel’ of a book is what stays with us, not the facts, and he gave the example of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. I think this is certainly true of Irving the Magician. I read this just recently to Years 3 and 4, and what stays with me from the brilliant images and simple text is the powerful idea that a child who believes in himself can wreak magic on lonely, empty lives around him, but what is heart-achingly real is the sadness of their lives before Irving achieves his little miracle.

great-escapeTohby’s art work owes some of its technical brilliance to his studies in architecture. He pointed out that in architecture, every line that’s drawn is something to be built, in 3D. So there’s a discipline to his drawings and even when a situation is quite zany, the pictures seem very realistic. He talked at length about the influences on his art, and in the Great Escape from the City Zoo in particular. I loved the way he references 1930s New York architecture with the Empire State Building and the anteater, but he’s also included ideas from the Steve McQueen film, stills from B/W film noir, and the Beatles Abbey Rd image. There are Nighthawks and Homer Simpson memes, and when his animals set off in the truck there’s even a reference to the John Steinbeck Grapes of Wrath film scene .

There are other titles by this brilliant author that I must buy for our library when I have some more money next year: The Tip at the End of Our Street; The Singing Hat; and The Royal Guest.

Books, says Tohby, are old technology you can hold in your hand to go to another world, and return to this one better for it.

This was the best session of the conference.

One Response to “SLAV Conference: Tohby Riddle”

  1. tsheko said

    I love the last Tohby quote. Must remember it. Thanks for an excellent review of this session.

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