I have a confession to make before I start this Big Personality column. I kinda, sorta, stalked John Halverson via Facebook and then cornered him in Fun Junction while he was sitting signing copies of his latest book. You see, I’m a huge lover of books and writing, and I turn into a bit of a starry-eyed teenager when it comes to an author. And John Halverson people, is author, illustrator, self-publisher and all-round good guy all rolled into one.
I found out about John via my current favourite Facebook page – Fun Junction. If you don’t follow it you really must. It is the pinnacle of proper nonsense. The post read that John was doing a book signing in their Old High Street shop a couple of Saturday’s ago; as they expected cute children rather than a crazy auntie (I bought six signed copies as Christmas gifts!) they even put in a time to meet the man himself...
I thought I might arrive, get the kids their autographs, chat to John about his books and write up a wee Stop Press story about The Big Brown Lazy Dog. But then I was given a coffee and a chair and it turned out John loves a blether as much as I do and has a story that HAD to be shared on the Big Personality platform. You are going to love this incredible man by the end of this story (and then you must promise to rush straight to Fun Junction or Glendoick Garden Centre to buy his book!)
Take yourself back to 1999 and John was just completing a degree at Duncan and Jordanstone Art School. He had returned to full-time education in his mid-thirties after being made redundant from his job with ARK as a residential social worker helping people with learning disabilities. With funding all dried up, he decided it was a sign to do something different and had initially planned to combine his work experience with his passion for painting, and train as an Art Therapist.
However, during his second year he was one of a few students who were invited to meet and work with an illustrator called Korky Paul. This week-long visit influenced John hugely and although other artists came and went it was this time with Korky that remained with him.
Shortly after Korky’s visit, Stan Clement-Smith who ran the department went off on long-term sick and it left John wondering about life and the twists and turns it often takes. It was sitting on the bus one day during this period that he picked up a discarded fag packet and saw it as poetic symbol for all that was going on. That was it – the writer in him unlocked and his creative strengths came together in a wave of illustrated children’s stories.
“I ended up specialising in kid’s illustrations as part of my degree. My son was 3 or 4 at the time and so I was looking at books for him constantly. When my own stories started coming it was like a bolt out of the blue. Suddenly I could see exactly what I was meant to be doing with my life and I started writing and illustrating the ideas that came to me.
I was dreaming stories, coming up with new characters in my sleep. I knew then ‘I’m meant to be this’. And now, well if I could choose any job in the world this would be what I would do.”
Just as he graduated, he was invited to exhibit with Colin Gibson, a prolific contemporary artist who had worked as an illustrator at the Courier. The exhibition was called 'Master and Servant' and John had ten days to prepare and hang his work. It was a huge success and he sold a lot, fuelling his desire to make a living from his talent.
And so, when John left Duncan and Jordanstone in 1999, he began sending manuscripts to publishers alongside his new job as a lecturer at Perth College. He was teaching art portfolio classes and summer school while writing and drawing, an outpouring of creativity at all times of day and night!
He sent off the books to publishers and had good feedback, but it stopped there. He wasn’t getting any further. After two years someone told him he was going at things the wrong way. He needed to get himself a Children’s Literary Book Agent.
“I was looking into that when I was made redundant from the college. I moved back into social work and spent fifteen years working with Perth and Kinross Council. I worked with homeless people and as rewarding as that job is, it also toughens you in a way that becomes soul stripping. You see so much pain; drugs, alcohol, mental health issues. It can desensitise you. In the end I felt I had nothing left to give. That’s not a great feeling.
We were pretty tight at home at the time, and there was no space for a studio. I knew if I’d got a commission that I’d have struggled to do it. I would nip out in my lunch hour, flicking through books and illustrations but slowly that stopped. It was just too upsetting.
All round, it was a very dark period of my life and after nine years I moved to work in sheltered housing. It was wonderful - like Shangria-La! Well, no-one hitting you was a bonus anyway. I spent seven years there in the end.”
I ask him if he wrote the stories down for his son and this is where John’s life began to open up in front of me….
“Well, yes. But it wasn’t just my son. My wife and I have fostered babies and toddlers for the past sixteen years. In fact we’ve had 72 wee ones in our care in all that time. The longest time was a lovely brother and sister who stayed with us for five and half years.
That role, that life, you become very focused on you are and what you’re doing because it matters so much that you get it right. It defines who you are.
Interestingly, our own son grew up with these other children coming and going all time and now he works out in Canada on a range – Breakwood Alberta – working with kids who are in foster care. It’s tough, but enriching and he’s amazing at it because he’s been engaging with wee people his whole life.”
There is something very matter of fact during this conversation with John. He’s not looking for any prizes or applause, he’s simply chatting about his life and how he came to be sitting in Fun Junction with his first book on a Saturday afternoon in October.
He explains to me, with soft gestures the responsibility that comes with being the person who is entrusted to rebuild and strengthen the trust of a child who has had experienced the trauma of being parted from their parents, whatever the reason.
“They are depending on you. And usually, in the first instance, I’m not who they want to see. One, I’m a man. Two, I have a beard. Three, that makes me a bit scary. But then they will come and sit with you, put their wee hand into your bigger hand and it's then you know you have a precious thing starting.
There comes a transformation, a change and those wee hands end up holding your heart. When they move on to be adopted it hurts like hell but you have to be focused. The whole experience isn’t about me, or my wife, it’s about them and their new family. It might be a first time Mum and Dad getting a much wanted child and then you have new grandparents and new aunties and uncles.
We’re part of that; we can help shape kids to make good choices and grab opportunities. How they turn out can be affected by their time in our care and in the home of their new family. Fostering and adoption changes and impacts on a generations of people. It’s made me one of the happiest men alive.”
There is something in the way he talks about this, this deeply moving experience between his family and the children who move through it, that lets you glimpse into his life and look back further than he has talked about this far.
I wonder, if perhaps his years with fostering helped him settle into the Sheltered Housing role?
“Oh definitely. You have to be able to read a person, to gain their trust, to let them know that you’re on their side. And you have to do that while being polite and positive.
We had kids with us who came from good homes where good people had ended up with big issues and just needed some help. The need to be non-judgemental when you’re caring for a person is exactly the same if they’re a toddler or if they’re ninety. You need to stand alongside a person and just be with them.
I was in the system you know. As a toddler. I was fostered out because my mum became ill and my dad worked nightshift. The first time was when I was a newborn and my mum had post-natal depression, and the next time I was about three. I was there for a year and I will never forget the couple who fostered me. That’s how I know that for kids coming into your home it’s not about how nice the house is or how much money is around, kids in that situation think one thing “Please be nice to me.” I was in three or four places before I settled and for me, it’s always been that. Kids should feel safe and non-judged. That’s what’s important.”
John then tells me his wife's parents fostered kids when she was young. That they adopted their son, Roden when he was a baby. He tells me in a room full of children he is always the biggest kid, looking for any excuse for some fun. He will always apologise to a child for any mistakes he makes - “we’re not perfect, you have let them see that’s all just part of being human” - and doing his best to break down barriers and boundaries. He is a man who clearly feels blessed with his place in the world.
“I look at what I have now and I just think, it doesn’t get much better than this. I took early retirement last October and decided to look out my old manuscripts and start again with them. The Big Brown Lazy Dog was there, all roughed out from twenty years ago but in my head, the pictures and the story were as clear as anything.
I started on it right away and by early January it was done. Back in the nineties you had to send the originals off to an agent, wait patiently and then start again. It was all very time consuming and I wanted to just get on with it. So I decided to go the Indie route and self-published. This way, I can see if people like it, if they’ll buy it and then I can take sold stats and facts to an agent and start from there. It’s so much better.”
John’s first book is The Big Brown Lazy Dog and tells the tale of the day the Big Brown Dog fell asleep and what happened when no-one could wake him up. The characters are wonderful, with a glorious rooster, a small pink pig and a very large family of small brown mice. It is a heart-warming, funny tale with a moral that tells the reader why we shouldn’t judge.
His illustrations are wonderful, with animals wearing hats and carrying umbrellas and knapsacks (as all animals should!). I bought six signed copies for some very special boys and girls and can’t wait to tell them that I met the man who painted the pictures and made these creatures come to life.
“Part of my study time at art college was sourcing great books and I used to read to my son all the time. There are so many amazingly illustrated books out there, like Whale Song . It’s a great book because it has both wonderful pictures and story.
I wanted to do a classic – so no words meandering over the page or fancy, modern techniques. Just beautiful big pictures and a sentence or two on each page. Nick Bitterworth and Mick Inkpen would be my biggest influences I think. And I remember going to see The Polar Express at the cinema and thinking this is exactly how an illustrator would have done this film. It was spot on.”
John tells me that one of the best parts of the process has been resurrecting some of the old characters that he created all those years ago. There are series of books and characters just waiting to be brought to life with his paintbrush and keyboard. Clarity McGarty, knits and solves mysterys… Farmer Harry the Lighthouse Keeper is raring to go.
“You know back in 2004 I was rushed to hospital with blood clots on my lung. We were renovating the house at the time and there was stuff everywhere because I was so stressed and so focussed on doing bathrooms and kitchens and fences. I remember being allowed up to go to the loo and I was barely able to breathe. I got back to bed and realised that all I had been doing was preparing the house to sell it. What would my wife and son had been left with if one of those close calls had got me? What would they remember?
It was then I resolved to be more fun; I made pals with the old man over the ward from me and I laughed with more gusto than I had in years. He died, and I learned to be fun. A sense of humour is an often forgotten priority.”
I am sitting in Fun Junction, coffee finished and pen on fire. I'm wondering at the life of this extraordinary man who has come full circle through years of care, love and sometimes darkness. His face is as animated and happy of that as his characters and he has the glorious air of someone who has come to live in the life he was meant to be in. Over the hour or two I spent with him, he chatted to many children, signing books and smiling like the proverbial cat with the cream.
“You get one shot at life. You don’t want to reach the end and have regrets. I’ve discovered myself along the way and hand on heart, I like who I’ve become and I’m happy in my own skin.
For me, it's Mags that is the amazing one, but that's another story! I just get to sit with the kids, being my honest, real and authentic self. It really doesn’t get any better than that.”
Buy John’s first book, The Big Brown Lazy Dog, in one of these fabulous Perth Indies. (We do love a #PerthLoveFest as you know!)