It has been nearly forty years since Jane Hissey introduced Old Bear to the world, telling the tale of a lost teddy bear and the heroic efforts of his stuffed friends as they staged an ingenious rescue mission. Freed from the attic, Old Bear and his pals have since become staples of children’s bookshelves across the world. With over twenty picture books penned to date and Old Bear brought to life in a beloved BAFTA-winning television series, Jane Hissey’s work has formed an indelible part of countless childhoods.
As we welcome Jane to the Templar Books list with the refreshed paperback publication of Old Bear’s very first adventure, we took the chance to put a few questions to the author and illustrator about the series’ remarkable legacy and her plans for the future.
The Old Bear series continues to delight younger and older readers alike. Nearly 40 years on from the first book, why has it endured?
I have always tried to make my stories, and my illustrations, as timeless as possible. The toys themselves are pretty timeless and most of the objects around them don’t belong to any particular era either. Children identify with the characters and things in my books because they have similar things themselves at home; a bear, a ball, a book, a rabbit. Mine don’t have to look the same as theirs. And the stories have traditional themes too; a game of hide and seek, a birthday, a picnic, a day at the seaside. These childhood themes have not changed much for hundreds of years!
If I were writing for older children I would probably have to introduce things like computers and mobile phones but I think, for this very young age-group, it is fine to stick to traditional toys and games and leave out the trappings of modern living. They will be absorbed soon enough.
Can you give us an insight into your illustration process?
I use coloured pencils for my illustrations. I set up the characters and objects that I want to draw as still-life groups and I make sure the lighting doesn’t change while I am working because each drawing takes me many, many hours. The illustrations for just one book can take at least 9 months (but that could be 32 drawings).
I work in my studio so I can shut the door and stop my very naughty kitten from stealing the toys. When my children were little I used to start work when they had gone to bed and work long into the night. They are grown up now so I can work in the day too; I really enjoy doing the drawings and am quite happy working with just Radio 4 for company and lots of cups of tea!
From knitting your characters’ clothes to continuing to illustrate from life, your work is a true labour of love. In an increasingly fast paced, digital world, I wonder whether the time, care and hand-drawn detail that you bring to each page is something of a balm for modern readers? How much of your work’s success do you put down to this artisan approach?
I think children (and certainly parents) are aware of the care and detail that has gone into the books. And I do think the familiarity of a texture or the detail of an object are reassuring and comforting in this fast-paced world. Taking time to stop and stare is good for us all. Children love it when I draw food that looks good enough to eat.
Do you have an ideal reader in mind? And do you have a favourite reader response to the books from over the years?
With books aimed at this age group as many adults as children will be reading my books. I try to make the stories exciting and fun but non-confrontational, calm, kind and gentle (therefore suitable for reading at bedtime). Parents tell me that children request the books over and over again and that they don’t mind! I often hear from people who grew up with my books and are now reading them to their children. That is very heart-warming.
The Old Bear television series was a delight and is very fondly remembered. If a movie was to be made today, which actor would play Old Bear in a live action adaptation?
It would have to be someone kind and gentle with a soft but wise voice; someone like Alan Bennett would be perfect.
And finally, what next for Old Bear and his friends?
Well I never like to be without a drawing on the go and I am always thinking about the next story idea. So I guess I am always working towards the next book featuring Old Bear and all the gang.