Thursday, January 24, 2013

Q&A with Christopher Lloyd

Manisha Chaudhry, head of content development at Pratham Books, chats with author Christopher Lloyd about the latest Indian version of the 'What on Earth? Wallbook'.

1) Tell us about the genesis of the Wallbook? Was there an inspirational trigger when you decided to write a history of everything?

Ten years ago, when my eldest daughter Matilda was 7 years old, she got bored at school. As a parent there is nothing more frustrating than seeing a precocious, curious young mind stifled by boredom! Matilda, who was a prolific reader, had stopped reading – and she started dreading going to school. She was bored. Her teacher was only interested in test scores (and our daughter’s were fine). She was in denial that there was a problem – so we felt we had no choice but to search for a new school.
To our amazement no school we visited ever said it was their mission to avoid children getting bored! Fearing the same thing would happen at a different school, we decided to home educate Matilda (and her sister Verity, then aged 5) for a year. This was the start of a five-year experiment that changed all our lives!

It was when we started home educating (in 2003) that the scales lifted from my eyes! We tried to create a curriculum at home, but discovered we were just recreating the problems of learning at school! I began to realize that by chopping subjects up into fragments - as done in schools - we were destroying the natural process of learning through curiosity. So after three months, we abandoned the curriculum and wrapped everyday skills in maths, literacy, music, art and drama around whatever it was the girls wanted to study – whatever it was they were curious to find out about – Indian temples, African animals, penguins in the Antarctic or the sinking of the Titanic!

We were astonished to find how much knowledge you can connect in with the Titanic – buoyancy, changing states of matter (ice/ water), arithmetic (life boats Vs people on board), navigation and compasses, weather patterns, ice floes, original sources (looking at newspapers of the event) etc etc etc.

It was a Eureka moment! I began to search for a book that would connect all the subjects together from the beginning of time to the present day. To my complete amazement and despite lengthy searches such a book did not seem to exist! Either histories of the world were written by scientists and were all about natural history but stopped when it came to people OR they were written by historians and began 6,500 years in Mesopotamia as if nothing else happened before!

So I decided to write that book – it is called What on Earth Happened?. It begins with the start of the Universe 13.7 billion years and goes all the way to the present day - a narrative that balances the stories of nature and humanity. Even though two-thirds of the book is about human history the thread running through it is how we as people are shaped by the natural world around us, unlike most histories which see things only as human achievement usually in isolation. So rice shapes India, olives shape ancient Greek society, maize shapes the native Americans, smallpox shapes American history.

The book (Bloomsbury 2008) is now in 15 languages. Most recently it has been translated into Japanese More than 90,000 copies have been sold in just 6 months and I was recently invited there to see for myself the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

However since writing What on Earth Happened? I wanted to find a more accessible way for people – young and old – to engage with the incredible interconnected history of the world. Many people will not have the time or inclination to read a180,000 word book – despite its many pictures and maps – and regardless of easy it is to read. Also how many people either find reading difficult or dread the feeling of starting on page one and having to wade through all the text to the end?

So I started to research into how big stories were told before people could read and write. I learned bout the use of everyday objects to tell stories in ancient Greece – about the Bayeux Tapestry of William the Conqueror and I looked at stained glass in the cathedrals of Europe telling religious stories. The upshot of my research was that people naturally learn through images on timelines. Would it be possible, I wondered, to turn my giant history of the world – What on Earth Happened? into a timeline with a thousand pictures and captions. If so, how could I design such a thing and organise all that information?

And what format should the book be? The great advantage of removing the spine is that you have so much more space on which to spread out the story. The timeline can stretch all along, so people never get lost. Also the book can be read conventionally in a chair but also unfolded out on the floor, or laid out across a long table or hung on a wall – perfect for a giant illustrated story! And because it is laid out on a timeline people can start and end their journeys where they wish. They can read left to right, right to left, bottom to top or top to bottom! The Wallbook, as I have called it, is perfect for unlocking someone’s natural curiosity about the world from its beginning to today. Making such a big story accessible is like revealing the beauty of forest instead of being distracted by each individual tree…

2) How long did it take you to research and select? Did you do it alone or was it collaborative?

The book What on Earth Happened? took me about two years to research and write from start to finish. It then took me about 9 months to convert it into the What on Earth? Wallbook. Whilst a lot of the research for the book was done alone, the Wallbook was a complete collaboration with my fabulous friend and illustrator Andy Forshaw and also my book designer William Webb. Together the three of us pioneered the format and the layout of the Wallbook inch by inch. It was enormous fun and so exciting to see all the pieces fit together.

3) Were there any special moments in the journey?

It was total exhilaration all the way! Seeing the illustrations turn from black and white pen drawings into glorious eye-popping technicolour was wonderful. Pouring over the proofs together scrutinizing every detail was amazing. Seeing the pages roll off the presses when the book was finally printed was incredibly exciting.

4) How was it received? By your daughters? By children, teachers, parents? Any funny memories or comments?

Well every time I show it to people they seem to be amazed and I guess that’s what makes presenting the book so much fun, whether it’s doing talks at festivals, workshops in schools or selling books at a market stall! My daughters have grown up with me telling my stories, giving lectures and producing books so there is no great surprise to them when a new book comes out! My favourite audience for my talks is a wide age range of children, teachers, parents and grandparents. I find that these big global stories appeal to all ages and it is wonderful to see children and parents enjoying a big picture approach together.

5) Share your experiences of taking the Wallbook across to different audiences. Was there any  difference  in the way children received the Wallbook based on their background and culture? Which is the most favourite  stream of the children?

It is amazing to see how the books stimulate the curiosity of children. Each time I give a talk I always say to the audience that if they ever suffer from boredom I have a cure – it is this: start asking questions! You cannot be bored and inquisitive at the same time. It’s like car cannot be driven forwards and backwards at once – so curiosity the ultimate cure for boredom!

I remember at one school workshop I was talking about the American astronaut Alan Shepherd hitting a golf ball on the moon. We talked about how much further the ball would travel than on the Earth – 6 times – and I asked the children if they could guess how much smaller is the moon than the earth – answer 6 times - which explains why the astronaut can hit his golf ball six times further as there is 6 time less gravity on the moon. And then, to my complete surprise, one girl from the back of the room, her name was Naomi, asked this question “What happened to the ball? Did he pick it up or is it still there?”

I was stumped! – I had no idea! But it was fabulous a eureka moment to witness this girl, aged about 8, having the curiosity to ask a brilliant question to which no one had the answer – so I challenged her to find out and I have since discovered that he did not go and pick it up – the golf ball is still there, somewhere on the surface of the moon – just another thing to wonder at when you see the moon shining bright on a clear night.

6) Did the Indian Wallbook pose any specific challenges?

Yes – we increased the font size to make it easier to read – and we reduced the paper size to make it more manageable to print. Finally we increased the representation of Indian history to make sure all the most important moments were represented. This means we had to remove many of the original pictures and captions and although the look and feel of the Indian Wallbook is similar to the original English edition it is actually a brand new product. Like its English cousin, it works wonderfully for all ages and can be thoroughly enjoyed by anyone – whatever their level of literacy – because the pictures are big and bold and the words large and easy to read.

7) How would you like the Indian Wallbook to be used?

From the bottom of my heart I hope adults and young people will enjoy this book TOGETHER. It is wonderful to have the partnership with Pratham Books, a charity with the aim of putting a book into every Indian child’s hands. That is the spirit of big picture learning – of taking a holistic look at the past and connecting nature with humanity, young with old, rich with poor, east with west, Asian with European. This is an inclusive book, not at all an exclusive book. It is affordable, accessible and within reach of most people’s budget. If people get just a tiny bit as much pleasure immersing themselves in this book as I had putting it together, then I shall be thrilled. 

8) What is the next project for children?

Ahh – that’s so exciting! It’s the What on Earth? Wallbook of Science & Engineering with more than 1,000 inventions and discoveries from the Stone Ages to the present day which we are producing in collaboration with the Science Museum in London. We are about three-quarters of the way through production and it is published in July this year. I can’t wait to show it to you! After that we are doing the works of Shakespeare – the top 100 moments in his 37 plays! There is so much big picture storytelling to be done. Always connect – and never stop asking questions!

You can buy Christopher's latest book from our website at Rs.125.

Read more interviews with Pratham Books authors and illustrators.

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