Around the world there are similarities and differences in the way children’s books are illustrated. Let’s look at a selection of books from Pacific communities. Although the illustrators are French, Chinese, and Ecuadorean, all have used a similar visual technique – thin black outlines to delineate shapes filled with color that gradates.
My friend Claire was bravely chaperoning a tour for college students in China when she purchased four books for me. Three are inexpensively printed stapled books of twenty-four pages each that were being sold at a newsstand. These are colorful picture books teaching children characters in Kanji calligraphic form along with their meaning in text.
As the pages progress the text for each concept gets more complex. The lighthearted art depicts incidents related to the calligraphic characters: a boy is sad because he dropped his ice cream, a girl washes clothes with a scrub board, a boy vomits after eating too much candy, and another learns to use a ballpoint pen. Each page presents a different scenario rather than presenting a story.
The other Chinese book is a larger format perfect bound collection of tales by the Brothers Grimm which are illustrated by a French artist, Frédérick Marisot, and written in Kanji characters. Claire found this book, which is printed on better quality paper with a standard weight cover, at the Shanghai Museum store.
The lovely watercolor illustrations depict familiar tales like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the Town Musicians of Bremen juxtaposed with passages of calligraphic text.
I find the letterforms fascinating in part because they are ideograms that originally were often pictorial. For an interesting introduction to how Kanji is formed go here. On the pages of this picture story book the lettering is in neat rows horizontally as well as vertically and the punctuation follows the same spacing, creating a grid-like effect.
When my sister Norma and her husband traveled to the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, she brought back Gali…La Tortuga: un cuento mágico (Gali… the tortoise: a magical story) by Blas Luje Peñafiel and published by the Parque Nacional Galápagos. The book is a large format paperback that combines fiction with a strong educational slant. Gali is a young tortoise princess who will eventually rule the islands. This is her fictional coming of age story written to convey environmental wisdom to readers.
Unlike the neat calligraphy of the Grimm tales, in Gali’s story, which is included in both English and Spanish, the text is often overprinted on artwork that makes it difficult to read. The French illustrator, Frédérick Mansot, left a white or very light background for the text area in his book, so that only the reader’s knowledge of Chinese determines whether the stories can be read.
Gali’s role is to learn to maintain the Great Balance of life forms and environment that is necessary for survival of the island’s inhabitants on land, in the air, and in the sea. Three evil non-native animals are the worst villains of Gali’s realm–Ratty, Piglet, and Billy Goat. As they plot their mischief, Ratty says, “I will take care of her!…her body is still fragile and my teeth can end her life.” This statement is strong for a picture story book, as is the role of humans. As Sami the frigate bird carries Gali over land and sea, she explains that, “In the sea many boats navigate to transport people and cargo. Some of them capture our friends that live in the sea and others throw trash and spill gasoline fuel in the water.”
Fortunately, Mina, the land iguana teaches Gali the wise rules of survival and when the three villains attack Gali, Mr. Hawk chases them away. Then a forest fire erupts. Gali takes charge, trying to save the Reserve that is now under threat. The hawk goes to find a human to help. There is one boy, Damian, who had saved the bird from a trapper’s net. Damian alerts his father to the fire that threatens the animals in the reserve and the humans help the animals put out the flames. Gali and Damian’s father agree to maintain the Great Balance. The many animals of the Galapagos are therefore safe.
These books illustrated by Chinese, French and Ecuadorean illustrators are different in some ways, yet also surprisingly similar in some aspects of technique.
Also by Frédérick Mansot: