John Dougherty, author of the eye-poppingly funny new Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face series (illustrated by David Tazzyman of Mr Gum fame), ruminates on imagination and surrealism in children’s books.
You can’t imagine how thrilled I was to have my new book, Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Badness of Badgers, chosen by The Times in early February as its Children’s Book of the Week.
Well, perhaps you can. And in a way, this blog post is going to be all about imagination. So go on, give it a go.
Done it? Good. Now, where was I? Oh, yes, Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face, The Times, Children’s Book of the Week, and me being thrilled. In fact, I was so thrilled that I didn’t even notice the article next to the review until a couple of days later. But when I did, I found it both fascinating and serendipitous.
The article was one in which a chap by the name of Philip Howard examined the word ‘surreal’, explaining in a few column inches what it actually means. Apparently, the aim of surrealism was to explore the unconscious mind and “liberate thought from the constraints of logic”, whilst its practitioners “startled the conventional world with imaginary worlds in which natural laws were suspended”.
“Hmmm,” I thought. “If I’m not mistaken, I’ve written a surreal book.”
A brief glance at the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto added to my suspicions. It includes lines like:
“Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason…”
“Surrealism is based on the belief in… the disinterested play of thought.”
That sounds very much like what I’ve tried to do with the adventures of my two little heroes. When I sat down to write the book, my aim was to produce a work of deep silliness, and I decided that the best way to do this was:
(a) to pinch, borrow, and otherwise be inspired by the sayings and behaviour of small children, and
(b) to remove the brakes from my imagination; to switch off the internal censors that tell me, but that’s impossible, or, that doesn’t make sense, or, you can’t do that.
And I’ve realised since that, really, what I was trying to do was to get back into the mind of a child at play.
Remember what it was like? Those days when anything could happen; when, no matter what was needed by the story you were acting out, it could be imagined into existence? When you had no idea where your game of let’s pretend was going to end up, but it was fun getting there?
That’s what Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face is about. That’s why the story includes badgers pretending to be lemmings and driving too fast; a reigning monarch called King Toothbrush Weasel; an exceedingly irritating and supercilious army called Malcolm the Cat; pockets full of fish, dustbins and sports cars; and an extremely grateful shopping trolley.
Surrealism and children’s fiction is a perfect match. As Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” And as Megan, aged 8, said about Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Badness of Badgers, “Blueberry jam! I laughed so hard my head fell off.”
Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face – even funnier than Salvador Dali.
Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face and the Badness of Badgers is out now.
John Dougherty was the sort of boy who always had his nose in a book, and he grew into the sort of adult who always has his nose in a book, which is probably why he decided to become a writer.
Born and raised in Larne, Northern Ireland, John now lives in Stroud in Gloucestershire with his wife, two children, a few chickens and several bees. He’s a keen singer who has performed solo, with a band, and as a member of three award-winning a cappella groups. His books have been shortlisted for a number of prestigious awards – and one was chosen by The Times as one of the Best Children’s Books of the Year 2011 – but, more importantly, they make children giggle.