• NZ Booklovers

Interview: Peter Gilderdale talks about The Little Yellow Digger and the Big Ship


Peter Gilderdale has worked as a senior lecturer in communication design at AUT. He has also worked as an Egyptologist, art historian and a calligrapher. He lived and worked in Denmark as a calligrapher, and since returning to New Zealand, has taught both design history and theory, as well as calligraphy. Peter talks to NZ Booklovers.


Tell us a little about The Little Yellow Digger and the Big Ship?

The Little Yellow Digger and the Big Ship is the latest in the LYD series. It is based on events surrounding the grounding of the Ever Given container ship in the Suez Canal in March of this year.


Being based on real events, can you tell us a little about how you were inspired and how you fictionalised this story?

When pictures came through of a digger trying to free a giant container ship, both Scholastic and I were inundated with emails from people who thought this would make a good digger story. So within a few hours Scholastic had contacted me and asked what I thought. I decided to give it a go, and the story just flowed out. At the point I wrote it, we didn’t know how things would play out, but it seemed unlikely that any digger digging by the bank of the canal would make a material difference to the outcome. A Digger story has to have the LYD as the hero, so my task was coming up with a plausible way that the LYD could save the day. I doubt engineers would sanction what I came up with, but I like to think it might actually have worked!


How did you work with Fifi Colston, the illustrator?

Fifi has done an amazing job on this, and she needed very little input from me. I’m not sure if readers will appreciate how quickly she worked to have the illustrations finished in time to get the book published this year, but I was blown away with what she produced. In general, Scholastic try to keep authors and illustrators relatively separate, which is a good thing – I think authors would otherwise annoy the illustrators a great deal by butting in too much. I got to comment on the roughs, once they were done, and again once there was a more finished set of illustrations, but generally the discussion was kept between Fifi and the editors. And that is no problem because I have huge respect for Fifi’s ability to interpret the text sensitively. My father was an illustrator, and I taught at a design school, so I am able to appreciate what Fifi is doing, and can respect her creative autonomy.


If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

That is a really hard question. Local composer Claire Cowan wrote some music for the NZSO to play when they read the original Little Yellow Digger for their Storytime series. They then reprised that music for The Little Yellow Digger Saves Christmas. I think it would probably work just as well for this story (hint, hint)! But if I had to go beyond this, and was looking for a single piece to read the story to, I would select a piece called Nawwâr by Le Trio Joubran. I spent two months on an archaeological dig in Egypt in 1979/80, and this piece really resonates with my experience of the region. But if you are just looking for songs with a fun relationship to the story, what about the Big Ship sails on the alley-alley-o? The Beatle’s Yellow Submarine could perhaps have a cameo for one page. But maybe the best overall fit would be Queen’s I want to break free!


What did you enjoy the most about writing this picture book?

To be honest it was figuring out how to deal with the reactions of the various ship captains to the blocking of the canal. Obviously you can’t use the swear words that they likely used in reality, so it was about finding words that children can be allowed to say, which will amuse parents and are able to be spoken very expressively.

What do you hope young readers will take away from the book?

Firstly, I hope that they take away a strong desire to read it again! Next, I hope that they take away some new words that they can play around with, and also perhaps a greater appreciation of how words can be put together in exciting ways. And then, on a more metaphorical level, I hope they get a stronger appreciation that even if something looks impossible there is no excuse for not trying. Not that I began with that moral in mind. It emerged with the story.


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

I’m going to choose a favourite non-fiction and a favourite fiction. The non-fiction book is Tim Ingold’s The Life of Lines. It is the concluding book of a series that he has done that looks at the ways we move in the world and the metaphors we use to talk about it. He writes wonderfully well and I find that his views on creativity fit like a glove. In terms of fiction, I have been rereading Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series. I love her storytelling, humour and above all her command of the language. There are parts of the books that have dated, but there is still so much to enjoy.


What’s next on the agenda for you?

Well, there is another digger book in the offing – it was well under way in March, but was put on hold to allow us to get the Big Ship out as soon as possible. I hope, too, at some point to stretch beyond the digger and publish some other stories - but all in good time. Apart from that, I have a lot of work to do to preserve my parents’ legacy. My mother’s extensive papers need sorting, and my father’s paintings need a greater audience. I began with a website for his paintings (see: https://alangilderdale.nz/ ) and now that I have retired I want to arrange some more exhibitions to publicise what an excellent artist he was.


When I get some time for myself, I am reprising my calligraphic practice, which has been a bit on the back burner for a few years. And for my personal satisfaction, if not for the greater good of music, I want to try and improve my guitar playing.


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