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 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.