R.W. Alley ’79: Storyteller
The children's book author and illustrator of the Paddington Bear series is interviewed by Nick Bruel '87, creator of the Bad Kitty series.
R.W. (Bob) Alley ’79 was fresh out of Haverford when he launched his career as a children’s book author and illustrator. Perhaps best known as the illustrator of the venerable Paddington Bear series, today he has well over 100 books to his credit— and he’s still going strong. In October, Clarion Books released the third and fourth installments of a series Alley wrote and illustrated about the playtime adventures of four imaginative siblings. To learn more about his latest work and his long career, we asked another star in the children’s book firmament, Nick Bruel ’87, creator of the popular Bad Kitty series, to interview Alley, who lives in Barrington, R.I., with his wife, Zoë. It turns out that Alley and Bruel had long been fans of each other’s work but had no idea about their alumni connection until Haverford magazine put them in touch.
Nick Bruel: Let’s talk abut what you’re doing now, this series of picture books that you’ve written as well as illustrated.
R.W. Alley: Clark in the Sea and Gretchen Over the Beach came out together in the spring, and Annabelle at the South Pole and Mitchell on the Moon came out in October.
NB: They’re really lovely. What I find fascinating is that it’s the same group of children in each book but—almost as if this was a television series—each character gets his, or her, own episode.
RWA: The idea was to write something that would recreate those childhood moments when you’re not included with the others. You have to go off and figure out a way to amuse yourself on your own. It’s what I remember doing myself. It’s what I remember my children doing—taking random stuff that they came across and making a world out of it.
NB: These are the first books that you’ve both written and illustrated in quite a while—since 1990. What brought the urge to write again?
RWA: When you’re doing a series like Paddington that you can count on getting royalties from for a little bit, you can then think about branching out and doing some other stuff. I had been illustrating other people’s words for long enough. I thought it was important to think of my own words. So I’m trying to write more.
NB: How did your first book, The Ghost in Dobbs Diner, published in 1981, come about?
RWA: When I graduated from Haverford, I knew I wanted to do picture books. I figured that out some time in my senior year. But I had no track record. Nobody was going to hire me to illustrate someone else’s words, because I wasn’t a very polished illustrator. I knew the way to get into it was to write my own books. So I wrote Ghost in Dobbs Diner, and then another one after that. But I wanted to get married, so I needed a real job. Hallmark hired me and we spent two years in Kansas City. Then I was hired on at a small card company in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and after a couple of years an agent approached me and said she had a lot of textbook work for an illustrator. So I quit my job and here we are.
NB: The first Paddington Bear book came out in 1958, and you took over the series in the mid-1990s. How did the opportunity to be the illustrator for Paddington come about?
RWA: I’d done a couple Harper books and Harper & Row merged with William Collins over in the U.K. Collins had the rights to Paddington and the folks in New York decided, “We should mine the Paddington brand and commission Michael Bond to write new picture books for the U.S. market and we’ll get a U.S. illustrator to do it.” I had to audition. I had to draw up the character over and go over to England with the editor and present my drawings to Michael. He’s a very nice guy. He took us around London, showed us all the Paddington sites, and we hit it off.
After the first meeting, I spent the night in the hotel room doing some new drawings, because I could tell from Michael’s face that something wasn’t exactly right with some of the characters. I fiddled around and got them closer to what he had in mind. And that was how it began. The U.K. division was going to find an English illustrator to do the books over there, but Michael persuaded them to have me be the sole illustrator for Paddington. That’s how it’s been ever since.
NB: I’m curious about the collaboration with your wife [Zoë B. Alley] on There’s a Wolf at the Door and There’s a Princess in the Palace, which are done in a large, comic-book format. It’s unusual for the illustrator to actually collaborate with the author during the process of making the book. Tell us about that.
RWA: Those are two of the happiest experiences I’ve had working on picture books. I think because I got to see her write them, I felt like I really knew the characters. Also, I loved the comic-book format. I think that’s a really underutilized form in picture books.
Before I even began drawing, Zoë wrote everything out. I added the visual elements to exaggerate the characters and capture them as best I could. There was a little bit of back and forth, but we’ve been married long enough that she knew that I would fill in the blanks between the bits of dialogue. The only question she asked was if something was illustratable or not. I basically said, “Everything is illustratable. The words are the most important thing.”
NB: Looking at your illustrations, it looks like they’re line art and watercolor with maybe some acrylic mixed in. Am I right?
RWA: You’re exactly right. It’s a crow quill pen and ink, and the watercolor, and colored pencil, and sometimes crayons—just whatever looks good.
NB: Do you ever do digital illustrations?
RWA: My son, Max, who does animation work, tried to help me with that. I actually did a [digital] sample for a black-and-white chapter book because I thought, “Well, this could be kind of fun.” But the publisher said, “This is nice, but we miss the scratchy pen line and the feeling of actual paint on paper.”
NB: Did you get any formal art training at Haverford?
RWA: Fritz Janschka was the guy who taught me. I goosed up my GPA very nicely by enrolling in a class with Fritz every semester. He would just teach me whatever I was interested in learning. He was a fabulous watercolorist, a wonderful line artist. That’s really where I learned.
NB: I only took one course with him, and I thought he was marvelous. He was a Bryn Mawr professor, right?
RWA: Yes. He just passed away this year. He was 97. But other than those classes, I didn’t do much studio art. My parents wouldn’t let me major in fine arts at a school like Haverford. I had to do art history, an academic subject.
NB: Because art history is so much more practical, right?
RWA: I know, yeah.
NB: What’s next for you?
RWA: There’s a new Paddington novel. There’s also Paddington being redone in all sorts of formats, and I’m doing new covers for those books. Zoë and I are also acting as editorial consultants, and me as the artist, for a new series of picture books about a dog called Enzo. It’s based on the narrator of the Garth Stein novel The Art of Racing in the Rain, which was, and still is, very popular. Three have been published, and I’m going to be working on the fourth over the winter. Then, after that, I don’t know. How about you?
NB: Once I finish the Bad Kitty book I’m working on, I’m going to be writing my first middle-grade novel.
RWA: I love your books. I’m really curious to see what you do with middle-grade fiction. That’s going to be fun.
More information: www.rwalley.com
Nick Bruel '87, whose first book, Boing, was a New York Times bestseller, is the author and illustrator of more than 20 Bad Kitty books, including Bad Kitty Does Not Like Video Games, and Bad Kitty Does Not Like Snow. The series has sold more than 8.5 million copies. Bruel lives in Tarrytown, N.Y., with his wife and daughter and their cat Esmeralda.