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Our illustrator-focus blog series is designed to let you have a closer look at some of the amazing artists between the pages of our favourite books. We believe in recognising illustrators for their gifts and their role in stimulating childhood imaginations. This time we're looking at Torben Kuhlmann, a German illustrator and writer best known for his wonderful trilogy of books about ingenious, adventurous mice: Lindbergh: The Tale of a Flying Mouse, Armstrong: The Adventurous Journey of a Mouse to the Moon and Edison: The Mystery of the Missing Mouse Treasure.
Torben Kuhlmann was born in 1982 in a small town in Saxony. Since childhood, he had an interest in making and building things and was obsessed with transport and inventions. He was nicknamed the draftsman (der Zeichner), in school because his notebooks were always covered in drawings of planes, trains and machinery.
Kuhlmann went on to study illustration and communication design in the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences. He took mainly courses in advertising and editorial illustration, with no major emphasis on picture book illustration. He has since said that his own cautiousness about the picture book job market led him to neglect this area of his studies; he chose modules in things like communication design and animation, with a view to working in an agency or a film studio. However, picture books have gone on to be the most lucrative area of Kuhlmann's career. His books have now been translated into 30 languages, and amassed 6 figure sales globally. He still works as a contract illustrator for advertising and magazines like National Geographic, but most of his time is now spent on his books, and on public appearances as a children's author.
Although Kuhlmann didn't focus on children's illustration in his degree, it was his graduation project that was to lead him into a successful career in picture books. He originally created Lindbergh: The Tale of a Flying Mouse as a final year thesis. The brilliant book caught the attention of publisher North South and was released a couple of years later to wide acclaim.
Lindbergh is about a tiny brave mouse who, faced with the dangerous new invention of the mechanical mouse-trap, dreams of escaping to America. To his dismay he discovers that opportunistic cats are now guarding all of the ports, and so he hatches a plan to be the first mouse to fly across the Atlantic. Lindbergh is an unusual and original book, both in its subject matter and its format. The story is told through interwoven text and illustrations, with neither being complete without the other.
The book features an introduction by the curator of the aircraft and aeronautics division at the Smithsonian. In other words, the man in charge of caring for Charles Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis" airplane, which he used to complete the first solo flight across the Atlantic. Before he became an aviation icon, Lindbergh was merely an airmail pilot transporting post between St. Louis and Chicago. The curator playfully writes that he had always believed Lindbergh was inspired to greatness by a newspaper article about a failed attempt at an Atlantic crossing a few years earlier, but after reading Torben Kuhlmann's book, he now knows the real inspiration!
This introduction sets the tone for this book, which intersperses real history with a whimsical story. The author places his inventive mouse character at the centre of many of the key elements of early 20th century history; emigration, advances in aviation, and nautical voyages. One illustration cleverly references an iconic image of a newsboy hawking papers after the sinking of the Titanic.
Torben Kuhlmann's illustration style is cinematic, no doubt influenced by his studies of film and animation. Lindbergh is a large format book and the author makes good use of double-page spreads, with a mixture of close-up detail and wide angle views. The mouse's studies and inventions are illustrated with a zoomed-in perspective, reflecting his single-minded focus, while imagery of the cat-guarded docks is shown at a wider lens, emphasising the seemingly insurmountable task ahead of this tiny mouse. Kuhlmann's stylish, detailed and realist illustrations are created by hand. He uses pencil and fine liner to draw, and colours with watercolour paints.
Lindbergh has echoes of Shaun Tan's The Arrival, both in its visual style and its theme of emigration. Like Shaun Tan, Torben Kuhlmann uses sepia tones in his handpainted illustrations, and often makes use of a photo-album collage style. He carefully places faux marks of wear and tear to suggest that each book is a precious historical item. (For more on Shaun Tan, check out our blog on his books, here.)
Kuhlmann's use of visuals to tell a story also draws comparison with Shaun Tan, whose books are often wordless. Tan often uses comparison in his illustrations to document progress and change, and Kuhlmann does the same in Lindbergh. The story of the wiley mouse's desperate journey to America to escape persecution is summed up in two key images at either end of the book: the first shows the mouse surrounded by mouse traps, and the second shows him surrounded by his friends and family.
Torben Kuhlmann's follow up to Lindbergh, Armstrong: The Adventurous Journey of a Mouse to the Moon is another heroic rodent saga. This time our hero has sets his sights on a moon landing. Lindbergh and Armstrong are both stand-alone books and while it's not necessary to have read one to enjoy the other, they do interlink in subtle ways. When the mouse in Armstrong receives a mysterious invitation to the Smithsonian museum, he meets an older mouse who teaches him the history of rodent aviation. This elder mouse shows him a picture of the mouse from Lindbergh with his tiny plane.
Like Lindbergh, much of the story in Armstrong is about the mouse's quest to find the perfect technology to fulfil his dreams; Nicole Lamy in the New York Times reviewed the book and said, "The successful moon landing and the return are triumphant moments, but it's his tinkerings that provide a whole universe of joy". The book is a treat for readers of any age who are in interested in science and technology, because unlike other children's books on similar themes, it never pretends that the mission will be easy.
Valerie Neal, the curator of the Human Spaceflight section of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. writes in her introduction; "This imaginative retelling of the first journey to the moon is true, mostly. The challenges and problem solving, the inventiveness and dedication, the tests and failures, and yes, the tragedy and ultimately the successes all occurred much as they are depicted here." The crux of Armstrong is the scientist's well-trodden path of repetition, determination and eventually, breakthrough.
Armstrong the mouse returns in the third book in Torben Kuhlmann's adventurous trilogy: Edison: The Mystery of the Missing Mouse Treasure. This time he's an aged professor helping a young explorer-mouse find submerged treasure.
Armstrong's technological wisdom is needed to help the mice dive deep into the ocean to recover something hidden on a sunken ship. Again, scientific experimentation is the focus of the story; first they try a diving bell, and when that encounters problems, they build a tiny submarine. When they find the treasure it leads them to discover that the mouse that hid it was a talented inventor. But a human got all the credit, typically!
Torben Kuhlmann's books are full of wry humour. In all of the stories in the series, human beings are shown to be unaware of how much mice have silently contributed to science and technology. Edison has some very funny moments when the two mice hold a magnifying glass up to old photographs and discover an influential mouse hiding in plain view. The series is a really fun way to get young readers interested in science and technology, and each book has an educational section on the real history that inspired it at the end. We hope these wonderful books might encourage you to do some exploring of your own.
Browse Torben Kuhlmann's mouse series here, or ask in store.