Griffith University Children’s Book Award – Queensland Premier’s Literary Award – Short List 2020.
1st Nov 2019
2nd Jan 2020
Original illustrations at Chris Beetles Gallery
The story behind Nop.
Nop sat on my husband’s office shelf for five years.
|Our daughter had sewn a deliberately inept teddy with grinning seams and uneven stuffing, then given him as a joke birthday gift to her father. He was named Roadkill for most of that time and as a gift, ranked about the same as a school diorama.|
Despite his appearance, there was a gentle and persistent quality about this bear. Where dioramas accidentally fell into the office shredder, this bear remained on his shelf. There was a whiff of uncertain adventure about him. Of course, that may just have been his proximity to the said shredder.
I began to draw the bear, and he gained a new name; Nop. This name had significance as it was the noise our three year old used to make when she was being obstinate. The Nop drawings went into The Pile and mouldered for five years. The Pile is where I keep characters I have not written about yet. I feel very guilty about The Pile.
But as I said, there was a gentle and persistent quality about Nop. So I followed the advice of a writer friend who told me, that in the early stages of a story, one must ask questions of the character. I tried to elicit some information from Nop, ask him gentle questions. But he refused to tell me a thing about his inner workings, much less give me some clues around plot points. A good solid character can have a great deal to say in the shaping of a story. However Nop was obstinately wistful, it seemed he didn’t have the stuffing for the job. But whenever I came upon him in The Pile, I felt a pang.
The idea of The Dumporeum emerged quite naturally as Nop’s situation, a place to escape from. But who would love him out there in the wide world? I saw him flying over the city rooftops and in my mind, I must admit, I wanted to let him roam on and on around the world. I was enjoying the adventure.
In the Dumporeum, Nop spent his time wistfully mooning while other raggle-taggle things mended themselves ready for morning customers. The place was very much inspired by a peculiar dump on the shores of Blackwattle Bay in Sydney. As an eight year old, that place was my trove…parquetry flooring, wardrobes, costume jewellery. It proved an endless diversion on a long summer holiday.
That is one of the sad bits about writing a story; that it must conclude somehow. I tried many endings, versions more reasonable than what ultimately happened, but, when I finally submitted Nop to Walker Books I was convinced that I had a satisfying end for Nop’s adventure. After all, his journey ended as it had began, in his own unique experience.
In a fell swoop, Nop proved he had the stuffing for it, whatever his beginnings.
I do hope Nop will find a warm welcome in the world.
I drew Nop amongst tat and jumble. There he sat, a bear on a pile of hazard … ‘It was a dump, and he was a dump bear’.
Writing those lines made me realize how much looking right, fitting in, is a problem we all deal with to some extent.
As my daughter grew up, I began to understand that she felt the pressure of not meeting societal norms.
This is an anxiety that parents relive all over again, but this time for someone we love. The problem grows a new set of teeth, all the better to bite us with.
Sometimes my parents told me stories about life in Germany after the war… “People looked down on us, we had nothing good”… My mum sewed her own clothes, as many people did then. Though, one day she bought me a particular dress… “I made you wear that dress. I MADE you wear it!” … I can still recall the anger in her voice when she told me about that dress, years after I had outgrown it.
I came to understand that some armour is pink, with lace trim.
When our little girl was just days old, a woman came to our door. I was surprised, as I had seen her in the street for years and we’d barely exchanged a word. She had a box in her arms, and somehow it was plain to me that giving this gift mattered to her. Inside were clothes for my baby; buttons, ribbons, scarves, spangles …suits of armour, all.
As for Nop, well, he got a bow tie.
A thought landed like a feather
Raising my daughter brought many moments where I knew I was missing something. I was in the presence of her unique way of seeing things which I didn’t fully understand, and her clues were cryptic. While I was vacuuming, she was busy developing her personality; there was something wonderful happening around me, as I was raising dust.
She bestowed paper castles and cardboard telescopes, with the absolute belief they were beautiful, “see the hearts I did in glitter-pen” and useful “see the string for around your neck”. I kept those cardboard creations to show faith that they mattered, or at least it mattered to me, that she knew this.
Those fragile gadgets accumulated on every horizontal surface, where they eventually leaned and gently collapsed on humid days. While the Department of Conservation clucked and taped and stapled, Jen was already building something new… she didn’t seem to care.
Some years on, she made a teddy bear as a humorous present for her father. It was sewn with scraps and a good dash of irony, and she knew “he’d get the joke!” That bear lolled about on his office shelf for years, as I dusted around him and occasionally poked his stuffing back in. However, I resisted the urge to sew his ear back on. Maybe I got the joke too, belatedly!
Besides, I had my own way of preserving him, with sketches in my notebook. A world accumulated here, all around him; a world of the overlooked, the haphazard, maybe even the wonderful. In the Dumporeum, blink and you’ll miss a treasure! And the bear acquired a name, ‘Nop’. It was a word our girl uttered as she set her chin and dug in her heels … when she had her own ideas about things. It seemed to fit this stoic bear.
Then one day it all came to me! Jen never was in the craft business, she was in the idea business.
Ideas may not look much at first glance, arriving as they often do out of the blue. But it’s how we nurture them, that gives them the chance to fly.
We breathe in the worlds of our family and through them we get a picture of the world.
As a child, I thought my father could do anything; after all, he had built the yacht we lived on.
But it was the world of my mother which had a subtler effect. I had no real comprehension of this young immigrant’s inquietude, her deep seated anxiety about her place in the world. To me, she looked like a dandelion seed in a storm.
I would quietly watch her and wonder how I would comfort myself, when I grew up.
Then, in one of those spectacular leaps of logic that children have, I decided my future did not lie in Sander’s Boathouse! So at age seven, I planned to avoid the problem altogether … I knew I was going to live in the wild. I packed a bag with the things I would need, compass, can opener, knife, needle and thread, and a book on how to live in the bush. With these, I thought, I would stand a better chance out there.
When I wrote ‘Nop’, I was much in mind of the anxiety of fitting into the world and my childhood plan. Eventually, there was to be no bush camp for me, no place of refuge. My bag of things were after all useless, except for the can opener … I still use that. However, I’ve kept all those things and they remind me of something important; about how bewildering and uninviting the adult world can appear to children.
Nop has an ending which always surprised me. I rewrote the story many times, but somehow the way the story finished, odd as it was, stuck. I believe that is because as much as I cheered Nop on from my earthbound desk, as he flew away from the Dumporeum towards horizons unknown, I knew he must come down someday, his bag of tricks, his balloon could only take him so far.
So I let him fall, somewhere green and I could think of no friendlier arms for him to fall into.
It can take a long time to come down, to uncross your fingers from behind your back and take a leap of faith … hoping to land softly.
Caroline Magerl is an artist with an eye for the abstract and the gift of storytelling through brushstroke. Her artwork is fiercely unique, relaxed but purposeful, gentle yet powerful, whimsical yet laden with modern day meaning. Couple that with her consummate ability to sew words into exquisite narrative tapestries and you’ve got a picture book that oozes heart and wonder.
Caroline Magerl creates the most extraordinary, whimsical worlds in her picture books. Each one is like a treasure box, just waiting to share its wondrous gifts.
But Nop is beyond repair and so he stays in the dusty old shop, until he has an idea that will take him on his own wonderful journey and change his life forever. This is a tale about value, about how we see ourselves, and not letting others determine our sense of worth.
The watercolours Magerl uses give such an incredible whimsical feel to the story, an almost dreamlike quality which draws you in and makes you want to examine each page for clues as to what is happening.
For me it is the use of the written language that is just as if not more enticing in this story.
This story is a fairy tale of the times: a child’s loneliness is tackled in a positive way, where the underlying message is to stay strong and true to who you are.
Every page is stunning the language, the art. This is a truly beautiful book.
Caroline’s newest book is another gentle and beautifully illustrated offering in which the values of self-belief and acceptance are strongly but subtly underlined. Nop may have been unwanted and ignored in the Dumporeum but as the special bear-friend of a wise orang-utan becomes highly regarded and well loved.
Another sumptuous treasure of a book from this talented writer/illustrator!
Nop is a truly wonderful adventure.
“Nop is a scruffy kind of bear. He sits on a dusty armchair in Oddmint’s Dumporeum surrounded by the beaders, knitters, patchers and stitchers who are much too busy to talk to him. So he watches the litter tumble until, armed with a new bow tie, he has an idea that will change his life forever.”
As you might be able to tell from the cover, Magerl’s illustrations are luminous. This is a tale of the journey towards self-worth and empowerment and I admit read it with a lump in my throat as I’ve always found these kinds of stories moving, perhaps because I’ve been able to identify with (or imagine being) the protagonist no-one wants to own or love. That makes the payoff at the end so satisfying and relieving!
Caroline Magerl’s toy bear Nop “was not plush in places. He had no button, no ribbon, no scarf or spangle. Nothing to tell where he belonged.” He is part of the pile of leftovers at Oddmint’s Dumporeum. At night-time toys are mended in readiness for sale but nothing suits Nop until he finds a red bow tie. This makes him believe he can go anywhere so he stitches something special that can take him into a wonderful future. Both the words and pictures in this story are allusive and fanciful.
Nop is a teddy bear who is ‘not plush in places’. He waits patiently to be bought from Oddmint’s Dumporeum, a magical sort of toy shop, but to no avail. Somehow, he stitches together a balloon that enables him to escape and he sails away, finally finding a friend in a zoo. Nop is a gentle, fantastical story, told simply but with a rich, advanced vocabulary that really suits the rather sophisticated, painterly illustrations. Caroline Magerl has used ink and watercolour to create sensitive pictures with real depth and interesting perspective. She uses colour to reflect the mood of the book and Nop himself—moody blues and browns in the Dumporeum, finishing with an inviting lush green when he lands in the zoo. Watercolour washes and free-flowing ink lines are used to great effect, reminiscent of old-time favourite picture books, such as those by Shirley Hughes.
A scruffy bear goes on a big adventure in the ‘awww’-worthy Nop by Caroline Magerl. Share with the little bookworm in your life.