Why I wrote a picture book about war


Back in December 2012, a painting on the cover of an art magazine caught my eye. The painting was ‘8 Red Rectangles’, by Kazmir Malevich. I was strangely transfixed by it, but I couldn't quite figure out why I found it so stimulating, and this played on my mind.

8 Red Rectangles

8 Red Rectangles

The next day, I awoke with a clear image in my head of lizards lounging on red rectangles (lizards were fresh in my mind because I'd been drawing them, along with other reptilians, at a local safari park).

Lizards and rectangles were an odd combo, but something about this image of reptiles and shapes was strangely appealing, so I headed straight to my studio to figure out why.

I drew lizards. I drew rectangles. I drew lizards sat atop rectangles and rectangles being lifted by lizards. The lizards multiplied as did the rectangles, until I ran out of space on the page. I was scratching my head - it seemed totally nonsensical that I should feel a story coming on. What exactly are these lizards and rectangles trying to tell me? How can these two very different entities exist in the same book to form a story?

And THAT’s when it hit me. They don't want to coexist!

The lizards and rectangles are completely different. They can’t seem to find a way to relate to each other, to make space for each other. But the one thing they clearly have in common is THE PAGE on which they both exist. They’re in the same book, which means they HAVE to co-exist whether they like it or not, unless.... war!

I played around with this war of shapes and reptiles. I sketched clever ways of showing the two adversaries pushing each other off the page. I had no idea how the two would eventually find a way to fit nicely (and peacefully) on the last page, but I knew they would, somehow.

The more I drew, the more I pondered the complexities of war - the unfairness, the futility. Not all of the lizards and rectangles want to fight. They’re just caught up in the chaos of it all.

The more I drew, the more I pondered the complexities of war - the unfairness, the futility. Not all of the lizards and rectangles want to fight. They're just caught up in the chaos of it all. Some are fleeing for safety. Some are trapped. Some are unknowingly harming their allies (some lizards are pushing a rectangle over without realising they’re squashing their teammates on the other side). 

One brave lizard questions it all, but he is mercilessly silenced by a towering rectangle, and this leads to an even larger war.

Eventually, ‘enough is enough’ cries one red rectangle. The lizards and rectangles are too tired to fight anymore. They gather for a truce, and they finally find a way to co-exist (or rather, I finally manage to figure out a creative way to fit them nicely on the same page). 

The lizards are green, the complimentary colour to red - an irony which made total sense. Finding the right hues was a bit tricky because I'm red-green colour-blind (another irony) but I got there in the end.

So, two days after stumbling on an inspiring piece of art, I had what I felt was a powerful and important (yet not too heavy-handed and strangely fun) story concept about war and peace. It took me about one month to finish my dummy book, which was just in time for my class's graduation show. 

GREEN LIZARDS VS RED RECTANGLES was one of three books I exhibited at my classes graduation show at Foyles in London back in February 2013 (the other two were PLEASE MR PANDA and THE QUEEN’S HAT). I knew it was a bit ‘out there’ (I remember showing it to someone for the first time and seeing their perplexed reaction to the title and imagery).

Two years later, the book was published by Hodder Children’s in the UK. Scholastic published it in the USA. It’s also available in a number of other countries, too. 

Creating this book was a fun and challenging exercise in design. More importantly, it allowed me to do something I have always wanted to do which is to tackle an important issue within a picture book. I have to thank my UK publisher, Hodder, for believing in this book in the first place. They admitted it was a brave step for them - it’s their first and only picture book about war.

You can buy the book online here (UK) or here (USA).