Beatrice Alemagna's Unique and Charming Picture Books October 31 2018Alemagna manages to retain a recognisable aesthetic through all of her work, but for each new book she utilises different materials. Her illustrations have used collage, cutouts, paint, textured paper, transparent elements and coloured pencils.
Robert Ingpen's Magical Classics June 28 2018
Every month we blog about an illustrator that we love, giving you the opportunity to learn more about your favourite artists' backgrounds and influences, or to discover great picture books you may not have heard of. We've covered everyone from contemporary picture book makers like Chris Haughton, to best loved classic illustrators like Quentin Blake. This month, we’ve chosen Robert Ingpen, a much respected artist who has illustrated his own versions of many of children’s literature's most famous titles. Robert Ingpen’s work is beloved among other illustrators and authors, Michael Morpurgo called his drawings “utterly compelling”, and his versions of the children's classics feel like the definitive editions.
A life of learning
Ingpen was born in 1936, and grew up in the coastal city of Geelong in Australia. Like another of our favourite Australian illustrators, Shaun Tan, the landscape and Aboriginal history of this vast country have informed his work. Ingpen's childhood was full of stories and drawing. His neighbour, a portrait photographer, used to “read” to him from a large red book, but instead of reading what the text said, she would make the stories up as she went along! The young Ingpen found this magical, and he credits this neighbour with introducing him to the limitless possibilities of imagination. Ingpen studied design and illustration at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, and while studying, made it his business to learn about everything that went into making a book, from paper making to the technical skills of illustration. He came to see the book as an art form that, instead of being kept for display in a gallery, is for everyone to interact with or own.
After college, Ingpen was recruited by a national scientific organisation in Australia, and tasked with communicating new scientific discoveries to farmers and fishermen so that they could implement the knowledge in their work. He began using local folklore and old tales to get the information across in an accessible and engaging way. Since his early career, a passion for conservation and heritage has been a running theme in his work. Ingpen’s art can be seen across the Australian state of Victoria in publicly commissioned murals, tapestries and sculpture. His work has even entered into daily life on postage stamps.
Ingpen creates his illustrations traditionally using paint and paper, often in watercolour or tempera (paint mixed with other liquid, usually egg). He imports the paper he paints on specially from Germany, and he’s used the same type exclusively for almost forty years. Before setting a brush to paper though, his designs are always carefully worked out in sketchbooks. Wonderlands: The Illustration of Robert Ingpen contains lots of information and references for Ingpen's work, with notes and sketches from the artist himself. You can buy it here.
Robert Ingpen has illustrated versions of some of the most loved children’s books ever written, his series of Children’s Classics are beautiful books that we’re now delighted to stock! In the introduction to Wonderlands, Elizabeth Hammill writes that when he illustrates the classics, Ingpen “journeys into the landscapes of their creators’ minds”. He carefully considers the nature of every story he illustrates in order to capture its essence, and this makes his editions of the classics feel like the most authoritative versions.
Robert Ingpen’s first attempt at illustrating Peter Pan came about at the tender age of seven! (His amazingly accomplished childhood illustration is featured in Wonderlands: The Illustration Art of Robert Ingpen). In 2004 he was asked to illustrate its centenary edition, and it was this book that launched his series of illustrated children’s classics.
J.M. Barrie's novel is still as magical today as when it was written, and Ingpen's illustrations make this edition the perfect one to read aloud with children of any age.
The Jungle Book
Robert Ingpen’s background in nature drawing served him well when it came to illustrating Rudyard Kipling’s classic, The Jungle Book.
His illustrations of Mowgli and his family of wolves, as well as the other animals the story collection, bring us to the heart of the Indian jungle.
Ingpen’s work for The Secret Garden is slightly darker than some other illustrators’ versions, (like this edition illustrated by Inga Moore). His illustrations emphasises the transformative effect that the garden has on the lonely children.
Each chapter of the book opens with a beautiful botanical illustration, with the Latin name of the plant written underneath. This draws readers into the true nature of the story, and lets children learn about plants and flowers just like the children in the book. This edition of Ingpen's version of the book, embossed with a plant motif on its green hard cover, is a beautiful way for children to discover this story.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is one of the great classics of children’s literature; since its original publication in 1865 it has never once been out of print! The book has countless editions, and many of the world’s most accomplished illustrators have taken on the project of illustrating it. Everyone from Tove Jansson to Helen Oxenbury have created their own take on Lewis Carroll’s surreal Wonderland.
Robert Ingpen’s version of Wonderland is a hazy dreamland; his characters are vivid, but his backgrounds swim out of focus. His Alice is red haired, and wears the same frock and apron as Sir John Tenniel’s original drawing in the book’s first edition. Her bemused expression in Ingpen’s illustrations is loyal to the sense of bewilderment and detachment that Alice experiences throughout the book; staying quite calm while all around her degenerates into nonsense!
In contrast to his illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where the story’s landscapes are insignificant, Ingpen clearly puts a lot of thought into the backgrounds in The Wind in the Willows.
The English countryside which the characters call home is rendered in luscious greens and oranges, and the interiors of the houses the story’s creatures live in are highly detailed. The interiors give a marvellous sense of each character.
Ingpen writes in Wonderlands:The Illustration Art of Robert Ingpen, “There are some stories that transcend the original inspiration of their authors and take on a life of their own. Treasure Island is, without a doubt, one of these stories."
It’s the artist’s passion for the texts he illustrates that makes Ingpen's work so perfectly suited to each individual story.
Whether you're looking to introduce a child to the stories you loved when you were young, or to revisit your favourite children's books through great art, you can't go wrong with one of Ingpen's classics.
Shirley Hughes' Timeless Appeal April 12 2018 1 Comment
Shirley Hughes is best known for her Alfie series, about the daily lives of a little boy called Alfie, his sister Annie Rose, and their family and community. Hughes' stories are warm and comforting and her illustration style is nostalgic and naturalistic. Children love her books because they can recognise their own daily lives in the stories, and adults love them for their sweetness and gentle humour.
Layers of Meaning: Kaatje Vermeire's Innovative Illustrations February 28 2018Kaatje Vermeire is just one of the great illustrators currently working on the continent, who are strangely underappreciated by English speaking audiences. Although many of her books have been translated, readers in Ireland and the UK tend to stick to what they know and miss out on the experimental, innovative approaches being taken by continental illustrators.
The Man Who Made Miffy: Dick Bruna's Life and Art January 18 2018
Every month we blog about an illustrator that we love, giving you the opportunity to learn more about your favourite authors' background and influences, or to discover great picture books you may not have heard of. So far we've covered a diversity of artists, from the forgotten genius of twentieth century illustration Kay Nielsen, to the underground icon Tomi Ungerer. This month we've been learning about Dick Bruna, the man behind one of our favourite children's characters.
Dick Bruna was a Dutch illustrator, most famous for creating the iconic children’s character Miffy the rabbit. Miffy stars in a series of picture books, and a global range of merchandise; everything from chopping boards to cushions. Bruna was a very diligent worker, during his lifetime he created over 30 Miffy books, and a staggering 124 picture books in total! Miffy is now a worldwide brand and a literary sensation; she is a household name in Japan, and there is a museum dedicated to her in Bruna’s hometown of Utrecht in The Netherlands. Dick Bruna distilled the simplicity and joy of childhood into his streamlined designs, and nowadays his work is appreciated by children aged 0 to 100.
How it began
Dick Bruna was born in Utrecht in 1927, in a Chinese Zodiac year of the Rabbit, naturally! His father Albert Willem Bruna was a partner in a successful publishing company called A.W. Bruna & Zoon. When the Second World War started, the Bruna family took refuge in a lake district in the heart of the Netherlands, and it was here that the young artist started to develop his talents. Dick Bruna was unable to attend school during this period, and instead had to entertain himself at home all day long by painting and drawing his surroundings. During the time away from the city, Albert Willem’s publishing colleagues in design and illustration would often visit the family, and they sometimes took the opportunity to give the young Dick Bruna a drawing lesson.
After the war ended, Bruna strongly resisted becoming involved in his father’s business, saying that he didn’t have what it took to become a publisher. His father sent him to Paris for work experience at a publishing house there, but he was more interested in the city’s art history. The time in France gained him some of his most lasting influences, and the artists he discovered in Paris continued to impact his style throughout his career. Eventually, he became involved in his father’s company in a different capacity, as a graphic designer. He worked on book covers and his role gave him the scope to develop his simplistic and graphic illustration style.
Book covers designed by Dick Bruna. (Photo by Present & Correct).
“And, sure enough one lovely day, their little bunny came.”
A couple of years after joining his father’s company, Dick Bruna married Irene de Jongh and three children followed. Having young children inspired Bruna to create his most well known character. After seeing a rabbit running in the sand dunes during a rainy holiday in coastal Holland, Bruna told his young son stories about the rabbit’s daily life, and Nijntje ,(the original Dutch name for Miffy), was born.
The first Miffy book. Buy it here.
Nijtnje is part of the Dutch word konijntje meaning “little rabbit”, (quite similar to the Irish coinín!). Initially, until the book’s translation into English required a pronoun, Miffy was simply a small bunny, neither a girl or a boy. People who grew up with Miffy in the Netherlands often perceive Miffy as a boy, or as simply genderless. The name Miffy, thought up by an English editor when the first book was translated, has a more feminine undertone than the Dutch Nijntje.
Miffy’s usual smock type outfit wasn’t meant to indicate her gender either, Bruna simply found that dresses were more shapely to draw than trousers. Bruna always had a lot of fun with Miffy’s clothes, like this snow hat which fits neatly around both her ears!
The simple life
Even though Miffy wasn’t originally conceived as a girl, she is a strong female rolemodel for young readers. Miffy has an active and independent lifestyle, she cycles, toboggans, and paints. And she doesn’t let wearing a dress, or being a rabbit, hold her back!
Miffy glides gracefully through the tempestuous years of a toddler, nothing much seems to bother her. The text in Bruna’s books is sparse and rhyming, there are only four lines per page, and the strories focus on simple actions and activities. It’s this simplicity which makes Miffy so reassuring for young children and for stressed out adults. In the first, eponymously titled Miffy book, we spend most of the book in anticipation for the birth of the bunny. She arrives fully formed, and with a tilt of the head, her story begins.
Buy the original Miffy book here.
Miffy never has temper tantrums, she expresses all of her emotions through a simple tilt of the head or an infinitesimal change in facial expression. In Miffy is Crying, the bunny loses her bear and is, understandably, very upset. With the addition of two single tear droplets on her face, Dick Bruna expresses her sadness without having to alter the iconic design of her face. Bruna said that for every book he made, about 12 pictures were published, but hundreds were drawn. He would draw and redraw Miffy’s two dots for eyes and cross for mouth and nose, until it had precisely the right micro-expression. He’s quoted in The Guardian’s obituary of him as saying “With two dots and a little cross I have to make her happy, or just a little bit happy, a little bit cross or a little bit sad – and I do it over and over again. There is a moment when I think yes, now she is really sad. I must keep her like that.”
Bruna meticulously created each of his illustrations by hand using the same method every time. First he would use black paint to create the outline of the drawing, and transfer the outline to a transparent cel. Then he would cut shapes out of coloured paper and hold them up the transparent drawing to see which colours fit best. Coming from a design background meant Bruna was extremely specific about what colours he used. He selected a small number of “Miffy colours” and stuck to them religiously. There is a Miffy orange and a Miffy blue, and these are immediately recognisable to young children who tend to associate stories with colours and design more so than text.
Get your very own Miffy to bring home here. Head tilt included.
Bruna was very particular about each and every illustration of Miffy, and he took his wife’s opinion as tantamount. If she didn’t like a certain drawing, he would put it away for several months. He always said that when he took it back out again, he would realise she was right!
A portrait of the bunny as a young artist
Dick Bruna’s start in graphic design meant that he was always regarded as a designer, rather than as a visual artist. He never finished high school and was completely self taught as an artist; at one stage he enrolled in art college in Amsterdam, but he felt out of place and soon dropped out.
Miffy made Bruna a huge success outside of his home country almost immediately, but the appreciation of him as a visual artist has been slower to grow. In 2015 the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam mounted a show of his work, poignantly titled “Dick Bruna. Artist”. This was designed to offer a new perspective on him as an influential visual artist, as well as a commercially successful designer and children’s book author. While living in Paris in his youth, Bruna was very influenced by his discovery of visual artists like Matisse and Léger. These artists’ work encouraged him to combine line and shape in a unique way. Like Matisse, Bruna would cut shapes out of coloured paper and arrange them by hand. (Read about how contemporary picture book maker Chris Haughton also employs this method in another of our blog posts, here).
This drawing of Miffy in an art gallery is often compared side by side to "La Gerbe" by Henri Matisse. It shows the influence of the Matisse’ sense of colour and shape on Dick Bruna.
"La Gerbe" by Henri Matisse. Image from Taschen’s book Henri Matisse: Cut Outs. Drawing With Scissors.
Fernand Léger was another French artist whose expressive style influenced Dick Bruna. Léger, like Bruna, uses thick black lines and primary colours, the combination of which gives both artists' work a sense of childlike energy.
Bruna never used a ruler, and all of his lines have a slight hand drawn wobble. This gives his work more character and charm than anything that could be drawn carefully and measured. Even though Miffy is a minimalist design, she retains the charm of a hand drawn illustration.
Life imitates art
The more you learn about Dick Bruna, the more you see of him in Miffy. Like her creator, the young rabbit is interested in drawing and painting. In Miffy The Artist she visits a gallery and immediately decides to become an artist herself. Bruna was born into a family business that didn’t interest him, but he managed to use it to his advantage to become an illustrator. It's this straightforward “why not” attitude to life that makes Miffy such a brilliant role model for young children.
Get the print: Miffy the Artist
There are other similarities too, like Miffy’s practical nature. Whether it’s cycling a bike up a hill, or visiting the beach, Miffy gets on with the task at hand. Bruna himself was a punctual, hardworking man. He cycled to work in the same studio every day for 30 years, and when he accepted visitors to observe his work, he liked them to be on time and to leave promptly. You can almost imagine Miffy coming to visit her creator for tea, hanging up her raincoat, observing silently for precisely 20 minutes, and then leaving on her bicycle. Bruna and Miffy made a good team. We are lucky to know them.
We also have lots more Dick Bruna cards and postcards to choose from in our lovely shop on Drury Street, in Dublin's city centre.
Words by Sophie Meehan.
Kay Nielsen: The Forgotten Genius November 22 2017
Every month we focus a blog on an illustrator that we love, giving you the opportunity to learn more about your favourite authors' background and influences, or to discover great picture books you may not have heard of. So far we've covered everyone from beloved Swedish children's author Sven Nordqvist, to the Australian artist Shaun Tan. This month we've chosen one of our favourite turn of the century illustrators, Kay Nielsen, whose work we have stocked since the first days of the shop.
Born at the right time
Kay Nielsen was a Danish illustrator who produced work during the Golden Age, a period of unprecedented excellence in illustration that stretched from the 1880s to the 1920s. The Golden Age came about when Carl Hentschel and other pioneers invented technologies that could reproduce paintings and drawings accurately and inexpensively for the first time. Public appetite for new graphic art grew, and sumptuously illustrated gift books became popular. Artists like Arthur Rackham, Warwick Goble and Kay Nielsen illustrated books of fairy tales from masters like the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, as well as new stories. Along with Rackham and Edmund Dulac, Nielsen is often considered one of the greatest illustrators of the age.
Nielsen was born into an artistic family; his father was the director of the Dagmar theatre in Copenhagen and his mother was the star of the Royal Danish theatre. He spent his early life being exposed to performance and design. As Noel Daniel points out in one of the brilliant essays in Taschen’s beautiful reissue of East of the Sun and West of the Moon, the figures in Nielsen’s illustrations often look like actors in front of stage backdrops. He draws lengthened bodies from a low-down perspective; his backgrounds are expansive and often flattened to make the figures stand out.
"And pop! Out flew the moon". Get the print here.
A new age for book illustration
The first book of fairytales Kay Nielsen illustrated was Powder and Crinoline, which shows a lot of the influence of Aubrey Beardsley, an illustrator who had a key impact on the Golden Age and on the history of book illustration itself. Before Beardsley, illustration had been mainly descriptive, and was to show only what the text had laid out. Beardsley treated every illustration as a work of art in its own right, and conferred new respect to the art of illustration. The advent of new technologies in reproducing images meant that artists could include more detail than ever, and Kay Nielsen’s illustrations for Powder and Crinoline are highly decorative. Every figure in his drawings is bedecked in flowing folds of clothing and the backgrounds are intricately detailed.
From Powder and Crinoline
In a testament to how much emphasis was placed on illustration over text in these gift books, several of the stories in Powder and Crinoline had already been published in another collection by the same publisher only three years earlier. The earlier collection was illustrated by Edmund Dulac, in a softer and more classical style. Golden Age publishers understood that a book could be transformed by its illustrator.
East of the Sun, West of the Moon
Nielsen’s break out book was East of the Sun and West of the Moon, published in 1914. Recently reissued in a sumptuous edition by Taschen, this collection of Nordic folktales were gathered by two folklorists in rural Norway in the mid 1800s and first published as a volume in 1841. As artists were starting to travel and study abroad more in the early 20th century, a cosmopolitan outlook was sweeping over Europe. But people were also beginning to focus more on their own country’s indigenous traditions. Many artists (including our own W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory), became interested in fairy and folktales from the oral tradition. The Kay Nielsen edition of East of the Sun and West of the Moon came about at the right time, and combined new heights of illustration art with an appreciation for rich folklore.
Taschen's glorious reissue of East of the Sun and West of the Moon
This book represents some of Nielsen’s best work, and is the source of many of our illustrated prints. The influence of Aubrey Beardsley is less apparent here; the stories’ Scandinavian background gives Nielsen a chance to embody a style all his own, encompassing both his Nordic origins and the myriad influences he had absorbed in his travels.
From East of the Sun, West of the Moon
Nielsen studied art in Paris, worked with theatre companies in Copenhagen, became a success in London, and later worked as a creative director in Hollywood, including at Disney. East of the Sun, West of the Moon shows off his diverse range of influences, from Japanese block prints to the costumes of the Ballet Russes. The Ballet Russes, a Russian ballet company, debuted in Paris while Nielsen was a student there and quickly became an international sensation. Their work combined some of the best costumes, art direction, music and contemporary dance the world has ever seen, their style likely impacted Kay Nielsen as a young art student.
Vaslav Nijinksy of the Ballet Russes, and one of Kay Nielsen's costumed figures from East of the Sun, West of the Moon
Too dark for Disney
Although their work for illustrated books was tremendously popular, artists in the Golden Age were still paid very little. Most had to depend on sales from their original work in gallery shows to make a living. In 1939, Nielsen moved to California to seek work with film companies, and was hired by Walt Disney to work on Fantasia. He worked on the memorably dark sequence “Night on Bald Mountain”, and the sombre procession for “Ave Maria”. Nielsen’s aesthetic stands out in stark contrast to the cute mice and dancing mushrooms in other parts of the film.
Nielsen's concept art for Disney's Fantasia
While at Disney, Kay Nielsen also produced concept art for The Little Mermaid, a project that was shelved until its eventual release in 1989. (He is credited on the 1989 version as a visual development artist). Although he was well respected by the other artists and animators at Disney, Nielsen was let go after four years, and entered a period of struggles in which he found little exposure. Unfortunately, his style had fallen out of favour in the latter years of his life. His last published book had been Red Magic, published in 1930, which shows a change in his output. His monochrome drawings here are more minimalist, as tastes were moving away from intricately detailed gift books and towards art deco simplicity.
From Red Magic
Descent into obscurity
The embellished gift books with which Nielsen made his name were no longer wanted, and neither was his artwork. He worked on a collection of illustrations for Arabian Nights which he was unable to find a publisher for, that remained unseen until many years after his death. Nielsen descended into obscurity and spent the remaining years of his life painting wall murals and farming chickens. Some of his murals can still be seen in California today, this one was commissioned by an L.A. high school and adorns the wall of their school library.
It is a testament to Nielsen’s dedication to his art that he put as much detail and effort into this library mural as he did his most prestigious commissions. The artist completed the mural in 1944 and later spent two further years in the 1950s restoring and extending it. The school librarian at the time remembers that Nielsen would always already be hard at work by the time she arrived into school every morning.
Kay Nielsen died in poverty in 1957. Before her death, Nielsen’s widow and longtime companion, Ulla, bequeathed some of his original illustrations to the artist Frederick Monhoff, who in turn tried to have them placed in museums. But no museum would take them.
Revival of popularity
Despite the decline of appreciation for Kay Nielsen’s style in his own lifetime, there has since been a revival of interest in him and in the Golden Age of Illustration in general. Since the 1970s people have been appreciating the art of these Golden Age masters anew, and Kay Nielsen in particular has stirred people’s imaginations. Perhaps this is because of his modernity and imagination, which still feels fresh today. For those interested in book illustration or in 20th Century art, Kay Nielsen’s work combines some of the greatest innovations in artistry with an amazingly diverse range of worldwide influences.
Browse our collection of Kay Nielsen prints and books here.
Chris Haughton's Deceptively Simple Storybooks October 25 2017
Every month we focus a blog on an illustrator that we love, giving you the opportunity to learn more about your favourite authors' background and influences, or to discover great picture books you may not have heard of. So far we've covered everyone from beloved Swedish children's author Sven Nordqvist, to the Australian artist Shaun Tan. This month we've chosen an Irish illustrator and one of the most popular children's book authors of the last decade, Chris Haughton.
Chris Haughton was born in Dublin and is now based in London. His books are pitched at a very young audience, and designed to be enjoyed by children even before they develop language. But his unique art style, and his use of build-up and humour to create a story, make him very popular with adults too.
A colourful start
Haughton’s books for children to date are A Bit Lost (2010), Oh No, George! (2012), Shh! We Have a Plan (2014) and, most recently, Goodnight Everyone (2016). They immediately stand out on any bookshelf because of their vibrant and unusual use of colour and shape. Haughton's colour palette is full of vibrant pinks, purples, greens and oranges. He uses all of the primary and secondary shades on the colour wheel at once on some pages, sometimes placing sharply contrasting colours side by side.
Primary and secondary colours in Goodnight Everyone
Haughton makes these colour clashes work with his keen sense of design, and the way he can seamlessly balance a variety of block shapes into a cohesive overall picture. To make his illustrations, Haughton first sketches out the scene by hand, then scans and fills them out digitally with block colour. He likes to hide shapes within shapes, so there are often animals hidden in his forests, and his books reveal new details every time you read them.
Chris Haughton creating characters from cut paper, (via CLPE on Youtube)
Colour also helps to tell the story. In Oh No, George!, tangy oranges and reds go side by side with purples, but instead of seeming incongruous, the loud tones just add to the sense of urgency and danger George the dog feels while trying to resist his base urges to eat cake and dig in the flowerbeds!
Character sketches for Oh No, George! From blog.chrishaughton.com
These vibrant colours might partly explain Haughton's wild popularity with very young children. (We can barely keep up with the demand for his books in Tales for Tadpoles!) In Shh! We Have a Plan, small children can enjoy pointing out the colourful pink bird in a landscape of blues. And they get a great payoff in the double spread near the end of the book where there are suddenly dozens of birds to point at. Speaking to picturebookmakers.com, Haughton said that he tries to tell stories “as much as possible through images rather than through words”. This means his books can be understood by the youngest children, who can read visuals long before they can read text.
From Shh! We Have a Plan
A little owl who made it round the world
Chris Haughton’s ongoing work in design and fair trade textiles brings him around the world, and his work combines a homeliness with a universality that has made him popular worldwide. His first book for children, A Bit Lost, was first published in Korean in 2009 before it was published by Walker Books in 2010, and has since been translated into 20 languages to date, including into Irish as Ar Strae Beagán. It tells an old story in a new way; the story of getting lost and trying to find your parent.
Little Owl falls out of the nest, “Bump…bump…BUMP!” and a neighbourly pink squirrel decides to help him find his way home. The squirrel keeps getting it wrong, leading the little owl to a bear and a rabbit, before a frog eventually recognises him and leads him to his mother. The reader turns the page to witness this emotional reunion!
This is one of our most popular board books, and sells like hot cakes (or biscuits, which as Squirrel and Frog say at the end of the book “are our favourite thing”). And like all the best picture books, there is always something tucked in for adults to enjoy, too. Chris Haughton likes to include a relevant philosophical quote at the end of his books, which help to illuminate the deeper meanings of his seemingly simple stories. In A Bit Lost, it's from Robinson Crusoe:
"Thus we never see the true state of our condition, till it is illustrated to us by its contraries; nor know how to value what we enjoy, but by the want of it."
Playing with pages
Although he didn’t start out in books, the format suits Haughton’s work perfectly. He has a lot of fun with the drama of the page-turn, and he uses half-pages to add a sense of physical play to the act of reading. In a blog he keeps about his work processes, he writes that he often formulates the stories in his book around page-turning moments. When making Oh No, George!, about a dog who tries to be well behaved but fails spectacularly, he realised that it “can be great fun when reading aloud if there is a bit of a build up, so [he] decided to build up to a page turn where the dog messes up somehow… that was how the basic idea came about”. Haughton has said he is most proud of these two double spreads from the book; where three images build up to us wondering what George will do, and the next spread shows us exactly what he has done!
His latest offering, Goodnight Everyone, has a more reflective tone than previous books. Perhaps influenced by his travel and work in fair trade, witnessing the long supply-chain that many Western consumers take for granted, Haughton had for years wanted to create a book about scale and connections. But it took the author years to find his way to this book. He abandoned earlier versions before coming back to the idea a couple of years later, after becoming an uncle. His young nieces who were visiting for Christmas were having trouble sleeping, and so he created this deceptively simple bedtime story.
Goodnight Everyone is a book about going to sleep, but it’s also about the scale of the universe. A contagious yawn moves from the smallest animal to the biggest, and Haughton uses a series of mini-pages to reveal bigger and bigger animals behind the leaves.
Each new colour here marks a mini-page to turn in the book.
His nieces enjoyed being able to turn the smaller pages, and being included in the story when the yawn caught on to them too. When Little Bear eventually decides to sleep, the reader says goodnight to all of the animals individually, and as we move on to the next page the books “zooms out” to include the animals from the previous page in the background. This is a clever way to visually introduce children to the scale of the world, and how we all relate to each other. The main characters are Little Bear and Great Big Bear, and in the end papers we see their shapes in the constellations of the night sky. The maps of the stars and solar system either end of the book provide a great opportunity to teach children about the rotation of the earth, and to explain that on our side of the planet, it is time to go to bed!
Chris Haughton’s books are visual enough to be enjoyed by the very youngest readers, but they are far from simple. They can be enjoyed on so many levels, through everything from colour theory to philosophy.
You can buy all of Chris Haughton’s books from us here.
Suburban Surrealism: The World of Shaun Tan September 27 2017 2 Comments
Our Illustrator of the Month blog series is a chance to find out more about your favourite illustrators, or to discover new ones. So far, we’ve written on classic authors like Elsa Beskow, cult illustrators like Tomi Ungerer and Tove Jansson, and modern picture book makers like Jon Klassen.
This month we’ve chosen a living and working artist, the brilliant Shaun Tan. Shaun Tan is known for his surreal and socially conscious work, which manages to blend outlandish imagination with real-life relatability. His work as an illustrator is unique and recognisable, he combines vivid, sweeping backgrounds with his distinctive character shapes. His work is challenging and difficult to categorise, often addressing things not broached in standard picture-books. So much so that bookshops in his native Australia and beyond have begun carving out sections for picture books for adults. Though dark at times, his writing is ultimately optimistic, and his drawings show the limitless scope of his imagination.
Double spread from Tales from Outer Suburbia
Tales from Outer Suburbia
Shaun Tan grew up in the suburbs of Perth in Western Australia. He became known at school for being good at drawing, and while still a teenager he began publishing illustrations for sci-fi and horror stories in small-press magazines. It’s easy to imagine the young artist creating imaginative worlds to escape from the blankness of a suburban upbringing. Tales from Outer Suburbia, one of Tan’s books as both writer and illustrator, is a collection of stories of surreal goings on in an otherwise normal suburb. In Eric, (which was also released as a stand-alone book due to its popularity), the narrator tells us about a foreign exchange student coming to stay with his family. The exchange student’s hard-to-pronounce name is shortened, and the spare bedroom is all made up and ready for him. But the text’s first hint that something is amiss comes when Eric tells the family he would prefer to sleep in the pantry. Eric is endearingly tiny,(illustrations show him carrying a hollowed out peanut shell as luggage), and polite, so his strangeness is basically accepted by the family. “It must be a cultural thing”, is the mother's explanation.
Many of Shaun Tan's books feature characters who feel out of place in the culture and context they find themselves in. The Arrival, his most famous work, tells the familiar story of a migrant seeking new opportunity abroad, but tells it in a completely new way. The man in this book lands in a bewildering city of strange animals, floating objects and an indecipherable language, and his journey is shown entirely through pictures.
From The Arrival. A full blog post on The Arrival is coming soon!
In an article for Viewpoint Magazine about creating The Arrival, Shaun Tan wrote that he has,
"a recurring interest in notions of ‘belonging’...One contributing experience may have been that of growing up in Perth, one of the most isolated cities in the world, sandwiched between a vast desert and a vaster ocean... Being half-Chinese at a time and place when this was fairly unusual may have compounded this..."
He gathered anecdotes of immigrant experiences; including those of his father, friends and partner, and found the common threads in their stories to help create The Arrival. This has meant that even though its setting is outlandishly inventive, this story is a very familiar one for most people.
The ''Real" in Surreal
In Rules of Summer Shaun Tan again allows us to recognise ourselves in settings that lie beyond the realms of our wildest imaginations. In a book made up of large format illustrations and double spreads, we get a sense of Australia’s open expanses of sky and roads, and its shimmering heat.
But these recognisable elements are woven into bizarre worlds, to which the sparse text offers no explanation. “This is what I learned last summer” the narrator tells us. The lessons listed and seem simple enough, “never leave the back door open overnight, “never eat the last olive at a party”. But the images show us the consequences of these actions: if you leave the door open a spontaneous growth of lizards and glowing fungi will take over your living room. If you eat the last olive at a party an army of humanoid hawks will devour you. Shaun Tan’s world is what you get when you mess up the dials on the TV. Colour and contrast are suddenly heightened and skewed, but we can still see the reality that remains underneath. The growths in your living room might be poisonous spiders from your Australian back garden. The hawks might be a room full of your parents’ friends who think you’ve got bad manners. Tan has said that he created this particular illustration while attending various social functions related to his Oscar win in 2011, (for an animated adaptation of The Lost Thing), which might explain why the hawks are wearing tuxedos!
Millions and Millions of Rabbits
The allegories in Shaun Tan’s work aren’t limited to harmless suburban happenings though. In 1999, the Children’s Book Council of Australia awarded him and writer John Marsden a Picture Book of the Year award for The Rabbits. In reference to colonialism and the destruction of the Aboriginal way of life in Australia, rabbits invade a country in their millions, build a rabbit society, and wipe out what was there before. The choice of rabbits as the invading animal in this book adds another frame of reference, as rabbits caused havoc in Australia’s unique ecosystem when artificially introduced into the country by humans. The Rabbits is an allegory for all times, and all cultures, about human ignorance and greed.
From The Rabbits
It would be easy to classify Shaun Tan as a writer for adults alone, based on the challenging content of some of his books. Responding to criticism levelled at The Rabbits in the Australian media, Tan writes on his website that the book was originally conceived for older readers. But to limit his books to an adult readership would be to do children a disservice. Children can handle more than they’re given credit for, and at the core of a lot of Shaun Tan’s work is a childlike innocence and ultimately optimistic outlook on the world. His books often feature creatures that the average adult wouldn’t find sympathetic, but that children will be drawn to. And in a scenario that many parents will recognise, the oddest creatures are adopted as pets! In The Lost Thing, the narrator tells us about a time he found a Lost Thing and tried to find a place for it. No reference is made in the text to what this “thing” looks like. Shaun Tan gives himself full rein to design a completely unrecognisable creature, which ends up as massive red metal thing with octopus legs and metal spikes on top… and somehow still manages to be sort of cute!
Because this is a picture book, and not a novel, there is no long passages of text explaining where the Thing came from or why it exists. It is just there, and when we read the book we become its friend, and that’s that. This essential lack of judgement is what makes Shaun Tan so appealing to children, and adults who want to stay in touch with that glimmer of innocence inside themselves. There is also plenty here for children who love to read the same books over and over again, playfulness abounds in the small details of Tan's illustrations. A newspaper page shows us where the Thing might have a place after all; The Federal Department of Odds & Ends, whose Latin motto is sweepus underum carpetae. (If Harry Potter has taught us anything, it’s that children love a bit of nonsensical bureaucracy in their books). Other articles on the page, that adults might gloss over but sponge-like children will not, include a product recall for a potentially lethal fault in “model 350A Deluxe ‘Suck & Slice’ automated beet cutters”.
Back to Basics
The majority of Shaun Tan’s work comes from a completely new and invented place, but like all great writers he is also interested in where stories come from, and what came before him. He explores this in The Singing Bones, a collection of sculptures he created based on the Brothers Grimm fairytales. In the introduction to the book the writer Neil Gaiman says that Tan’s sculptures do “something profound. His sculptures suggest. They do not describe. They imply; they do not delineate. They are, in themselves, stories.” Gaiman’s evaluation could be applied to any of Shaun Tan’s work; all of his illustrations leave themselves open to interrogation. But Tan may have found his perfect form in sculpture. The rounded shapes of his character design and pointed shapes of his buildings find a perfect balance here, and each sculpture hums with movement and energy even though they are still and quiet.
In his 2D illustrations, Tan often uses collage and mixed media, and his sculptures are no different. In his Hansel and Gretel sculpture ,(which was the first one he made), the children kneel to gobble up real cake decorations from the house behind them, while a witch leers from the shadows. Such a simple idea immediately tells us what story this is, and distills it to its essence.
You get the sense, when reading a Shaun Tan book, that he enjoys his work immensely. That he feels lucky to be able to create such weird stories and drawings and not only have them published, but have them loved and appreciated by masses of people. The feeling is infectious. Seeing an artist give their imagination full rein makes us wonder what else there is to be discovered in the world, if we open ourselves up to all of life’s infinite possibilities.
Find all of the books mentioned, and more Shaun Tan books, here.
A Hidden Gem: The Warmth and Wit of Sven Nordqvist August 30 2017 1 Comment
Our Illustrator of the Month blog series focuses on some of our favourite illustrators, their lives and their works. This is a chance to learn more about the people who illustrated your favourite books, the influences that shaped their art style and storytelling, and some of their lesser known projects.
This month we’ve chosen the amazing Swedish illustrator Sven Nordqvist, best known for his Findus and Pettson series. Findus and Pettson are household names in much of Scandinavia and central Europe, and the books have been translated into 44 languages and read by millions. Which just goes to show the blinkered vision of the English speaking world when it comes to what the rest of the planet is reading! He's not well known in Ireland, but we've found that anyone who buys one of his books from us always comes back for another, and another. As soon as you open any Sven Nordqvist book, you’ll fall in love with his characters, his humour and his style.
Sven Nordqvist was born in Helsignborg, a coastal city in southern Sweden. He always wanted to be an illustrator, but amazingly was rejected by several art schools! Instead he went on to study architecture, and to this day describes himself as a draughtsman rather than an illustrator. Nordqvist became an architecture lecturer, but continued to seek illustration work in advertisement and posters. In 1983 he won first prize in a picture book competition and since then he has been working solely as and author and illustrator. This was a lucky break not just for Nordqvist but for us all, as the world would be a sadder place without his work! Findus and Pettson have brought joy to millions of children and adults worldwide. That said, Nordqvists’s background in architecture may have been a blessing in disguise for his unique illustration style. His books are full of busy but impeccably balanced compositions, and beautiful landscape drawings.
Landscape from Findus Goes Fishing
He manages to be able to include massive amounts of detail without his illustrations ever feeling overcrowded. And a keen sense of balance is also key to why his writing is so brilliant. The Findus and Pettson series is full of wacky antics, but it can also be quite sentimental and touching at times. So, if you haven’t met them already, it’s time to be introduced to Findus and Pettson!
The old man and the cat
Pettson is an old farmer who lives a contented, if somewhat lonely, life on his farm, until the sudden arrival of a tiny kitten in a box of Findus Green Peas. The kitten is a gift from a neighbour, and Pettson names him Findus. And then… all hell breaks loose.
Findus and Pettson's first meeting as described in When Findus Was Little and Disappeared
Thus follows a whole series of brilliant escapades of this odd couple, the rambunctious Findus and the crotchety old Pettson. Nordqvist is brilliant at capturing gestures and expressions, and he shows Findus’ manic energy through drawing him contorting countless times on the same page, which children of course find hilarious!
From Findus Moves Out
There is plenty for adults too, in the intricate details that swarm every page of illustrations. All of the best illustrators know that pictures can tell us things that words cannot, and we get an amazing sense of homeliness and eccentricity from Nordqvist’s depictions of Pettson’s cluttered house and garden. Tiny creatures called “muckles” are hidden in every corner, pictures on the wall watch the action unfold, and badly mended contraptions give a perfect sense of Pettson’s stubborn independence. Here is a man who has lived alone for decades and does things his own way; fireworks are kept in a hatbox by the door, and pepper is kept in the bicycle basket. Obviously.
From Findus and the Fox
Although humour is the main focus of these genuinely witty books, Nordqvist’s writing can be very emotionally astute too. We see this in Findus Goes Fishing, when Findus tries to cheer up a despondent and irritable Pettson. Findus may be a scatty cat but he knows how to help out his friend. He pretends to scrabble around for fishing equipment to go fishing on his own, clanging around the toolshed and trying to lift the cumbersome fishing rod all alone. Pettson of course eventually gives in and accompanies him, and the fresh air and the stillness of nature quickly reminds him how good life can be. Soon the pair are laughing together again.
Findus helping with our accounting. Get your own Findus here!
Nordqvist has said that he believes Pettson is popular with children because he allows Findus his freedom, while still providing the security and stability that children (and cats) need. Findus often tests the limits of the old man’s patience, but Pettson remains ultimately forgiving. In Findus Moves Out, the cat decides to to fly the nest, and Pettson provides what he needs to build a new home…in the garden shed. This will be familiar to any child who has ever sought independence by pitching a tent in their parents’ garden. In the end, Findus realises that Pettson’s company isn’t so bad after all, and invites him over for their favourite food, pancakes. (But Pettson cooks the pancakes of course). Warmth and wit are hallmarks of these books, and it’s not hard to see why they’re so popular in other parts of the world.
From Findus Moves Out
Nordqvist is definitely best known worldwide for the Findus and Pettson series, but the book that shows his amazing artistry to its full potential is probably his stand-alone picture book Where Is My Sister. The idea for this book came to him before he ever started Findus and Pettson, and he came back to it years later, now a successful illustrator with the means to focus on this experimental and highly unique project. Where Is My Sister was originally designed without text, and large double page spreads of images give Nordqvist the scope to show off his mercurial talent as an illustrator. Small passages of text tell the story of a little mouse who is looking for his straying sister, and we travel with him through the sprawling landscapes of her mind, to find her hidden on every page.
In a note at the back of the book Nordqvist writes, “What appeals to me… is the idea of images telling stories and capturing all of our attention. Without the need for explanations, anything can happen.”. Illustrations often leave more room for interpretation and imagination than text does, which is one of the reasons children love picture books, and Nordqvist’s work in particular. His range of detail allows children to pore over the page and discover its secrets for themselves. In a modern world where everything rushed, he recognises the special feeling of getting lost in a single page of a book, allowing it to take you away and shut out the outside world.
Nordqvist explains that he kept very closely to his original sketches when creating Where Is My Sister. He trusted his spontaneity, and he was right to, as this only adds to the dreamlike quality of the book. To find his sister the little mouse in the story must get inside her head, and some of the things he finds there are unexpected, naturally. But as the little mouse gets closer to finding his sister, we get to know her better, and in the end, it all makes sense. The text for this book was added afterwards, and is very different from the zany and action-packed stories of Findus and Pettson. The text here is more like a collection of short poems; atmospheric and sometimes melancholy:
“She’s in her thoughts, somewhere else, where I can’t reach her. And then suddenly she’s happy again and says: let’s make a car, a racing car, and zoom around at the speed of sound!”
All in all, both the pictures and text in this book delicately reflect the complexities of any relationship between a younger and older sibling.
Sven Nordqvist’s books are funny and zany, but it’s the way he can combine humour and sentiment that really sets him apart. His sense of humour is sometimes sarcastic, but always warm. His world is surreal, but it is grounded in the real love that exists between his characters. And of course, he has the rare quality of being equally accomplished in both his illustration and his writing. Do yourself a favour and pick up one of his books today, for a child you know, or for your inner child!
View our whole range of Sven Nordqvist books here.
Our ‘Illustrator of the Month’ blog series focuses on some of our favourite illustrators, their lives and their works. This is a chance to learn more about the people who illustrated your favourite books, the influences that shaped their art style and storytelling, and some of their lesser known projects.
So far we’ve written on contemporary gamechangers Jon Klassen and Tomi Ungerer, and the classic Swedish children’s author Elsa Beskow. Now it’s time for another iconic Nordic woman, the incomparable Tove Jansson!
Tove Jansson is best known for creating the Moomins, those whimsical hippo-like creatures who first appeared in the 1940s and later exploded across the world. The Moomins are a sensation across central Europe, Scandinavia and Japan, and are recently also becoming more popular in Ireland, the U.K. and the U.S. Though best known for her Moomins, which starred in a series of novels, picture books and a daily comic strip, Tove Jansson was also an accomplished painter. She was a very unconventional character, and her unique contributions to the world are still loved and appreciated by millions.
A Bohemian Upbringing
Tove Jansson was born in 1914 in Helsinki, Finland, to a sculptor father and an illustrator mother. Her parents encouraged their daughter’s creativity from the moment she was born. When she was only three years old her father wrote to her mother : “Maybe our Tove will grow up to be a great artist. A really great artist!”. And he was right! Tove learned to draw almost before she knew how to walk. Many have seen the influence of this Bohemian family in the Moomin family, who are famously laid back, always inviting newcomers into their home and choosing creativity and spontaneity over the practicalities of life. Though intensely prolific as artists, the family also loved to throw parties. And as anyone who is familiar with the Moomins knows, they too love to entertain!
Tove’s family were also an important influence in terms of gender equality. When Tove’s father dreamed that his daughter may become a great artist, he set no limitations on her because she was a girl. Tove’s mother Signe was a strong feminist, pursuing outdoor activities and an independent career despite societal expectations at that time that women should be reserved and dependant. Signe was involved in starting a scouting society for girls, as the scouts had previously only been open to boys. She is still remembered for this contribution in Finland. The inhabitants of Moominvalley, the idyllic world in which the Moomins reside, are famously androgynous. Tove’s niece Sofia told The Guardian that even now people still write to the family asking about the gender of certain characters, and they respond that it does not matter. The Hemulen, an inquisitive researcher who hangs around the Moomin house, is known to be male but wears dresses! If it helps with his ease of movement while collecting specimens, then why not? Anything goes in Moominvalley, as long as you’re not hurting anyone.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman
Tove began publishing illustrations in magazines while still a teenager. In her teens and early twenties she studied art both at home in Finland and abroad in Sweden and Paris, and she had her first solo exhibition in 1943, aged 28.
An early painting by Tove Jansson, Before the Masquerade, 1943
Photo: Helsinki Art Museum, Hanna Kukorelli
© Tove Janssonin kuolinpesä
In that same year, her first Moomin-like illustrated character appeared in Garm, an anti-fascist satirical magazine. The official Moomin website blog gives an interesting insight into the genesis of this first Moomin figure. The story goes that Tove invented the main Moomin character, Moomintroll, to get back at her brother when they were bickering as children. She drew the ugliest creature she could think of on the outhouse wall of their summer cottage, naming it “Snork”!
The name Moomintroll came later when Tove was staying with her uncle as a student in Stockholm. To discourage her from midnight snacking, Tove’s uncle told her that frightful creatures named Moo-oo-oomintrolls lived in the kitchen cupboard and behind the tile stove, and at night they would come out to press their noses against your leg and blow cold air down your neck! Tove herself said that if she were to pick one formative influence into the design of Moomintroll, it would be the big-nosed trolls drawn by Swedish artist John Bauer.
War and Moomins
The first Moomin novel, The Moomins and the Great Flood, was published in 1945. It was written earlier, upon the breakout of World War Two. Tove’s brother was dispatched to fight and it was a time of great anxiety for the family. Tove herself was depressed by the war and wanted to write something innocent to escape from it, a kind of fairy tale for adults. It wasn’t until years later that a friend pointed out that if the story was finished and illustrated then maybe it could be published as a children’s book.
The book is illustrated in sepia tone watercolours, as well as the pen and ink drawings that would become the hallmark of later Moomin novels. The Moomins and the Great Flood went largely unnoticed but it’s sequels Comet in Moominland and Finn Family Moomintroll made Tove Jansson and Moomins household names all over Scandinavia. Several novels followed, and in 1952 Tove published the first Moomin picture book, The Book About Moomin, Mymble and Little My. Of course she used the picture book format to its full potential, and this is a dynamic book full of bold colours, graphic shapes and cut out segments that lead the action from page to page.
In 1954 The Evening News, a London newspaper, commissioned a Moomins daily comic strip, which had 20 million daily readers in over 40 countries! Understandably, Tove began to find this Moomin saturation detrimental to her other projects. It’s hard to comprehend her workload in the 1950s; her range of public and literary commissions during this decade included everything from a mural for Helsinki’s children’s hospital to illustrations for a Swedish translation of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark.
The demands of a daily comic strip meant that Tove had no time to paint, so her brother Lars took over the comic strip duties in 1960. That same year, she created one of her greatest picture books, Who Will Comfort Toffle. According to the official Tove Jansson website, she wrote this story after a little boy wrote to her about his insurmountable shyness and fear, and signed the letter “Toffle”. In the book, a shy little boy goes on a journey to comfort a scared little girl and defeat the menacing Groke. It was Tove’s belief that the only way to overcome shyness and fear is to find someone even more downtrodden than you are, and support them. That way both of you will find a friend and be able to face things together. Throughout her long career, Tove always wrote back to any “Toffles” who sent her letters, especially if they were children.
Who Will Comfort Toffle was followed by the last Moomin picture book, The Dangerous Journey. Loosely based in Moominvalley, it is a surreal journey through dramatic landscapes and weathers and shows off Tove Jansson’s outstanding command of form and colour.
TV and merchandise
While Tove Jansson continued to work on new projects, Moomin merchandise was becoming increasingly popular. The Finnish crockery company Arabia brought out the first range of Moomin accessories at the end of the 1950s, and a relaunch in the 1990s made their Moomin range wildly popular. These products, especially the mugs, are still highly sought after collectibles. Arabia continue to release new limited edition mugs each year, and discontinue old ones, making collecting them a highly competitive pursuit! So far this year they’ve released two new mugs, one to mark the summer season and one to celebrate the opening of the first Moomin museum in Finland.
The summer mug features illustrations from Moominsummer Madness, in which an earthquake forces the Moomins to shelter in an old theatre. The Moomins don’t understand what a theatre is, and wonder why this house is full of old wigs and staircases that lead nowhere. They think whoever Mr. “Props” is must be very important, because he has his own room with his name on it! The mug is beautifully designed and coloured by ceramic artist Tove Slotte
Moomin summer mug available instore
The Moomin museum mug is the first Arabia mug ever to use Tove Jansson’s aquarelle’s paintings as opposed to her line drawings. It was made in collaboration with Tampere Art Museum, which houses most of Jansson’s archive, to celebrate both the opening of the Moomin museum and the 100th anniversary of Finland’s independence.
Moomin art mug available instore
As well as merchandise, TV animations also helped Moomin-mania go global, with many Irish people’s first impression of Moomins being the Polish stop motion series which was broadcasted in Ireland during the 1980s.
Moomin animation by Polish studio Se-ma-for
The obsession continues with Moomins long after Tove Jansson’s death in 2001. Moomin merchandise continues to grow, with everything from coffee to pillowcases getting the Moomin treatment. Our Moomin range alone includes prints, children’s cutlery, crockery and more. There are even Moomin theme parks! This year the Southbank Centre in London hosted an immersive Moomins exhibition, which will run until the end of August. And this autumn, Dulwich Picture Gallery will hold an exhibition of Tove Jansson’s other work, including a large body of her self portraits and paintings. This exhibition will seek to reintroduce Tove as an artist of amazing scope and versatility, as during her lifetime she had begun to lament that Moomins had taken over from any appreciation of her as a fine artist. For those unsure where to start with Tove Jansson and Moomins, any of the books will hook you in immediately! Take a leaf out of Moomintroll’s book and just dive in.
Illustrator of the Month: Elsa Beskow July 05 2017
Our ‘Illustrator of the Month’ blog series focuses on some of our favourite illustrators, their lives and their works. This is a chance to learn more about the people who illustrated your favourite books, the influences that shaped their art style and storytelling, and some of their lesser known projects.
Elsa Beskow was a Swedish children’s writer and illustrator who published dozens of books during the early 20th century. She is often referred to as “the Beatrix Potter of Scandinavia”, and children in that part of the world have been growing up with her stories for over a hundred years. She was a very prolific worker, and her stories reflect her interest in nature and the freedom of childhood.
Elsa Beskow was born Elsa Martmaan in Stockholm, Sweden in 1874, the second of six children. As a small child she was already a natural born storyteller, and her older brother Hans would help fill in the words when her imagination was bigger than her vocabulary! She grew up surrounded by fairy tales and nursery rhymes, and would later create her first picture book The Tale of the Little, Little Old Woman from a nursery rhyme her grandmother taught her. When this book was originally released, the publisher convinced her to add in an ending with the Old Woman's cat running to the woods and never coming back, because this was the way he remembered the rhyme from his own childhood. But years later she added an extra page to say that maybe she came home in the end, so that children wouldn’t be sad!
When Beskow was 15, her father died, leaving her mother penniless, and the family moved in with her unmarried aunts and uncle who were already living together. This living arrangement later inspired the Aunts series, some of Beskow’s most popular books. The stories feature Aunt Green, Aunt Brown, Aunt Lavender and Uncle Blue, who take in the unfortunate children Peter and Lotta and educate them at home.
Beskow began publishing the Aunts series during the First World War. The war traumatised her and recalling childhood memories to create an idyllic world was a way of escaping from reality. The generosity of the three aunts is a hallmark of these stories:
“For now and then Aunt Brown put toffee and gingerbread in their pockets, Aunt Green secretly told them they could eat all the gooseberries and pears they wanted from the garden, and Aunt Lavender kept calling them into the kitchen to taste her berry syrup.”. - Aunt Green, Aunt Brown and Aunt Lavender, 1918.
Sweden suffered food shortages during the war; bread and sugar were rationed, followed by meat, eggs, milk and butter. Women went on strike demanding food for their children, and there were even outright riots over the shortages. The bountiful world of the Aunts series was an appealing fantasy for Swedish families at this time.
Providing for the family
Elsa Martmaan met Nathaniel Beskow at art college and she became Elsa Beskow when they married in 1897. They had six sons. Although they met when they were both studying art, (Elsa was a model for Nathaniel’s paintings), Nathaniel changed direction suddenly and went back to his abandoned theology studies. This career didn’t bring in much money, so Elsa became the main provider for her growing family. She described her married life and career as “every year another book and every other year a boy”. One of her sons, Bo Beskow, (who became a successful artist in his own right, with some of his work being housed in the United Nations headquarters), looked back with amazement at his mother’s work ethic in his book Krokodilens middag:
"How did she find the time to work with her picture books! She had to produce one a year in order to support the family…We understood that father’s work was important; he was not to be disturbed, but mother only drew and painted – it was fun and we could disturb her as much as we wished. Mother was always available; she didn’t have her own work room, she wrote and drew at a large white table in the parlor. Everything and everyone in the house that moved passed by there, someone always needed her help with something."
The financial pressure to provide for her family explains why Beskow was such a prolific author and illustrator, with 21 books by her in our collection alone! Her sons made their way into her books, she used them as models for her illustrations, and wrote books for each of them. She also used her garden as inspiration for the plant life in her books, and was interested in nature all her life. Working in a domestic setting didn’t limit Beskow’s imagination. In Krokodilens middag her son said his mother “could work magic. Sometimes when it was gray and cloudy, she would take a stick and stir up the clouds and say: ‘Come out sun!’ and the sun came out.”
Beskow’s first book was The Tale of the Little, Little Old Woman, but her first major success was her second book, Peter in Blueberry Land. It was first published in 1901 and translated into German in 1903, Danish in 1912 and English in 1931. In this book, Peter gets shrunken down to tiny size by the King of Blueberry Land, while collecting fruit in the forest for his mother. Beskow often combined her love of nature with her fairytale imagination, and in this book Peter gallops on mice with the blueberry boys to meet Mrs Cranberry and her five daughters.
Beskow’s illustration style is as gentle as her stories, with delicate watercolours and rosy-cheeked children, but as a writer she was not as conventional as she may seem to modern audiences.
The aunts and uncles who helped raise Elsa Beskow had progressive views on childhood and education, and founded a school where enjoyment and games were central, and emphasis was placed on helping children understand what they were learning, as opposed to teaching by rote. This probably influenced her stories, as they are full of children showing their initiative and striking out on adventures of their own. Even though this doesn’t always end well, (like when The Children of Hat Cottage end up accidentally burning their mother's house down when she’s away on errands!), these stories reflect Beskow’s upbringing and the belief that children should decide things for themselves to fulfil their unique potential. Beskow’s attitude to class struggles and women’s liberation can be seen in another of her popular books, The Flowers’ Festival, in which the haughty flowers dismiss the weeds as “rabble”, but the weeds refuse to be silenced.
Some critics have even suggested that Mrs. Chestnut, who wears a loose, flowing dress, is depicted as pregnant. If true, this challenged the conservative Swedish bourgeois view at the time, that pregnant women should be hidden from view.
Like all great children’s authors, Elsa Beskow believed that childhood was special and that children’s imagination should be respected. She enjoyed creating her picture books, saying that “there is something blessed about children, they are always willing to meet you halfway”. Her work still stands up over one hundred years after it was created, and her books are now also interesting from a cultural history perspective as they detail clothing and interiors from turn of the century Scandinavia. Her illustrations are still inspiring designers to this day, recently details from her work were reworked by Catharina Kippel in a beautiful range of kitchenware from Design House Stockholm.
Beskow is considered the earliest Swedish author to have had mass popularity outside Sweden, and her work has been translated into nineteen languages. In 1958 there was a prize named after her, the Elsa Beskow Plaque, which awards excellence in Swedish picture books.
View our large range of Elsa Beskow books and accessories here.
Illustrator of the Month: Tomi Ungerer June 08 2017
Our new ‘Illustrator of the Month’ blog series focuses on some of our favourite illustrators, their lives and their works. This is a chance to learn more about the lives of the people who illustrated your favourite books, the influences that shaped their art style and storytelling, and some of their lesser known projects.
Tomi Ungerer is a French cult illustrator who was part of the turn towards more unusual and edgy children’s books in the US in the sixties. He started out in advertising and quickly gained a reputation for his visual playfulness and his bold experimental style, which was at the time wildly different from the traditional and homely style of many American magazine illustrators. He became one of the most prolific and popular children’s author-illustrators of that decade, but for a time his boundary-pushing art became too much for the establishment and he is only recently reclaiming the level of recognition that he deserves.
Absurd humour for absurd humanity
Tomi grew up in Strasbourg in the Alsace region of France. As a young child he witnessed occupation under the Nazi regime, which he says has had a huge influence on his outlook on life, and on his work. His books are known both for their sense of social justice and for their absurd humour, and both of these sensibilities were influenced by what Tomi witnessed during the war and after liberation. He speaks in the brilliant documentary Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, about the absurdity of war and how he always felt caught between two identities, as Alsace straddles the border of France and Germany.
When Alsace was liberated the city of Strasbourg rejoiced, but soon afterwards the French liberationists burned all of the classic German books in the library. The hypocrisy and contradiction of these actions made a young Tomi keenly aware of the absurdity of humanity, so his books combine a strong sense of morality with a darkly satirical humour.
Growing up under the Nazis gave Ungerer a sense of fear that never fully left him and some of his best known books explore this sense of anxiety and unbelonging. Otto: the Autobiography of a Teddy Bear tells the story of a bear belonging to a Jewish boy, who loses contact with his owner during the World War II. Even though it is told through the voice of a teddy bear and has a happy ending, this is no cutesy story, and it doesn’t try to conceal the brutalities of war. Ungerer writes in the Tomi Ungerer Treasury that “children should be exposed to what war is like as early as possible. If you don’t share stories like this, how are you going to bring awareness?” For Ungerer, the only way to change things for the better is to educate younger generations on injustice, so that they will grow up seeking to improve a flawed world.
Searching for belonging
Ungerer’s adventurous spirit meant he soon left his native patch seeking opportunity and new experiences. In 1956 he touched down in New York City and began seeking work as an illustrator. In the days before television, illustration was big business in newspapers and magazines, and he trawled his way round publishers’ art departments with a box full of drawings until he found work.
He quickly built up a reputation for his witty imagination and bold graphic style, and it wasn’t long until he made the transition to children’s books. This was fertile ground for Ungerer with his childlike ability to see through the contradictions of the adult world. Books such as The Mellops series, The Three Robbers and Adelaide were a wild success and for years he was one of the leading children’s authors in America.
This was a boom-time for bold and innovative children’s illustration, with other author-illustrators like Maurice Sendak (who called Tomi Ungerer a “spectacular graphic genius”), also challenging the accepted modes of children’s books in both subject and style. While the trend in recent years had been for sweet and cuddly stories like Goodnight Moon and Harold and the Purple Crayon, Ungerer favoured characters and animals that no one else would think to make the hero of a children’s book; bats, vultures, octopuses and snakes all became lovable protagonists.
His stories thus teach us that everyone has something to bring to the table, and that when you tap into your unique and authentic self you can reach your full potential. Take Emile, the octopus, who because of his many arms makes an excellent multi-instrumentalist.
Tomi’s experiences as an immigrant in New York inspired one of his most beloved books. Moon Man tells the story of the man in the moon visiting earth to join in the fun, only to find that he is treated as an invader and thrown into jail! The Moon Man is just looking for a place to fit in where he can have some company and enjoy the fruits of our planet, but the government officials of earth want to keep tight control of borders and distrust any form of difference. Written during the Cold War, the story is as relevant today as when it was first published. Children who read this book will pick up on its message about welcoming and respecting differences and newcomers, without it having to be spelled out. Ungerer’s work never talks down to children, but has utmost respect for their natural sense of curiosity and exploration.
Ungerer packs a lot of punch into his stories but the actual word count is often minimal; he lets the pictures take a leading role. Moon Man features double page spreads of colourful pen and ink paintings. The illustrator uses tempera, a method of painting with pigment mixed in a solution, so that his illustrations are textured with brushstrokes, ink bubbles and streaks of colour. The gentle blue wash of the shimmering Moon Man emphasises his gentleness in contrast with the bold and brash colours of the earth upon which he has landed.
Tomi Ungerer’s illustration always retains a sense of playfulness, even when dealing with serious themes. He draws things that children love to draw, like boats, cars and furry animals, and his scenes are full of hidden detail that can be pored over again and again. In The Beast of Monsieur Racine, a “retired tax collector”, (who else would make a tax-collector the hero of a children's story?!), makes friends with a mysterious beast. The book is full of chaotic crowd scenes which give Ungerer full scope to insert myriad little jokes and references, like a newspaper headline about his friend Maurice Sendak, or a vagabond carrying a spare foot in his bindle - because he has to do so much walking! As well as always appealing to children, his work reminds adults how fun life can be if you can let go and face everything with a wry sense of humour.
A stirred pot boils over
Ungerer’s wry outlook on the world fed into his work beyond picture books too. While the age of revolutions and upheavals was turning the world upside down in the sixties, Ungerer could not sit back and watch, and he used his talents to draw attention to injustice. He created a series of anti-Vietnam War posters that are still as affecting today as they were when they were first appeared.
In Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, Ungerer states that the Nazi propaganda that saturated his youth under occupation actually fed into his design sensibilities. He learned that bold posters can be dangerously effective in getting a message across, but his message was always one of disdain for the political powers of war and destruction.
In an age before the internet ensured that everyone knows everything about everybody, Ungerer was able to work on political projects, satirical cartoons, subversive erotica and popular children’s books, all at the same time! However, eventually the balance between the mollycoddled world of children’s books and the edginess of his other works boiled over, and he was ostracised from the children’s book world. No bookshops would stock his work, he was blacklisted from libraries, and he found himself adrift in a world that had previously embraced him. His love affair with New York had ended and Ungerer set sail again, this time for a complete change of lifestyle, to rural Nova Scotia.
Far Out Isn’t Far Enough
In 1971 Ungerer moved with his wife Yvonne to an extremely remote part of Canada, and set about creating a self-sufficient life in the countryside. He documented this in drawings of course, and the muted tones of rural Nova Scotia introduced a new element to his drawing. He sketched the animal life and the landscapes surrounding him, as well as the people of the town and its dilapidated buildings. These illustrations and his diary entries from the time are collected in a memoir called Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: Life in the Back of Beyond.
This book is an unflinchingly honest account of what life is really like in a harsh rural environment and, true to form, Ungerer doesn’t shy away from depicting the more unpalatable elements of the lifestyle. With more than 150 illustrations, the memoir truly shows what a prolific illustrator Ungerer was and still is. He has spoken in the past about how he would sometimes create a whole book in just a single day!
Finding a home in Ireland
When Ungerer and his wife decided to have children, they realised that their Canadian farm was not the right environment to raise them in. They moved on again, finally settling on the Emerald Isle. The illustrator lives in Cork to this day, and is openly expressive of his fondness for Ireland and its people.
After a long hiatus from children’s books following his fall from favour in the industry, he returned to picture book making with Flix in 1997. Flix is the story of a dog born into a cat family, and reflects the identity dilemma of Ungerer’s upbringing in a Germanic region of France. Ungerer had been doing a lot of work for German-French relations in the intervening years since moving back to Europe, and Flix again shows his knack for subtly reinforcing a message of peace and unity all within an outrageous and funny story.
Since returning to picture books, Ungerer has rekindled his imaginative fire. One of his most recent books Fog Island is a love letter to Ireland, dedicated to the country and the people who so warmly welcomed Ungerer and his family. Though published only in 2013, the book has the feel of an old classic. Ungerer is still creating the kind of stories that feel like they’ve always been part of your life.
In Fog Island, two children in the west of Ireland discover an abandoned island with eerie faces carved into the cliffs. There they meet the mysterious man who makes the fog that hovers over the Atlantic!
With so varied, playful and subversive a body of work, Tomi Ungerer has earned his place among the greatest picture book makers of all time. He has always had a strong cult following, but since the release of the aforementioned documentary and Phaidon’s high-quality reissues of his books, he is getting more of the recognition he deserves in his adopted country. His compassionate outlook is an important one for children to absorb as they grow, and his infectious humour will remind adults what it was like to be a giggly child enjoying the simplicity of its creative freedom.
View our full range of Tomi Ungerer's books here.
Illustrator of the Month: Jon Klassen May 10 2017
This week we’re beginning a series of blog posts that will focus on some of our favourite illustrators, their lives and their works. This is a chance to learn more about who illustrated your favourite books, the influences that shaped their art style and storytelling, and some of their lesser known projects.
We begin with a firm favourite among kids and adults alike, a relative newcomer to the scene but one whose books have already become classics. It’s the amazing Jon Klassen!
Klassen is best known for his ‘hat trilogy’; I Want My Hat Back, This Is Not My Hat and We Found a Hat, and for his collaborations with writer Mac Barnett; Extra Yarn, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, and the newest addition, Triangle. Klassen is recognisable for his clean and minimal illustration style, using ink and watercolour textures to create defined shapes and strong designs. His characters usually remain very still but are very expressive, their eyes often giving away their intentions and emotions. As a writer he’s known for his deliciously dark sense of humour. This sense of humour is unusual in children’s books and is one of the ingredients that makes him so loved by grown up children as well as little ones!
The road to picture books is paved with good intentions
Jon Klassen was born in Canada and grew up in Niagara Falls and Toronto. He studied animation and moved to L.A. after graduation, where he now lives and works. Before moving into picture books Klassen worked as an animator on films including Coraline and Kung Fu Panda. His illustration work received international recognition when he won the Governor General’s Award for his work on Carolyn Stutson’s Cat’s Night Out. But it was the release of his first book as author and illustrator, I Want My Hat Back, in 2011 that really made his name. In a blog for 'Picture Book Makers' Klassen said that he has always enjoyed the stillness in drawing inanimate objects: “I like a story that allows the viewer to wander around a little bit and find it on their own”. This is exemplified in his illustrations for Ted Kooser’s House Held Up By Trees, where it is the house and not the people that is the main focus of the story.
However in the same blog Klassen explained how this preference for drawing inanimate objects paradoxically led to creating one of his most recognisable characters. He was asked to design some greeting cards for Red Cap cards, and when he sent them sketches of chairs and inanimate objects they asked if he could draw some characters instead. He eventually sent back “a series of animals wearing birthday hats and holding balloons, but their faces and poses made them look, to me, like they had no idea what a birthday was and didn’t really care. I was excited by this approach. It made me laugh, and it got me off the hook”.
From Red Cap cards
The animals on this card are recognisable to anyone who has read I Want My Hat Back, especially the bear in his signature red hat. This was the beginning of something glorious.
The movies and the pictures
Klassen’s background as an animator has shaped his approach, both in his design preferences and in the limitations he saw in his own practise. His books are notable for their brilliant pacing and comic timing, and he has found his ultimate form in the picture book. The experience of reading the best picture books feels like something between watching a film and reading a book. Not having a background in writing meant Klassen felt unsure of himself when making I Want My Hat Back, his first book as both writer and illustrator. However it’s these limitations he saw in his own skill set that have worked to the benefit of the book and made it so unique. Because he was uncomfortable writing narration as a non-writer, he stripped back all lines to simple dialogue. And because of his emphasis on the visual, the lines are not in inverted commas but in different colours for each character, meaning that nothing stands in the way of the reader “hearing” the voices of the characters. The language is stiff and straightforward because Klassen wanted the animals to feel awkward saying their “lines”. They also often look at the reader as if they are bad actors looking at a camera. Unlike illustrators such as Quentin Blake, whose expressiveness comes from bold dashes and messy lines of movement, Klassen finds expression in stillness. The animals’ deadpan faces and awkward stances make the high stakes game of a bear seeking retribution for a hat stolen by a rabbit seem even funnier.
We Found A Hat, the last in the hat trilogy, goes even further with the filmic effect. It is divided into 3 parts: Part One: Finding the Hat, Part Two: Watching the Sunset, and Part Three: Going to Sleep. It’s easy to imagine an ad break or interval in between the parts, adding to the anticipation and suspense before we turn the page. As is common in Klassen’s books, the animals’ eyes are a focal point leading the action. When two turtles discover a hat, they seem to be on the same page about leaving it behind. After all it is just the one hat, and they are two turtles. But when one of the turtles is shown looking back at the hat at the end of Part Two, (the only word on the page being "nothing" makes it seem as if these turtles could be in a Samuel Beckett play), we realise that all is not as it seems. There is trouble afoot.
One thing Klassen plays with brilliantly is the contradiction between what the image is saying and what the text is saying. He told ‘Art of the Picture Book’:
“If they're being read to by an adult, I feel that the pictures are the kids’ territory. So if the pictures give out some information that the text doesn’t, there's a secret from the person reading it or maybe even from the person who wrote it”.
When children are being read aloud to, they can stop and question what is being said in words versus what they can see in pictures. This makes the books more interactive and gives children a sense of pride and cleverness, which is one of the ingredients to his success with kids as well as grown ups. In I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat, this interplay between text and image allows us to tell when the devious animals are lying. In Sam and Dave Dig A Hole, it’s used more subtly to create an eerie open ending to the story when Sam and Dave arrive “home”, to a place ever so slightly different to the one they started out in.
The writer and the illustrator
As well as working on his own projects as a writer and illustrator, Jon Klassen has collaborated with many people to illustrate their stories. He has a recurring collaboration with Mac Barnett, a great children’s book writer in his own right. Their first book together, Extra Yarn, was published in 2012, and its follow up, Sam and Dave Dig A Hole, was conceived during a chat over breakfast. It’s easy to tell that there is a close relationship between the writer and illustrator here, as the words and images in this book are not completely separate entities but playfully interact with each other. The shapes of words play into the tumbling motion as Sam and Dave fall down the hole in the final pages.
Klassen’s latest collaboration with Barnett is Triangle, another tale populated by devious creatures. Only this time they’re not animals, but shapes. Klassen’s love of landscape drawing shines through here. This book gives him the scope to create layered panoramas of shapes as Triangle runs from his triangular home to Square’s square one.
Image from Triangle, from Jon Klassen’s tumblr.
Klassen collaborated with the poet Ted Kooser, on House Held Up By Trees. This story was inspired by a real-life house Kooser saw, but Klassen recently tweeted that he deliberately didn’t look at the photo when he was designing the house. (Do yourself a favour and follow him on Twitter and Instagram, he is always sharing process and archive shots and his wry sense of humour transmits very well to social media!) He has said that when researching something, he likes to look at it just once and then work from memory, so that his sources don't influence the finished product too much. In an interview with ‘Art of the Picture Book’, he speaks about his guilt that he never kept sketchbooks as an animation student, and how he approaches other artists’ work as inspiration. Because he did not have a natural impulse to draw from life in a sketchbook, like his classmates who sketched people on the subway and in coffee shops, Klassen’s style is rooted less in anatomy and accuracy and more in impression and mood. He used the artist David Hockney’s coloured pencil drawings as inspiration during Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, but says that his memory of Hockney’s work was more important to him than anything he could get from constantly referencing and trying to mimic it.
De Longpre Ave. Hollywood by David Hockney from hockneypictures.com
Klassen's work is beautiful from a design and illustration perspective but what really sets him apart are his stories. Like all great children's writers, he doesn't speak down to children and he understands their sense of humour and unique outlook on the world. His books are not as dark as some by writers like Maurice Sendak or Tomi Ungerer, but they retain a fairytale grimness that is the basis for a lot of our most well-known stories. Characters are often eaten, but the gory details are left off page and merely alluded to, like the action that happens offstage in a Shakespearean tragedy. Morality is a grey area here and there are no hard and fast heroes and villains. We find ourselves rooting for a thieving fish in This Is Not My Hat and in the final pages of I Want My Hat Back the double-crossed bear who has been the victim all along insists, “I would never eat a rabbit”. Do we believe him?
Children love reading books again and again, and picture books are designed for this. But when someone like Jon Klassen uses the form to its utmost advantage, adults will also find something new to enjoy every time.
Explore our full range of Jon Klassen books here.
Photo of Jon Klassen by Autumn Le' Brannon.