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Interview: Peter Gilderdale talks about The Little Yellow Digger ABC


Peter Gilderdale is a Senior Lecturer at AUT and a former Head of the Communication Design Department and a former Head of Research and Innovation. Peter has inherited his mother Betty’s sense of rhyme and rhythm, utilised to great effect in this all new story, The Little Yellow Digger ABC, which also honours his late father’s artwork.

Tell us a little about The Little Yellow Digger ABC.

The LYD ABC is an ABC book with a difference. Rather than simply taking objects from the Digger books, it weaves together all five narratives from the Digger books into a new story, but one which includes rhyming words that help children to get to know the alphabet. Children loved the predictability of the word 'stuck' in the original Little Yellow Digger story. The ABC tries to use rhyme to help children predict the correct letter of the alphabet.


What inspired you to write this book?

After my mother went into a rest home last year, I was cleaning up her desk and came across a list of words for an ABC that my daughter had given my mother some years ago. Several members of the family had, over the years, tried to get her to write an ABC and she never wanted to. When I saw the list I got the spark of an idea and started to get some verses down to try and show Mum what might be possible. I then raised it with her, and she was still not keen, so I did some more writing and put together a rough draft to show what was possible. I was really wanting to trigger her into writing the book, but she was 95 at the time, and justifiably felt she had done all the books she wanted to. However she was happy for me to go ahead. And since at the same time Scholastic had contacted us to talk about possibilities of new digger offerings, everything just came together.


What was it like adding to the legacy that your parents created with the original Little Yellow Digger books?

Obviously there is a lot of pressure not to mess up that legacy. I grew up with the literature that my Mother loved and which inspired her when she wrote the original digger. Mum also always tried to do something new with each book, so there is no single pattern to work from. She certainly would not want the legacy to be one of rehashing new versions of the existing books. Poets that she introduced me to as a child, like A.A. Milne and Hilaire Belloc, wrote wonderful verse, and I have always enjoyed their rhythms. So for me developing the legacy was a case of writing naturally out of the tradition my Mother and I shared rather than simply trying to clone my Mother's writing.


I understand you also did the calligraphy in the book? Can you tell us about that element?

I have been doing calligraphy for over 40 years, and worked professionally at it for a fair chunk of the 1980s. As soon as Scholastic heard about that, they were keen to have calligraphic letters for the ABC. Calligraphy adds personality and individuality to letterforms, but this could easily conflict with readability for new readers. So the challenge was to do letters that retained some calligraphic vitality, but were still simple. The problem with that is that the simpler a letter looks, the harder it is to write. And then they needed to be put into Illustrator without losing the hand-done quality of the original calligraphy. The end result is that it took almost as long to do the calligraphic letters as to write the story!


What was your overall routine or process when creating this book?

I write in much the same way I read - total immersion. I have always wanted to read books from cover to cover in one go. I used to get little sleep as a child, because I spent my nights with a torch and a book under the blankets. I have always loved the feeling of inhabiting a new world and hate being cast out of it into the everyday until everything is done. So when I'm creating, I like to throw myself into it completely. This means I am mentally missing in action for a while, but it does mean I can finish things reasonably quickly provided there are no distractions. That is not to say that the ABC was done in one go. It wasn't, but the first draft was done in a few days. The editing took much longer.


What do you think families will enjoy most about The Little Yellow Digger ABC?

I hope they will enjoy being able to see the stories they already know in a new form, and also that they will have fun with the rhymes and yell the letters of the alphabet really loudly. And I hope that it helps the family share a delight for language - which was always my Mother's aim in her writing.


What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I didn't celebrate finishing writing the book, but when it was published my daughters came over and we all wore yellow t-shirts and had yellow balloons and a curry!


What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

I had a really horrible virus earlier in the year, and when I'm sick I re-read favourite books - many of which are the great children's novels of the 1970s (I was the guinea-pig for my Mother's children's literature reviews in the Herald through that period). This time I re-read several books by one of my favourite authors, Rosemary Sutcliffe. They were all wonderful, but I was reminded again of how a very slight looking book can be hugely profound. The Witch's Brat is about triumphing over disability and prejudice, and it poses really deep questions about the different ways we can cope psychologically with dealing with others' distress while retaining our humanity. It's a book that I loved when I was a teenager, and one that affected how I moved forward with my life. I saw even more in it this time round.


What’s next on the agenda for you?

At the moment I'm writing academic articles on New Zealand nineteenth century Christmas cards, and on Good Luck postcards. I always have lots of ideas percolating, and have more areas of research, more calligraphic ideas, and more nascent book ideas than I can possibly get through. So what comes next will become clear as circumstances dictate. I know I should have a grand plan, but I've made peace with the fact that I am at my best when improvising.


The Little Yellow Digger ABC is published by Scholastic.

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