PJ Lynch and the man who fell to water

Illustrator PJ Lynch was never interested in writing – until he stumbled across the story of a servant who fell from the Mayflower and survived


A dragon is flaring his nostrils at me. A demonic little boy glares gleefully from the front carriage of a ghost train. A young man stretches his arms out from the depths of the ocean to save himself from drowning.

These are just some of the images that leap from the pages scattered about the studio of illustrator PJ Lynch, whose work has been animating some of the best-loved children’s tales for three decades. His versions of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales have become children’s standards, while his work on original books such as Susan Wojciechowski’s The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, which celebrates the 20th anniversary of its publication this year, has been acknowledged with dozens of prizes and enormous sales.

Lynch works primarily with watercolours, and there is a painterly appeal to his illustrations that make them as vital to the storytelling process as the words. He is the most prolific Irish illustrator working today.

Lynch found himself drawn to children’s books by accident. Coming of age in Belfast at the height of the Troubles, he “knew from an early age that I wanted to be an artist, but I wasn’t a great reader. I sort of stopped after Narnia, as I thought nothing could ever be as good, and I never thought I would end up illustrating books.”

He spent a year at art college in Jordanstown, before moving to the fine art department at Brighton College of Art, where he realised, with some dismay, that no one was interested in drawing or painting.

“I liked to draw from life, people, but all of my enthusiasm was quickly squashed. If you drew something that looked like something, there was an attitude of ‘let’s not have that’. Art colleges follow trends and the trend at the time was anti-academic drawing, which was what I loved and my natural style. But it didn’t take me long to realise that people were still drawing.”

Lynch eventually made his way to the illustration department, which was led by Raymond Briggs, who was at the height of his career, and that “informed my work in big way”. After a project that involved illustrating the Arthurian fantasy novel The Sword in the Stone, “everything came together for me. I enjoyed the narrative element and the research that I had to do, and when I left college I began to do well almost immediately. I could have made more money in advertising or doing editorial work, but it seemed soulless compared to the work that I was doing on kids’ books.”


Gripping project

Lynch was never interested in writing. Publishers were happy to send on “texts presented as fait accompli”. It came as a surprise to him, then, that he should find himself embarking on an original book project that would take him eight years to complete at a time when he had never been busier with commissions.

The seeds of the book that would become The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower, or John Howland’s Good Fortune were sown when Lynch was invited to illustrate a story about colonial pilgrims in America. “I was very interested in the subject matter, but the version, in rhyming couplets, was too sweet. I thought relations between Indians and the colonisers couldn’t possibly be that good, and I turned it down.”

He was interested enough in the subject matter, however, to do his own research, and when he read about John Howland, a servant who fell off the Mayflower and survived, “I became obsessed with finding out more about him”.

The drama of Howland’s life did not peak with his rescue. Not only did he survive near-drowning and the freezing temperature of the water, but “he survived that first winter in America, when more than half of the pilgrims died. Then, that spring, his boss died suddenly, then his boss’s wife, and he was basically a free man. He got married, had 10 children, 18 grandchildren and lived until his 80s, which must have been extremely unlikely for someone in the 17th century.

“It is estimated that he has more than 10 million descendants [including] Humphrey Bogart– people who wouldn’t have existed but for this guy who caught the rope. It was this one moment of fatalism 400 years ago, and if it hadn’t happened, the whole world would have been different. It really captured my imagination. There are lots of moments like these but we just don’t know about them.”

If the research took a long time, so did the writing. “I didn’t really have much confidence and I prefer to draw than to write, so I kept putting it off,” says Lynch. “A lot happens in the story too, and it ended up being a 64-page book as opposed to the usual 32 pages.” The final product offers a richly realised adventure story that older readers (ages eight and up) will relish.

Luckily, Lynch had other work to distract him during those years. One of the projects was a commission from the Laureate na nÓg, Eoin Colfer, which involved illustrating 11 stories and six poems loosely themed around the idea Once Upon a Place, which was published in October.

“There were so many different styles, some modern day, some set in Celtic mists, and it all had to be done fairly quickly.”

The time pressure led him to experiment with his trademark style of ink-line drawing and “use a technique I had never used before, of charcoal and chalk rubbing. It really helped create the atmosphere for the stories”, many of which offer supernatural elements to the pre-teen target audience.


Publishing changes

The industry has changed a lot since Lynch began in the late 1980s. Digital advances have enabled illustrators to refine their work on computers, although Lynch tries not to use digital manipulation too much, “in case they get too slick, because I want them to still look painterly”. Children’s literature gets a lot more attention these days, he says, attributing that to JK Rowling, where “adults and children were reading the same books all of a sudden and it wasn’t anything to be ashamed of”.

He takes on occasional commissions from outside the world of children’s books. Most recently he designed the altar piece for the basilica at the national shrine at Knock, an elaborate large-scale mosaic that is being assembled in Italy and brings to mind the great Irish illustrator of children’s books Harry Clarke, whose work adorns the windows of churches throughout the country. Great company, indeed.

  • The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower, or John Howland’s Good Fortune is published by Walker Books. Once Upon a Place is published by Little Island
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