It’s not every day that you come across a picture book like Too Many Cheeky Dogs. Written by first-time author Johanna Bell and ilustrated by Dion Beasley, an artist with multiple disabilities, the book is testament to the old homage ‘anything is possible if you put your mind to it’.
Born profoundly deaf and with muscular dystrophy Dion spent the first part of his life living in Lake Nash, a remote community on the Queensland/Northern Territory boarder. When he moved to Tennant Creek aged 11, Dion couldn’t speak, had no AUSLAN skills and was finding primary school pretty frustrating. But luck was on Dion’s side in the form of a local woman, Joie Boulter. Working as Dion’s disability support educator at the time, Joie noticed Dion loved to draw camp dogs. Sketch books quickly filled and before long there was a tower of cheeky dog drawings looking for a home.
In 2006, Joie helped Dion establish his own T-shirt brand Cheeky Dogs that has since become a household name around the Northern Territory. Rumour has it that Cheeky Dog T-shirts have been spotted as far afield as New York City, London and Tokyo.
All the while Dion kept drawing using paper and pencil to communicate with the world. Stories about his childhood, his family and his beloved camp dogs worked their way onto pages. When I first visited Dion, he showed me images of the time Joie’s husband Tony bogged their white car in the river on the way to Lake Nash, his grandfather’s house at Mulga Camp and intricate depictions of all his favourite rides at the Tennant Creek show. Among my favourites were images of ‘animals from overseas’ (as Dion called them) based on a trip he’d taken to Melbourne zoo. These and other works by Dion have been developed into limited edition prints which were quickly snapped up by the National Gallery of Australia and art enthusiasts across the country. In 2012, Dion exhibited his work at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Primavera exhibition cementing his reputation as one of Australia’s most exciting young contemporary artists.
Meanwhile, almost 1000km north of Tennant Creek, an education researcher and aspiring children’s author was hatching a plan. After working in remote preschools across the Northern Territory, Johanna Bell came to the conclusion that there weren’t enough children’s books about the lived experiences of remote Indigenous children. Determined to create a book to support remote literacy Johanna was drawn to Dion’s humour-filled drawings of camp dogs. In the remote communities she’d visited they’d always been at least one cheeky dog (and usually a whole mob!). Given the diversity of Indigenous Australia finding a single character that has universal appeal is challenging. But in Dion’s dog, Johanna found just that.
Two years, three grants, a couple of light aircraft flights, a crash course in Auslan and a lot of laughs later, Too Many Cheeky Dogs is hitting book stores.
The bookmaking process had its fair share of challenges. After the initial excitement, Johanna and Dion were stalled because it took almost four months to secure seed funding for a project planning and illustration workshop in Tennant Creek. Luckily, ArtsNT, FlyTiwi and the Rio Tinto Aboriginal Fund recognised the project’s potential and provided and helped cover costs.
The next challenge was more complex. Prior to the Cheeky Dog Book Project, Dion had drawn lots of dogs doing ‘doggy things’ – eating, drinking, fighting, running, barking and generally running amok. So when Johanna, in her awkward beginner Auslan started gesturing about a pack of dogs playing AFL, Dion looked at her in disbelief. ‘You want me to draw what? Dogs playing football? Don’t be ridiculous. Dogs don’t play football. That’s silly!’ Johanna’s heart sunk. At least half her manuscript was about dogs doing human things. It hadn’t crossed her mind that anthropomorphising the dogs would cause a problem. Just when things had ground to a halt and Johanna was contemplating a re-write of the manuscript, Joie came to the rescue. ‘Dion, do you remember that time we went to watch your grandfather’s football team play at the oval? Remember? Your grandfather was wearing his big hat. Imagine if a dog had run onto the football field and stolen the ball?’ All the while, Joie signed in her spirited Auslan. Dion nodded but didn’t looked convinced. ‘What if a whole pack of cheeky dogs ran onto the oval and started kicking goals?’ Before long, Joie and Johanna were charging around the patio miming a very energetic game of football between a team of dogs and the opposing side of donkeys. Dion waited until the antics were over and then, with a twinkle in his eye, he started to draw. Still Johanna’s favourite page in the book, the cheeky dog football team, complete with stripy jerseys and matching socks symbolises the moment the book took on it’s own life.
Almost 18 months after the Cheeky Dog Picture Book Project commenced Johanna and Dion teamed up with Melbourne-based graphic designer Ruth Gruener. With over twenty years’ experience in literary design and a remarkable ability to turn people’s visions into reality, Ruth was the perfect fit for our project. Ruth took what were initially disparate illustrations and mocked them up into a draft version of the book. With gentle and timely guidance she supported Dion and Johanna to transform the book into the version you see today. At a three day workshop funded by Arts Access Australia, Ruth worked with Dion on page composition and digital illustration and the product was sent to Allen & Unwin who lucky for us, loved the book!
The making of Too Many Cheeky Dogs has been adventure for all involved. Thank you to all our supporters. We can’t wait to work with you on a sequel.