Sunday June 10, 2012
Bridging the gap
TOTS TO TEEN By DAPHNE LEE
Pictures are stepping stones to worlds and stories that readers can enter and experience.
AN illustrator I’m working with on a picture book has produced some beautiful drawings depicting moonlit forest scenes. We both think the art would work best without colour, but we are also all too aware that most Malaysian (and Singaporean) readers would not be very happy with a black-and-white picture book.
The average Malaysian reader expects children’s books to be brightly-coloured, happy stories. This is, of course, untrue and I’ve written – many times – about how children’s books should reflect all things experienced by children, including fear and sadness, and also how beautiful, original black-and-white art is surely preferable to anything boring, derivative and ugly, no matter how brilliantly hued.
I think children respond to interesting stories, and also to pictures that are exciting and inventive. Suzy Lee’s three textless picture books, which I wrote about last week, are largely monochromatic works. They each feature just one vibrant splash of colour – the bright yellow dress of the girl in Mirror, the blue sea in Wave, the sunshiny pool of light cast by the electric bulb in Shadow. You don’t really notice how much (or little) colour there is, though, because your eyes are drawn to the little girls and their actions, through which their stories unfold. These stories don’t need to be told in full colour to be enticing. Children know this. We just have to teach grown-ups (the ones who are buying the books) to understand it, too.
The Black Bird is a book by Lee that is done entirely in black-and-white. It’s about a little girl who is sad because her parents are fighting all the time. A gigantic black bird carries her off, offering escape and a sense of freedom and peace. “This book was rejected by American publishers because it’s too ‘dark’,” said Lee when I spoke to her at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content, held in Singapore last week.
Following our conversation, Lee shared with me the pdf of the book via e-mail, saying, “It is dark, indeed, but the colour of black in this book is deep and rich, as, I believe, is the story.”
The bird is velvety black, its feathers sooty, soft and shining – you can practically feel them brush your face, hear the wings beat heavily as the bird rises above you, casting a shadow as it glides across the sky.
The book is only published in France and South Korea at the moment, which is such a shame as I think it says so much about a situation many children face each day. Let’s face it: is there anyone who doesn’t know what hearing your parents fight feels like? As I recall, it’s a cold, dark, empty feeling, and it’s brilliantly depicted by Lee’s black-and-white stone lithographs in which blank, white spaces say as much as dark smudges and inky-black shapes.
Lee seems really in tune with the way children feel and respond. I like what she told me about growing up with parents who were “enthusiastic readers” and how, as there weren’t, at the time, many Korean children’s books, she just read whatever her parents owned.
One such book was The Shrinking Of Treehorn by Florence Parry Heide, with illustrations by Edward Gorey. “It’s the one that I first remember as a book with pictures,” said Lee. “It’s a bit of a strange picture book for a child. I don’t think I understood the story at that time, but I was attracted by the mysteriousness of the book.”
Mystery is exactly what children love. I did, as a child, and it’s why I loved (and am still haunted) by Eva Johanna Rubin’s illustrations in The Gardens Of Dorr (by Paul Biegel), and Margery Gill’s in The Candlemas Mystery (by Ruth M. Arthur). Incidentally, they are black-and-white drawings and I think that is a huge part of their magic. The black lines and shadows seem to whisper. They harbour secrets and surprises. Colour, for these books anyway, would just be too ordinary and safe.
I asked Lee what she thinks makes a good illustrator and this is her answer: “As I place one image next to another, a story appears between them like magic. Now, it is not the separate images that are important but the story they create together.
“As I place and alter the images, the story starts to tell itself by the power of the images alone. When there is nothing left to add and nothing left to take out, the book is complete. The illustrations in the book are meaningful because they’re in the book. A good illustrator creates meanings and beauty ‘between’ the pages.”
Even when it’s pictures for an illustrated book rather than a picture book, I believe that this is what makes good illustrations (and a good illustrator) – the pictures are just stepping stones to worlds and stories that readers can enter and experience. They bridge the gap between the page and the imagination. That’s exactly what Lee and her illustrations do.
n Daphne Lee reads to wonder and wander, be amazed and amused, horrified and heartened and inspired and comforted. She wishes more people will try it too. Send e-mails to the above address and check out her blog at daphne.blogs.com/books.