But the tiny faces sitting on their red cushions are already rapt and filled with wonder. Before us the authors and illustrators Dieter and Ingrid Schubert are getting ready to present their new children’s book “The Umbrella”.
On the screen, at the back of the room, an image has been projected of a tiny black dog hanging on to a red umbrella, floating away into the sky.
The excitement is tangible – even the adults in the room are smiling and eager to hear the latest adventurous offering from the acclaimed duo. How on earth did that little dog find himself so high up in the air? More importantly, where is he headed and what adventures await him?
Dieter and Ingrid Schubert have been creating illustrated books for children for close on thirty years now.
Their stories are all the more enthralling because the books come with no text. The illustrations themselves serve as a starting point for the stories. Stories that the children themselves must elaborate and imagine.
And today is no exception.
Ingrid starts off by asking all the kids in the room to tell us all something about the cuddly toys they have brought with them.
One little girl has a dog with a plaster on it’s nose.
“Oh dear” sympathises Ingrid “What on earth happened to him?”
“Nothing” comes the reply. “He just likes plasters.”
“Oh, I thought maybe he had had some sort of adventure. Just like Quibus here.”
She points to the little black dog, dangling from his umbrella.
Quibus. The hero of the story.
A little black dog, who, it turns out, exists in real life. The Schubert’s own little dog. Who would have loved to have come along today.
“But dogs aren’t allowed in theatres.”
There is a little collective sigh at this news.
“But never mind. We can still tell you his story.”
And so we set off with Quibus as he floats through the air below the canopy of his red umbrella. Over the African savannah, across the Arctic wastelands, through the Amazonian rainforest, to the depths of the deep blue ocean.
And all the while Ingrid relates the story off the cuff, spurred on by the odd comment from the enraptured audience.
“Oh look! A crocodile!” cries one.
And the story immediately develops in that direction. What did the crocodiles say? How do they sound? Do their teeth chomp with a loud snap? Would you rather meet a crocodile or a snake?
There are whoops of delight and lots of noisy back and forth as the kids think about what they are seeing.
Then finally the magic moment arrives. Quibus has flown home again on his red umbrella and the adventure is over.
Now it is our turn.
Dieter takes out a box of coloured pens and begins to draw, all the while asking the kids what they want.
How would they travel? With an umbrella too? What animals would they want to see? Where would they go?
Slowly a picture reveals itself on the paper in front of us.
A phantasmagorical hippo with a strange penguin beak sprouting from its nose, is carried aloft by a bunch of coloured balloons. The fantastical creature floats above the sea towards an island where a panda sits waving to him from a coconut tree.
“Watch out for the shark!” the panda screeches, as a great white leaps from the sea below and attempts to bite a chunk from the hippo’s fleshy rump.
Meanwhile a tiny mouse surfs in to the rescue on a coconut sail boat a pirate flag fluttering from the mast. He means business
“Don’t worry, I’ll save you!”
“Can that little mouse fight a shark?” asks one disbelieving girl.
“Why not?” shrugs Dieter. The kids turn to look again at the determined mouse as it charges through the surf towards the shark. Why not indeed.
Dieter steps back and takes in the sight and for a moment there is silence as we all marvel at the rather bizarre creation that has materialised before our very eyes.
“Now that, is what I call imagination!” cries Ingrid.
And the delighted holler that rises up through the room, lets her know that we all agree.
It was truly wonderful to watch such a process happen before us.
The detail and beauty of the Schubert’s illustrations belie the fact that the process itself is so loose and fun and spontaneous. And showing that to the kids certainly was a revelation. That such wonderful creations can also come from their own imaginations. All you need is a crazy idea and a box of coloured pens.
Later that evening, Helena and I sit in the chair and recreate Quibus’ adventure, page by page.
At first she wants me to retell the tale as she first heard it that afternoon in the theatre, and it takes some convincing before she agrees that the beauty of the book is that the story is renewed with every telling.
“It’s your story as much as it is Quibus’” I explain to her.
And slowly we start to examine the illustrations in greater detail. Noticing now the forms and figures that emerge from the shadows and from within the forests, oceans and sky. Each revelation providing a new embellishment to the story.
At the last page, as Quibus lays his umbrella down, Helena looks up at me.
“Can bananas fly?” she asks.
And I can only nod.
“Of course they can.”
“Do you thinjk Quibus would ride on a banana?”
“I think he would love to.”
“They make good boats too you know?” Helena informs me.
And I have to agree she may have a point there.
“Perhaps the next time Quibus could go on a sailing trip in his banana boat then?” I ask, and I can see the delight in her eyes.
A new adventure is forming in her head and I cannot wait to hear it.