As a little boy, all Leigh Hobbs wanted to do was draw. He loved English history too, and the stories of castles, knights, battles and pirates. Little Leigh grew up to live his dreams and become an art teacher. But it was as a writer-illustrator of children’s books that he found his calling. The Melbourne-born artist is a bestselling author of more than 20 books, which include the Old Tom series, about a mangy cat, Mr Chicken Goes to Paris and Horrible Harriet.
His characters are no goody-two shoes, and often run into scrapes; and his stories are refreshingly low on didactic intent.
Hobbs was the Australian Children’s Laureate for the term 2016-17, when he travelled all over the country to promote reading, stories and creativity. “I met a lot of teachers, librarians and children. In Australia, England and America, libraries in schools are disappearing one after another. Many schools think that books are not necessary, and internet is enough. But children still love to read books, especially picture books,” says Hobbs, who was on his first trip to India to attend the Bookaroo children’s literature festival last month.
Picture books are important for children, he says. “They develop a child’s understanding and perspective. But not everything ought to be about learning, kids also deserve to have fun,” says Hobbs, 65, who grew up in the country town of Bairnsdale in Victoria. He studied at the art school of Caulfield Institute of Technology, now known as Monash University.
Leigh’s first job, in 1974, was at an amusement park near Sydney Harbour Bridge, where he had to design the colour scheme for an antique carousel. He created two very popular three-dimensional characters — Lizzy and Larry — as mascots of the park. Thereafter, he taught art to secondary school students. In 1990, he began illustrating for children’s books. But soon, he had a character of his own to create: Old Tom, a one-eyed cat who lives with his matron Angela Throgmorton, and drives her crazy. In the eight Old Tom books, written between 1994 and 2013, Tom is not described as a cat. “For me he is a seven-year-old boy, and Angela is like his mother. They love each other, but he is naughty and always up to something,” says Hobbs. “You get the contrast between this orange, mangy, misbehaving cat creature, and a woman who is very pricey, neat and clean. In spite of having differences, they love each other,” he says. Hobbs also did not want to create a sentimental character. “I think kids like the idea that even if Old Tom is yucky, Angela loves him,” he says.
Teaching art to children went hand in hand with writing for them. “Even though the age group that I teach was older than kids who read my books, the naughty kids influenced the characters,” he says. Horrible Harriet (2001) was inspired by some very naughty girls that he taught. “They were monsters and just wanted to drive me insane. I would yell at them and they would laugh. Looking back, I admire those girls because they had strong personalities. Secretly I thought they were funny.”
Cities come alive in his books, especially in the books that follow Mr Chicken’s travels. For over 10 days, Hobbs had walked around Rome, doing “lots and lots of sketches to get a feel of the city” while writing Mr Chicken Arriva a Roma (2016). “I can never do a book on a place I don’t love. It won’t be authentic. I like New York, have been there three times, but I don’t know if I can pick up its feel,” he says. Will Mr Chicken come to India? “I don’t know. I think he will like India. An Indian boy once sent me a drawing of Mr Chicken sitting on the Taj Mahal, and in the next picture Mr Chicken had moved into the Taj Mahal,” he says with a laugh.