Picture This! Draws Crowds

June 5, 2013 | By Rachael Small

The young and young-at-heart alike gathered for a series of cross-cultural conversations about illustration and inspiration, method and madness during the Picture This! series on visual narrative. Illustrators of children’s and comic books took the voyage from Paris to New York to launch new books to the US market, run workshops, participate in festivals, and meet their local counterparts for a series of lively discussions. One thing all the artists seemed to share was a playful, youthful spirit, a serious artistic ethos that didn’t take itself too seriously.

The series began and closed with picture books, with conversations that focused on the creative outlet of doodling and artists who constantly strive to push the boundaries of the page. Hervé Tullet, the brains behind the bestselling, interactive book Press Here, was just one of the authors who spoke of a desire to help children find wonder books in an age when attention spans seem to be cut shorter and shorter by TV, video games, and mobile apps. Along with artists like Mo Willems, who has created popular characters such as The Pigeon and Elephant & Piggie, he is largely succeeding. The two luminaries of the picture book world brought a crowd of children to Books of Wonder who couldn’t wait to ask their favorite authors about the process of writing and illustrating.

Although they are all happy with these successes, each illustrator expressed the idea that the ultimate aim of their work was actually self gratification. Brooklyn-based author Oliver Jeffers spoke frankly. “I don’t actually write these books for kids,” he said. “I write stories that I want to satisfy myself with.” Olivier Tallec, illustrator of Nadine Brun-Cosme’s popular Big Wolf & Little Wolf series, responded that he didn’t think of his work as being for children either. “I draw because the text and story make me laugh and give me pleasure.”

Yes, this pleasure principle ran through the entire series, from the silliest of children’s books to the at times more serious (or serious seeming) comic books. A month before the release of the American edition of Siegfried II, Alex Alice and Ron Wimberly (Prince of Cats) talked about adapting literary classics such as Wagner’s Ring cycle and Romeo and Juliet into the comic book format. While a number of audience members, along with the artists themselves, bemoaned popular “safe” adaptations of classic works that seem to appear in times of economic downturn, it was evident that the two artists had selected their adaptations carefully with the aim of putting their own specific and beautiful twists on works that were personally important to them.

When we talk about visual narrative, we are in a way always addressing adaptation. For example, how do you translate a life experience into a webcomic and then what terminology do you use to define the genre? Gabrielle Bell, who often calls her work “semiautobiographical,” was swayed by the terse honesty in Boulet’s choice of “autofiction.” Both artists admitted to creating “fiction that has its ‘truthiness’ to it”, that comes from dreams or overheard stories or personal experiences.

Each of the events filled rooms from the New York Public Library and School of Visual Arts to the more intimate Society of Illustrators with a broad, interested public and a feeling of community, helped by a sense of mutual respect between the artists in conversation. No matter how different their processes turned out to be – Bell describes her stories as “super laboriously planned out” while Boulet’s method is based on improvisation – the artists truly admired and valued each other. Antoine Guilloppé even admitted to being directly influenced by Istvan Banyai’s work. “It’s your fault!” he told his counterpart, admitting that his decision to work in children’s books came to him after reading Banyai’s Zoom. “Thank you, Sir.” The artist replied. “And I’m honored.”

Now that the Q&A sessions and book signings are all over, the relationships continue to grow. They continue over games of pétanque in Paris, personal visits to each other’s studios, or strolls through libraries and bookshops. During the festival, we held a drawing the Book Department and are now happy to announce that one lucky attendee, Ellen Manobla, has won a bundle of books by these wonderful visual storytellers.

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