Mini Grey’s Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Acceptance

By Mini Grey

It’s wonderful to be in Boston to accept this award. Thank you to the Horn Book and the Boston Globe, and to the judging panel and to my fabulous publishing teams at Knopf in the U.S. and Random House in the U.K., and to all the dedicated fans of picture books in homes and schools and libraries.

I’m honored that Traction Man Is Here!, a book which takes place on a gray, drizzly British Christmas day, has been so appreciated in the United States. Unfortunately, Traction Man and Scrubbing Brush can’t be here tonight. They are back in my house in Oxford on a top-secret mission exploring the uncharted territories of my kitchen cupboards, battling the forces of encrusted custard and biscuit crumbs in search of new life-forms. They send their apologies.

As a child, my big thing was making things. I thought that a day spent without making something was a day wasted. I made model houses out of cardboard and animals out of clay, and I made plastic airplanes from kits. I made badges by shrinking crisp packets in the oven and attaching them to safety pins. I made miniature books and burnt the corners to make them look really old. I made things out of salt dough that eventually went green and rather soggy. And I made a lot of mess.

I still make a lot of mess, but I’m lucky enough now to do it as my job.

About seven or eight years ago, I was working full-time as an elementary school teacher in South London. One morning, I was on playground duty, and a little boy came zooming up to me. He was small, the smallest in his family, and he was called Midge. And he’d brought in his toy Action Man to show everybody.

I think in America Action Man is called G.I. Joe, but he’s the same sort of guy really — a twelve-inch-high plastic soldier meant for boys to dress up in fighting gear and act out complex military operations with — and for their sisters to abduct for acting out complex dating operations with their Barbies.

Anyway, Midge had his Action Man at school that day. And the Action Man was wearing a homemade outfit, an extraordinary homemade outfit, made — yes, you’ve guessed it — of emerald-green wool. The suit was quite special. It was a hand-knitted free interpretation in wool of what an Action Man might wear, straight from the imagination of Midge’s granny.

It wasn’t quite a romper suit, because it didn’t have feet attached, but it very nearly was, and it was fastened down the front with outsized buttons. And Midge excitedly explained that his granny had made this suit, and he was so pleased with it he’d brought it into school to show everybody. And the Action Man bore an expression of noble dignity and mild suffering.

But I knew that look, because the Action Men that I’d played with as a child had had it, too, just before we hurled them out of top-story windows, attached to flimsy, badly made handkerchief parachutes . . . which always failed to open.

Way back when I was a child, Action Men had eagle eyes and grippy hands and realistic hair, and some had a string you could pull and then they’d make battle noises and bark out important orders, and maybe play a patriotic sort of battle tune, too. They also had very poorly attached feet that would come off in their boots, so most of our Action Men had stumps at the end of their legs. But they did have terrific outfits, and the best outfit of all was Action Man’s deep-sea diver suit, because it had a real brass helmet and steel boots and a weight belt. And our Barbies wore some of the Action Men’s outfits, too, when they weren’t wearing their own dresses.

Terrible things happened to those Action Men and Barbies. Terrible things involving ballpoint pen decorations on their foreheads, severely experimental haircuts, being buried in flowerbeds, and sometimes dropping, as I mentioned before, out of high-up windows. But they also had good times — they had camping expeditions in our garden, and explored the barren, dark, and unearthly landscape under our beds, went diving for soap in our baths, and wrestled bravely with evil-smelling socks from the dirty laundry basket.

And though when I see Action Men and Barbies in toy shops I am not at all convinced they are the ideal role models for children — because they seem to be a weird polarization of extreme ideas of male and female, and there’s no middle ground for the more touchy-feely, expressive Action Man who likes growing lettuces and playing the flute or for a more gritty and realistically proportioned Barbie who fixes the car and unblocks the sink — they still seem to be essential actors for children’s imaginary situations. So here’s to G.I. Joe, Action Man, and Barbie, to the heroic work they have done, and to the indignities they have suffered in the cause of imagination.

Imagination is a sort of transforming power; it’s a sort of alchemy. Children do it all the time. A rug on the floor is a murderous patch of quicksand, a staircase is the north face of Everest, your dog is a Sherpa. And everyone knows that the most powerful magical object of all is a nice big cardboard box, which can become absolutely anything. Especially if you have a marker pen and some patience. Imagination is about animating things, bringing the impossible to life, and finding the magic in all the ordinary objects and situations around you, finding their secret identities.

Perhaps using your imagination is like running a sort of simulation to see what happens, doing a rehearsal, a pretend version of reality. It could be a way of mapping out possible futures, to hypothetically ask what if? — and then explore the possibilities without having to stick with the consequences. And it’s also about making models, making analogies, seeing a range of possibilities — seeing how a cushion could be a raft, or a stepping stone, or a gigantic burger, or Zorgon, Leader of the Blobs.

And I think that this thing we do with our imaginations — this magic, transforming, making of analogies — is an essential part of how all humans work, young ones and grownup ones. But the imagination needs to have some work to do, and things like TV are very good at doing all the work for you. To use your imagination you need to have something to improvise with, you need some space, some time, and a few materials.

There’s a game you can play, and everyone has a different name for it. I call it the doodle game. You need at least two people. One person scribbles any old doodly shape on some paper, and the other person has to turn it into something, anything, whatever the shape suggests. (The easiest thing is a face — you can always find a face.) And what’s happening is that, whatever the doodle, our brain and imaginations turn it into something. Our brains are restlessly looking for meaning in the doodly things we see; our visual brains are continually searching for stories. And that’s why pictures, I think, are so powerful.

When people talk about illustrations in books, it often sounds like the words are in charge and the pictures are just following orders. But I think that in picture books it’s different. In picture books, words and pictures are a fantastic double act, each doing a different job, maybe even telling a different story — but you need both of them to have the whole story. And even the youngest people are expert readers of pictures. So in pictures you can say very complex things, things that it would take an enormous number of words to explain.

The great thing about picture books is they don’t usually break down. You don’t need electricity to run them; you don’t need to insert software into them. You can carry them around with you wherever you go. If they do break down, they can nearly always be mended with sticky tape. And they don’t do all the work — they need the extra added animating ingredient that the person reading the book brings.

So maybe picture books aren’t just a stage you go through before you’re old enough to read “proper books,” but a storytelling medium all of their own, to be enjoyed by people of all ages, unashamedly. But also, picture books are a joy to make. I feel very lucky and privileged to receive this big honor for the book I made.

From the January/February 2006 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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