I’ve often been in groups of publishers, moaning loudly about how difficult it is to find good illustrators. Until now, I hadn’t quite realized that the opposite also held true, and that it’s as hard – in fact, much harder – for illustrators to find good publishers. The Bologna bookfair in Italy is one of the few places where the twain, annually, get to meet.
One of the busiest stalls this year was the one run by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, an American-based organization which has over 19,000 members worldwide. Here, hopeful illustrators queued up for a “Five Minute Feedback” session (yes, there was a stopwatch) with award-winning children’s illustrators such as Doug Cushman, an American based in Paris.
“Okay,” said Doug, “your time starts….now.”
The artist unzipped her folio with fumbling fingers, aware that precious seconds were ticking by.
Her work was more than competent – it showed imaginative flair, command over a wide variety of media, and an ability to combine sophistication with naïveté which seems to me the essence of good children’s illustration.
At one point, Doug asked, casually, whether the artist preferred working with computers or by hand.
“By hand, definitely,” she replied.
His eyes lit up: it was obviously the right answer. I found again and again, that the word “graphic” – suggesting something computer-aided – was used pejoratively. Clearly, a higher value is placed in the artist’s command over pen, brush and ink than her knowledge of Photoshop and Illustrator.
The five minutes were nearly up. Doug was talking fast.
“You know what you should do…” he flipped back a couple of pages. “Take this character, okay?” He pointed to a little girl in a red cap, playing in the snow. “Do her in summer. Do her in spring. Do her when it’s raining. Do her angry, sideways, eating, underwater. Show me that you can draw her thirty-two times with thirty-two different expressions.”
Had I been her, I might have been tempted to cry at this point. However, children’s book illustrators are clearly made of sterner stuff. She nodded briskly, thanked him, and stiffened her shoulders, ready to foray back into the sharkpool.
Of the 1300 exhibitors from 66 countries at this year’s fair, India could have won the award for busiest, and least busy, stalls. Tara books, the Chennai-based publishers, could hardly keep up with the steady stream of visitors to their stall, drawn there by the announcement that the prestigious 2008 Bologna Ragazzi prize for ‘New Horizons’ for their book, The Night Life of Trees, illustrated by tribal artists Bhajju Shyam, Durga Bai and Ram Singh Urveti, and entirely hand-made using screen-printing. On the other hand, the National Book Trust stand stood empty of both books and people.
Every year, an international competition is held, and the final selection of 99 illustrators from the 2500 entries are displayed. This showcased an extraordinary array of media and techniques – paintings, pencil sketches, gouache, pastels, pen and ink, collage… you name it – as well as a range of styles from figurative to boldly impressionistic. But – and this was a Big But – were they for children?
As my colleague and I wandered about, it struck us forcefully that none of the illustrations displayed we felt would work for a children’s book in the Indian market. Many of the images were stark, surreal, complex and ‘painterly’. Some were just downright disturbing. The over-all winner was Einar Turkowski, a German artist, whose minutely detailed drawings of fantastical objects could keep an adult viewer riveted for hours. His inspiration comes mainly from fin-de-siècle technical drawings, and he only uses a needle-sharp, HB pencil for all of his artworks. Brilliant, yes. Beautifully executed, certainly – but for kids? Indian illustrator, Pooja Pottenkulam, says, “I really liked Einar Turkowski’s work- very detailed, but maybe a bit dark…. I think maybe when it is for children, then you can’t really work as an artist, you have to think of the age group that you are communicating to.”
One of the most successful illustrators in the world – and whose work seems to leap effortlessly across cultural boundaries – is Eric Carle. He calls himself a “picture writer” rather than an ‘illustrator’, ‘artist’ or ‘author’. Karadi Tales have already had enormous success with their tactile (and Braille) edition of his best-known book, A Very Hungry Caterpillar. The book was first published forty years ago, is translated into 50 different languages, and has sold one copy every 57 seconds (approximately) since then: you do the math. Carle’s description of how he develops the ideas for his books illustrate perfectly (pardon the pun) how words and visuals have to mesh perfectly to make a successful children’s book. For him, simplicity is the key: “‘Too much, too soon,’ comes to my mind when I look at an overloaded picture book.”
Age certainly matters, but so, clearly, does culture. The illustrators I chatted to at Bolonga had their own take: Italians are “too conservative,” whereas the French are “willing to push an idea to its extreme – quite explosive!” They all loved Nightlife of Trees (rights to which have sold in German, Italian, Spanish and several other languages already) not because it was culturally familiar, but for precisely the opposite reason: “Something so culturally far away from me can be very exciting,” said one.
John Shelley, a British illustrator who lives in Japan, offered interesting insights into what kinds of books travel and why. “Raymond Briggs is a massively successful illustrator in the UK. However his character Fungus the Bogeyman was not at all successful in Japan. People there do not have the same appreciation of ‘toilet humour’, [but then] he released The Snowman. Same author/illustrator, same technique, different character – it was a massive success in Japan, as a snowman is a lot more attractive than poor old Fungus.”
Scholastic’s runaway success, Clifford the Big Red Dog, sunk without a trace in Japan. Shelley’s theory is that “America is a big country, and a lot of American culture promotes BIG as a great thing. Shrek, Monsters Inc etc – all big, loveable larger-than-life characters. In Japan, however, small is beautiful – people live in small apartments, everything is compact. ‘Tiny’ is much more marketable character trait than BIG…” He adds (sensibly, and perhaps thinking: Godzilla): “…in general.”
It’s hard – perhaps just plain foolhardy – to make generalizations about anything in India, since everything seems to be changing at such a pace. No single illustrator, or story (apart from You-Know-Who) has ‘swept the board’ here – yet. Look at the books published by NBT, for example, and you’d be tempted to say that Indian illustrations are simple, somewhat ‘cartoony’, tend to be realistic rather than impressionistic, and somewhat ‘safe’: cute and conservative. Then again, Atanu Roy’s illustrations for Anupa Lal’s story What a Mix-up! (an NBT title) cheerfully explode that theory.
Then there are more recent titles, which straddle the divide between ‘art book’ and ‘children’s book’, such as HarperCollins’ Captured in Miniature by Suhag Shirodkar, The Traveller, The Tiger and the Very Clever Jackal by Reshma Ansari Sapre or The Kidnapping of Amir Hamza by Mamta Mangaldas. Similar, large-format art books which have established Tara’s reputation abroad, Bhajju Shyam’s The London Jungle Book and his recent That’s How I See Things for example, now seem to be picking up sales – and certainly visibility – in the Indian market of late.
Partly, this may just be a reflection of the urban, Indian middle-class’s increasing spending power, and concomitant aspirations. Ten years ago, publishers would have been wary about producing a children’s book priced at over Rs100 – let alone the Rs300-400 range for the hardback HarperCollins and Tara books mentioned above. But along with expanding economic horizons, aesthetics are also changing. Tribal art, for example, is not just ‘ethnic’ it’s also, increasingly, ‘chic’. There’s also the inevitable push-me-pull-you of ‘Western’ vs ‘Traditional’ – and hopefully a more nuanced understanding of Indian art forms and storytelling traditions which moves beyond the ‘folktale animal story’ or the ‘mythological’ and emerges enriched with contemporary flair. These are the movements which are likely to result in books that not only stand out in the international market, but attract and hold the imaginations of Indian kids too.
I asked a Spanish translator, a Brazilian illustrator, and an Argentinian publisher whether they thought the illustrations displayed at Bologna were for adults or children. They replied as one: “It doesn’t matter. Beautiful books are for any and everyone.” I came away from the book fair if not with a ‘happily ever after’, then at least with a renewed surge of hope and confidence that the first steps on the journey have been taken, and the story will certainly be an interesting and colourful one.