Chris Owen migrated to Perth from Sussex, UK, in 2003 where he now works as a primary school teacher. His new picture book, Pandamonia, is a raucous romp through an illustrated zoo – but turn the pages carefully. You don’t want to wake the panda. Read on for a Q&A with Chris about the creation of the book, which is written in rhyming verse.
Was Pandamonia inspired by a real zoo, or a real Panda?
Perth has a wonderful zoo which my family and I have loved visiting regularly for many years and there is a red panda there that always seems to be sleeping so yes, I certainly think that played some part in choosing to set Pandamonia at a zoo. Also, in seeking to write a really good read-aloud book, I wanted the story to contain plenty of animal noise and movement and the word ‘pandemonium’ popped into my mind. With a bit of tinkering it became ‘pandamonia’ and so a panda very quickly became central to the story.
Why is the Panda cast as the grumpiest animal in the zoo?
I wanted to evoke a sense of suspense and maximise audience interaction, rather like that which you find with those traditional English pantomimes when the audience cries, ‘He’s behind you!”, as the baddy sneaks up on the main character. So the refrain, ‘Don’t wake the panda whatever you do,’ developed and then ‘grumpy’ rhymes with ‘jumpy’ and that’s how it began. I also think that secretly I am probably that grumpy panda sometimes, as I am not a very good ‘morning person’ and loath getting up early.
How did you come to work with Chris Nixon?
My editor and I were keen to work with an illustrator that could achieve a very colourful, graphic, retro look and Chris Nixon was the perfect fit. He’d already done some work with Fremantle Press and so it was they who teamed us up together. Chris is right at the forefront of the boom in street art that is occurring across Perth and the illustrations are reminiscent of some of his fantastic murals. I am very lucky to have been partnered with him on this project and hope it won’t be the last time we collaborate.
Were the illustrations as you imagined them?
I was very keen for Chris not to be inhibited by my thoughts too much so I really just let him go for it without too much discussion. I think it’s nice to let illustrators bring their own interpretation to things and so I didn’t want to impose too much, though I did have a few suggestions about making the pages slightly busier in places. I think the illustrations have turned out beautifully.
What’s your favourite illustration in the book?
The ‘flamingo and dingo’ pages are my favourite. They have a sort of Andy Warholesque quality where the flamingos are repeated across the page and the movement of the dancing dingos and chinchillas is brilliant. I have a framed copy of the page on my wall at home.
What’s your favourite animal in real life?
My favourite animal in real life would have to be the chameleon. I would love to be able to change colour and swivel my eyes around to see in different directions. A close second might be the grey squirrel. We don’t have them in Australia of course, but in England I used to love watching them bury nuts in our back garden. They’re incredibly agile and they dance through the trees like acrobats!
You moved to Perth from Sussex, England, in 2003. Did you find the differences in landscape and wildlife quite shocking when you first moved to Australia?
I’m not sure I was particularly shocked by the differences in the natural environment. Australian wildlife is well-known around the world. I do love the UK for its animals and plants which is more benign in comparison to that of Perth. However, having lived here for 15 years, I now realise that the view of many an outsider that Australia has dangerous, man-eating critters lurking behind every bush is something of a myth. I do remember being amazed by the birdlife more than anything. To see such colourful parrots in our backyard was a thrill and they still remain quite exotic in my mind.
Your previous picture book, My Superhero, was written in rhyming verse too. Did you set out to write your books in this style, or did it occur naturally?
For some reason I have always found writing in rhyme more stimulating than writing in
standard prose form. I love rhyme for its inherent playfulness and humour and I really enjoy experimenting with rhyming structure and rhythm. Children also seem to naturally warm to rhyme and it has obvious benefits in developing reading skills in small children. My Superhero was written in short rhyming couplets which fits perfectly with the age group at which it’s aimed. With Pandamonia, I really tried to challenge myself by making the rhyming more complex and by slowly building the pace and rhythm of the text as it nears the crescendo at the end. It wasn’t easy to achieve that, but I’m really happy with the result.
Where did your interest in writing stories about animals come from? Why do you think that kids in particular are drawn to stories about animals?
When I wrote My Superhero I didn’t have animals in mind at all. Moira Court came up with the idea of turning the superheroes into animals and I am very glad she did because animals do have ‘super-powers’ when you think about it. We don’t call them super-powers of course, but their adaptations, such as camouflage, are indeed remarkable.
Funnily enough, I recently read my Year 1 school report which suggested I had, ‘a keen interest in animals.’ I do like learning about flora and fauna and perhaps subconsciously that played a part in writing Pandamonia. Zoos and animals are very common themes for children’s books and I think that’s because children can relate to them quite easily. Animals can behave in humorous ways that might be frowned upon in a human. In an animal, such ‘naughty’ behaviour might be deemed funny. Also, I suppose by personifying animals and their behaviours, authors can evoke feelings in readers where using human characters might be too complicated or ‘real’.
What are some picture books that you have stayed with you from childhood?
Staying with the animal theme, ‘Thidwick – The Big Hearted Moose’ by Dr Seuss, is one of my all-time favourites and I still have a copy today. It’s about a moose that simply cannot say no when the other animals ask if they can live in his antlers. Pretty soon poor Thidwick’s antlers are overrun with a menagerie of creatures who become quite overbearing. Thidwick eventually summons the courage to throw off his antlers and swim over the lake to join his friends while the bossy interlopers meeting an unfortunate end at the hands of the hunters. It’s a great story and the rhyme is sublime (oops, that rhymes too!)
Pandamonia, written by Chris Owen and illustrated by Chris Nixon, is published by Fremantle Press.