Interview with Illustrator Michael Foreman

  • Stubby Michael Foreman

Award-winning illustrator Michael Foreman has been making pictures and writing books for over fifty years. Over the course of his career, he’s worked with Michael Morpurgo, JG Ballard, Angela Carter and Terry Jones. Several of his best known picturebooks touch on the impact of war - which he experienced in his infancy when a bomb fell on the family home.

Michael’s new book Stubby: A True Story of Friendship brings to life the exploits of a diminutive dog who served in eighteen battles on the Western Front. We interviewed Michael ahead of his appearance at the 2018 Stroud Book Festival (7th – 11th November 2018).

Tell us about Sergeant Stubby, the hero of your latest book.

Stubby was a stray who wandered into an American army training session one day, attracted by the smells of cooking. He made a friend of a particular soldier, and became quite popular amongst all the other soldiers. When the time came to embark on the train to go to the troop ship, the officer tipped a wink and Stubby was smuggled aboard.

In the trenches, Stubby would bark to warn of approaching enemy soldiers, and his sense of smell was so good he could even detect mustard gas attacks. By the time he came home, he was a bit of a hero. (As you can see at the end of my book, he leads the Victory Parade through Boston!)

A number of your previous books have dealt with the subject of war; in fact, a bomb fell on your home when you were only three years old…

Yes. I was asleep in bed - it was ten o’clock at night, 1941 - and unfortunately it was an incendiary bomb, a fire-bomb, which missed my bed by inches. It ended up in the fireplace, of all places, so the worst went up the chimney before my brother could put it out with a bucket of sand and a hearth rug.

The war really did seep into my childhood. I talk about this in War Boy, which is the story of my childhood. Growing up in my mother’s shop I saw troops from all over the world - they came for cigarettes and cups of tea, and inspired in me the desire to travel.

My concern with all kinds of warfare has been a major thrust in my career. I always want to write about things that I feel are important.

How did you get your start in the world of art?

I was extremely fortunate. My mother ran the village shop, so my friends and myself were newspaper boys. Because I didn’t have a bicycle, unlike some of the other boys, I delivered to our customers who lived closest to the shop. One day I had a new customer on my round - a man who asked me about the clay in the local cliffs.

This man, whose name was Tom Hudson, turned out to be an art teacher. He asked me to bring him a bucket of clay to the Art School, so his students could make some pottery and sculpture. The stuff I brought was too gritty for modelling, but Tom suggested I join a Saturday class for schoolchildren. So I did, and I absolutely loved it.

Now, if I’d ever had a bicycle back then, I’d never have met this man, because I’d have been delivering papers elsewhere - and I’d have become a fisherman, or worked on the fish docks. So I often say to the children: you never know when you’ll meet the person who’ll have such an influence on you. (Though very often, that person will turn out to be one of your teachers).

That was only the beginning of a career that’s lasted over fifty years, and in that time you’ve done a remarkable number of very varied projects. Which of your books do you remember with particular fondness?

It would be War Boy, because that was all about my mother and my family and my schoolfriends. My father died about a month before I was born, so my mother was large in my life - she was a fantastic character, very strong.

So that’s the book I’m most fond of, but there are many others I like for the fun I had doing them. I’ve been very lucky, at certain periods, to have travelled a lot, as when I did some books on the legends of different cultures, and sometimes accompanied by all sorts of interesting people - I travelled India with Madhur Jaffrey, France with Terry Jones and Tiri Te Kanawa in New Zealand, for example.

I’ve been very fortunate to work with Michael Morpurgo - we’ve done more than thirty books together. There’s a new one that’s just come out about the poppy, and how it became a symbol of armistice and peace.

And that’s all come down to meeting one man on my newspaper round.

Michael will be speaking with Tony Ross at the 2018 Stroud Book Festival. First World War Stories is a very special family event with two giants of childrens book illustration, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. (11.30 - 12.30 Saturday 10th November Lansdown Hall, Tickets £5 - Available from Stroud Subscription Rooms. See www.stroudbookfestival.org.uk for further details on the event and the festival).

Stubby: A True Story of Friendship is published in Great Britain by Anderson Press Ltd. Read more about Michaels life and work in War Boy and A Life in Pictures.