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A Conversation with Aurore Petit, Author of A Mother Is a House

A Mother Is a House (Gecko Press, March 2021), by Aurore Petit, has just been translated into English by Daniel Hahn. Aurore Petit granted us a very interesting interview, and we want to share it with you!

You create artwork for children’s books, magazine covers, and exhibitions, and you are currently working on a comic…these are very different styles! Can you tell us a bit about your career as an illustrator?

I have been working for about 15 years for different employers. My first drawings were published in the press, illustrating articles on societal events, mainly. When I draw for the press or for a magazine cover, I try to express my idea in the most straightforward way possible. I eliminate all the extra elements to keep only one strong idea; I’m trying to make an impact.

Along with the press work, I design publishing projects. Most of these are picture books published by children’s publishers, but I consider them to be for all ages. My books make up the fundamental building blocks of my profession. They lay the groundwork. It is through the course of creating these books that my drawing progresses and my work evolves. Making a book is a project that takes a comprehensive approach: writing, drawing, typography, layout, formatting, putting on paper…everything is important. It is this richness and complexity that sustains me, which gives me material I can draw from when I have to fulfill commissions. If I was only doing press work, covers, or other drawings for commission, I would be afraid of running dry!

As for the exhibitions, I would like to do more! For the moment, these have happened through proposals and invitations, by multimedia libraries or municipalities. I really enjoy getting out of the book format, getting off the page, and conceptualizing my work on walls.

As for comics, these experiences in collaboration with journalists remain rare. These are comics for La Revue Dessinée, a French comic book review. It’s very interesting but very demanding work.

Your illustrations mix humor and tenderness, and you often illustrate emotions. In A Mother Is A House, which was recently translated and published in English, you illustrate a child’s emotions by representing them with other objects: a nest, the moon, a mirror, an island, a hurricane…how do you portray an emotion? How do you go from an abstract feeling to a concrete drawing? Do you already have images associated with these emotions, or do these arise through the design process?

Yes, in fact, it is about representing the emotions of a child, but also those of a mother! And it is above all these that I know well because this book is totally autobiographical. In becoming a mother, I saw myself being a nest, a moon, a mirror, an island, a hurricane ... My intention was not so much to convey an emotion as to share an experience: the experience of this first year with a child is so rich that I wanted to capture these new moments, like a daily newspaper. But from a baby's pace, the day-to-day existence is about growing! This is the essence of the book, and this is what creates emotion, I believe, in the reader: every moment of a baby’s daily life is a step towards its mother, or a step towards independence. The illustrated scenes in this book are charged with this theme of connection and separation: it is very strong, and universal. Additionally, I believe that what triggers emotion in this book is that even though I am drawing our family’s daily life, many families see themselves in it; this reminds them of past memories, and they have the impression that this book tells their story as well.

Feelings are abstract if we don’t name them. But as soon as you describe them, the images come with words. And I don’t think this is specific to illustration—we need these images and metaphors to understand ourselves. We need to compare ourselves, sometimes to an object, in order to understand our feelings, our state. The drawing can come after a brief internal debate, through which I formulate, re-formulate, and re-re-formulate precisely what I want to say. Sometimes it only takes one word to get me started on a situation. And sometimes, while drawing, and to my surprise, the opposite emerges: my drawing expresses something that is not at all deliberate.

A Mother Is A House showcases a very strong link between the text and the images, and it is not the only work—you play a lot with words and language, such as in your card series Tout le monde dit que je t’aime (Everyone Says I Love You), or in Cheval de courses (Racehorse). You seem to draw inspiration as much from the language as from your own experience, from what surrounds you. What is the starting-off point for your drawings, or when you write a story?

For A Mother Is A House, and Baby Belly/Bébé ventre, which is being released in September in France, my starting point was obviously my experience: observing my children inspires me enormously. I really want to continue writing books in which they are the heroes, but they are growing up faster than I can write books…I take notes but I am afraid of forgetting and getting lost.

For the series of cards Everyone Says I Love You/Tout le monde dit que je t’aime, it was Yann Walker, the author of the text, who proposed this delicious project to me. It is a more classic illustration assignment about finding a scene that matches the humor of the text.

For Racehorse/Cheval de courses, it is about playing with the drawing as you would with words. The book was made by way of a sketchbook: I found (somewhat by accident) expressions which could have double meanings, like “school of fish”, letting myself take liberties with the spelling to create funny and absurd images. This book is first and foremost a game.

With C’est chez moi!, you have created a superb pop-up book! How did you make this? Does it have anything to do with origami?

The pop-up medium is magic. I have always found it terrific, even when I was a kid. When I started to make pop-ups, I dove into folding techniques, but I quickly found it overwhelming, and I wanted to approach the pop-up more intuitively than technically. My taste is naturally in very simple folds, and in the effects of movement when you open and close the page. I spend a lot of time using models to find the simplest trick, and again, to eliminate the extras! Everything is based on the relationship between folding, drawing, and movement.

It doesn’t really have to do with origami, since the principle of pop-up is that it should unfold and come back flat in the book. All the dynamics are based on the central fold of the book. In January 2022, several small pop-ups I created will be released by the publisher La Martinière jeunesse, these use a technique called kirigami.

Thank you Aurore!

Interview by Aloïse Denis