Monday, 24 August 2015

Picture Books Rule the World!

By Margaret Robson Kett

Kitty Crowther asserts that ‘drawing is writing – a form of language’.  Shaun Tan agrees, adding that he ‘draws and writes with a crazy child-like brain.’ Host Bernard Caleo, a self-described comic book communicator, introduces Crowther as the best thing to come out of Brussels since Tintin, and Tan the ‘only thing to come out of Perth’.

So begins the session ‘Kitty Crowther & Shaun Tan: International Illustrators’. Caleo then tells us that these two fine illustrators are both also recipients of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (in 2010 and 2011 respectively) the richest prize available for creators of books for children and young people. The endearingly acronymed (sic) ALMAs are awarded ‘by the people of Sweden to the world’ and in particular to artists who demonstrate the spirit of Astrid Lindgren, best known in Australia as the creator of Pippi Longstocking.  

Crowther shares her memories of sitting with her grandmother and listening to Lindgren’s stories, recalling the ‘tremendous tenderness in the rhythm of her storytelling.’ Readers who only know Pippi might not know that Lindgren did not shy away from ‘terrible’ things - Brother Lionheart for instance begins after the deaths of the main characters.  Tan didn’t read Lindgren as a child but comments that his own work’s complexity can ‘seem a bit dark' but he prefers to think of it as ‘without boundaries’. Both agree that they are ‘trying to make some sense of the chaos of childhood.’

It’s both easy and hard to look at illustrations from a children’s book out of context. In starting the show-and-tell, Caleo refers to ‘the book’ as The Wild Thing which seems to please Tan. Like listening to a reading by a writer, looking at the illustrations  alone offers a taster of something new or a re-acquaintance with an old favourite. It seems that most of the audience are familiar with Tan’s work – there is an audible ‘yesssss’ when The Arrival is shown. The slides of Crowther’s work, which she quickly explains with accompanying words, are also eagerly devoured by the audience.

There follows discussion about technique and process, which is always fascinating for non-drawers like me. Not formally trained in architectural drawing, Tan talks about how hard he works at composition and perspective. A series of working drawings from The Lost Thingare shown - from first scribbly ideas to finished artwork. Every colour has an emotional purpose: ‘every object is that colour for a reason.’

Colours are the meaning of the story for Crowther – in each of her books there is a dominant colour which ‘holds one thought to the end’. This is evident in the delectable pictures on show at Sofi’s Lounge at the Sofitel Hotel for the duration of the festival.  The straw-with-ochre hair of Mere Meduse and the livid green of the frog father and son are hard to forget. This exhibition, with the support of the French Embassy, marks the 50th anniversary of her French publisher l’ecole des loisirs.  (Tip: don’t go during high tea.)

In the words of Deputy Chair of the Children’s Book Council of Australia during the launch of Children’s Book Week on August 21, ‘Picture books rule the world!’ Long may they reign. 

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