For decades, British duo have given children the ‘magic key’

HAVING worked together on the Oxford Reading Tree for the past 30 years to create over 400 stories for children around the world, author Roderick Hunt, 78, and illustrator Alex Brychta, 61, are not running out of ideas for their Biff, Chip and Kipper adventures.

“I have in mind the enormous benefit of having a ‘soap opera’ feel to the stories,” Hunt says. “This ongoing familiarity enables the reader to anticipate the impending actions of well-known characters with their various identifiable personality traits, foibles and idiosyncrasies as the story unfolds.”

Last week, the duo showed up at the Shanghai United International School for a demo class with Grade-3 students and their teachers. While Hunt told a story of Jack going fishing in the river, Brychta changed his words into a real picture simultaneously. At the end of the story when Brychta turned the drawing board to face the audience, Hunt asked the students if they have imagined the same picture in their mind while listening.

“That’s how we work together,” Hunt tells Shanghai Daily. “But before Alex and I meet, it usually takes me a long time thinking about a story. I have to first of all see a story visually. When I see a story in my mind’s eye, I am ready to write it. And I write the story in term of the picture first for Alex to follow.”

“Then I will do the rough drawings with Rod and the editor. I may tell him what doesn’t work, or how about we do it in a different angle,” Brychta continues. “Very often we have a huge amount of fun and big laugh during the process. Something might crop up and that might later go into the story itself.”

As the UK’s most successful reading scheme, Oxford Reading Tree is used in more than 80 percent of British primary schools, as well as schools in more than 120 other countries who learn English as a second language.

Hunt studied divinity and English at the University of Chester. He was a teacher of English for more than 20 years before he took up the job to create a different reading program with the Oxford University Press for children under 10.

Hunt says he has always enjoyed telling stories to children.

“I had two children of primary school age when I began the writing, and a number of the stories are based on real-life events,” Hunt says. “As an author, one has to respect the reader. I decided the ‘child in me’ is about 5 years old! So I tried to see the world through the eyes of a small child and identify those experiences that would be familiar to very young children.”

Brychta is a Czech-born Briton. He was born in Prague. His parents were well-known illustrators, so he learned to draw when he was very young. When he came to Britain at the age of 11, he spoke no English at all.

So, drawing became a means of communicating before he had a decent command of the language.

“From my point of view, I try to make the pictures interesting and fun for the children, so that they will want to read the story. Apart from illustrating the story Rod has written, I like to put in details in the background so that children can look for perhaps the second or third time they pick up the book,” Brychta says.

So far, there are about nine levels in the series with Biff, Chip and Kipper adventures. The stories are quite Anglocentric so the settings look very English — including seaside piers, double-decker buses and telephone boxes.

But as the characters grow older and the complexity level of the stories rises, Hunt and Brychta are looking for new settings for fantasy tales to inspire the children across the world.

This time they are in Shanghai to look for some Chinese elements to expand their storylines.

“We’ve learned a lot at the school today,” says Brychta. “The performances by the children were brilliant and very educational for us. So hopefully this will inspire us to create some stories with China as the setting.”

“We have this sort of device that is called the ‘magic key.’ It takes the children to some unfamiliar settings, so they have to be resourceful and brave to overcome the obstacles in the adventure so that they can be home again,” adds Hunt, whose most famous series of stories is “The Magic Key,” which was first written as a part of the Oxford Reading Tree in 1985, illustrated by Brychta.

“Children often write to us and say ‘I wish I had a magic key.’ I write back and say, ‘well, you have — it’s called your imagination’.”