I’ve been wearing a gorilla mask a lot lately – in Waterstone’s, at shows and in school halls. And this morning in my living room, to see how practical it is to do an on-the-spot gorilla dance without falling on my large rubbery nostrils. The GORILLA DREAMS promo tour has been crazy, hectic fun, and with a competition encouraging kids to be creative, it’s not over yet.
I haven’t created animal characters before – unless you count Oops the ongalong and Nimmo the mobe along with a small dragon called Mayerling (“Maya, Maya, can’t breathe fire!”). They’re complete fantasy; sometimes reality and magic intersect. Of course I did research on gorillas.
Did you know a male gorilla has an arm span of up to 2.6 metres?!! They have unique fingerprints like us and they’re desperately endangered. It was all really fascinating background but I knew my gorillas at gorilla school would be at least a little like kids. So there’s Gertie the Scrabble champion who uses long words like finesse but doesn’t actually have any.
There’s the greedy gorilla and the poser who needs to be cool. The central character, of course, is more complex and more rounded. That’s the one who’s different – and whose difference could make a fool of him. I do like exploring difference, in a variety of ways and genres.
I also knew my story would really be about stories, or storytelling. As a teacher I loved Story Time best. It’s an experience kids share with their teacher as well as each other. So my teacher character, Mr Eden, is as important as the gorillas. He’s the real hero. And yes, he’s part of the story too – a character in more ways than one.
I believe in stories. They change us as they become part of us. Great fiction can make us bigger people because we’ve lived lives that aren’t ours, inside other skins. Without that empathy, that imagination, we’re not very good at life!
But what kind of stories do we choose, as individuals? Mr Eden knows some kids like wild, wacky cartoon fun, but some like to feel a different kind of mysterious magic that stirs them somewhere deep down. So my storyteller offers both, and along with Gilbert and co there’s Sanyu the silverback. Readers will have their preferences but either way they’ll discover some of the different things stories can do. Teachers who’ve read a great story to their class will have felt its power. When I was guest lecturer a few years ago to Education degree students, I told them that however busy they are, they must always make time at the end of the day for such a story. As Mr Eden knows, a day without a story is a day without light. Because imagination illuminates everything.