Life | The Sketch In The Story

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The Sketch In The Story
Text by Anita Roy
Published: Volume 16, Issue 8, August, 2008

Looking back at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and pondering on the world of children’s literature, Anita Roy picks up on the global trend of illustrating children’s books with an adult perception

I’ve often been amid groups of publishers, moaning loudly about how difficult it is to find good illustrators. Until now, I hadn’t quite realised 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 organisation 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”

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 on more than one occasion, 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.”
“Yup, thirty-two.”

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’ was given to their book The Night Life of Trees, illustrated by tribal artists Bhajju Shyam, Durga Bai and Ram Singh Urveti and entirely handmade 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, 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 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.”