The Giant Jam Sandwich and Thoughts about Making
by John Vernon Lord
The Giant Jam Sandwich was first published in 1972.
It has been reprinted many times in hardback and paperback in this
country and it has been translated into several languages for worldwide
publication (including Finnish, German, Japanese, Norwegian, Swedish,
Welsh and others). It has been broadcast as a children's radio play,
set to music for a children's chorus and made into television films
in this country and abroad . It has also been adapted as a puppet
play for Japanese television, has been the subject of a Master of
Arts study by a student in an American University, and it has even
been the theme of a float in a village fair!
I am often asked by children, parents and teachers what made me think
up the ideas for my books. They are often interested to hear how I
set about preparing a book and how long it takes to write and illustrate
a picture book for children. Many of the ideas for my picture books
seem to have come out of small experiences in my life that I have
wanted to reflect upon and then the wish to turn part of these memory
glimpses into fantasy stories for children. My father has a loose
connection with some of the stories I've done: with his advice as
to how to get rid of wasps at picnics (for The Giant Jam Sandwich);
the fact that I was too scared to tell him that I had lost one of
my new rollerskates when I was a boy at school (for Mr Ellwood's chase
in The Runaway Rollerskate); His annoyance at his next door neighbour
for chucking snails over the garden wall (for the exploits of Mr Mead
and his Garden); and the relationship he had with my step mother (transposed
to young nephew Bill's relationship with Miserable Aunt Bertha).
I am describing here the background and evolution of events that lead
to the publication of The Giant Jam Sandwich, as this will probably
be the most familiar of my children's books. The story tells how a
village called Itching Down is invaded by wasps one hot summer and
of the residents' efforts to rid themselves of their unwelcome guests
by baking a huge loaf and spreading a slice of it with jam. As the
wasps begin to gorge themselves on the strawberry jam, a second slice
of bread is dropped on top of them from a great height (with the aid
of helicopters and a flying tractor) and squashes flat most of the
wasps, trapping them inside the sandwich. While all the villagers
rejoice in a celebration, the wasp-filled sandwich is finally taken
out to sea by hundreds of crows for the rest of the birds to feast
The idea for this story was prompted by an event which took place
during an August holiday in Devon. My family was staying at a fairly
remote farmhouse in Milton Damerel with a couple of friends who had
two young boys, Alexander and Jonathan, aged five and three years.
These young lads were terrified by wasps and, whenever there was a
buzzing sound about the dining table or picnic cloth, they would squeal
with alarm until the offending insects were removed from the scene.
One afternoon, during a walk across the fields, Alexander started
to scream and shout because a wasp insisted on hovering continually
about him. In order to quell his anxiety and divert his attention
I settled the two boys and our three girls on the grass and, on the
spur of the moment, proceeded to invent the bare bones of the story
of what came to be The Giant Jam Sandwich.
The germ of the idea must have sprung from my own childhood memory
of my father's habit of placing a slice of jam-covered crust some
distance away from where we were picnicking in order to encourage
aggravating wasps away from our food. My father was a baker, who had
a bakery and cafe in Glossop in Derbyshire and you can see his old
shop at the end of the book when the villagers are dancing. In the
book my father can be seen in his familiar white coat, puffing upon
his pipe and standing at the door of 'Bert's Cafe'. I spent many hours
working in his bakehouse on Saturdays and during the vacation period
when I was an art student and I can remember hurling lumps of discarded
dough at any wasp who dared to venture in and hover about the white
Incidentally, most of the buildings I bring into my picture books
often have a personal significance. For instance, on the same spread
in The Giant Jam Sandwich, the other shops include what used to be
my local village butcher's shop and the two houses which have been
converted into shops, used to belong to other relations in the family.
Behind the shop called 'Wiggins' is the house in Brighton where I
started planning work on The Giant Jam Sandwich.
The dormer-window, in the roof of the house, shows where my studio
used to be.
In the double-page spread, where you can see the loaf being placed
into the old brick mill for baking, you can see 'R. Wild and Son'
which used to exist as a corner tripe shop in Glossop's High Street
and an old timber-framed building which stands in the village of Ditchling.
In the opening page of my book The Runaway Roller Skate
you can see Mr Ellwood rollerskating towards my local pub in Ditchling.
This book also shows the house where I currently live as well as the
building where my London agents used to have their business. I have
just recently completed over a hundred illustrations for an edition
of Aesop's Fables where nearly all the background scenes for the fables
are set near my home around the village of Ditchling in Sussex.
Only occasionally do I include in my illustrations portraits of people
I know. Mostly these have included colleagues at Brighton Polytechnic
where I teach: John Biggs, my old head of department, sits among the
villagers in the village hall; Geoffrey Hall, the Polytechnic's director,
can be seen telephoning in The Runaway Roller Skate;
myself and a friend can be detected inducing Dean Robin Plummer to
drink caper sauce to soothe his remorse in one of the illustrations
to a Lear limerick.
Visual reference is an important aid to creating illustrations and
it is always a delight to draw whenever possible from direct observation
and gather information from personal experience. This isn't always
possible for practical reasons (who is going to find me a Nile crocodile
lurking about the house or garden?) nor is it entirely necessary,
depending on what sort of artist you are and what is needed in the
picture. Most illustrators collect a storehouse of visual reference
material to help them with their work. My illustrations depend on
a variety of visual reference - ranging from drawing from life (I'm
always getting members of my family to pose for me and drawing objects
around the house) to using and adapting existing pictorial material,
when it comes to wanting to know quickly and precisely, for example,
what the interior of a Victorian railway carriage looks like. In the
main, though, I tend to rely on my visual memory and I largely draw
from imagination. Although my drawings of the wasps in The
Giant Jam Sandwich were loosely taken from an insect that
I happened to trap in a jam-jar for a day, they are intended to be
more evocative of being a wasp than attempting to be an accurate rendering
of one. They certainly wouldn't pass the scrutiny of any respectable
Coming back to The Giant Jam Sandwich,when I was
telling the story to the children: their reaction to my impromptu
tale was so encouraging that I decided to develop the idea and, with
repeated telling during the holiday in Devon, I managed to lay the
foundations for the story as it now stands. These re-tellings enabled
me to gather the strengths and weaknesses of the basic storyline through
first-hand reactions from the children, when I could constantly adjust
and reshape aspects of the narrative by adding or rejecting different
However, one has to guard against assuming that the success derived
from the oral telling of a story will necessarily result in an equally
promising picture book. Anyone who has a reasonable gift for acting
can turn a banal storybook into a masterpiece in the eyes of an attentive
young audience. Different factors come into play when a tale is transmitted
to a child in book form. The fact that Alexander and Jonathan wanted
every wasp in the world removed from the face of the earth, and that
they also enjoyed the 'live-action' way in which I was able to act
out the events taking place, were built-in domestic features that
lent success to the story on its original telling. To have these 'homely'
forces at play when telling a story can be misleading in the estimation
of its worthiness when it comes to making an actual book, but the
value of the initial improvisation should not be underestimated.
At the time of recounting the tale, the visual aspects of the story
were lodged in the children's minds through several means: my personalised
verbal description; exaggerated character acting; miming the action
(particularly when it came to my over-the-top version of the buzzing
wasps) and my relating the events to the surrounding Devon landscape
where the fictional Itching Down was sited.
When a story has been published as a book, ideally the young child
will have the initial advantage of someone reading the text out loud
whilst referring to the pictures. However, a book worth its salt also
needs to sustain the child's interest independently, without always
having the intermediary agency of a lively narrator. Ideally a picture
book for the very young child needs to fascinate the adult reader
too, so that both parties can share the book with genuine conviction
when they go through the book together.
In September 1970 Jonathan Cape had just published a picture book
called the Truck on the Track, on which I had collaborated
with Janet Burroway, and they were keen that I should follow this
up with another book, suggesting that I should write the text myself.
During the Christmas of that year I wrote the bald outline of the
story and posted it off to Tom Maschler and Valerie Kettley of Jonathan
Cape. Their responses to the idea were encouraging and I was asked
to produce a pencil dummy-rough to go with the final text. Most children's
picture books have to conform to a 32-page format so that the whole
book can be printed on both sides of a single sheet of paper. In this
instance, I worked out that I could tell the story in twenty separate
episodes, using twenty-seven pages and allowing for five pages of
At this stage the publishers approved the general flavour and picture
content of the book but rightly considered that my text was somewhat
dull. The writing was awkward and merely described the illustrations
I was intending to draw, rather than providing that vital complementary
role between text and illustration. So I contacted my previous collaborator,
Janet Burroway, a novelist who at the time was also teaching Literature
at Sussex University. Janet was happy to adapt my text and decided
to set it to verse, hoping that Cape would 'swallow the idea'.
The experiment went down well with the publishers; indeed they and
I were enchanted with the results, for Janet's amusing verses had
given extra life to the story. By March 1971 Janet had prepared the
final draft of the text and the short comparison that follows shows
how she managed to preserve the essence of my storyline whilst injecting
into it a new spirit. Here's my text first:
In a village, one late summer, there was a plague of wasps. They spoiled
everyone's picnics. They stung the farmers in the fields. They chased
the Lord and Lady from their mansion. In fact there were far too many
wasps. The village folk tried many different ways and means of getting
rid of the wasps but, whatever method they used, they just would not
go away. They gathered in the village hall and discussed what they
should do to clear the village of those noisy insect nuisances.
It embarrasses me to record the feebleness of my own earlier text!
Now we come to Janet Burroway's more lively version of the same passage:
One hot summer in Itching Down,
Four million wasps flew into town.
They drove the picnickers away,
They chased the farmers from their hay,
They stung Lord Swell on his fat bald pate,
They dived and hummed and buzzed and ate,
And the noisy, nasty nuisance grew
Till the villagers cried "What can we do?"
So they called a meeting in the village hall,
And Mayor Muddlenut asked them all,
"What can we do?" And they said, "Good question!"
But nobody had a good suggestion.
Janet Burroway's simple but rich verse describes the action economically,
using a few lines to sum up new developments in the plot, and keeping
the narrative strictly in line with the illustration on each page.
A story should be told with clarity in such a way that the visual
relationship between pictures and text becomes part of the physical
integration that forms a coherent book for the reader.The successful
integration between text and pictures is a vital matter. In picture
books, when text and picture are describing the same episode in the
story I prefer to enforce their physical relationship by placing them
on the same page wherever possible. The breaks in the text and the
pictorial presentation on each page need to follow the natural stages
of the storyline. The pacing of the illustrations with the narrative
is of the utmost importance during the early stages of creating a
picture book. One of the major considerations is to ensure that each
picture relates to the other illustrations in the series, as well
as complementing the text. The right balance has to be struck when
revealing the essential elements of the narrative pictorially. The
time-effects suggested in the story also have to be coordinated so
that the notion of the varied time lapses between each picture are
clearly conveyed to the reader. In a picture book the text and pictures
feed off one another to realise the desired sequence of events - those
which are pertinent to the helpful telling of the story.
The unfolding of the plot in words and pictures has to be timed in
such a way as to sustain a child's easily-lost interest at the opening
of each individual spread, and it should also manage to prompt the
desire in the child to turn to the next page. At the same time there
has to be something captivating in the story and pictures which will
encourage the child to read and look at the book time and time again.
A good picture book will survive a lifetime of repeated viewing and
reading, so it must give continual fascination to children, despite
their eventual awareness of the story's final outcome. The pictures
must, therefore, absorb the child's interest, taking the reader, in
his or her imagination, beyond the narrative itself. William Hazlitt
wrote in his essay, 'On Reading Old Books':
When I take up a work that I have read before (the oftener the better)
I know what I have to expect. The satisfaction is not lessened by
The introduction to a story, the scene setting, the lead-up to the
climax, the climax itself and its aftermath, are all aspects of the
narrative that need to fire the interest of the child-reader. Each
stage of the plot must have individual appeal, without which the child
will be always be needing to rush to the high points. Each page should
have intrinsic interest and lasting qualities in its own right. Whilst
developing a sense of plot through the careful pacing of events, the
illustrator is also involved in considering the nature and action
of the characters, details of the various components, and the setting
of place and time. The content and essential elements included in
the pictures obviously have to relate to the narrative itself, but
I sometimes like to incorporate incidents or events that may lie outside
the main story.
In The Giant Jam Sandwich, for instance, there are
three particular fugitives who can be found being chased by wasps
on several pages in the book; sometimes they may be mere dots on the
horizon, but they are established as characters early on in the story
and children can follow their progress.
It can be a problem for the illustrator to sustain the likeness of
individual characters throughout a book. Sometimes the same buildings
or areas of landscape have to be frequently repeated and in these
matters it is important to maintain some sort of consistency. In The
Giant Jam Sandwich I have my suspicions as to whether the old brick
mill, as depicted on the jacket and first page, is entirely compatible
with the representation we see of it later on in the book.
In The Truck on the Track (by Janet Burroway) I had
to overcome the exacting problem of having to illustrate a story where
the action takes place almost exclusively on the same plot of ground;
in this case I had to weave around the stranded truck, depicting it
from various 'camera angles' in order to avoid a monotony of viewpoints
which could so easily dull the visual impact for the reader. In Dinosaurs
Don't Die (by Ann Coates) it was necessary to draw specific
locations in London, with nearly all the action taking place at night
time. These are just some of the difficulties that face the illustrator.
The narrative itself may already offer a wide range of contrasting
imagery in a book, but there is a lot to be gained from exploiting
the possibilities of contrast and introducing changes of mood through
the use of conventional pictorial techniques. These may include the
choice of 'camera angles' or viewpoints, such as showing the action
from different perspectival views or going in close to the subject
or watching the events from a distance. It is also worth considering
contrasting dynamic movement and busy action against more passive
and quiet compositions. Varying the use of colour from page to page
is another means by which an illustrator can provide contrast in pictures
that follow each other in close sequence.
I often regret that I failed to make the most of these opportunities
in The Giant Jam Sandwich. Perhaps I could have shown
the changeability of the weather. As it is, the events all take place
on the same kind of sunny day, with a 'Hollywood' sunset concluding
I also might have taken more advantage of the scene where the six
flying-machines are waiting to drop the top slice of bread on to the
one in the field below.
The aerial perspective helps to add drama to the situation, but here
I think a cooler range of colours and a better positioning of the
helicopters would have heightened the tension further. This illustration
is very much the pause before the climax and it is crucial that it
gives the right effect. With hindsight I feel that the colour scheme
adopted for these pictures is too similar throughout the book.
The use of contrast, then, is a vital force in the illustration of
books and there is a whole range of compositional devices, some of
which have just been described, that one can employ to add variety
to pictures that follow one another in close succession.
In my picture books I usually draw the illustrations the same size
as they will finally be reproduced in the book. I like to preserve,
where possible, the true-size physical characteristics of the original
drawing and, as one's work is seen in the reproduced state, this method
helps to achieve a more reliably printed version of the picture. The
drawings for the Giant Jam Sandwich were mainly carried out with inks
and crayons. I managed to complete all the illustrations in fifty-five
working days; each single page taking from ten to 15 hours to draw
and paint. These were the days when I seemed to be able to produce
my work relatively more quickly than I do now. The three hundred and
thirty black and white illustrations I carried out for The Nonsense
Verse of Edward Lear took 1,985 hours to draw in two hundred and ninety-four
actual working days, spread over a period of four years!
In September 1971 I took the completed work for The Giant
Jam Sandwich to the publishers at Bedford Square in London.
Travelling with the original artwork for a book is always a nightmarish
experience for the illustrator - one not only has uneasy qualms in
the belly, anticipating the publisher's possible reaction to the final
illustrations, after such a long gap from their first seeing the roughs,
but also there is the dreadful risk of losing several months' work
on the journey. Raymond Briggs once boarded a train having absentmindedly
abandoned six months' of his original artwork for The Fairy
Tale Treasury in the platform snack-bar at Hayward's Heath
Station. He had been so wrapped up in gazing at the new decimal coins
which had been issued that morning! I now tie my work to my wrist
when delivering it.
On this occasion the publishers reacted favourably to the illustrations
for The Giant Jam Sandwich and there was no request
for alterations to any of them. The choice of title and the design
for the jacket can often take more discussion time with the publisher
than the rest of the book, but in this instance agreement to both
was reached quite quickly.
A jacket and title should indicate the general tenor of the book without
giving too much of the story away. Generally the design should be
sufficiently arresting to stand out among the other two thousand to
three thousand children's books that flood the market each year. The
jacket for the hard-back version of The Giant Jam Sandwich
acts as a prelude to the story showing a picture of the village with
a hint of waspish possibilities as one of the menacing insects surveys
the scene from a tree stump in the foreground. The artwork for the
jacket was completed in October 1971 and the first proofs of the book
were seen in April 1972. Following a visit to the printers (where
Cape's production manager and I were critical of the poor registration
in the printing) the book was finally published in October 1972, two
years and two months after the initial idea was sparked off during
that holiday in Devon.
John Vernon Lord