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Raymond Briggs remembered: ‘He made what he did look easy. Which is, of course, what geniuses do’ | Books

Michael Rosen.
Michael Rosen. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Michael Rosen: ‘We have been lucky to have read and watched such great work from a great artist with a great heart’

British children’s author and poet

I feel enormous sadness that one of the great figures of children’s literature has gone.

I first came across Briggs’s work as a parent reading his books The Mother Goose Treasury and Father Christmas, and Elfrida Vipont’s The Elephant and the Bad Baby, which he illustrated. Briggs created landscapes, scenes and intimate characters with what seemed like a gentle comic ease. There were then – and still are for readers of today – humorous corners and details for a child’s eye to pore over, like the tip of an elephant’s trunk coming in from the right of the page, getting hold of an apple. “There it is!” the children would shout.

His Father Christmas turned an icon into a human being: a grumpy, hard-working man of simple but necessary pleasures including one of the first sitting-on-a-loo pictures in a children’s book. Father Christmas bridged the gap between comics and picture books, and joined the tradition of Tintin and Asterix. It announced an uncanny ability in Briggs to talk to audiences of all ages.

When the Wind Blows was a stunner. It again used the comic strip format but this time to draw out the horror and pathos of what it could be like should a nuclear war happen. We should remember that there was – and still is – a pretence in some quarters that nuclear wars are winnable and that we can “protect and survive”. Raymond’s stolid, blitz-hardened couple reveal the terrible impossibility of this view – but not through protesting about it. Quite the opposite: they bend over backwards to do as they’re told.

I knew Briggs himself only very slightly: I met him on a couple of occasions. He had a wonderful, comically grumpy manner – deadpan and modest with it. He was also straightforwardly generous and kind. People pointed him out in a room. In fact, if you wanted to know he was there, he had to be pointed out, because he was so un-flamboyant in his appearance. I can’t vouch for his pyjamas but there’s a good chunk of him in the character of his Father Christmas.

I heard about his passing from a call while I was in a taxi. I told the cabby. He didn’t recognise the name. “The man who wrote ‘The Snowman’,” I said. Yes, he knew that all right. The wordless picture book and its film adaptation are classics. The story touches on themes of friendship, change, loss, death, the rhythm of life, the chain of being between us – all done in a short space.

With this book and across all his work, we have been lucky to have read and watched such great work from a great artist with a great heart.

Dara McAnulty.
Dara McAnulty. Photograph: Four Communications/PA

Dara McAnulty: ‘He believed that not just adults, but all of us, deserved to know the truth’

Conservationist and author of the award-winning Diary of a Young Naturalist

As a very young child, I disliked the tightly-sewn, “happily ever after” endings of many children’s books, so when I was introduced to Raymond Briggs as a five-year-old, I was delighted. I pored over the illustrations of The Snowman while waiting in a doctor’s surgery and announced at the end: “Well, that’s life isn’t it!” Inside though, I was both bereft and curious.

When I heard about the sad loss of Briggs, I felt a wave of grief and loss, the sort of feelings Briggs effortlessly conveyed through his work. He managed to reach into my inner core and wrench out emotions I hadn’t really felt before.

After The Snowman, I moved on to Father Christmas, which brought me so much laughter and joy, and then When the Wind Blows, which is astonishing. The story of Jim and Hilda, wonderful characters living through nuclear war, hit me so brutally, as all his work did.

I feel so lucky to have found that dog-eared copy of The Snowman in the doctor’s waiting room. Briggs drew me into realities that most would shy away from. I deeply appreciated his belief that not just adults, but all of us, deserved to know the truth. Thank you, Raymond Briggs.

Joseph Coelho.
Joseph Coelho. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

Joseph Coelho: ‘A glorious talent in children’s publishing’

British poet and author who is currently the UK’s Children’s Laureate

“You can’t just add a character halfway through a story” said a friend of the family when I showed them one of my first story attempts as a child. I had studiously traced a spread from Briggs’s Fungus the Bogeyman and was trying to insert my own words to accompany his brilliant illustrations. The comment from the family friend has stayed with me as an unintended guide to writing, to keep the audience in the know, to lead them by the hand.

Briggs led his readers by the hand, be it the comforting cool hand of a snowman, the warm clasp of Father Christmas or the sticky paw of Fungus. His books stay with you: I can’t think about When the Wind Blows without thinking about the resultant tears; I can’t think about The Snowman without it conjuring glimpses of countless festive seasons hearing Aled Jones’s calming yet somehow haunting voice. A glorious talent in children’s publishing, Raymond Briggs will be sorely missed.

Rob Biddulph.
Rob Biddulph. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

Rob Biddulph: ‘Briggs’s books are a reminder that good storytelling really matters’

Award-winning children’s book author and illustrator

The mark of a great children’s book is the imprint that it leaves on one’s childhood memories. Several of Raymond Briggs’s books are front and centre of mine. Fungus the Bogeyman quotes were prized currency in my primary school playground. The kids whose parents let them have a copy would lord it over the others, calling them Patty Men and taunting them with visceral images of cups of cold sick and bogey pie. Father Christmas, meanwhile, made a huge impression on me and my burgeoning interest in drawing. Briggs was an incredible artist, and I particularly remember being taken by the little spot of light on Father Christmas’s nose, a technique I’ve used to represent corpulence and jollity ever since.

Briggs was a visual storyteller, in the truest sense. People tend to forget that The Snowman was a wordless book, and that’s because the story that the images convey is so vivid. That is a very hard thing to pull off, but Briggs made it look easy. Which is, of course, what geniuses do.

Another of Briggs’s strengths was that he didn’t talk down to children. Kids can always tell when an adult does that, and it’s never what they want, particularly when it comes to books. I think his readers revelled in the curmudgeonliness, which, inevitably, makes its way on to the page. He didn’t shy away from darker subject matter either. Ethel & Ernest is pretty unflinching in the way it portrays wartime Britain, and When the Wind Blows, which follows a family through a nuclear attack, is probably not going to feature as a CBeebies Bedtime Story anytime soon. Even The Snowman has a darker underbelly. I’ve always thought it to be about death, or at least beginnings and endings – spring follows winter after all.

Briggs’s books are a reminder that good storytelling really matters, and engaging young people with stories really matters. I think great children’s books transcend the genre. They’re just great books, full stop, to be enjoyed by everyone. We never forget the first book we read that really grabs us, and we never forget the way that it made us feel. And I think for a lot of people, that book was one of Raymond Briggs’s.

Jane Peng: ‘I was enchanted’

Guardian reader, artist, London

I was four years old when my family first moved from Hong Kong to Britain in the 90s. Not knowing much English at first made everything difficult, but I was introduced to the world of Raymond Briggs via The Snowman one Christmas, a story that requires no words.

I was enchanted and dived into the Father Christmas series as a child. Over the years, moving across eight countries on four continents, I managed to lose my copies of the books. Recently, when I moved back to London, I made a point to buy new ones to replace those that were lost.

Now that I have children of my own, I can’t wait to introduce them to the wonders of his worlds as soon as they are old enough.

Raymond Briggs, taken by Alan Vaughan in March 2001.
Raymond Briggs, taken by Alan Vaughan in March 2001. Photograph: Alan Vaughan

Alan Vaughan: ‘He was a real gentleman’

Guardian reader, film-maker, Minchinhampton, Gloucestershire

I was commissioned to film a promo for Raymond’s new book Ug at his home in Sussex. I was the first there, so he invited me in for a cup of tea and a chat. He asked me where I’d come from and I said Gloucestershire. “Where in Gloucestershire?” he asked.

“Near Stroud”, I said.

“Where near Stroud?”

“A place called Minchinhampton. It’s very small.”

“Oh”, he said. “I go there often. I’ve got friends in Windmill Road.” There was a twinkle in his eye so I thought he was having me on, but shortly after, I met him again shopping in Nailsworth, just down the road from Minchinhampton.

During our conversation he admitted he didn’t know how dry batteries worked, and told me about the trouble he had with the lack of electrical sockets in his studio. So we exchanged letters: I gave him a short course in battery technology, and he sent me a signed copy of Ethel & Ernest in return. He was a real gentleman with a wonderful sense of humour.

Samir Al-Amar: ‘I was spellbound’

Guardian reader, 47, CTO, Hanoi, Vietnam

The Snowman perfectly encapsulates the joy and then horror of life. I was spellbound by this story when I was a young child, and didn’t quite understand the ending. I recall asking my parents about this, and their response of “the circle of life”.

Over time, with questions of my continued mortality I still go back to this animation and watch it frequently. The tears, the joy, it’s still there, and the memories of childhood come flooding back.

Clare Lyonette: ‘His stories were funny, sad and thought-provoking’

Guardian reader, 61, former animator, Buckinghamshire

As a family we watched The Snowman every Christmas Day but after my dad died in 2013 we couldn’t watch it for many years as it was so evocative. The music alone can still make me well up!

I was also lucky enough to work as an assistant animator on the TV version of Father Christmas in 1991 – trying to draw the fast-moving reindeers’ legs as they were flying still haunts me.

Raymond Briggs was definitely a gamechanger: his stories were funny, sad and thought-provoking, all at the same time, without any of the usual Disney glitz.

Raymond Briggs, creator of The Snowman, dies aged 88 – video

Owen Watts: ‘His impact is indescribable’

Guardian reader, 35, children’s book illustrator, Bristol

Raymond Briggs is one of my key inspirations, his breathlessly sweet Ethel & Ernest totally captured me as a young reader. I was haunted by it for decades, telling the story of his parents’ relationship, from its beginning to their deaths. It’s a wonderful ball of everything he did so beautifully: empathic, funny, existentially terrifying.

He always came across as extremely grumpy but there was this well of eternal sweetness beneath it. I can’t think of a single artist who I admired more. I realised this morning with a shock, that a children’s book I’d illustrated earlier this year was steeped in him completely. I wouldn’t be doing this without him. His impact is indescribable.

Tom: ‘He seemed to feel a responsibility to show the darkness alongside the light’

Guardian reader, primary school teacher, London

So much appealed about his work and made me feel – half a generation after it was written – that I’d found something unfamiliar and uniquely genuine and true. He had a drive to tell stories that allowed the reader to inhabit the real world more profoundly and reflectively than merely living in it allowed.

His talent for representing the most profound truth through the most mundane, everyday details was far more appealing to me than any work of fantasy or escapism. He seemed to feel keenly a responsibility to show the darkness alongside the light, and in so doing, he made the light shine all the more brightly.

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