An emotional farewell to the Edge Chronicles
PUBLISHED: 17:05 06 March 2019 | UPDATED: 08:35 07 March 2019
A generation of children grew up with the Edge Chronicles.
This Thursday, March 7, World Book Day, the 13th and final novel is published.
Like every one of hugely popular fantasy series The Descenders is written by Paul Stewart and illustrated by Chris Riddell.
And the illustrations are as much part of the series as the words.
Chris, a writer and cartoonist as well as an illustrator, has created many of his books in Norfolk.
His spiky, intricate, instantly recognisable pictures have brought to life his own words, and those of authors ranging from Rudyard Kipling to JK Rowling.
Chris also posts exquisite sketches, poems, observations, doodles and fully-formed pictures on social media every day and his weekly political cartoons have become a scathing commentary on the chaos surrounding Brexit.
Drawing his way through life, ogres jostle with authors; nightmarish creatures, all weird protuberances and dripping limbs, limp alongside jaunty princesses with cascades of curls; trees transform into fairytale characters, or are sometimes just tremendous trees. And we frequently meet Chris himself, slightly rounded, lightly bearded, alternately appalled or delighted with the real world, and constantly inventing thrillingly detailed new worlds.
Chris first arrived in Norfolk four decades ago, an art student preparing to meet the parents of his girlfriend, Jo. She is now his wife and their cottage, created from former farm buildings in Rockland St Peter, near Attleborough, is where her family once farmed. Jo, also an artist, appears in Chris’s work as “Princess Joanna of Norfolk.”
“I have always associated Norfolk with escape and romance,” he says. “It’s a creative place. There is something about the Norfolk landscape. I think it’s the big skies which have always invited artists to gaze into the far distance.”
It is here that Chris drew the pictures for the first of the Edge Chronicle series. Beyond the Deepwoods, published in 1998. And it is here he created the final illustrations. “Norfolk has always been in the Edge Chronicles. I remember wandering through the woods at Holkham and this idea came into my head of a place called the Twilight Woods,” said Chris. “Then Paul’s dark imagination transformed it into a nightmarish place!”
He and Paul (who also has Norfolk links, having studied creative writing at UEA) met as dads dropping their toddlers at nursery.
Chris was a child himself when he started drawing - in church. His dad was a vicar and Chris sketched through countless sermons. He went to art college in Brighton, where he was taught by the great Raymond Briggs before becoming an illustrator, and then a writer himself.
Over the past two decades The Edge Chronicles, aimed at children aged eight and above and still loved by many of the 20-somethings who grew up with them, have sold three million copies around the world. Each also works as a stand-alone story, with the 13th and final adventure, Descenders, opening as Cade Quarter, a distant descendant of the hero of the first book, flees an enemy he has never met. At the legendary floating city of New Sanctaphrax he must finally descend – over The Edge.
“Finishing the series is very emotional,” said Chris. “The books chart our children growing up. Paul has a son and a daughter and I have two sons and a daughter and they are now all in their 20s.
“The books grew organically, each one leading to the next, and we are leaving a very different world than the one we first began. You can read all sorts of metaphors into it. We have got to the edge. Literally a cliff edge.”
Chris said the Chronicles were dealing with mass migration long before the current refugee crisis, as well as introducing themes of environments ravaged by industry and societies reeling from technological advances.
It was only as they created this final novel that they worked out what lay beyond The Edge. “It blew our minds!” said Chris. “It’s our theory of everything.”
This January Chris, who was Britain’s Children’s Laureate from 2015-2017 and is president of the national School Library Association, was awarded an OBE. He has won many awards for his work, including the Nestlé Gold Award, a Costa prize, the UNESCO Award and the rare honour of three Kate Greenaway Medals.
His Ottoline and Goth Girl series both won national awards.
Every week he draws a political cartoon for The Observer newspaper, and every month he creates the cover for Literary Review magazine – and for The Rocklander, the monthly parish newsletter for the Norfolk villages where he has felt so at home for 40 years ago.
Chris and Jo married in Rockland St Peter church and were always determined to be part of the local community.
Goth Girl sprang from stories Chris used to tell his children and he based the illustrations on Norfolk family friends. The tales of Ghastly Gloom Hall are now being developed for television.
The newspaper cartoons are filtered through sharper pencils. Theresa May is now just a pair of leopard-skin shoes, waving on the legs of a figure up-ended in a bin. Other frequently drawn characters include political concepts transformed into freakish monsters, a sinister Jacob Rees-Mogg, a noxiously flatulent Boris, Jeremy Corbyn literally tying himself in knots and a tiny-handed and monstrously-egoed Trump. “It’s a very good time to be a political cartoonist,” said Chris. “It’s a weekly catharsis.”
This week fans of The Edge Chronicles will be discovering what lies beyond the cliff.
Descenders, by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, is published on Thursday, March 7, by Penguin, for £12.99 in hardback and £7.99 in paperback.