WOMBAT WINNER Russell Prize for Humour Writing for Young People
Not Cute. is shortlisted for the 2021 CBCA Picture Book of the Year, and Philip Bunting also has what is probably a record-breaking three other books as Notables – Wombat., Give Me Some Space! and Who am I? (I reviewed the latter for Magpies magazine in 2020). These books are all published by Scholastic Australia.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords about Not Cute. and your other popular and critically acclaimed picture books, Philip.
Congratulations on having four books as 2021 CBCA Notables. Before the announcement, if you had to bet on one of these being shortlisted, would you have guessed Not Cute.? Why do you think Not Cute. was selected and which would you have chosen?
I have no idea! There are many and far more refined minds than mine adjudicating over these decisions.
Of my four titles shortlisted this year, all four had their own relatively lofty idea to carry: Give Me Some Space! is a book about perspective. It’s about how seeing your world from a slightly different angle can help you find what it is you are really looking for. Wombat is a love story (wrapped in coarse brown fur and dipped in all manner of marsupial madness). Who Am I? Is an exploration of identity, the self and one of the greatest of unknowns – consciousness. Not Cute is about listening, and not being a #%@&!
Perhaps Not Cute made the cut as it’s a little more on-the-nose? And I suppose that technically, it has a little more room for dialogic reading – and therefore – intergenerational engagement than the other three. But in sum, I have no idea. I love what the CBCA do and greatly respect all they have done and continue to do for literacy and literature in Australia, but I have no idea how or why these decisions are made! I’ll just stick to making the books and keeping my fingers crossed! 😉
Like a number of your books, Not Cute. has a full stop after the title. Do you consider using a punctuation mark after each title a signature of yours? How did it start?
Haha, yes, I guess so! I’m a bit too keen on many of the constituents of written language – punctuation in particular – as well as being a tragic typophile. The full-stop in my titles debuted with my first book, Mopoke. It was very deliberately included in the title of that book as a reflection of the story’s very definite ending. And since then, ‘the end’ has been a recurring subject or subtext through my books (my second book was Sandcastle) – so I’ve held on to the full-stop as a bit of a signature, and a subtle memento mori.
How did you decide which animals to use in Not Cute.?
I wanted to use native and endemic animals which – through a very anthropomorphic lens – best personified those traits that the quokka wishes to possess. We’re a bit spoiled for choice in this department, so this part of the story didn’t take me too long. In our little corner of the world, we have more than our fair share of dangerous, scary, majestic, deadly… not to mention chompy creatures! As well as a few that are just too cute, too.
What media, tools and process have you used for your illustrations here?
The illos for Not Cute were sketched out by hand, the storyboards were then mapped out in Adobe Illustrator, and the final art was digitally painted in Photoshop via Apple Pencil and iPad Pro. Blimey, there goes the most dull and techy sentence I’ve written all week! 😉
I know it’s a difficult question, but how would you describe your humour in Not Cute. and your other books?
Haha, yes, I know I can fly a little close to the dark side sometimes. I don’t know, but I hope folks – both adults and kids – understand my humour as it is intended: well-intentioned, warm-hearted and substantive (most of the time). As a father of three little ones, I understand how important it is not to underestimate nor pander to children. Young children are very often far more perceptive and wise than many authors might give them credit for.
What do you think is so distinctive and memorable about your illustrative style?
No idea, again, sorry! I guess, consistency? You will see that the same basic elements, shapes and colours reoccur in all of my work. Although this is largely due to the limitations of my skill set (my illustrative style hasn’t really progressed much since I was about eight and three-quarters. But, shhhh! Don’t tell anyone!).
Not Cute. and many of your other books have endpapers that are worth a second look. What do you see as the role of endpapers?
Don’t look too closely – there’s less to them than meets the eye. Endpapers can be useful, but I have not found cause or need to meaningfully use them in any of my books. Yet.
Wombat is one of your 2021 CBCA Notable books. It has also just been announced as the WINNER of the Russell Prize for Humour Writing for Young People (of which I am a judge). It reminds me most of your breakaway hit, your first book, Mopoke. A wombat makes a cameo appearance in Mopoke. Is a wombat significant to you and did you always hope to feature a wombat in its own book?
Not specifically. The idea had been floating around, but you’ll see that the wombats in each book look quite different from one another. Another fine example of my lacking skills!
I love books about trees, including your new book the gentle genius of trees. What is your distinguishing approach to trees here?
Thank you. My angle with The Gentle Genius of Trees (as with The Wonderful Wisdom of Ants) was a pretty anthropomorphic one. These non-fiction books take a look at the behaviours of these organisms, then unashamedly extrapolate life lessons that we hairy humans can take on board. There have been heaps of beautiful (but oh-so boring!) non-fiction books on both trees and ants, which – like many works of non-fiction – often tend to forget to make that final connection to why these things matter to the reader. Without the ‘why’ or the meaning, facts tend to be quickly forgotten.
How do you decide which books to collaborate on with your wife, author Laura Bunting?
She writes ‘em, I draws ‘em! All of my collaborations with Laura have been her ideas and her writing – I just draw the pictures and make the teas.
Your books are so well crafted and appealing it seems as though there is little you might want to change in the future. Is there any direction you would like to explore?
Thanks, that’s very kind 🙂 Yes, heaps, I feel like I’m only just getting going. I’ve been working with picture books since 2017, and – jokes aside – I certainly can sense vast improvement in my ideas and execution since then. My goal is to keep up the current frequency (say 7 or 8 books per year) and keep improving the quality as I go. After 10 years or so (2027!), I should be firing on all cylinders. Let’s see.
As well as in Australia, where else are your books particularly well received and awarded?
Amongst my many other flaws, I was born English, and so I think my work and sense of humour resonate well over there. My biggest international nod was being listed for the Kate Greenaway Medal in the UK. But all around the world there seem to be a few countries where my books go particularly well – a few recurring examples are: the Netherlands, Germany, South Korea, Canada, Taiwan, Italy and Japan. If you can draw a connective cultural through-line through those places, please let me know!
There is something fascinating about your distinctive style of large bold, often statically positioned figures that dominate the page, many of which face the reader, in your unique, consummately crafted and funny picture books, Philip. Thanks for your generous and entertaining answers, and we look forward to being surprised and entertained by your future works.