Colour in books

Nick Smurthwaite looks at how the colourful world of children’s illustration is still very much alive and kicking

A decade ago the future of print publishing looked bleak. Come the new millennium, went the argument, most of us will look to screens for news and entertainment. Newspapers and books will quietly fade into oblivion.

But the nosedive never happened – at least not in book publishing. The demand for fiction is greater than ever and the market for children’s picture books has gone through the roof.

Could it be that new technology has actually stimulated visual sensibilities of the young rather than suppressed them?

Julia Eccleshare, children’s books editor of The Guardian, believes Web design has influenced the way picture books look. ‘We have a long tradition of children’s illustrated books in this country,’ she says, ‘but production values have never been so high and many books today are beautiful works of art in their own right.’

Many publishers are eager to sign up designers like Sara Fanelli and Dave McKean to bring a new dimension to the picture book. While some of these designer books may appear self-indulgent compared to the more traditional work of, say, Shirley Hughes or Quentin Blake, the market is presently so buoyant that it can embrace all kinds of work.

But there is a curious anomaly about picture book publishing that baffles a lot of parents and teachers. ‘Children are encouraged to be visually aware and sensitive up to the age of seven,’ explains Eccleshare, ‘then the pictures suddenly stop and there is nothing, just pages and pages of text. If you’ve trained them to look at pictures, why take it away?’

Here, we take a look at the work of four people enjoying successful careers as children’s book writers and illustrators.

Taro Gomi

The idea is deliciously simple. A colouring-in book that is challenging as well as fun. For example, one double-page spread has a black line across the middle, with the instruction, ‘Draw laundry drying’.

Another spread has a few cloud-like shapes with the command, ‘Draw an airplane’.

The Doodle Book (published by Thames & Hudson, priced £9.99) is the brainchild of veteran Japanese illustrator Taro Gomi who outsells his rivals in Japan and the US with his simple yet sophisticated books that are equally appealing to children and adults.

The most renowned of these is Everyone Poops, first published in 1993, now a huge international success, despite widespread vilification from certain repressive quarters of the US.

‘All living things eat,’ the book begins, ‘so everyone poops.’ Gomi’s quirky, stylised illustrations are the perfect foil for the blunt, informative text. Evidently, Japanese culture is not nearly as squeamish about bodily functions.

But its success on both sides of the Atlantic has prompted a landslide of other ‘bodily function’ titles for youngsters – The Gas We Pass, The Holes in Your Nose, and All About Scabs among them.

Tokyo-born Gomi, aged 58, started out as an industrial designer in the 1960s, making furniture and household items.

‘I didn’t have any interest in art as a child, I was just a naughty little boy,’ he told one interviewer. ‘One day I started to draw, don’t ask me why. What I felt in my childhood has always been the basis of my work.’

He writes in Japanese and works from a studio in Tokyo, but these days his work is a truly international cult. He says he tries to make his books appeal to all ages, not just children. His ambition is to establish a museum geared to children in the Aoyama district of Tokyo, a sort of picture book in 3D.

‘The art you find in most museums just sort of hangs there,’ he says, ‘I’m hoping to use the medium of picture books to bring my museum to life.’

Sara Fanelli

For sheer startling originality it is hard to beat Sara Fanelli’s visual re-interpretation of Pinocchio (published by Walker Books, priced £14.99).

The cutesy wooden puppet of Disney’s classic animation is not for Fanelli. She inhabits her own dream-like, designer world of semi-abstract collage that often requires closer attention than Carlo Collodi’s text (newly translated here by Emma Rose).

‘I like to create a world you can enter because that’s what I liked when I was little,’ explains Fanelli. ‘I tend to focus on the surreal aspects of the text and illustrate the bits that aren’t obviously visual, the secondary details that I can bring to life, so that there is another voice weaving in and out of the text.’

Like Pinocchio’s creator, Fanelli grew up in Florence before coming to London to study at Camberwell School of Art and the Royal College of Art, where she graduated in illustration.

Surprisingly, there is not a great tradition of children’s book illustration in Italy, although Fanelli says she was influenced by the great pre-war illustrators and poster makers of Italy and Germany.

She was able to read Pinocchio in the original Italian and says she identified with Collodi who also came from Florence. ‘I took my inspiration from the landscape of Tuscany,’ she says.

By designing the whole book, as well as the slip case, Fanelli has made it as personal and distinctive as her Dear Diary, published in 2000, also by Walker. ‘Children like details and the thing about collage is that you can weave different layers of narrative,’ she says.

David Melling

Such is the wit and mobility of David Melling’s artwork that it comes as no surprise to find his ambition is to have one of his books animated for the screen.

Though he has worked extensively in most areas of graphic art, including advertising and animation – he was involved with Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas and Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit – Melling only started writing and illustrating his own books two years ago with The Kiss That Missed.

At one stroke Melling emerged as accomplished storyteller and inspired illustrator, and the book was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Award.

He continues to fulfil that promise with the equally charming Tale of Jack Frost (published by Hodder, priced £10.99), which already has 150 000 pre-sales in the US, and has been optioned for screen animation. The artwork in the book is more ambitious, daring even, than The Kiss That Missed and you certainly get the feeling that Melling is setting out his stall as a would-be animator.

Melling generously attributes a lot of his success to his ‘brilliant agent’, Eunice McMullen. ‘I’m not the best at selling myself so it’s great to have someone taking my portfolio round and seeing to all the contracts. It leaves me to get on with the work, which is what I’m good at.’

Dave McKean

Although Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman have been working together for 20 years, The Wolves In The Walls (published by Bloomsbury, priced £12.99) is only their second picture book together.

The first was the more light-hearted The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish. The Wolves In The Walls is darker and scarier, dealing with a girl’s nightmarish fantasy about a pack of wolves preparing to burst through the walls of her house at night.

McKean, the artist/designer of the partnership, says they didn’t intend it as a children’s book originally, and you can easily imagine it as a dream sequence in an adult movie.

In keeping with the tone of the story, McKean uses murky colours, browns, reds, ochres, and a variety of for

ms – painting, photography, collage, pen and ink – in his highly imaginative pictures. ‘Gaiman and I often improvise our ideas. If we disagree on the words he has the last say, if we disagree on the picture I have the last say.’

A former student of the then Berkshire College of Art, McKean started working with Gaiman in the early 1980s when they were lucky enough to collaborate on a series of graphic novels for DC Comics in New York. He has since worked in many areas of graphic design, including album covers and posters.

They are currently working on their first feature film for Columbia Pictures, Mirrormask, starring Rob Bryden and Gina McKee. He describes it as a fantasy about the pictures on a child’s bedroom wall coming to life. For the most part it’s a combination of CGI and live action.

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