The man who made friends with a fox

Zeb Soanes and a pre­view of Laven­ham Chil­dren’s Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val

EADT Suffolk - - INSIDE -

When re­porters for a na­tional news­pa­per dis­cov­ered that BBC ra­dio pre­sen­ter Zeb Soanes was en­cour­ag­ing an ur­ban fox in the fash­ion­able area of Lon­don where he lived, they ded­i­cated two pages to ‘ex­pos­ing’ his be­hav­iour. But in­stead of be­ing out­raged, the neigh­bour­hood ral­lied round and Zeb scored a book deal.

The re­sult, Gas­pard the Fox, is a charm­ing, hu­mor­ous, chil­dren’s story about friend­ship and kind­ness, cel­e­brat­ing foxes and their friends in the city. Zeb, who was born and grew up in Low­est­oft, is a fa­mil­iar voice read­ing the news on BBC Ra­dio 4’s To­day Pro­gramme, Six O’Clock News, The News Quiz and The Ship­ping Fore­cast.

“I dis­cov­ered the fox one day when I came home from work,” he says. “It seemed to be strug­gling with a bad leg, so I saw what was in the fridge and gave it some ham. It slowly got bet­ter but it con­tin­ued to visit. It was strik­ingly beau­ti­ful, so I took pic­tures and put them on Twit­ter. Sud­denly peo­ple all over the world were re­spond­ing.” Zeb was in­spired to de­vise a se­ries of ad­ven­tures for the fox, turn­ing to his the­atri­cal train­ing and his love of words to tell the story, and en­list­ing an­other Suf­folk boy, award-win­ning il­lus­tra­tor James May­hew, to cre­ate the pic­tures.

“I hadn’t writ­ten any­thing for chil­dren be­fore,” he says. “I just wrote the story I wanted to tell in the hope that it would strike the right note. I didn’t think about the age group, or check­ing for ap­pro­pri­ate vo­cab­u­lary.”

Zeb stud­ied drama and creative writ­ing

at UEA, where one of his tu­tors was the poet lau­re­ate, An­drew Mo­tion. After grad­u­at­ing, he worked as an ac­tor and free­lance at Ra­dio Nor­folk, even­tu­ally join­ing the BBC in Lon­don. “I al­ways loved Ra­dio 4 when I was a stu­dent and I’d be cook­ing to The Archers. As a tour­ing ac­tor, I’d go to sleep on a floor some­where, lis­ten­ing to The Ship­ping Fore­cast on a tran­sis­tor ra­dio, never think­ing I would end up do­ing it. My grand­mother’s fam­ily here are all fish­er­men and it is true pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing – life and death in­for­ma­tion.

“In ra­dio, words are my trade. If you don’t say some­thing, it doesn’t ex­ist. But I’ve learnt, in writ­ing Gas­pard, that I can use James to de­scribe things. I don’t need to say what colour the door is, for ex­am­ple, be­cause the pic­tures do that. It’s been fun work­ing to­gether.” James’ il­lus­tra­tions have an el­e­gant, nos­tal­gic tone, and he says work­ing on the book, be­ing able to draw from life, has been a fresh ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Most of my books have mag­i­cal things hap­pen­ing in the sto­ries,” he says. His Katie books, for which he is best known, were first pub­lished 30 years ago and tell of the ad­ven­tures of a young girl step­ping into the scenes of paint­ings at The Na­tional Gallery.

“But Gas­pard is a story rooted in the real world. It gave me an op­por­tu­nity I’ve never had be­fore, which is to build some­thing from real ob­ser­va­tion, go­ing to real lo­ca­tions, see­ing real foxes.” James and Zeb are keen to tell chil­dren the facts about foxes. They have vis­ited schools, li­braries, book­shops and fes­ti­vals all over the coun­try with the story of Gas­pard, and will be at the Laven­ham Chil­dren’s Fes­ti­val in Novem­ber. Trav­el­ling has given them an op­por­tu­nity to com­pare mem­o­ries of their Suf­folk child­hoods.

“My mem­o­ries of grow­ing up in Suf­folk are hal­cyon,” says Zeb. “It could have been a 1950s rather than a 1970s up­bring­ing. It was very Swal­lows and Ama­zons with lots of out­door play. Our par­ents would leave us to our own de­vices, know­ing that we would be back in time for tea at six.”

“I lived in Blun­de­ston, a small vil­lage with just one bus a week to Low­est­oft,” says James, “so I cy­cled ev­ery­where. I’d go to the marshes out­side Blun­de­ston and I’d take an easel and oil paints. It was won­der­ful for me to have all that space and time to go off and ex­plore, and imag­ine and dream, and draw.”

Col­lab­o­rat­ing on the book has en­abled the friend­ship be­tween au­thor and il­lus­tra­tor to grow. “We’ve come to re­alise how many con­nec­tions we have,” says James. “We both went to the same school in Low­est­oft, the same li­brary. We’ve grown up with the same books. We like the same il­lus­tra­tors, and aes­thet­ics for chil­dren’s books.” Any­one who en­joys the ad­ven­tures of Gas­pard the Fox will hope this meet­ing of minds and tal­ents has a long and fruit­ful fu­ture. N

Zeb Soanes and James May­hew will be talk­ing about Gas­pard the Fox (pub­lished by Graf­feg) at Laven­ham Chil­dren’s Fes­ti­val on Sun­day Oc­to­ber, 21. laven­ham­lit­er­aryfes­ti­val.co.uk

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Zeb Soanes and Gas­pard in Lon­don

Zeb Soanes and James May­hew

Zeb Soanes and James May­hew at South­wold Books

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