Those of us who spent their childhoods in the UK are very fond of a song
that played repeatedly on the wireless (or radio for those younger than I am!)
about an elephant that ran away from the circus. ‘Nellie the Elephant’ was recorded
in 1956 and sung by the child actress Mandy Miller to a catchy tune with a
rollicking chorus. It tells the story of a circus elephant who escapes to join
her wild cousins in the jungle, which didn’t seem at all impossible when we
Unfortunately for all the real live elephants sold into, or bred for,
the circus there is no escape. In recent years there have been serious and widespread
attempts to educate the circus-going public about the suffering and sad
existence of these and other captive animals. The internet does a sterling job
of distributing painfully graphic images and animal activists devote their time
and energy to agitating for an outright ban—a big hand to every one of them!
Still, my inability to help even one elephant has prayed on my mind for years.
It wasn’t until I was sitting in the car with time to spare (waiting for
Danny to return from a meeting), doodling idly in an old notebook that the idea
for ‘Nelly’ sprang into my mind. As usual it arrived almost fully formed and I
jotted down some very rough thumbnails outlining her story. I believe this is
my own tiny bit of heart-felt action to open minds, especially young ones, to
this sad state of affairs. I have always believed that children must be taught
very early not only to love and respect other creatures but, more importantly,
be aware of their precarious existence and dwindling future. Most literature
for children is relentlessly cheerful and, dare I say, trivial yet I maintain
that children not only need a balanced variety of literature but are happy to
absorb vital information while being entertained.
The Circus is such a historically beautiful visual theme; the costumes
and the colours, the classic poster art, the carnival atmosphere—it has always
been a favourite subject for children’s books and films. Years ago I produced a
sample piece for a story idea that involved intricately cut paper figures in
bright primary colours and though it netted no commissions it has always been a
favourite of mine.
The flat colours (such a wonderful change from coloured pencils!)
contrast well with the more developed areas of the illustration and in some
ways harkens back to old screen-printed Circus posters.
I decided to go back to this method
of illustration for ‘Nelly’, the use of strong colours being far more suited to
the Circus theme than my more usual methods of working. Despite the subject
matter this is still a children’s book and must be as appealing as any other to
small people; it must still reflect in its graphic tone the world of the
travelling Circus, the elephants must look sympathetic and friendly, the
details engaging. I chose to set my Circus in the not too-distant past, in the
‘golden-age’ of carnivals and sideshows to ‘soften’ the impact of the more
distressing images, the sight of shackles and the dreaded ‘bull hook’.
I began by showing Nelly safe in
her mother’s womb unaware of her life to come, an image I think will appeal to
small children. The colours are bright and cheerful; the clowns happy and
playful—the innocent face the Circus projects to the world.
Penned in the rolling wagon at night Rosemary has given birth watched
over by the rest of her troupe. Elephants are intelligent empathetic animals that
care for each other and show great interest in babies born into the herd, both
captive and in the wild. This is a gentle and private scene with no sense of
danger or threat—no humans present!
As soon as she is big enough Nelly’s fate is to be trained as a useful
member of the troupe. Training young elephants for the Circus is a prolonged
and cruel affair—let no one mistake this for training our pets to beg for
biscuits! The animal is forced to overcome her fear and perform actions that
are totally alien to natural behaviour—when did we ever see an elephant stand
on her head in the wild? They do not do this willingly and a regime of force is
necessary where the animal is restrained and the bull hook is used frequently
In this latest spread Nelly’s training continues. She has grown bigger
and more agile but is showing no signs of accepting her fate. She is still
shackled and wearing a plain leather harness both to control her and prepare
her for wearing more elaborate costumes in the future. She has learned to obey
her trainer keeping a wary eye on the bull hook and at the same time aware of
the cruel Ring Master. She is aware of the other captive animals going through
their routines and learns to accept that humans are to be both feared and
Once I have the line-stage
organized to my satisfaction it is a matter of tracing the figures onto Canson
papers, cutting and gluing—blame it on all those cutout dolls I used to make
when I was a child. It’s time-consuming but really enjoyable!
After a lot of mess with glue all
over the place, this is how it comes together.
Because the arc of the story is
already known through the song I am writing each chapter as I illustrate it,
fine tuning the words to the pictures. Now THERE’S a change!
My extremely talented husband Danny
Nanos is adding his magic to each spread with his brilliant design and
typography elevating my work to a much higher plain, as usual. I cannot stress
too often the joy of working in tandem with someone whose sense of aesthetics
and design compliments my illustrations so wonderfully well!
I hope to have more illustrations
of ‘Nelly’ to show you in the not too distant future.
October 3 2013