Picture book enthusiasts gathered at the New York Public Library on November 13 for a panel discussion called Cross-Cultural Literature: Picture Books Beyond Words. Children’s literature historian Leonard S. Marcus moderated the event, during which guest speakers Carin Berger and Marc Boutavant spoke about their development as artists and touched on differences between U.S. and French picture book aesthetics. Though they differ in both cultural background and artistic style, both Berger and Boutavant expressed a love of the process and discovery.
Berger, who lives in New York City, demonstrated to the audience how the seeds of her artistic technique were planted when she was young, by comparing a piece of art that she created as a child with one she crafted recently. The collage elements and imbedded narrative, hallmarks of her current work, were already present in her early piece. Even as a child, she explained, “I was very interested in visual storytelling.” There was a practical purpose behind the illustration of a vehicle heading to a car wash, she recalled: it was intended to show her mother that she promised to wash the family car the following day. Her first picture book had a similarly utilitarian impetus. When Berger’s daughter was young, she tended to get rather clingy at bedtime; the artist referred to the nightly ritual as being held “captive.” “It was on one such evening, while waiting for her daughter to go to sleep, that she began crafting a story – more for her own amusement than to entertain her daughter. That story would eventually become Not So True Stories & Unreasonable Rhymes (Chronicle, 2004).
Berger explained that though she primarily works in collage, collecting and juxtaposing pieces of ephemera – newspaper clippings, ticket stubs, etc. –each creative endeavor demands an individualized approach. For 2006’s All Mixed Up: A Mix-and-Match Book (Chronicle), for example, Berger’s method was to “collage the collages a la ‘exquisite corpse,’ ” meaning each page is divided into three sections, so readers can alter the images by mixing and matching.
Berger’s collage style proved a good match for her picture-book collaborations with Jack Prelutsky, Behold the Bold Umbrellephant and Stardines Swim High Across the Sky (Greenwillow), both of which introduce mash-ups of animals and objects. For the latter, Berger borrowed the “iconography of exhibit design,” using an invented archive that “you might find in the basement of a natural history museum.” Meanwhile, she described The Little Yellow Leaf (Greenwillow), about a leaf that is not ready to leave its tree, as “almost biographical,” a book that captured her own anxiety over life transitions. Berger also discussed how for school visits, she often arrives with a toolbox of ephemera for kids to use in their own collages. Some children, she said, take a very literal approach, while others are highly abstract.
The Art of Discovery
While Berger incorporates found ephemera into her two-dimensional work, creating art that is more conceptual than illustrative, Parisian Boutavant’s style is more streamlined, and his narratives frequently unfold like graphic novels. He counts Gary Larson and several Belgian comic book artists among his influences, but added that he tries not to become too inundated with the work of other artists, in an effort to define his own singular aesthetic.
After spending several years collaborating on projects with a variety of authors “without really looking or seeing” the world in a way that allowed his own artistry to come to life, Boutavant invented an alter-ego of sorts in a little bear named Mouk who explores the world with wide-open eyes. “I was sitting in front of my computer and had lots of dreams,” he explained. “[Mouk] is me, of course – knowing nothing about everything and wanting to know more.” Boutavant elaborated on his personal connection to the character, saying that Mouk serves as a way for him to “appropriate the world.” Le Tour de Monde de Mouk was first published in France in 2007; Chronicle released an English-language edition, Around the World with Mouk, in 2009. Featuring glossy pages and stickers that readers can incorporate into the scenes, the oversize book introduces a menagerie of small animals that interact with one another via dialogue balloons, in a format that is reminiscent of Richard Scarry’s Busytown books.
More and more of Boutavant’s work is crossing the Atlantic. This year, Papercutz released English versions of the Ariol books Just a Donkey Like You and Me and Thunder Horse, which center on a donkey living in the suburbs. Additionally Ariol: Happy As a Pig will be available in December, with more books in the series to follow in 2014.
Like Berger, Boutavant frequently visits with schoolchildren – and he values their delightfully, albeit brutally, honest opinions on his work: “They always give me good, interesting feedback on my work, even if it’s not very nice,” he said. With the panel discussion marking the launch of his U.S. tour for Ghosts, written by Sonia Goldie and published by Enchanted Lion, Boutavant looks forward to gauging the reaction of young U.S. readers to his work.
On the subject of children’s aesthetic tastes, Marcus wondered why certain children’s books translate more universally than others. He noted how, in the U.S., Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon is enduringly popular – but that isn’t the case in England. “Something about the art is not compatible with English sensibilities,” he said. While neither Boutavant nor Berger asserted any allegiance to a particularly American or French aesthetic in their own work, several of Boutavant’s personal influences were unknown to most of the audience members, and, in turn, Boutavant was not familiar with the work of Dr. Seuss. Boutavant also described how he feels that illustrators and authors in Europe often work more in tandem throughout the creative process than do illustrators and authors in America. In France, the collaboration is “more fluid. In America, authors are like gods,” he said, teasingly. Berger commented that she has felt lucky to have experienced the freedom that she has as an illustrator, enabling her to play and create within “my own, little world.”