Illustrating children's books

Illustrating children's books

An Illustrator's Journey

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To become a successful illustrator, one has to know the right people. The right people in my life were my parents and later, teachers. My father taught me to draw and kept up a constant feed of pencils and paper, and my mother absolutely liked everything I scribbled. Smiling at my stick figures, a kindergarten teacher told me, ‘Ashok, you are an artist!’ I still don’t know if she really thought my art was great or was just being her natural encouraging self. I have been drawing since then, the child in me also trying to draw smiles of appreciation from kind grown-ups. And I picked up skills all these years to make their smiles bigger and bigger. That is why I draw.

In hindsight, I realize that my illustrations are professional because I started my working life as a salesman, not an artist. Illustrations for stories, text-books, posters or whatever, have to perform at least one of three duties: they decorate the page, they dispense information, or they give pleasure to the reader. They are pieces of communication, not fine art. That is the key. One illustrates to communicate information and feeling to the reader. My communication skills developed in my early jobs—marketing medical and later, metallurgical equipment. Those helped in two aspects when I went around trying to get work as an illustrator. One, my drawings did the job they had to, and two, I knew how to get appointments, work and payments.

To be good at illustrating children’s books, one needs to be in touch with one’s own childhood, and with present-day children. I am happily eligible for my profession, since my maturity level, ask anyone around me, is that of a twelve-year-old. Sometimes, they say, only that of an eight-year-old. Seeing the world as a child sees it helps. You look down at them patronizingly and they run away; you look up to them worshipfully, they sneer at you; you play with them and they play with you. Good illustrations are playgrounds where you and your readers share space and spend time.

My work, by the way, is also play, since this is what I had done before without pay. The challenge is not in executing work but mostly in finding work, and only in the initial years of setting up shop, as work will find you after a few years. Other challenges are technical. Will this print right? Is this margin enough? It helps if you are in touch with technology. Good artists have always known how to get the best of their tools, and today’s tools are hi-tech. When I started out, I used paper, inks, pastels, watercolours, pens, pencils and brushes; I am almost paperless now, working with a digital tablet and stylus.

Work, for me, those days, used to be tasks given to me by publishers or other clients. I have illustrated text-books, picture books, comics, magazines, posters and films. After more than 20 years and 500 books, I have decided to become a creator and source of my work. A manufacturer, not a vendor. I became a published writer in 2007 with Witchsnare, published by Penguin India, and recently Tulika published Gajapati Kulapati, a picture book both written and illustrated by yours truly. I aim to do more of that. After creating the content for a book, I plan to approach publishers instead of waiting for them to give me work. That way lies happiness!

Date of Publishing: 
Mon, 11/01/2010
Profile Note: 
<p>Ashok Rajagopalan is an illustrator with more than 500 books to his credit. He also dons the hats of an animator, graphic designer and writer!</p>
Issue
Volume Number: 
Vol.XXXIV No.11
Month: 
November
Year: 
2010

Drawing Funny!

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Ah comics! The funny pictures in panels that tell a story through speech bubbles! It’s a fascinating art form that has evolved over thousands of years…I guess the cavemen were the first to tell a story using drawings. Those stick drawings on the cave walls told a tale of their hunting exploits. Since then and now, comics have been used as a medium to entertain and educate.

In India, it is Amar Chitra Katha that has immortalized heroes and heroines from Indian mythology, from the seventies till today. Tales from the Panchatantra, Hitopadesh and the Jataka were popularized too. It was in the 80’s that Tinkle was started as a comic that entertained and educated children. Characters like Shikari Shambu, Suppandi and Tantri the Mantri became the first Indian comic book heroes.

I grew up reading these comics, never imagining that I would be a part of the magazine that has been instrumental in nurturing my own childhood. In the year 1998, when I took over the illustrating of Shikari Shambu from Vasant Halbe, who had created the character along with Luis Fernandes, it was a big challenge to maintain the likeness of the character. It took me some time to ‘understand’ Shikari Shambu.

As an illustrator one has to look at the character in terms of forms and shapes like circles, square, triangles, ovals etc. Once you break up the characters into forms, it becomes easier to consistently draw out the character throughout the story.

How to draw Shikari Shambu

Next comes the drawing of a comic book page. To begin with, the story when it comes from a child in a narrative form is put into a script form by the script writers. The script writer gives the speech bubbles i.e. the dialogues, to the characters, guidelines to the characters features, costumes etc and the description of the scene in the story. Once the script is finalized by the editor it reaches the illustrator’s board.

I start with sketching of the characters in the story. Here, attention has to be given to costumes and features of the characters.

Characters in the story

And then, the thumbnail sketches of the panels are drawn in a smaller version.

Thumbnail of the story

Based on these thumbnails, the final artwork is drawn on a larger scale so that we can fill in the details of the character and the backgrounds in the story.

Final story

Once the page is done, it is scanned, coloured and the text bubbles are placed on the computer. This entire process is constantly scrutinized by the art director and the editor till the final okay is given. So the next time you pick up a comic book, you will know how a little germ of an idea in someone’s mind takes the final form of an illustrated story with the combined effort of lots of people!

Date of Publishing: 
Mon, 11/01/2010
Profile Note: 
<p>Savio A. Mascarenhas is an illustrator with <em>Tinkle</em>, the beloved children&rsquo;s magazine. He has also illustrated picture books for other publishers.</p>
Issue
Volume Number: 
Vol.XXXIV No.11
Month: 
November
Year: 
2010

Coloured Pictures

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Article: 

Among my first ‘friends’ in the world of books were two Russian girls named Masha and Zhenya. While Masha was resourceful and clever, with a ready wit, Zhenya was more me—a bit greedy, a bit dull, and definitely careless. Masha was to be admired, while Zhenya—so much like me—was loved.

In case you haven’t guessed already, my ‘friends’ were characters in Soviet picture books which seemed to dominate the Indian children’s book scene in the ’60s and ’70s. Delightfully written (and translated), beautifully drawn and designed, they were cheap even for the time. Their illustrations covered a breathtaking range from the detailed, jewel-bright Russian-folk-style rendering, to pellucid watercolours, and impossibly scraggly black-and-white lines. If there is one thing I can blame for my abiding desire to look at and hoard children’s picture books, it has to be those bits of Soviet-era publishing.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote in a book he gifted a child:

…Stand up and keep your childishness:

Read all the pedants’ screeds and strictures;

But don’t believe in anything

That can’t be told in coloured pictures.

There is a curious sort of cyclicality in finding these words—I love Chesterton’s crime-busting Father Brown series. And Chesterton is supposed to have written the above words as part of a longer inscription in a book of Randolph Caldecott’s illustrations. Interestingly enough, Caldecott (1846–1886) a British artist and cartoonist, drew 16 picture books for children, which went on to inspire generations of artists.

But picture-book illustrations are really more than just coloured pictures. As a writer of children’s stories and a mother, I think the illustrations in a picture book are supremely important. Primarily because they add another layer to the text—one that the non-literate child often ‘reads’ by herself. In the best picture books—where illustrations mischievously suggest more than is said by the actual words—this second level often breaks the fetters of the first. Not only do they create a playful other dimension, but illustrations also extend the frames of reference for a child, creating associations and levels of meaning that would be uneconomical if done with words.

When I read out or tell a story to children, I know that what is grabbing their eyes, making the words ‘real’ and enchanting for them, is the artist’s version of it. Of course the story is paramount, but the drawings are actually the bridge that takes the story to them. I’ve grown to understand that illustrating for kids is as much and perhaps more difficult than writing for them. The same rules of thumb apply: don’t talk down to your reader / viewer; be mad; be good; and most importantly, be a bit bad.

There is an essential and perennial confusion in the world of children’s books—what adults feel children should read versus what children themselves enjoy reading or seeing. This confusion—which enters the world of illustration as well—is a path both publishers and parents have to negotiate delicately. While there have to be the ‘good’ stories—the fables, the pedagogic tales, the ‘useful’ books, there also has to be enough of the mischievous, the naughty, the merrily subversive.

Take Punch cartoonist E.H. Shepard, whose black-and-white, scratchy, seemingly-rough drawings were not considered the best choice for Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) by A.A. Milne. Milne still agreed to have him draw When We were Very Young (1924) and was so delighted, that he went on to commission him for the Pooh books as well.

Pooh bear—inspired by Milne’s son’s toy in the story and by ‘Growler’, Shepard’s son Graham’s toy, in the illustrations—was captured by an artfully rough style. The stories and their endearing characters went on to enthrall generations of children (till, that is, the Disney machinery swept in with their trademark yellow-and-red bear, a far cry from the homely toy of Shepard’s imagination). Shepard was to extend his subtle ‘roughness’ to create far busier visuals for Kenneth Grahame’s timeless The Wind In the Willows (1931).

One of my favourites—though I must admit it took me time to realize that—has always been Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline books. Written and drawn by Bemelmans, Madeline (1939)—illustrated in a flat, uni-dimensional style, largely in black-and-white with a studied and painterly abandon—was considered too sophisticated for children. At first glance the visuals do seem forbidding—but one reading down, most children are glued to the fast-paced rhyming narrative and the seemingly off-hand illustration style.

The very spare classic Goodnight Moon (1947) by Margaret Wise Brown was illustrated in a rich yet somewhat muted style by Clement Hurd. ‘Goodnight’ is said to each thing in an anthropomorphized baby rabbit’s room. As a parent you can recognize the love for rituals that children have, and with subsequent readings, will sense how the book helps unwind. Goodnight … slowly reveals its illustrative richness—little details are noticed by the child in the ‘clean’ artwork, and a lot happens independent of the words. A tiny mouse, for instance, appears on every page, and the children have fun spotting it.

When it comes to the mischievous-yet-delightful in children’s books, practically nothing can beat Theodore Geisel’s oeuvre, written and illustrated by him as Dr Seuss and sometimes as LeSeig. When asked by his publisher to create a picture book for children using less than 250 words, Geisel took 9 months to create the completely far-out The Cat In the Hat (1957). A cat in a red-and-white striped top-hat drops in on a pair of unsuspecting siblings, and tries to entertain them while turning their house upside down, much to the consternation of their pet goldfish. It was funny, riveting, and literally ‘… a karate chop on the weary little world of Dick, Jane and Spot (Ellen Goodman)’. The Cat … was published under the imprint of ‘Beginner Books’ and much more literary mayhem was to follow.

As a parent and a writer, I marvel at the stunning simplicity of Geisel’s words, and at the vivid madness in his minimalist books. Geisel is in turn funny (as in the very basic Hop On Pop), crazy (as in Green Eggs and Ham, Mr Brown Can Moo, The Eye Book, The Tooth Book and Wacky Wednesday) and sometimes even political (like in Horton Hears a Who). Beginner Books went on to publish many fantastic titles by other artists and writers as well—the laugh-inducing Put Me In the Zoo (1960), written and illustrated by Robert Lopshire, is just one. 

Eric Carle is another innovative children’s illustrator whose work simply refuses to conform to adult notions of ‘child-friendly’. With a background in graphic design and advertising, Carle created colourful books out of collage using layers of hand-painted paper that are stylish and yet earthy. Beginning with Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Can You See? (1967), he went on to create many classics like The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969) and The Grouchy Ladybug (1977).

A British artist who caused something of a paradigm shift in how publishers and parents would view illustrations forever was Quentin Blake. His seemingly casual, scratchy sketches have brought so many of Roald Dahl’s stories to life (The Enormous Crocodile of 1978 is a perennial favourite) that children often think he writes the books as well. Blake’s delightful illustrations have a breathless quality, and he has not only drawn books, but also written some like Mr Magnolia (1980), Fantastic Daisy Artichoke, (1999) and the Mrs. Armitage series.

The thing with children is that they recognize immediacy and sincerity in art. So whether or not a picture is ‘good’ by adult standards, a child’s response to art that grabs him is usually quick and instinctive. Often a book that I think will scare my daughter or alienate her, in fact ends up appealing to her the most. Artists, I conclude, must know something about her responses that I don’t!

Tuesday (1991) by David Wiesner and The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher (1980) by Molly Bang—both Caldecott Honor Awards winners—were startling examples of this. Tuesday is a wordless book, where you build the narrative as you go, finding new details and images with every reading. Just before 9 p.m on a Tuesday, near a marsh in small-town America, some phlegmatic frogs sitting on lily pads begin to fly. Startled, the frogs grow dizzy with the thrill of flying. When dawn comes they slowly float down and have to hop back to their marsh where—understandably—they sulk. On the last page, at the same time next Tuesday, pigs begin to rise.

It was a book I was sure would terrify my toddler. It had a quiet eeriness to it and the painstakingly rendered frogs were not your average picture-book froggies. But she found it riveting, enjoying the sheer craziness of the story and laughing at the frogs’ glee. The novelty came from discovering a new frog in the swarm, a new expression, and a new detail with every reading.

If Wiesner came as a surprise, then Molly Bang’s The Grey Lady … was a shocker. A wordless book again, it ‘tells’ of an old lady who buys a basket of strawberries for her family. Leaving the shop, she is followed by the ‘Snatcher’, a skinny, gangly-limbed blue-coloured man wearing a yellow-and-purple shawl and a red hat. Deviously, he follows the Grey Lady, making many grabs for her basket.

The Lady dashes into buses, hides in a swamp, climbs a tree, swings from a vine, and finally escapes the relentless Snatcher only by authorial intervention. Fed up, he spots a mulberry bush, and eats enough to have his hair stand up on end in a blissful, orange afro.

The challenge of the book is not just the fear of the chasing Snatcher, but the fact that Bang uses a complex narrative style. The same page has the characters in two different positions—before and after an event. Surprisingly, kids actually get Bang’s complicated shifting of perspective and her elliptical story-telling device. Even more surprisingly, they seem to like rather than fear the Snatcher.

The book took Bang two-and-a-half years to illustrate. When it came out, was panned by critics as being ‘too flashy’ and ‘weird’. When Bang won the Caldecott, she writes, she was surprised and asked a committee member if they had read the reviews. The member replied, ‘We don’t make our decisions based on reviews.’

In India too, we have illustrators who regularly tore out of the sweet confines of the artistic envelope. Sukumar Ray—Satyajit Ray’s father—probably pioneered the movement for deliciously mad illustrations in his still-popular Abol-tabol (1923), a collection of nonsense poems. Much later, Shankar, an amazing artist, wrote and drew many books in his bold and effortless style. R.K. Laxman’s illustrations for Kamala Laxman’s Thama (1975) series brought alive an endearing baby elephant.

Target, a children’s magazine seemed to attract the best talent in the ’80s with illustrators like Atanu Roy, whose richly intricate lines were dramatic and nutty; Ajit Ninan who drew the hilarious, pot-bellied Detective Moochwala; and Jayanto Banerjee, whose Gardhab Das, the donkey-musician, perennially plagued us with his lousy singing.

Mario Miranda’s quirky, whimsical and sometimes even serious sketches in our Class 2 English reader left a huge impression. I’ve forgotten much of what I learnt, but his fat, funny, robust illustrations for Dhondu and the Rotten Eggs, and his solemn turn for a travel piece on Goa from the same book, are still fresh in my mind.

So the next time you pick up a picture book for your child, give it a little extra thought. Explore a bit and try to find exciting artists—the ones mentioned above are at the extreme, outermost tip of the iceberg. Look a little deeper and there’s a whole world of picture-book illustrators out there (flapping about like eager penguins, perhaps?), just waiting to be discovered and enjoyed!

Date of Publishing: 
Sat, 11/01/2008
Profile Note: 
<p>Anita Vachharajani is a writer of children&rsquo;s books based in Mumbai.</p>
Issue
Volume Number: 
Vol. XXXII No. 11
Month: 
November
Year: 
2008

On Picture Books

Author: 
Article: 

Surely pictures just happen! Happy, time-pass creations of  characters floating around in a make-believe world. Is there anything more to them than meets the eye? I guess there should be considering that one of the buzzwords doing the rounds is ‘visual literacy’.

A picture lends itself to a range of functions: of them come to mind portray, elaborate, emphasize, analyse, express, and last but not the least ENTICE. Precisely what the books sent to me are doing at this very moment. Fighting to be picked up and appreciated at the manner in which they’ve chosen to array themselves.

Picture books come in all shapes and sizes, and they largely reflect the child’s view of the world. Wordless books lay the foundation for understanding the more complex structure of interrelated objects sharing a stage, within a projected space.

As far as India is concerned children’s books made its way into our world along with the English language. Nursery rhymes, fairytales and Aesop’s Fables were pressed between two covers embellished with delicate illustrations in watercolour or carefully crafted black and white prints. They led us into a world of bunnies and foxes, turrets and towers, healthy golden-haired children digging into plums and peaches. Acceptable, understandable, an even enjoyable view of an exotic new world. But when India decided to enter this genre with her own stories, a small confusion arose. Unaware of the enormity the word and image combination effects on young minds, it was used instead, by many, to produce cheap and cheesy imitations of the original role model. Publishers (with parental approval) believing in the superiority of the imported colour and figure incongruously fitted Indian voices with those plumes. So the artists and writers were in this peculiar situation of looking at their world through a borrowed and quite alien lens. Quite naturally the resulting products were stained with a sense of unrealism that refused to make the right connection. Portions of the urban population turned their backs on these half-baked efforts and plunged into the world of British, Russian, American and Chinese books which bore that unmistakable stamp of authenticity. But some, not figuring better and finding it affordable actively supported it. So it was left to a few to consciously work towards creating quality Indian books.

The earliest attempts at promotion of literacy in the traditional and visual sense began with the National Book Trust. Down decades it has exposed thousands of children, across all classes, to the richness of the Indian and outside world. The most talented artists and writers contributed generously to this cause. Despite being confined to a couple of standard formats, printed on inexpensive paper, at times subjected to the most indifferent page design, they left an indelible mark. We owe our foundation in children’s literature to their concerted efforts. They introduced the notion that stories and pictures, Indian in virtue, could and should be the window into our own world. I use ‘Indian’ as a very loose term here, but what I suggest is something on the lines of putting together the right mix of ingredients to come up with an authentic flavour. India because of her recent history had acquired a slew of ‘pan Indian’ identities, culled interestingly from local and foreign sources, for more reasons than one. It had a strong presence in the art world, which mercifully spilled into the world of books.

Mickey Patel and Pulak Biswas for example worked with tools, paper and perspectives that was western in origin. But what they did with it is what we need to think about. The bewildered, quaking, belligerent line compounds the chaos and noisy madness Ruskin Bond’s snake evokes when it has the misfortune to tangle with humans from all walks of Indian life—the turbaned sardarji, the comfortably constructed auntyji, the wrinkled, ringlet-ed spinster aunt. The very same line assumes immense gravity and dignity when it chronicles the Stories From Bapu’s Life. Mickey Patel’s style is not tethered to the Indian tradition as such, it hinges on the decorative and at times risks being labelled ‘cute’, yet it never fails to capture the ‘atmosphere’. 

On the other hand Pulak Biswas’s does have a more Indian feel. His characters are more individualized, and undoubtedly he feels the pulse of rural India with ease, whatever the geographical location. The bronzed bodies with their natural tendency to exaggerated facial and hand gestures, transports one immediately on to the scene as a curious bystander. That is the power of the visual. It captures your imagination so convincingly that you become part of the narrative.

Before Tara, Tulika and Katha entered the scene with very definite commitment to quality literature, Indian in flavour, universal in appeal, with an eye for design, as mentioned earlier, parallel publishing happened and continues to do so with relatively lax benchmarks as far as book making goes. They were and are immensely popular and deserve mention for reaching out to a vast majority. But what they reinforce is the imperative need for quality, clarity and creativity, especially if we believe that the preservation, regeneration and continuity of a culture rest with the arts. Only when we become conscious of the book as an entity whose function does not stop with spinning a good yarn will quality in voice, structure and design follow.

Almost all picture books start off by being ‘read’ by two heads simultaneously. The adult preoccupied by text and the child the world of images. What is rarely and barely noticed by an adult is sucked deeply into and filed away by the sponge-like young mind. It is a quality shared by artists and many times they choose to add their ‘bit’ to the story with interesting asides. My favourite example of this is Tulika’s The Rooster and the Sun written and illustrated by Meren Imchen. The human failings that the artist saddles the animals with is what tinges every panel with humour, not quite reflected in the text. The flexible noodle-like bodies, fitted with disjointed limbs are marvellously suited to convey the humongous and not-too-comprehensible task the boorish human master burdens them with. The dopey buffalo, willing pig and bird-witted rooster are at their best mimicking the follies of man.

Scholastic’s A Cat Called Troublemaker by Kuntie Ramdat Balkaran, illustrated by Shilpa Ranade, is yet another book that teases the imagination of the reader. A cantankerous, rather devilish-looking old couple, keep company with a brood of peacock-speckled hens, a lazy dog and a chatty parrot. The arrival of an impossible imposter – a striped cat with a spotted tail sets the story in motion. And from thereon non-stop action gains momentum through deliberate distortion of perspective. The other reason why I mention this book is because though the author and illustrator are of Indian extraction, neither chose to even hint at it, either by design or setting. This ambiguity allows the young child to roam freely through the text and enjoy the antics for what they are, crazy capers. It could be anywhere and everywhere and really quite universal in its nature. So why bind it to a region?

An issue that raises its head every now and then is the use of ‘other’ art to illustrate stories, and it has many facets. To the urban, conservatively-trained eye the vibrancy, unusual angles and raw energy that these folk and tribal arts unleash requires stepping into uncharted waters. So a very primary concern is the efficacy of the image to convey and communicate. Wait a moment: what are we questioning? Centuries-old traditions which have successfully sustained and nurtured generations? A fitting answer to this is Tara’s That’s How I See Things with text by Sirish Rao. From the very title the Gond artist Bajju Shyam tells you it is a personal trip he is taking you on which he generously routes back to your world. Here the intention is very clear. It is my world and if you wish to enjoy it you make the necessary leaps to cover the chasms.

Katha’s contribution to the cause of literacy through various avenues needs no introduction.  Explorative, one of their recent offerings is a collaborative effort between Geeta Dharmarajan and an Iranian artist Rashin Kheyriyeh. The Famous Smile, the rise to celebrity status of Agar-Magar the crocodile, brings to mind the hilarious Happydent commercials. Bold black against a neutral colour is rendered with child-like expressiveness. By choosing the middle path and not bringing her background nor attempting to adopt the one of the story, the illustrator instead chooses to make it past-contemporary. It works because the design, style and paper have a huge say in ensuring the dual personality but its conviction also lies in the fact that the major players are animals, not humans. The creative twist that the artist brings to this book is the nonchalant switching of colours, whether it is applied to Agar-Magar himself or his dazzling bright smile (aka white shining teeth) which in turns shows up yellow, white and even black! Speaks volumes of the confidence the artist has of her skills and the faith she reposes on the equally nimble and inventive minds of her young audience.

Picture books allow you to do just that and more. Suspend belief, tickle your funny bone, walk you through sensitive and explosive issues, twist yourself into knots, lead you anywhere and everywhere—a colourful introduction to the real world awaiting you.

Date of Publishing: 
Thu, 11/01/2007
Profile Note: 
<p>Uma Krishnaswamy&nbsp;is a student and teacher of art based in Chennai. She has illustrated several books for children.</p>
Issue
Volume Number: 
Vol. XXXI No. 11
Month: 
November
Year: 
2007

Creating an Aesthetic Temper: Thoughts From a Seminar On illustrations In Children's Books

Author: 
Article: 

At the three-day seminar organized by the  Sir Ratan Tata Trust (SRTT) and Ekalavya in Bhopal on illustrations in children’s books, there was no consensus, but there was a great deal of sharing. This is the first such effort in India to focus on illustrations in children’s books, and this article only touches upon some of the issues that were raised. Rest assured, there was plenty of heat and discussion in Bhopal. So, what is detailed here is only grist for your own mills!

The first graphic symbolism that children use to represent their feelings and emotions is drawing. But there is little understanding of the role of drawing in cognitive development or the development of aesthetic intelligence. Children need to be given space within the learning environment and outside it to give vent to their creativity particularly in the pre-primary and primary stages of education.

By sharing personal journeys and experiences, illustrators showed how they interpret stories, what influences their style of drawing, how children and parents respond to illustrations, how the publishing industry works, and their own place in the industry and the art world. Ideas were shared on how to train or sensitize illustrators to the special needs of children’s books, also keeping in mind the needs of scientific or conceptual materials.

How important is the social background and consciousness of the illustrator? This is a controversial issue although most illustrators believe it was possible to transcend biases in their visual conceptions. What about hidden social and political agendas then? Inevitably, the Amar Chitra Katha came up for discussion to show how it attempted to move away from western stereotypes to create a new nationalistic image of the 1970s ‘liberal’ India, but ended up putting across new male and female stereotypes of the dominant mindset of Indian society.

In counterpoint, there is the ‘alternative’ approach in which both the writer and illustrator are from the class, caste, tribal or minority community in which a text is located. The difference in feel, texture and values reflected in such efforts is clearly evident. In fact, one of the questions thrown up by the seminar was how the ‘voices’ of these till now suppressed or subdued communities can create their own spaces.

Sharing experiences on low cost publication will help arrive at a middle path between totally market driven commercial publishing, which often constrains the content and form of the final product, and totally subsidized publishing which, more often than not, tends to result in shoddy end products.

Poonam Batra of the Central Institute of Education, University of Delhi, pointed out that children tend to express what they know and feel rather than what they may actually see, a point reinforced by Teji Grover talking about providing creative spaces for children to draw and express their inner selves. Depicting this three-dimensional knowledge in two dimensions can have interesting results. Thus a pregnant cow becomes transparent to show the calf in her uterus, or a fish is bigger than the fisherman to reflect the sense of awe the child feels at the size of the catch.

Poonam also pointed out that children unexposed to text could still make truthful depictions of election symbols or flags or markings on STD booths, because these are their texts, even though they may not understand what is written. So, when children enter school they thus come with a repertoire of representation skills. This is where a process of unlearning begins as schools give the message that only formal symbolic modes like literacy and numeracy are valued. They thus lose out on alternative symbolic systems and modes of representation.

One interesting question thrown up was whether illustrations may actually confuse and interfere in the process of developing meaning and understanding. Research has shown that illustrations and texts can project and reinforce discrimination in terms of gender, caste and religion. They can also project false images of homogeneity, thus playing an integral role in the socialization of children and influencing processes of identity formation.

Since children come to the classroom with a lot of visual language, picture books and drawing become very important. This aspect was examined by Rimli Bhattacharya of Delhi University, in the context of her experiences in developing textbooks for primary schoolchildren in West Bengal. She sought to map the visual and the verbal in classroom situations at the primary level, outlining the various dimensions of space children inhabit, explore and create in their physical and representational world. In exploring the possible concepts of illustrations that could be of relevance to writing and text, she also gave examples of some of the experimental materials that have and could be developed in this context.

Rimli found that most Bangla textbooks had no illustrations at all. When she circulated low-cost books featuring minimal text and good illustrations (such as The Busy Ant by Pulak Biswas) among children in primary schools of the backward Bankura district near Kolkata, she found them responding positively to the illustrations, with even the non-Bangla speaking sections using them to make sense of the written language. The pictures were talking to the children, reinforcing the message that the visual complements the verbal.

Economic necessity also means the textbook is often the only book available to the child. Can the textbook provide the required spaces? However, the lack of physical space in classrooms is a trap as it does not allow for a  relationship between the body and the reading, writing and learning process. How are children expected to focus? How are they expected to grow creatively in terms of imagination??

The creative use of space and drawing has also been explored in the Khushi Khushi workbooks developed under Prashika, Eklavya’s primary education programme. The premise on which the workbooks were developed was that children construct their own meanings of the world they experience; it is not something they can be taught. Language, too, is learned through experience. Hence a textbook should provide them with rich literary and visual exposure, which is combined with their actual life experiences to construct meaning. It should also help them develop their visual experiences and understanding. This is a cumulative process.

The common wisdom is that children do not respond positively to illustrated books in which the drawings are done by other children. However Teji’s contention was that when a child looks at a picture and gets a feeling that even she could do it, she is not awestruck by something that is beyond her. She may criticize the picture as being unrealistic, but it is hard to believe she does not enjoy the exuberance, humour, or energy she sees in it.

Recalling the experiences of his group Nalanda in using illustrated books to improve the linguistic abilities of children in formal and non-formal learning situations, Kamlesh Chandra Joshi said the texts and illustrations take on new meanings and the children are able to infer where the story is heading. The effort was to make reading and looking at pictures a habit among children in tribal areas, urban slum areas, madrasas and rural primary schools where there was no prior experience of interacting with illustrated books. Therefore, choice of book is important.

Initially, Kamlesh found that the children who could not read would look at each picture separately, unable to see the connection or sequence between them. The situation was not much different with those who were beginning to read. They, too, failed to link the pictures to the text. Many of the older children would also repeat stories mechanically, reading them by heart. However, with time, the children began relating to the books, identifying them by their pictures and adding their personal experiences during the discussions. For example, a four year old child looking at pictures of a mango tree began ‘picking’ and ‘eating’ mangoes from the tree and even tried to kill a monkey sitting on a tree by ‘hitting’ it.

Some questions popped up repeatedly: Do we really understand how children interpret images? What meanings do illustrations give to them? Is an adult’s judgment about using certain styles like folk and tribal art for children really valid? Are these styles readily accepted by children? What appeals more to children, the familiar or the unfamiliar? Should children be exposed to ideas through multiple styles and left to interpret the images in their own way? Are children good judges of good and bad illustrations?

From what the illustrators shared of their journeys, it is clear you need to have a sense of humour to survive in an industry that does not pay very much. Nor are the majority of publishers visually literate. Atanu Roy cited the instance of an illustrators’s mandi in Meerut where auctions are held for the best illustrated cover. Illustrators need to rely on their sense of delight, be well informed and kept away from text-books. ‘Textbooks generate a fear of books in children,’ said Taposhi Ghoshal. It is not fair to simply use the work of folk artists, pointed out Nina Sabnani, you have to give something back in return. The clever artists, said Raja Mohanty, ‘have created spaces for themselves. While retaining their basic style and approach, which is their signature as well as their meal ticket, they have experimented with colour and lines and have even ventured beyond myth and ritual into depicting modern themes in traditional style.’

Is illustration art? Is art independent of its context? Does the artist function free of his or her social background? One contention was that early art had a social function and purpose, and it still does although it simultaneously also gives pleasure.

The question of stereotypes and hidden agendas is a vexing one. As Abid Surti pointed out, why is Mahatma Gandhi always portrayed as a dhoti-clad old man with a staff? Why is a rose invariably portrayed as a symbol of love, even in places where it is not grown and people have not even seen the flower? This is visual conditioning, something we need to be wary about. Even colours are appropriated by vested interests (saffron for a political party, green for a religious group, and so on) and this is a worrying trend. Then there is visual conditioning, where, typically a thief would be shown male, from the poorer classes and looking unkempt. Therefore, who invests pictures with meaning? And what kind of meaning?

Even when conscious efforts are made to sensitize people to the idea of ‘difference’ in a pluralistic society by incorporating minorities and the marginalized into the mainstream, there are pitfalls. Often, there is not much thought. Take charts used in classrooms, for instance. Typically, these decontextualize the figures and occupations. There are no cues to locate them in the real world.

Can an illustrator be trained? What about specialized technical illustrations and diagrams? What does one expect from illustrations in a textbook? What is the role we want the textbook to perform? How do children interact with the book? How can children be encouraged to interact with their surroundings? How can the book encourage children to articulate their thoughts and describe their world through words and drawings? What is it that makes a picture inviting and, in turn, makes the activity exciting? Is redundancy in pictures needed the same way as redundancy in text is needed to reinforce comprehension? What are the do’s and don’ts for illustrators?

The world rich in visual stimuli is not always reflected in our books. Whereas one well drawn picture is worth a thousand words. Children appreciate change and take pleasure in looking at the work of different artists even in a single textbook. Many different styles can be used, with different angles and perspectives, but shoddy pictures cannot be acceptable. Pictures must engage.

The modern world has taken children from slate and chalk to the vibrant colours of television and hoardings screaming at them from every street corner. The real challenge lies in making children more intimate with books amid these distractions.

A good illustration is one that addresses the world the children live in, catches their attention and stays with them.

Date of Publishing: 
Thu, 11/01/2007
Profile Note: 
<p>Seminar organized by Sir Ratan Tata Trust.</p>
Issue
Volume Number: 
Vol. XXXI No. 11
Month: 
November
Year: 
2007

An Illustrator Speaks

Author: 
Article: 

I love children. I absolutely adore mine--warts and all. And they have plenty of those. Actually I am a bit confused. I am not very sure if I like mine more - or other people's. Friends' chil­dren one can cuddle, and ‘squeeze till the toothpaste comes out’. And then it is ‘thank you very much, I had a lovely time, now you can go back home’. Now, yours you gotta live with and they are forever - and a bit longer.

Mine are very involved, very passion­ate and very opinionated about every­thing especially about my work (I must add here that they are a wee bit proud of my illustrations too--specially when one of their friends tell them--your Mum has illustrated such and such a book. I read her name in the credits).

So here is the scenario. I have my rotering set, inks, colours, pencils, eras­ers, my paper, set square and drawing board, all set out. I am in the mood to do some serious illustrating.

In comes Ditto (my younger one--she is 6 years old) and plonks down and makes herself very comfortable in a chair next to my table. She surveys what I am doing and keeps still for precisely two minutes, (the condition I have laid down for allowing her to sit next to me is si­lence). Then the barrage of questions start:

Ditto: Which book are you illustrating mom?

Mom: The Kitten In the Mitten.

Ditto: Read it out to me please.

Mom: Ditto, you promised to keep quiet.

Ditto: (Putting on her best 'I'm your little baby act) Please Mom.

Mom: O.K, if you promise to go away after that.

So then I read the story--which she en­joys--and in the meantime my elder daughter Barn Barn (11- years-old) strolls in: That sentence doesn't sound right

...and strolls out.

Ditto meanwhile is still hanging about--and is playing with my rotering pen-point 2 which has a very delicate nib--and needless to say is very expen­sive. I yell, she gives it back and picks up the inks. I yell again. She calms me down and asks for a piece of paper. In sheer exasperation I give it to her hoping in exchange I'll get to do some work but peace is short-lived. I barely manage to do a page when I notice a little head peering over my shoulder: ‘That does not look like a cat Mom but the Man looks nice’. Thank you Ditto. Thank you. I really am grateful for your very expert com­ments but I did not really ask for them. In the meantime she cozies herself in my room and starts humming while draw­ing. At this point I am enjoying myself ­really concentrating on the brush work­ when the table starts jiggling. My hand moves and yellow ink splatters all over. I scream at Ditto, show the mess that has been created by her, and the poor thing feeling very sorry makes herself scarce.

I survey the damage and find that actually the illustration looks far more interesting than it did before. So I quickly attempt to recreate it in the next one. Yahoo! it works.

Ditto now, after what she feels is a decent interval decides to make a reap­pearance. Standing well away from my table, she realizes that she has contrib­uted to my illustration in a rather nice manner. She struts around and takes all the credit.

But really, illustrating is a serious fun business. Childhood, the loveliest, most innocent phase in a person's life. As an illustrator I would like to think I add my little bit to their joy. Books, a vital part of any child's growing up, stories and illus­trations giving wings to his imagination. Maybe I am helping in this in some way.

I remember one of my favourite illus­trators as a child was Joan Walsh An­glund. I loved the books she illustrated but never realized the painstaking effort that made the book come alive for me. I illustrate primarily for my children. For the joy I feel in them. By illustrating chil­dren's books in some way I am participat­ing in their childhood and perhaps reliving mine.

Life would be wonderful for illustra­tors. But…why are so few interesting stories written for children? Why don't we borrow from real life situations which children can actually identify with? Why do most stories sound so inane and mundane? Why are they not fun and crazy? We are always, even in our stories, talking at children instead of talking to them. Remember, fun stories make fun illustrations.

And publishers, could you please try and improve the production quality of your books? It breaks the illustrator’s heart to see good artworks reproduced badly. Pricing the books a little higher could give the child a well produced book.

Yes, and parents should indulge chil­dren with more books than ice-creams, toys or appu ghar rides. Books stay with children much longer. Well written, beau­tifully illustrated and thoughtfully pro­duced books make reading a pleasure­ and a habit that cultivates itself.

Date of Publishing: 
Mon, 11/01/1993
Profile Note: 
<p>Poonam Bevli Sahi is a graphic designer and illustrator of children&#39;s books.&nbsp;</p>
Issue
Volume Number: 
Vol. XVII No. 11
Month: 
November
Year: 
1993

Eyes Larger Than Dinner Plates - A Critique Of Children's Book Illustrations

Author: 
Article: 

There was a fairy tale I read as a child which featured three dogs encountered one after the other by the hero of the story. The dogs not only had the power to help the hero but were described as having large eyes: the first had eyes the size of saucers, the second, the size of dinner plates and the third, the size of serving dishes.

When I read this story as a child, I remember turning the pages of the book quickly, to see if there was a picture of the dogs--only to be disappointed. The illustrator, though highly skilled, had not bothered to highlight the one detail which was of interest to anyone who read the story - the size of the dogs' eyes.

Later in my life, working as an illustrator of children's books myself, I realized how difficult it can be to include that kind of specific and magical detail! And I know that I have often failed to meet the exacting standards I used to set for the illustrators of the books I read as a child. But this has not prevented me from believing in, and struggling to fulfil, the special need that a child-reader has, to see what is described in the text. Illustrations for children's books cannot be merely decorative. They serve the function of feeding that hunger of childhood, that ravenous need to have as many coordinates as possible with which to recognize the world.

Keeping this context in mind, when we look at illustrations in children's publishing in India, we see two broad categories. One type is sophisticated and well-executed but circumvents realism through stylization. The other type attempts a head-on collision with realism, often combining clumsy execution with a lack of researched detail.

For many artists and illustrators of non-technical books, ‘realism’ is synonymous with ‘boring’, ‘pro­saic’ and ‘unspontaneous’. I think this is a little sad, especially for the child-reader. An illustrator for children is a kind of a mental nutritionist, feeding growing minds. Merely attractive or titillating illustrations are no different to junk food, all taste and substance. Yet few of the books currently available in India are illustrated with direct, painstaking and well-researched drawings excepting those intended specifically as reference or text books, whose drawings are commis­sioned for their near-photographic qualities.

Take the Oxford University Press book called Common Trees Of India. It is apparently meant to be a hand­book to help young readers identify trees. Each illustration shows close­ ups of leaves, fruit and/ or flowers, accompanied by a pencil sketch of  the tree in question. By themselves, the sketches are sweet: soft, fleet­lined impressions of the general shape and mood of some trees. But as a guide to identification, they're hopeless.

A book of this kind requires fine, sharp renderings, formal but graceful, preferably in ink, and drawn from specific references. This means, locating a tree or a picture of a tree which represents the epitome of, say, a banyan tree. A child looking at the resulting illustration should be able to identify a banyan tree at fifty paces and should be able to feel that happy sense of discovery and satisfaction of ‘Yes, I have looked at this book and I have recognized this tree and for the rest of my life, I will know a banyan tree when I see one!’ A really good illustration entertains and educates, even as it builds confidence in the reliability of books as sources of information.

Or take another instance: in People (Environmental Studies Book One by Neil Gardner), readers are shown three people, described in words as fair, medium and dark. But the illustration shows only the most delicate difference in shade. The artist may, of course, have been aiming at a higher level of reality, suggesting that such distinctions are not important! But I suspect he was merely careless. I see in this ex­ample and in other more subtle ones throughout the book, a lack of intellectual rigour. In the case of this book, the artist is not at fault: he is very gifted and his drawings are pleasant, fluent and confident. But he was not the appropriate choice for this kind of book. To build a young reader's stock of visual images, one needs clear, unambigu­ous pictures, not poetic interpreta­tions.

In story books, the individual styles of different artists make up for the lack of rigour to some extent. Many NBT publications for in­stance, are lively and stylishly designed. I particularly enjoyed Mohini and the Demon (Pranab Chakravarti), The Elephant and the Dog and Find the Half-Circles (Badri Narayan). Waiting For Rain (Yusuf Bangalorewala) is worth special attention because it is perhaps the only book I saw in this selection in which human beings were not stylized, but drawn with easy familiarity.

Aside from these few examples however, the feeling I get from looking at these books is of being shown the world through a vaseline-coated lens. The problem is not a lack of talent. There are very many skilled and creative artists. But only a handful are willing to labour over their illustrations, to research their details, to take references from life. To my mind, for instance, it is really remarkable that few artists seem to be able to draw human figures. The joints of hands and wrists, necks and shoul­ders, feet and ankles--these are invariably drawn as if by an alien being, unfamiliar with human anatomy. That awkwardness is the tell-tale result of a lack of rigorous training, a lack of discipline in seeing.

A very basic temptation which artists fall prey to is to quest after ‘style’ before attaining basic drawing skills. This is rather like an illiterate person desiring a distinc­tive, individual style of handwriting without having learnt to write. For an artist, the ‘alphabet’ is the appearance of the real world. For a child, learning this alphabet is as crucial as learning to read. It seems clear to me that artists who draw for children must be visually literate before they attempt to reproduce the world of sight for someone else. Sadly, few of them are, and fewer still are willing to understand why they should be.

Some artists are lucky with their editors; I, for instance, have worked for people so pernickety that I have had no choice but to improve my standards! One editor took off his shirt to show me exactly what the stitching on a Parsi sudreh, a fine muslin undershirt, looks like, so that I could draw that detail into a cartoon of a Parsi gent relaxing at home. Another editor sent me chasing around town looking for a 'mahua' tree. And another had me struggling for three years in pursuit of the ideal Baby Dragon.

Drawing for children is not a spontaneous, childlike activity. It takes a conscious awareness of what children like and what they need. Very generally, for instance, young children need broad clear lines and enjoy bright colours, definite shapes; older children need and appreciate detailed action drawings; most children are impressed by, and prize, realism. Editors and artists alike need to be aware of these needs if they are to produce books which go beyond the superficial prettiness they have at present.

Date of Publishing: 
Fri, 11/01/1991
Profile Note: 
<p>Manjula Padmanabhan is an illustrator, writer and artist and author of the play <em>Lights Out</em>.&nbsp;</p>
Issue
Volume Number: 
Vol. XV Nos. 11-12
Month: 
Nov/Dec
Year: 
1991
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