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.
It’s our birthday! Our Drury Street store was one year old last week and we have celebrated by giving out gifts in our massive sale and our social media competitions!
To celebrate our first year, we’ve been thinking about one year olds through the ages; how they were raised and most importantly what they read! We’ve picked out some of the best children’s books published in every decade from the 1920s up to now, and taken a look at some of the popular parenting advice of their time.
Childhood in the 1920s
One year olds in the 1920s were an unfortunate bunch if their parents followed the popular parenting advice of the day, which ranged from touching the baby as little as possible to having it spend as much time outdoors as possible. Robert and Mary were the most popular names for babies, so while sitting alone on the lawn all day, little Mary or Robert may have found some comfort in the great picture books published in that decade, which included The Velveteen Rabbit and Clever Bill, both illustrated by William Nicholson.
And who could forget the beloved Pooh! The first Winnie the Pooh collection of stories was published in 1926, so perhaps these 1920's parents may have read it to their little ones out the kitchen window, while keeping a safe distance of course.
In the 1920s the emphasis on the need for fresh air and sunshine for babies persisted from the previous decade, and led to parents in high rise tenement blocks in places like London and the U.S. installing wire "baby cages" on their windows so that their toddlers could spend enough time outdoors! The '30s also saw the introduction from Vienna of a theory called “democratic parenting”, a method of kind but firm childrearing that aimed to treat children with more equality to adults than was common in that era.
Among the most popular baby names in the 1930s were Margaret and John, and these babies were treated to the adventures of Babar the Elephant, the popular series of books about King Babar and his wife Celeste. A.A. Milne, author of Winnie the Pooh, said “If you love elephants you will love Babar and Celeste. If you have never loved elephants you will love them now".
In 1946 a new parenting book was published by Dr. Benjamin Spock, advocating parents to reject the previous decades’ distant parenting style and reconnect to their natural nurturing instincts. This brought more focus to warmth and bonding than in previous years. Good news for little John and Margaret, who were still the most popular names! This decade was also a great one for children’s books, with one of the most popular children’s books ever, The Little Prince, being published in the original French in 1943. The Little Prince is the third most translated book in the world, after the Bible and the Koran! For children in Scandinavia, Moomins were also starting to make an appearance, with The Moomins and the Great Flood being published in the original Swedish in 1945.
Because of advertisements like the one above, 1950s common wisdom about what was healthy and correct is the source of much amusement these days! However some people have started to question whether they might have had some things right after all. Because factory production hadn’t returned to pre-war levels, more parents made their children’s toys by hand and used reusable cloth nappies, and with television still uncommon at home, young children were likely to be read to often. And what a choice of books those children had! Our perception of 1950s culture these days is usually of a conservative mainstream culture, but in children’s books as well as other areas a lot of artists were reaching new heights of innovation. Little Susan and David, the most likely names for babies born in the 1950s, may have grown up with the wacky Dr. Seuss as a household name, and Tove Jansson's Moomins also exploded in popularity during this decade.
In 1962 a paediatrician called Walter W. Sackett Jr. published Bringing Up Baby, a book which recommended that babies as young as 10 weeks should be eating bacon, eggs and even coffee, to acclimatise to the family’s eating habits! In the same decade, Harry Harlow’s controversial experiments on baby monkeys showed that infants prioritise warmth and comfort from a parent over basic needs. The Sixties was a good time for children’s books, with little David and Susan ,(still the most popular names!), likely to grow up with now-iconic characters such as Miffy.
In the U.S., artists like Tomi Ungerer and Maurice Sendak led a swerve towards darker and edgier books for children, such as Ungerer's The Three Robbers. And cutting edge designers experimented with children's illustration in books like A Balloon For A Blunderbuss.
The 1970s saw the rise of a more child-centred and intuitive parenting style proposed by Penelope Leach. In contrast to the parenting styles of previous generations, mothers and fathers were now encouraged to put the baby’s needs above their own and to trust their instincts. Jennifer and Michael were popular names for babies, and little Jenny and Mike grew up with Judith Kerr’s scatty cat Mog, who is still loved to this day.
Other books that '70s kids might remember include When Tom Beat Captain Najork by Russell Hoban and Quentin Blake.
This decade’s babies were likely to be named Sarah or Paul, and they would have grown up with more TV than previous generations. Children's books were still an important part of early childhood though, and some of our favourite books were published in the '80s. Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge stories were first published in this decade, along with Shirley Hughes’ Alfie books.
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen demonstrate the 1990s trend for attachment.
By the time the 1990s came along, Michael and Jessica were the reigning babies! Guides advocating attachment parenting became popular, which is reflected in one of the most popular children’s books of the decade, Guess How Much I Love You.
Jacob and Jack, Emily and Sophie have all been popular names in the last few years, and social media has meant that childhood is more publicly shared and discussed than ever before. Children’s books have been booming with award-winning artists like Jon Klassen, Carson Ellis and Oliver Jeffers enjoying mass popularity. Klassen’s ‘Hat Trilogy’ may be remembered by this generation’s children as the iconic books of their childhood.
And in 2016, a little shop on Drury Street opened, with the aim to bring the best illustrated books from the last 100 years to children and grown up children in Ireland and beyond! A big thank you to all our customers for your valued support in our first year. Here's to the next hundred!
You can view our full collection of illustrated children's books here.
Who is the Best Bunny in Children's Literature? May 24 2017
We here at Tales for Tadpoles like to bring you the hard-hitting questions of the day. It’s important to take the time to question your beliefs and make up your mind on where you stand on important issues. So ask yourself this, who really is the best children’s book bunny? We ran a quick poll on Twitter and Instagram earlier this month, but now we want to open this conversation further and delve into what makes each bunny unique. We’ve listed five of the main contenders here, with rabbits from classic literature to more modern picture books. To make it easier we’ve assigned each rabbit a music genre or song, type of cuisine, and mode of transport, so that you can figure out which one you might relate to most. When you’ve decided who you’re backing, make sure to give us your opinion in the comments below!
1. Peter Rabbit
Possibly the best known rabbit of all the children’s book rabbits. Will score points with the rebellious crowd for his flagrant disregard for the rules in pillaging Mr. McGregor’s produce, just when his good mother told him not to. Perhaps he is also an eco-warrior concerned about food waste in modern farming methods? There’s definitely an undergraduate thesis in there somewhere…
Peter is a beloved nostalgic figure for many generations, and has been part of peoples’ childhoods for over a hundred years. In terms of design, Peter is an anatomically correct rabbit, but he wears a tiny jacket and pair of loafers. What a combination! Beatrix Potter’s fine balance between realism and whimsy is what makes her still so popular today.
Soundtrack: Peter is definitely a little punk
Mode of transport: Wanders about going “lippity- lippity-, not very fast”
Tiny jacket rating: 10/10
Miffy is everyone’s favourite minimalist, everyone’s favourite bicyclist and everyone’s favourite artist. How she fits all these activities into the day is frankly remarkable, and all without opposable thumbs!
She is an action bunny and has starred in such stories as Miffy the Artist, Miffy’s Bicycle, Miffy is Crying and Miffy at the Playground. Miffy will win points with some for being slightly alternative. She is originally from the Netherlands, where she is known as Njintje, and like all cool, alternative things, she is very popular in Japan. In terms of illustration, Miffy is very different to Peter Rabbit, being created out of minimal strong black lines, block colours and defined shapes.
Dick Bruna created his own colour palette to work with on the Miffy books so that they would be recognisable instantly. Miffy has been on the scene since the mid 1950s, but Bruna's style of drawing still looks modern today.
Soundtrack: Minimalist electronica
Mode of transport: Bicycle
Tiny jacket rating: Miffy has many tiny, well put together outfits. Dick Bruna made her a girl bunny because he found dresses more interesting to draw than trousers. Miffy also gains sartorial points for the snow-hat she can sometimes be seen in, which is shaped to cover her entire ears.
3. Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh
Unlike most of the other animals of the Hundred Acre Wood, who are based on Christopher Robin's soft toys, Rabbit is a real rabbit. This gives him a sense of self-importance that he usually fails to live up to. Like Peter Rabbit he is drawn realistically and often shown standing on two feet and gesturing at things. Rabbits can stand on two feet in real life, but whether they gesture at things is a matter of debate. Rabbit is introduced to the Winnie the Pooh stories when he invites Pooh into his burrow for a visit. Pooh, being Pooh, eats too much and gets stuck in the hole on the way out, and for this scene alone Rabbit deserves a place on this list.
He loses points for not having a tiny jacket, though at one point he says he would need seventeen pockets to carry all of his friends and relations around with him, so perhaps he has an overcoat in his burrow that we don’t know about. Rabbit is looked up to by the other characters; he is often called upon to settle things, and to take charge of group events. However he usually gets rather flustered and messes them up.
Soundtrack: ‘For Emma’ by Bon Iver: “for all your lies, you’re still very lovable”.
Food: Vegan fine dining
Mode of transport: Public transport, because he is community minded.
Tiny jacket rating: Rabbit is a naturist and wears no clothes.
4. The White Rabbit from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Without the White Rabbit there would be no Alice in Wonderland! There would merely be Alice Sitting on the Bank of a River While Her Sister Reads A Book, which would not have made a very good story at all. The White Rabbit is the first hint that things are about to get weird in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. When he takes a watch out of his waistcoat pocket, Alice realises that not only do rabbits not generally have watches, they don’t generally have waistcoat pockets either. The White Rabbit leads Alice down the rabbit hole and so begins the great adventure we all love! It’s possible that the White Rabbit is the rabbit of most literary significance on this list, with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland having never been out of print since its publication over 150 years ago. Another point to consider is that there is no end to representations of the White Rabbit, so he has something to suit any taste in illustration style.
The White Rabbit consulting his pocket watch (Helen Oxenbury) and breaking into a run (Robert Ingpen)
Sir John Tenniel's original White Rabbit
Soundtrack: Psychedelic rock
Food: Afternoon tea
Method of transport: Running late!
Tiny jacket rating: Most certainly has a waistcoat, and a watch in his pocket.
5. The rabbit in I Want My Hat Back
The most recent rabbit on this list, this rabbit is a key character in I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. He is the one seen wearing the hat that looks suspiciously like the hat the bear is looking for in the title.
Soon after the bear realises this, the rabbit mysteriously disappears and is never seen again. Like Peter Rabbit, this rabbit is undeniably a petty thief, but unlike Peter, who sheds a tear or two, he expresses no remorse. He is rendered in Klassen’s recognisable clean style, using watercolour and ink, with very expressive (shifty) eyes. Klassen's subsersive sense of humour means the fluffy bunny rabbit is the dishonest villain in this book, so he may deserve your vote for subverting bunny norms.
Soundtrack: 'Smooth Criminal' by Michael Jackson.
Food: Whatever is on someone else's plate.
Mode of transport: Getaway car.
Tiny jacket rating: All this rabbit is wearing is the hat that will lead to his demise.
Please cast your vote and settle this once and for all! And if you have another suggestion for the best rabbits in children’s literature, please let us know - we may even let you include hares…
The Best of Love in 14 Amazing Children's Book Illustrations February 06 2017
Love is the most potent bond between one person and another, as Valentine’s Day cards are all too eager to remind us. But love also binds us to many other things in our lives that are deeply meaningful to us. So to celebrate the power of love in a more all-embracing way, we decided to put together a list of wonderful book illustrations that celebrate love in its many forms.
Simply click on the images below to view them in our store.
1. Loving ... Your Significant Other
2. Loving ... a Good Book
For those who love to visit new places, go on amazing adventures, meet fantastic characters and explore exciting possibilities all through the power of a good book.
3. Loving ... Logic
For when it’s time to cut through the nonsense with some rock-solid, well-reasoned insights.
4. Loving ... Siblings
They grew up with you, know just about everything about you, and have helped shaped who you are, which makes spending more time with them all the more precious.
5. Loving ... Dressing the Part
For the fashionistas who can successfully make the vintage into the distinctly modern.
6. Loving ... Parents
You may not always agree with their advice, but they're always looking out for you (and are probably mostly right anyway).
7. Loving ... Friends
For those who know that what makes doing nice things really special is doing them with friends.
8. Loving ... Pets
They give all their love and ask nothing in return, which makes us love them even more.
9. Loving ... the Weather (Even Winter!)
For when you’re soaked through and far from home but still can’t resist splashing through puddles.
10. Loving ... Nature
It’s not just something to enjoy now and then when the weather is nice, it’s something you’re a part of all the time.
11. Loving ... Getting Creative
Whether it’s on a gallery wall or the kitchen wall, if doing something creative allows you to express yourself, then it’s most definitely worth loving.
12. Loving ... Good Food
For those who love flavours that tickle their fancy and tingle their taste buds!
13. Loving ... Having Everyone Together
If it’s truly worth doing, then it’s definitely worth doing with your nearest and dearest.
14. Loving ... Each and Every Day
For reminding yourself, and others, that every day is a gift to be thankful for.