Billy flies again!

As fans pre­pare to cel­e­brate Roald Dahl Day, Quentin Blake re­veals how, 27 years af­ter it was pub­lished, he came to il­lus­trate a new ver­sion of one of the au­thor’s last books, fea­tur­ing a lively, spiky-haired boy called Billy …

The Guardian - Review - - Review - Roald Dahl’s Billy and the Min­pins, il­lus­trated for the first time by Quentin Blake, is pub­lished by Puf­fin.

The last of Roald’s books that were il­lus­trated in his life­time were Esio Trot and The Min­pins. I worked on the first, while the other was com­mis­sioned from Pa­trick Ben­son. Ben­son is an artist I know and ad­mire; his book was a large for­mat and in colour, and he made some­thing won­der­ful of it, with dra­matic and de­tailed views of fire and smoke and of for­est and clouds.

Early in 2015, 25 years later, my pub­lisher, Pen­guin Ran­dom House, ap­proached me about a pos­si­ble reil­lus­tra­tion of the book. This was not be­cause of any dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the ex­ist­ing work, but be­cause Pen­guin had, over time, be­come aware that there was no way that the ex­ist­ing ver­sion could ap­pear ex­cept in the orig­i­nal for­mat; the scale and de­tail of the pic­tures wouldn’t al­low it. The pub­lish­ers re­alised that they needed a book that could sit along­side the other Dahl ti­tles, go into pa­per­back and be stuffed into pock­ets. Would I take this on?

I was re­as­sured to know that the orig­i­nal ver­sion was to be kept in print. Al­though my text was to be iden­ti­cal, it was go­ing to be called Billy and the Min­pins, which was the al­ter­na­tive ti­tle that ap­pears in Roald’s hand­writ­ing on the orig­i­nal man­u­script. The new book, in small for­mat, would have about 120 pages; the words would run to nearly 60 pages, so that vir­tu­ally half the space was avail­able for illustration.

I have said “the new book”, and to me it did seem very like a new book. Forty years af­ter I first read the man­u­script of The Enor­mous Croc­o­dile , I was set­ting about a story that, ex­cit­ingly, I felt I didn’t re­ally know. Now words and pic­tures ran very closely to­gether, hand in hand. The text was di­vided into chap­ters; I was al­lowed to in­vent the ti­tles but, even more in­ter­est­ingly, it meant I had to cut up the printed text (in the old-fash­ioned way) and make a com­plete lay­out of the book: Billy’s in­creas­ing panic, for in­stance, as he is pur­sued by the fright­en­ing Gruncher – the se­quence of ex­pres­sions on his face and the quan­tity of smoke is fol­lowed over sev­eral pages.

The ac­com­pa­ny­ing rev­e­la­tion to me was that Billy stopped be­ing any small boy in a fright­en­ing sit­u­a­tion, and be­came more of an in­di­vid­ual – an­other of the com­pany of Roald Dahl’s young he­roes and hero­ines. I wanted him to look dis­tinc­tive and dis­tin­guish­able from the oth­ers and I still have the sketch­book in which I started to imag­ine what he looked like – rather small, skinny and ag­ile. The stand­ing-up hair, I hoped, would sug­gest some­thing of the live­li­ness and re­bel­lious­ness in his na­ture.

And then I was able to get re­ally close to the Min­pins them­selves. Dahl men­tions them hav­ing old-fash­ioned cos­tumes, in brown and black, of two or three hun­dred years ago, and I sup­pose my Min­pins are in a sort of con­fused 17th-cen­tury at­tire. They are also de­scribed as hav­ing ec­cen­tric head­wear – an­other re­ward­ing op­por­tu­nity. And they are re­ferred to as be­ing present in thou­sands: that is eas­ier for a writer than an il­lus­tra­tor. I hope I may be for­given in the pic­tures for them be­ing merely nu­mer­ous. What I most wanted to do was to get into the close-ups – to show the va­ri­ety of their shapes and sizes, and to work in as many pos­si­ble per­mu­ta­tions as my pen could think of.

My feel­ing, as I ap­proached the end of my work on the draw­ings, was that

Billy flies into the clouds, through the night and into the bow­els of the earth. Here is an ex­pres­sion of Dahl’s po­etic vi­sion

there was some­thing very spe­cial about the book, al­most light-hearted. Billy’s in­sou­ciance con­trib­utes to this; the threat of the Gruncher isn’t per­sonal, and there is no threat­en­ing in­di­vid­ual. And then, once the swan ap­pears, the mood changes dra­mat­i­cally and Billy finds him­self in a series of ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ences, fly­ing into the clouds, through the night and into the bow­els of the earth. Dahl was a sto­ry­teller, not a poet, but he was also a flyer, and what we have here is an ex­pres­sion of his own po­etic vi­sion.

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