Illustrator Chris Riddell tells Ethan Sills how there is little difference between drawing for children and satirising politics.

When interviewing someone "international" ahead of their impending visit to New Zealand, it's practically obligatory to ask if they are looking forward to coming here.

Of course, they always say they are (no one's going to spend two days travelling to the other side of the world against their will), but at times it feels like they are humouring you slightly, perhaps hoping you'll lap up the praise and write nice things about them.

Talking to Chris Riddell, it is immediately clear his excitement about coming to the Auckland Writers Festival is genuine.

"It feels wonderful. I've finished the big project and now I can escape somewhere wonderful, so it just feels great," he says. "That sense of coming to New Zealand is an extraordinary journey. It feels wonderfully epic. If I was to live anywhere else, I think it would be New Zealand. There is something about the landscape and the people that really appeals to me."


High praise indeed, but this is more than just your average kindly visitor talking up Aotearoa.

Riddell may not be a household name but for the past three decades this British illustrator has built up an impressive portfolio of work. Whether he is writing and drawing his own stories or bringing the worlds of Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling and countless others to life, his trademark gothic, black-line style has worked its way into millions of homes.

Yet that is only one side of the multi-faceted illustrator. Once a week, Riddell serves as a political cartoonist for The Observer. Here, his drawings become more cartoonish and vibrant as he tears into politicians, a chance for Riddell, a staunch remainer in the Brexit debate, to evaluate the politic climate he's living through.

"It's never laughing it off," he explains. "You just get it off your chest. I don't think it changes anything. I don't think policy has ever been turned about by a trenchant political cartoon or a rude drawing of a political leader, but I think in terms of being able to talk some kind of truth to power, it is a catharsis."

Even as reality careens towards nightmare, the worlds of politics and children's writing don't normally mix. But despite different audiences and goals, Riddell says his methods rarely differ between the two fields he dabbles in.

"With a political cartoon, you're satirising and putting forward a very particular view, but the medium to convey that is actually the same," he says. "I do like the way that those two sides of my life fit together, the frenetic and the immediate, and then there's the considered. If I did one and not the other, I think I'd miss it."

For Riddell, these two sides were never closer than when he was appointed the United Kingdom's Children's Laureate in 2015. The title, given every two years, is used to celebrate one author or illustrator's career achievements, but the role became a political one for Riddell.

"One of the wonderful things about the laureate position is that there is nothing expected. It's a role that each of us who have been chosen as the laureates have been asked to make our own," he says.

"What I try to do is not get in the way of the reading experience but try and enhance it."


Riddell used his tenure to speak out on a number of issues, most vocally on the underfunding of public and school libraries around the UK, a fight he says he will continue to battle. He also became involved in charities and organisations such as Amnesty International and the National Youth Orchestra, all part of what Riddell says was a wonderful opportunity to meet new people.

"I got around quite a bit and saw lots of people. They told me at the end of my two years that I'd actually done more than 400 days of events, at which point I nearly fell off my chair. My feeling during the time was that I wasn't doing enough."

At his core, Riddell describes himself as a born and bred illustrator, something that has come out of his love of reading and all things books.

"My greatest pleasure is working with writers, and by extension poets and storytellers and anyone who writes great work," he says, adding that he is very fortunate to work with the variety of authors that he has.

As much as he loves his drawing, Riddell never aims for his work to interfere with the written part of a story.

"I often think of myself as the first reader of a text. What I try to do is not get in the way of the reading experience but try and enhance it."

Whether it is drawing British Prime Minister Theresa May upside down in a rubbish bin or crafting giant monsters hidden under beds, Riddell says he is always in search of something to illustrate and no matter where he is in the world, he intends to carry on.

"I do think of drawing as verb rather than a noun. I never feel when I draw that the end result is the important thing. It's the doing, the activity of drawing. I don't think I'll ever stop."


Chris Riddell appears at the Auckland Writers Festival, May 15-20.
He's in conversation with Kate De Goldi on Wednesday, May 16, at the ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre.