Comics, Chalk & Cheese
My post this week features probably my favourite two characters that I have worked with - Chalk & Cheese - a project heavily influenced by my lifelong love of comics.
They also just happen to be based on me and Noah.
I’ve always been passionate about comic strips
- in particular, Charles Schulz’s infamous Peanuts (which I grew up on); Calvin and Hobbes; Mutts; Cul de Sac; Pearls Before Swine.
I love their pacing and brevity of words; the simplicity and beauty of the line; the sound effects (WHUMP!) and speech bubbles.
I love the unfolding relationships and evolving storylines.
Above all, I love how they make me feel - they bring a smile to my face and sometimes make me laugh out loud. But they never fail to brighten my day.
So I was really pleased to come across this early Peanuts strip at last year’s exhibition, Good Grief, Charlie Brown! at Somerset House in London.
Charlie Brown and I have a lot in common.
Historically (perhaps less so nowadays), comics have been dismissed as inferior reading material. Think about how those early comic strips were thrown out with the daily news cycle. Or my childhood comics, The Beano, Spiderman and Batman - printed on cheap paper. Pulp fiction. Consumed rapidly like fast food literature.
Personally, I think they are a really important and valuable reading resource.
Because comics (by which I mean a story told through narrative, sequential panels) can be incredibly complicated. That’s a whole article in itself - suffice to say research has proven their value. One U.S. study concluded that -
for students to improve their vocabulary they must be exposed to as many complex or difficult words as possible. [California State University’s] research found that “the language used by comics is far more advanced than that the oral communication of college graduates, and uses almost twice as many rare or difficult words!”
- Lucas Maxwell, A FRIENDLY REMINDER THAT COMIC BOOKS STILL COUNT AS READING
It was inevitable that this major childhood influence would eventually inform my professional work. Enter Chalk (a New York City dog) and his irrepressible house guest - Cheese (an English country mouse).
These unlikely friends first appeared in my self-penned picture book, Chalk & Cheese (Simon & Schuster 2008):
In expansive, humor-laden art, some drawn in cartoon-strip style, the duo gad about New York... There, Cheese hopes he’ll get to see King Kong; instead he gets lost, lured away by the aroma of warm nuts... What’s best is the sheer exuberance both feel about New York, to which this story is a love letter.
- Ilene Cooper, Booklist
I desperately wanted my story to be told in the form of a graphic novel for kids, but it seems I was ahead of my time. My editor wouldn’t let me take it that far, so it ended up as a slightly unconventional picture book that made good use of comic devices and formatting. Conceived initially as ‘Ralph and Mouse’, Chalk and Cheese take their names from the British phrase ‘to be like chalk and cheese’ - meaning to be complete opposites.
Large, full-page illustrations peppered with word balloons alternate with comic-strip-style panels to tell the pair’s story... Children will relate to Cheese’s perpetual motion (his ears are constantly aquiver) and enthusiastic lack of restraint as well as his occasional tendency to mispronounce words (“ridiclious”) or coin new ones (“slippety”); adults will easily sympathize with the patient and long-suffering Chalk.
- The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
That was eleven years ago now. So it felt good to receive this unexpected email in March this year:
Hi! My name is Christina Poerstel. I am a full-time intern in a second-grade classroom in Harford County, Maryland. I am currently a senior at Towson University and working on my Honors Capstone project.
I want to see the impact of students writing when their assignment has greater purpose. In the students current writing unit, we are writing opinions about picture books (favorite characters, pictures, setting, problem and solution...) to a friend. I want to study if writing to the author of a book has an impact on the quality and quantity of their writing. My hope is that students will be more motivated and create stronger opinion letters when they are writing to someone in the outside community.
My students love your book, Chalk and Cheese! I thought this would be the perfect book to write our opinion letters on since everyone loves this book.
How could I say no to such a friendly approach? So I agreed - and duly received a parcel of charming letters from the students. This was the very first one I read, and the salutation made my day -
‘Dear Mr. Tim’ …
Favourable reviews are always good to read, but I don’t go out of my way to find them. On the other hand, kids’ letters like these make my day! To see that I am bringing joy and contributing to someone’s ambition to become a writer is so mind blowing!
‘I think I want to be a writer just like you.’
It would have taken too long to write each individual reply, but I also didn’t want to send a generalised blanket cover letter back. So I picked up on some specific questions and mentioned some of the students by name.
Like Delaney, for example. How cute is her drawing of Chalk and Cheese?
Here’s some of my reply to those second graders:
Jordan wrote, Cheese is just like me because I am funny. Sometimes I am like Chalk.
You sound great, Jordan - funny, kind and gentle! I bet you make a really good friend. I’m a little bit like them both, too. Mia wrote that Chalk is caring and that it’s cute he helps Cheese around the city. It’s good to have friends and be a friend, isn’t it?
Clara - you said your favourite picture was when they are at the train station. I think that might be my favourite one, too - or maybe when they are walking home in the snow. I was in New York once, and it snowed. It was magical!
Thanks, Declan, for saying my drawing of the Empire State Building looks like a photograph. That’s really encouraging to me, because I think I’m really good at drawing characters like Chalk and Cheese, but not so good at drawing things like buildings.
All the kids thought Cheese was really funny. I based most of his dialogue on things Noah said when he was younger. (And yeah, he was hilarious.)
As well as Cheese’s obsession with King Kong, lots of the kids wrote about racoons, including this letter from Camden:
Cody - you signed off your letter, the writer Cody. That’s so cool - I hope one day you get to have your own book published.
Savannah wrote, Cheese sees a cockroach and says to Chalk, “Can I keep him?” I think that’s funny and it’s sooo funny when Cheese says, ‘I will name you Cutey Pops!”
This, too, was based on a real life scenario - Noah found a woodlouse or something and named it Cutey Pops (it later became the name of Levi’s cuddly toy sausage dog).
Claire Brown noticed, and enjoyed the fact, that Cheese is easily distracted. Noah and I both have ADD so we are both easily distracted. He is still very easy to lose when we go places (despite being nearly 20 years old now!).
Sophia - I liked the cartoon of Cheese Mouse that you drew at the end of your letter for me, where he’s saying, Wait - it’s the ending already?! You’ve captured him perfectly! That’s exactly what he might say. Delaney’s drawing was delightful, too!
Lots of you asked, will there be another Chalk & Cheese book?
The answer: I don’t know. I hope so, but there are no plans yet. I think about them often.
(If I do, Ella had a good idea with ‘Chalk and Cheese Go to School!’)
Caleb asked if I do write another book, whether I can put his dog Stanley in it! That’s a great idea. The only problem is - I don’t know what kind of dog he is, Caleb! My friends have just got a pup, and they called him Stanley, too. He’s a beagle. (Did you know that Chalk is based on an English Bull Terrier?)
Hadassah wrote, I’m glad you wrote that book.
Well, I’m glad you all wrote those letters!
I signed off with an apology -
I’m sorry if I have made some of you feel left out by not mentioning you all by name. Unfortunately, I have to get on with my other work. But truly I’m grateful to hear from you.
Although there is (so far) only one Chalk & Cheese book, I did develop them in my online comic which ran for two years.
They also made a guest appearance in the collective Team Cul de Sac book (in a spread opposite the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterston, no less!), which was created to raise funds for Parkinson’s research. It’s on my to-do list to spend time working on some more Chalk & Cheese ideas and approaching a publisher again. I would love to work on them once more, though.
Back to Christina, the kids’ student intern teacher.
Remember - the class were writing as part of her project, to see if writing to the author of a book has an impact on the quality and quantity of their writing.
Here’s the outcome:
I found writing and communicating to someone outside of our community had a positive impact on their literacy skills, motivated, and inspired the students. While presenting my presentation, professors were blown away with the positive and quick responses I had from you. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without you!’
I cannot thank you enough for the time you spent writing our class back! That was such a thoughtful message and my class was blown away you answered so many of our questions and included so many examples from their letters. While I read the message out loud students were squealing when they heard their name or a classmates name.
Christina ended her thank you with this little aside:
Your name is brought up in our room like you are a friend.
Which is funny.
At the start of this piece, I mentioned my love of Schulz’s Peanutz. Well, when I was a kid, I had a patch sewn onto my camp blanket. It was of Charlie Brown, against a bright green background, beneath the slogan:
I need all the friends I can get!
I guess that can include a class of kids way across the Atlantic Ocean, laughing at my story of a friendship between a dog and a mouse, created over 10 years ago. As Cheese Mouse would say,
‘That’s totally AWESOME!’
Chalk & Cheese
by Tim Warnes
(2008, Simon & Schuster)
‘Children will find [Cheese’s] game enthusiasm for everything from subway cockroaches to skating at Rockefeller Center ("Splat!") simply hilarious.’
- Kate McClelland, School Library Journal