It was the eyebrows that mesmerised me. They were luxuriantly bushy and rose and fell in an endlessly expressive way. I’m not talking about Moz the Monster, the star of the John Lewis Christmas advert I watched with the rest of the nation this week. No, the eyebrows in question belonged to the publisher Klaus Flugge of Andersen Press. It was 1984 and I was a young art school graduate doing the rounds of the publishing houses, showing my illustrations in the hope of a commission. Flugge raised then lowered those eyebrows and fixed me with a penetrating stare. “These illustrations are perfectly fine,” he said, a little too dismissively for my liking, but I was still mesmerised, “but where are your stories?” I wanted to be an illustrator, not a writer. I had no stories, so I played for time. “I do have a story,” I said falteringly, “but it’s at home.” “Bring in this story of yours tomorrow!” he ordered, his eyebrows furrowed, “I want to read it.”
So I went home and, in a blind panic, dredged up a memory from my childhood, common to many, of being convinced that there was something scary lurking beneath my bed. I wrote a reassuring story about a benign cuddly monster and took it in to Andersen Press. “This is perfectly fine,” said Flugge. “We will publish it.”
Mr Underbed became my first picture book, published in 1986 and reissued with new illustrations in 2009. Then I met Moz the monster this week. Just like Mr Underbed, Moz is big, hairy and blue and lives under a little boy’s bed, which he shakes and shudders when he emerges, snores loudly enough to require the boy to wear earmuffs and deprives him of sleep. The similarities are striking, so I posted a thank you to John Lewis on social media for devoting their Christmas advertising campaign to promoting my picture book.
John Lewis helps themselves to my picture book. https://t.co/mrVHmalTwh— chris riddell (@chrisriddell50) November 16, 2017
The response has been overwhelming. My fellow children’s book illustrators and writers have been outraged on my behalf, for which I heartily thank them. Talk of legal action has flooded my Facebook feeds, but I won’t be pursuing that. Instead, I hope that advertising agencies and the big companies they work for, take care to credit creative people whose work they might reference. We have the finest children’s book writers and illustrators in the world – their work should be cherished and credited properly.
Next year? How about a John Lewis advert, set in a school library where children are encouraged to read for pleasure by a trained librarian – with beautiful taste in furniture and a stylish cashmere cardigan?
Chris Riddell, the Observer’s political cartoonist, was children’s laureate from 2015-2017