Wednesday, 25 April 2007

The Curse of Hackdom

Late last year I interviewed Iku Dekune, a Japanese picture book creator who lives and works in Prague in the Czech Republic. I'm a great admirer of her work. She told me that she studied as a graphic designer, began working as a painter and then later began adapting her painting style towards children's books, thus it appears she's cycled through practically the whole gamut of 2-D visual arts.

Seeing the smooth transition of Dekune's large expressive painted gallery works to the powerful images in her picture books made me realise how different the culture and education behind Japanese picture books is from, say the UK or USA. This is work by someone who's as much an "artist" as they are an "illustrator", in fact there's little division between the two. I remember when I was at college in the UK my tutor Tony Ross (himself a well known children's illustrator) confidently asserted - "illustrators often make great artists, but fine artists rarely make good illustrators". True perhaps in the 1970's in the West, but not so in Japan, where the two genres are closely interwoven.

It's not always successful, there are all too many Japanese picture books that seem all about expression and nothing about communication, which have mood but no plot, are well designed but crudely painted. Many of these fail to connect with children at all. However when skillfully crafted, as in Dekune's work, the results can be a profoundly sophisticated meeting of expression and fantasy.

It also has a lot to do with individual character. I remember one of my tutors at college telling me I was a "born illustrator", by that he meant that my talent was 100% straight down the line graphic art. I always wondered whether that implied I'd never be a "real" artist because fundamentally I'm a graphic hack.

In SCBWI I've been trying to persuade more of the Japanese illustrator members to display their work on our website. It's a free bonus service we offer to members of SCBWI in Japan, but very few Japanese picture book artists have taken up the offer. Why could this be? I'm beginning to wonder whether it's the "Artist" factor at work again. Some of these illustrators, though they've released many books, do not own a scanner, do not know what a 72dpi jpeg is, and do not have their own portfolio website, things that are generally regarded as essential for any commercial illustrator nowadays.

In the world of Japanese children's books author/illustrators often seem to breathe a rarified air, unsullied by the grime of commercial illustration, though the artist themselves may live in the harshest of concrete jungles. Many young bright Japanese children's author/artists maintain part-time jobs and live at home with their parents until they marry, so never have to worry about paying rent or bills through their illustration. It's enviable to see the apparent ease that artists like Dekune switch from gallery paintings to book illustrations, in an bubble of creativity that seems cut off from the day-to-date world around. But comparing this to myself I have to face facts - fundamentally I like the grimy business of commercial illustration, it suits my character. Self expression has always been less important to me than creating visions of a world of imagination. I like the pressure of deadlines, without them I tend to waste time and procrastinate. I'm in my element at 2.00 am meeting a tough morning delivery. I can't ever see myself taking on another job "regular" job just to see me through. For me illustration is all or nothing.

Therefore it's each to his own, if I'm truely condemned as a graphic hack then so be it. I just have to make sure I'm the best bloody graphic hack around.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Bologna Book Fair notes from 2004

I really wish I was going to Bologna this year, I missed it last year through other commitments and fully intended to make up for it in 2007, but as the SCBWI Conference has been postponed until next year I've decided to wait too.

Nevertheless if anyone reading this is planning to attend the Fair, I thought I'd post a selection of some of my diary notes from the 2004 Show. Never before seen online! Please excuse the scribbled quality of the sketches, they were all made at the time every evening, when I was either exhausted, or drunk, or both....

Bologna Book Fair 2004

The Preparation

I spent the whole day preparing for Bologna, going through my portfolio to get everything in the right order, compiling all the cards to give away to clients, and other such mundane but essential stuff....

Day 1. Arrival.

The Bologna Book Fair, the annual get-together of children's publishers from all over the globe, the biggest trade fair for children's books in the world.

And I'm here to grab a piece of that pie.

Fifteen appointments all told, not bad it seems. Go get 'em John!

Flying in to Bologna I was delayed getting to the Fair location and turned up just in time to catch the 6.00 SCBWI conference cocktail party. Loads of people met there, editors from the US, Australia, Korea ... Ended up having dinner with a bunch of SCBWI members, Americans based in European countries, plus British, Turkish and Israeli members. A great welcome to the city, I gave away too many of my precious postcards.

Day 2. First Day of the Fair

The first proper day of the Book Fair, and thankfully the weather has turned sunny at last!

I met up with Linda Gerber (former Regional Advisor of SCBWI Tokyo) and the two of us did the rounds of Japanese publishers to spread the word about SCBWI in Japan. The response was encouraging, if bemused ...

I also met June Goulding, a fine children's illustrator from the UK who I'd known online through mail groups for a time, and who'd bravely taken out a booth with four other West Country artists at Bologna.

After lunch I had three scheduled meetings which all went down well, and a whole bunch of other unscheduled stops - Frances Lincoln (good response to my dummies), Barefoot Books, Charlesbridge, Chronicle etc etc.
By late afternoon I was burned out...

At the end of the day I caught a bus with Bridget Strevens-Marzo (Paris-based Anglo-Spanish illustrator) into the city centre to get to the Andersen Press 25th anniversary party.

We abandoned the bus after a guy had his wallet snatched. Fortunately he grabbed the thief by the scruff of the neck as he tried to make a getaway, and thus recovered his money. We all felt rather nervous after that.

The Andersen Press party was a grand affair... I had long talks with Tony Ross (my old tutor from college days), David McKee, and my editor Janice Thomson, as well as renewing acquaintances with Max Veldtuijs.

Klaus Flugge (Andersen boss) was in fine form and gave an exuberant speech.

Tony Ross jokingly miffed that Max had beaten him to the Andersen Award.

Max (who sadly died later that year) had his arm in a sling because he'd tripped over at Schipol Airport.

Tony Ross quotes:
When I bemoaned being side-tracked by commercial illustration away from children's illustration
"John you've just go to go with the flow. Don't force it. I think advertising is an incredibly creative area, I just wasn't very good at it. If that's where you get the work, go for it."

(on UK Versus US picturebooks)
"In the US they make books that say it's okey, mummy and daddy will look after you whatever happens, while in the UK we make books that say watch out!"

Day 3. Frustrations During the Second Day of the Fair

Today I was determined to keep the ball rolling with appointments etc, so I was all braced up and full of expectation. In retrospect I expected too much perhaps. The actual appointments I had went through smoothly enough, it's just that I barely saw anyone else as they were all too busy. (This seems to be the general pattern every year I'm told - the best time to catch editors is at the beginning, and at the end of the Fair)

The morning I spent a lot of time just looking at books, especially the wonderful tomes on display in the European Halls, which seemed to have so much more craft to them than the heavily-commercial British and American booths. Lunch was with Stephen Roxburgh and his colleagues from Front Street Inc. Having just completed a book together (MVP) it was a great thing to meet face to face with Stephen at last, there was much to talk about.

There then followed more frustrating trudging around with only one person agreeing to see my work (Nord Sud Verlag) and they disliked my faces. The rest of the time I wondered aimlessly from one Hall to another, though it was good to meet a familiar face from Tokyo, illustrator Koji Ishikawa. I was also introduced to Iku Dekune, Japanese illustrator based in Prague.

The most disappointment came from a scheduled meeting with an editor at Random House UK, who claimed I was late (I wasn't), kept me waiting for 15 minutes, then said although he knew and loved the Bobby Bell series (Secret in the Matchbox etc) no-one made those kind of books anymore! Final meeting was with Japanese publisher Kodansha who asked to see my dummies.

Stephen Roxburgh quotes:

"You have to think that making a picture book costs a publisher $15,000. You have to ask yourself 'does this idea warrant spending that kind of money in order to make a book'"

"You really must write your own stories John, it's essential. It's just not good enough to share your royalties with someone else".

Day 4 Back on Track

In contrast to the previous day, I was welcomed at publisher's desks with no messing. Four or five sample drop-offs, then two excellent scheduled meetings with Kingfisher and Dutton.

Third meeting at Random House however was completely blown out - I had an appointment, but the editor had already left and gone back to the UK!

But was I down about this? Not a bit, today was my "make up for yesterday" day, and nothing could stop me. Except my feet, or rather my SHOES.

Idiot here had decided to "knock 'em dead" by wearing Prada boots, and now I was stuck with agonizing toes all day. So, I may have looked cool, but was walking around feeling like christ carrying the cross.

Despite all these setbacks however, nothing could stop me. I blagged my way into meeting after meeting, sample after sample was delivered, I had no appointments at all in the afternoon, but I still managed to see lots of people. And when it just got too much I crashed into a chair at the Front Street or the Andersen Press booths to rest my weary legs.

Memorable things - I dropped in to chat to a UK artists rep stand, and discovered the boss went to the same school as me at almost the same time. We chatted about the Art teachers, all the old names came out. Very weird.

Second memorable thing - I was in the Andersen Press stand when a Norwegian publisher turned up for a meeting, cornered me and put in a potential trade order for my book "King Smelly Feet". Now that put me in a really good mood, although it meant I missed the presentation in the Illustrator's Cafe given by my friend Anders Suneson from Sweden.

In the evening was the Dutch Publishers Association party, which was crowded but fun, then dinner with wonderful friends from SCBWI where the (excellent) wine flowed freely.

More quotes:

Tony Ross (quoting David McKee)
"Never use a £50 tool to to do a £10 job"

Stephen Roxburgh
"If you really want to make a lasting impression you've got to come every year. If I missed a year at Bologna people would say "where's Stephen this year?" But you miss two years, and people stop wondering".

Day 5 The Last Day

As I had to leave at midday I didn't expect much to occur, but I was to be surprised. After dropping off samples and saying goodbye to everyone, I ended up once more in Hall 27, largely full of British companies. As everyone was packing up it was much easier to talk to people.

I found two editors who were really enthusiastic about my art, packagers Brushfire (who offered me a book there and then) and Templar. Also a great response from Barefoot Books.

I left the Fair with a big smile on my face, and zipped off to the airport, tired, wrecked, but with lots of fine memories, and every reason to feel happy.

As books are not on sale during the Fair my only souvenir were sugar mice given to me by June Goulding, a charming and very fitting reminder of the trip, which were polished off by my nieces in the UK instantly.

And so it was over, and all I wanted for the 2 days left in England before flying back to Japan was to shut off and take it easy....

Follow-up: I was subsequently commissioned for an uncomfortably rushed pop-up book from a UK packager (not Brushfire I should clarify) some time after the Fair, a company which then sank before the book could be released. Although that was the only direct job to come from my visit, nevertheless the lessons I learned about markets, the contacts I made, and the general experience were absolutely invaluable.

Saturday, 14 April 2007

A peek inside The Boat in the Tree

Here's some spreads from The Boat in the Tree. It was a great story to work on, with a gentle tone that lended itself to dream-like fantasy episodes.

As the story is narrated in first person by the boy, everything had to focus on him, so I tried to make the fantasy subtle rather than dominating the spreads. The biggest challenge was to maintain the flow from the reality of the boy's actual situation with the escapism of his imagination, without confusing the reader.

The Boat in the Tree

My latest picture book was released on 5th March in the US. Written by Canadian author Tim Wynne-Jones and published by Front Street Inc, the story contrasts a boy's dreams of sailing with the arrival of an adopted brother.

It's important for me as being my first picture book comissioned directly from a US publisher, as opposed to co-editions of my UK books.
Order it through Amazon here

Thursday, 12 April 2007

The Elves and the Cobbler

Here's a couple of images from the Grimm story The Elves and the Cobbler, which recently appeared in the Japanese children's magazine Ooki-na Pocket. The magazine is produced by one of the biggest children's presses in Japan, Fukuinkan Shoten, with which I released two picture books in the 1990's. The editor is a lovely guy, but seems to have pigeonholed me as solely a "traditional" illustrator of fairy tales. This is despite all my work in advertising (in a very different style) and much more contemporary children's books released in the West.

I love working in a tradition style on fairy tales, but it is only one side of what I do. When I showed the editor my other, perhaps more well known work, it was somewhat frustrating to hear him say "oh, so you don't just do fairy tales then".


Anyway, this was a lovely story to work on.

Coming up for Air

I can't believe it's already April and I've shamefully left my blog standing still since New Year.

There have been a variety of reasons for this, simply put I've been balancing too many things all at once. Some of it has been work deadlines - illustrating the 4th Charlie Bone book, a couple of advertising jobs, and the beginnings of a new picturebook. But also I was in New York during February for the SCBWI Conference and blitzing publishers, the preparation and follow-up of which shifted me out of sync considerably. SCBWI has kept me very busy too.

But anyway, less excuses, time to pick up the thread.