They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. A child would beg to differ. So would a grown-up – secretly, at least. Which one of us does not like to come across a picture in a book? There is an undeniable sense of largesse about pictures in books – they are there for you, for your delight only, clandestine, crisp, tucked between pages like dreams trapped in the folds of blankets. They can oil the wheels of a story, help determine or magnify its mood, introduce its ideas and themes through symbols and help you understand their language, nudge you into making mental connections, or serve simply as breathers, as private jokes between the book and its readers.
Picture book illustration has had a colourful history. It has enjoyed, in certain forms, heydays in various courts and cultures around the world; it has had declines and revivals; a “Golden Age”. Now, it is an industry, a field of study, an entire artistic genre. In Show Me a Story!: Why Picture Books Matter: Conversations with 21 of the World’s Most Celebrated Illustrators, Leonard S. Marcus talks to leading picture book illustrators about their lives and works, their inspirations as children and, as adults, their interactions with children, and their experiences with publishers, the market, and changing technology. Through these warm, casual conversations, effortlessly moving between technical or stylistic concerns and personal memories, Marcus and the illustrators manage to touch upon subjects as diverse and universally engaging as psychology, imagination, travel, creativity, and the vast, golden realm of childhood.
The illustrators interviewed include Mitsumasa Anno, Quentin Blake, Eric Carle, Lois Ehlert, Yumi Heo, James Marshall, Maurice Sendak, Peter Sis, and Lisbeth Zwerger. Marcus, himself an authority on the art of illustrating and writing for children, begins each interview by offering a short but informative biography of the illustrator and a brief history of his own relationship or exchanges with him/her.
I have always been fascinated by the many different ways in which the history of fine art continues to influence other forms of modern or contemporary creation, such as film and illustration. So a most satisfying element of the interviews in this book are the names of artists – Jean-François Millet, Honoré Daumier, Albrecht Dürer, and Vincent van Gogh among others – that come up with a sort of inevitability as the illustrators recall early encounters with art or later explorations of medium or imagery. It drives home the inseparability of fine art and illustration, of tradition and reinvention.
Interesting, and perhaps unsurprising, too, are the revelations that many of the interviewed illustrators have taught art to young children at one time or another. Lois Ehlert and Mitsumasa Anno, for example, both recount their experiences of working with children and the joy and lessons derived from these experiences. They talk of childhood with palpable endearment and awe, and it is evident that they have kept the child in each of their own hearts alive and inquisitive all these years. They also discuss their own childhoods with fondness, attributing their artistic developments to the unique situations and characteristics of their families and early homes. Ehlert mentions how her parents’ penchants for working with their hands brought out the artist in her (one almost imagines the trio making miniature clothes and furniture in the hollow of an old tree, like a family of happy mice from a picture book). And Anno recalls growing up in a remote, mountainous region of Japan and having lots of magazines at his disposal at his parents’ inn.
But the two have continued, despite their successes, to learn from the boundless imaginations of children and Anno leaves us with the following advice – ‘All beautiful things encourage a child’s sense of wonder – and everything that encourages a child’s sense of wonder is beautiful.’
The two interviews with Maurice Sendak have a stirring, dark, emotional quality – the very thing that led to his work initially being considered unsuitable for children but is now seen as his great strength. He talks about the emotional perspicacity of children and the importance of making honest art for them – art that acknowledges and displays all the emotions that they go through, even the unpleasant ones like anger or boredom.
The book is an enjoyable and even crucial read for anyone who wishes to know more about an audience of art that is bafflingly intelligent and original but is often not thought of that way – children. The only inconvenience in the layout of the book, and this has an irony to it as well, are the pictures themselves. Instead of accompanying the interviews, selected images of all the illustrators’ works are sandwiched in the centre of the volume. If they had been interspersed with the text of the conversations, the reader would have found it easier to follow the references being made to them every now and then.
(Show Me a Story!: Why Picture Books Matter: Conversations with 21 of the World’s Most Celebrated Illustrators was originally published by Candlewick Press in 2012)