The mood inside the Berger Forum at the New York Public Library last Wednesday afternoon, May 1, was as vibrant as the lively scene at nearby Bryant Park. Extra chairs had to be brought in for the enthusiastic children’s book industry folks arriving to see artists Olivier Tallec and Oliver Jeffers talk about their craft. The panel was part of a series presented by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy titled Picture This! Conversations with Illustrators from Paris and New York. The event was moderated by newly appointed New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul (she was until recently the paper’s children’s book review editor).
Tallec and Jeffers spoke about their career paths and their personal aesthetics, as well as the challenges and joys of creative collaboration, among many other topics.
Both illustrators arrived at their profession serendipitously. Brooklyn-based Jeffers, who is originally from Ireland and spent some years in Australia, was studying fine arts when he first began to think of his work as a vehicle for storytelling. “My early art was interested in putting words and pictures together,” he told the audience. “I was fascinated by the interaction between them.” Jeffers was also haunted by a single image of a figure trying to catch a star, which eventually evolved into his first picture book, How to Catch a Star (2004).
Tallec (with the assistance of a translator) explained that he had been working as a package designer – pizza boxes and the like – and was seeking an alternative creative outlet when he made his first forays into children’s literature in the early 2000s. It was a field that he noticed “had developed tremendously” in the previous 15 years.” He began making contacts with publishers and initially illustrated books without meeting their authors. Tallec teamed up with author Nadine Brun-Cosme for the Big Wolf and Little Wolf series, about two steadfast friends who live a simple yet contemplative life together under a tree at the top of a hill. The first book in the series was released in France in 2005, and in the U.S. in 2009 by Enchanted Lion.
Jeffers has predominately written and illustrated his own books. But while he continues to focus on integrating words into his pictures, he said that the images are the driving force behind the stories he tells: “I let the words be informed by the pictures. If I can show it rather than say it, I just don’t say it.”
A recent exception to Jeffers’s lone wolf approach was his collaboration with first-time author Drew Daywalt on The Day the Crayons Quit (Philomel, June), a story about a boy who wants to color but discovers that the crayons in his box are on strike. The book is told primarily through letters written by the malcontent crayons. Jeffers became involved with the project when his editor intentionally left the book for Jeffers to find: “Don’t look at anything on my desk,” he said as he stepped out of the office for a moment, knowing full well that Jeffers would do just that.
Jeffers said he was sold on the idea of illustrating The Day the Crayons Quit right away. He found the experience of creating images built around another author’s text to be liberating. It helped that the project suited his personal aesthetic. “The visual structure [of the story] is such that the letters are the entire thing,” he said. “It was all about the letters.” He adapted an especially naïf style for the project: “I had to almost train myself to draw like a kid,”
Tallec said he has also had a positive experience with collaboration. Due to the minimalist nature of the text in the Big Wolf and Little Wolf books, he explained, he enjoyed a good deal of creative freedom. “Because not much happens, a lot can happen,” he said. While he and Brun-Cosme did not work side-by-side, Tallec did propose an idea for the third book, asking if he might embellish the landscape of Big Wolf and Little Wolf’s world by creating a city near their tree (Brun-Cosme agreed).
The ‘Fine Line Between Satisfaction and Predictability’
Sharing her own experience with children’s books that focus more on problem-solving than on posing philosophical questions or carving out new imaginative territories, Paul commented on the inventive quality of Jeffers’s and Tallec’s work. She invited the artists to elaborate on the origins of some of their ideas, and how they tap into a childlike perception of reality.
Jeffers’s ideas generally arise from the world around him – “things I overhear, misinterpret.” He also referenced what he believes to be a “fine line between satisfaction and predictability” in stories and the challenge of managing to strike this balance. He bemoaned the prevalence of children’s books that he believes to be “thinly veiled lessons” rather than exercises in possibility and imagination.
Similarly, Tallec reported that he develops ideas from common experience: “What really inspire me is everyday life – everyday scenes, people’s faces and expressions.”
Both Jeffers and Tallec said that they don’t necessarily create art specifically for children (a sentiment that Maurice Sendak famously shared). “I draw because I like the story,” Tallec said. “I draw out of pleasure. It is a little limiting to think of your illustration as only for children.”
Tallec does frequently share his books with children in schools and book fairs, however. For him, the experience is often eye-opening: “You are confronted by the reality of their [kids’] reactions,” he said. Jeffers, too, reflected on how children will often see aspects of his work that he hadn’t previously noticed, though sometimes his school visits can wander off-topic—especially during question time. For example, during one such presentation, a young audience member had one burning question in mind for Jeffers: “What does Batman do?”
With screen-projected scenes from the Big Wolf and Little Wolf books, The Day the Crayons Quit, and Tallec’s Waterloo & Trafalgar providing the backdrop, the illustrators discussed their artistic processes as well as recent projects and innovations.
Jeffers said he is constantly experimenting with new concepts and methods, including integrating found objects into his art. One such exploration involved salvaging discarded paintings on the street and painting over the images, creating an amalgamation of old and new. Though many of these first images ended up being scenes of disasters, Jeffers used the same method to make the illustrations for This Moose Belongs to Me. But he and his publisher faced the challenge of tracking down the rights to the original artwork. They were able to find a living relative of one of the artists, who was delighted to have his late grandfather’s paintings featured in a picture book. “So it ended up being a collaboration with a long-dead Czech guy,” Jeffers said.
Questions from the audience yielded a discussion about the children’s book industry in France, the artists’ early influences (Jeffers noted Tomi Ungerer, Quentin Blake, and Eric Carle – whose bug books taught him “a sense of scale” – as key players), and the question of a European picture book aesthetic.
Tallec believes that small publishing houses in France are “less interested in doing what has been done before.” Many French publishers are undaunted by risk-taking books with a certain degree of peculiarity. “I wouldn’t disagree if you told me that there is something very French in my illustrations,” Tallec said – though he admitted that he couldn’t objectively express what that elusive quality might be.
Jeffers, whose next project is an ABC concept book featuring 26 stand-alone stories for each letter of the alphabet, offered some ideas about culturally specific picture book characteristics: “American picture books tend to be more figurative, English [children’s books] are sarcastic, and the light in Italian picture books is warmer,” he said.
Tallec said that he tends to be rather audacious in his approach to illustrating; he will rarely give his publisher concept sketches or drafts, but will typically produce images that are almost completely finished before they arrive in his editor’s hands. For some time, Tallec’s editor had been encouraging him to write and illustrate a project, which resulted in Waterloo and Trafalgar (Enchanted Lion, 2012). Tallec first decided that he wanted to “write a book about war” while listening to news about the Libyan conflict. Tallec conjured an image of two skirmishing enemies dressed in opposing colors and separated by an invisible barrier. “I imagined it as an animated movie told in sequences,” he said. Though the idea was for Tallec to tell a story with pictures and words, it didn’t quite turn out that way: “With these images in mind, how do I write a story? How about without text?”
“So you avoided your editor’s request?” Paul teased. “Absolument,” Tallec confirmed.