As our world divides, and distrust between different peoples seems to be growing, our children need to learn to do better than us. That will only come through understanding and communication between cultures. This has set me thinking about the few occasions when my story text has been illustrated by an artist from a different culture.
The first time was when I wrote a silly rhyming story about Three Little Ghosties who like to bully ghoulsies, witches and ogres. They are about to scare a human child … when the child wakes up and scares them instead. I had a particular British illustrator in mind for this book. Colin Paine did these lovely roughs ...
… but Bloomsbury appointed an Italian illustrator, Anna Cantone, to do the final illustrations. She used collage to produce very ‘designery’ images (please excuse the badly lit photo!). I wasn't sure about them to begin with. And yet I’ve come to love them. Why? Well, largely because young children react to them so well! (NB This book is now out of print).
I’ve had books illustrated, published and sold in South Korea, and those have surprised me by showing children who look more British than Korean to me.
I asked my fellow Picture Book Den contributors what experiences they had in working with writers or illustrators from other cultures, and only Jonathan Emmett had experience of working this way. He told me …
It took three years to find a suitable illustrator for my picture book story The Santa Trap and I’d almost given up hope of ever finding one when my editor Emily Ford discovered Argentinian illustrator Poly Bernatene. Poly brought a distinctly South-American Gothic feel to the illustrations that was a perfect fit for the dark, cautionary tale.Poly’s English is pretty good these days (and certainly puts my miserable Spanish to shame) but back then his wife Paula translated the story’s text and Emily’s email correspondence so that the language difference did not seem to present too much of a problem. We’ve since done three more books together and are hoping to do a fifth. Although Poly can sometimes interpret my words in a way that I hadn’t intended, this often leads to interesting and appealing results.
That highlights one obvious problem; language differences. And yet translation of short texts isn't hard. Perhaps there should be more cross-cultural cooperation?
There is! Tiny Owl Publishing have recently launched an exciting and innovative move to publish children’s picture books which ‘bridge cultures’, specifically between Iran and Britain. They asked me to write a fable for an Iranian illustrator to work on. So I wrote A Bottle of Happiness, and, remarkably quickly, there was my story made into the most beautiful and, to me, initially slightly strange images by Ehsan Abdollahi.
As with Three Little Ghosties, I wondered whether the style would be too sophisticated and strange to British children’s view, but not a bit of it! More fool me for underestimating them. Of course ALL styles, indeed the whole world, is new to a small child, so they naturally tend to be more open to new ideas than we adults might give them credit for.
In our modern world, we need to know facts about each other, but I strongly believe that we also need to have a proper feel for, and familiarity with, each other’s worlds and outlooks. We need to share cultures.
My father, who was a lovely and wise man, used to say that the point of education was to give us more things in life to enjoy. Well, having access to the beauty and insights of other cultures certainly gives us more things to enjoy. So let’s give that joy to our children!