Hervé Tullet, the Paris-based artist whose concept books have fired children’s imaginations in 25 languages, has brought his new book, I Am Blop! (Phaidon, 2013) to the U.S., giving his inventive, freewheeling presentations to audiences from Kansas City to New York City.
Tullet burst onto the U.S. scene in 2011 when Christopher Franceschelli, publisher of Chronicle’s Handprint imprint, discovered Press Here at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and published it in English to much acclaim. Press Here’s sly suggestion that readers can control the colored dots on its pages by pressing or shaking them seems to bring a smile to the face of anyone who picks it up. “That it’s powered through imagination rather than electronics – that’s the book’s real gift,” Franceschelli says.
Press Here has sold more than 200,000 copies in this country alone, and remains on the New York Times children’s bestseller list after 86 weeks. It’s in the top 50 children’s titles in France, too, three years after its publication there. Together with the dozen board books in Tullet’s Let’s Play Games series that Phaidon has already released, Press Here has made North Americans eager to see more of Tullet’s work.
I Am Blop!, his new book from Phaidon, begins with a single, blobby, butterfly-shaped outline – the Blop. Exuberant colors and textures accompany kaleidoscopic variations on the Blop theme. “Once I had the concept I just let the ideas flow,” Tullet says. “I started out in a very formal way, with just the shapes, black, white, then different sizes, then colors, quantities, personality, character, the world. It gets more and more complex.” There’s a Blop with chicken pox, an invisible Blop, and two adjoining Blops – a hug.
The book also features a host of elegant extras; a foil mirror for a Blop to gaze into, acetate overlays that tint the Blops new colors, and pop-out Blops at the back. Even the trim size breaks the rules: it’s an attention-getting irregular polygon. Early reviews have been enthusiastic. “We have been immensely happy to see how warmly welcomed I Am Blop! has been in the U.S.,” says Phaidon’s Paris-based children’s editor Hélène Gallois Montbrun. “We were confident it was a good book, very appealing to a wide audience. But it’s always moving when a book meets its readers.”
Tullet thinks of his books less as ends in themselves and more as keys to unlock children’s creative energy. He has met hundreds of schoolchildren in half a dozen countries as he conducts workshops loosely based on the books – workshops he lets the children shape as they go along. The visits often involve the painting of enormous murals on long rolls of paper in rainbow hues. He is very clear that the children direct much of what unfolds, and he always starts with an invitation. “What shall we do?” he asks. About the transformations that emerge when children are given the freedom to explore, Tullet searches for the right words: “You are just someone, and then you have an idea, and you become someone else. It is magical. This is what happens when a child jumps up and says, ‘Ah-ha!’”
Tullet didn’t start out making picture books; he was an art director for an advertising agency. “But when my first son was born, it was the beginning of computers. I hate computers! As a new father, I wanted to do work I could be proud of.” He started doing freelance illustrations and moved from there into writing children’s books. An early editor gave him a tip he has never forgotten: “She told me that a book for a child is a book for a child. Not a book to show how good you are at drawing.”
He found himself at book fairs, signing books behind tables or doing small-scale presentations, but then he had a revelation. “One day, with my book Night and Day, I discovered that I could spend a lot of time with children – more than just a promotion – and that I could handle a lot of children.” Are the children in the U.S. any different from the children he’s worked with elsewhere? “There is no difference anywhere in the world,” Tullet says firmly. “The children are always the same. From India to Africa to Germany to the United States, it’s the same. But it’s not boring! It’s always astonishing.”
His many fans are eager for more of Tullet’s playfulness. Handprint has an app associated with Press Here, which was created in France; “It’s a riff on the theme,” says Franceschelli. “An app based on the book would have deadened the experience. This is more like a playground with the themes of Press Here.” Now, also for Handprint, Tullet has developed a Press Here board game. “It’s very open-ended and creative,” says Franceschelli. “We spent a lot of time in Bologna playing the game and working through it, seeing where it might take us. We’ll be publishing it in 2014.”
Phaidon has a new Tullet project, too: “The next book [to be published this fall] is called The Big Book of Art,” editor Gallois Montbrun says. “It encourages preschool children to enjoy their first experience of art. All the pages of the book are cut in two, which allows children to mix and match shapes, colors, patterns, and so on.” Coming up with more ideas children respond to doesn’t seem to be a problem for Tullet. As Franceschelli puts it, “He has a remarkable, intuitive way of finding his way into the life of a child.”
I Am Blop! by Hervé Tullet. Phaidon, $19.95 Mar. ISBN 978-0-7148-6533-8
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