My picture books can roughly be divided into two basic categories:
1. Odd HappeningsIt’s definitely to the latter category that my character Shark Dog belongs. He’s a strange creature indeed - half shark and half dog. But with his eager curiosity and lovable friendliness, it’s the dog side that seems to dominate. Who knows what weird evolutionary meanderings led to such an extraordinary animal?
2. Strange Creatures
With Douglas, I started to think of scenarios. He’s short-sighted so he’s taken to the eye doctor and he gets glasses. What happens to him then? Hmm.
How about he starts to not just see the world more clearly but his mind and imagination open up to knowledge and ideas? He then wants to lead other dogs to enlightenment. Like a canine Timothy Leary. He holds a meeting but then the dogs’ owners organise a protest. As you can see, the story started to get out of hand. My editor at Random House, the fabulous Lee Wade, said I should have a rethink. Strip it back but keep it funny. There has to be some truth in there. When people get glasses, they suddenly see the world clearly. This is a beautiful and amazing thing in itself. Douglas doesn’t have to have a mind-altering epiphany!
With Shark Dog though, my process was different. I thought about story of course but my focus was the feel and style of the book. I wanted to create a world around the main character that had a certain look and humour to it.
I decided that Shark Dog would be discovered by explorers. But how should these explorers look? I thought the best and most fun way to present them would be to have them dressed in a kind of 1960s/70s style. Nowadays, travelers and explorers are kitted out head to foot in expensive, for-the-purpose, hi-vis outfits. But in the days of Jaques Cousteau and Chris Bonnington, utility gear would be mixed up with ‘normal’ clothes. So this is the look I gave to the father and son who discover Shark Dog.
There’s definitely a story and a message in Shark Dog! but my main aim was that children would be intrigued by this funny looking animal and laugh at his exploits and adventures in the world of humans. The idea is always ‘how would Shark Dog act in this situation?’ rather than ‘how will Shark Dog fit into this storyline?’
You could say that the story is kind of a ‘vehicle’ in the same way you would use this term to describe a movie.
This continues into the next Shark Dog book, Shark Dog And The School Trip Rescue. The title sums up what happens: there’s a school trip and Shark Dog comes along for the ride, ultimately saving the day!
So next time you desperately want to fit in but can’t, think of Shark Dog and and rejoice, because, after all, we’re secretly, every one of us, the oddest creatures.