All creatures great and small – animal inspired picture books

Animal antics, you can’t beat them. Creatures great and small, they make us laugh, cry, and ponder. As characters in picture books, they are culturally neutral, globally recognisable conduits for expressing a range of emotions that small children (and adults) are readily able to relate to. In short, their appeal is universal. Today we get up close and personal with a few new animal orientated picture books bound to stir up the David Attenborough in you.

mopokeMopoke by Philip Bunting

Hot new author illustrator, Philip Bunting has produced a veritable winner. Mopoke’s cultivated, impossibly restrained colour palette and fierce economy of words positively exudes brilliance. It’s the genius absence of colour and preamble that snaps readers into full alert, squaring their attention on the one and only character, a small southern boobook owl, aka Mopoke (although there is an incongruous cameo appearance by a certain nocturnal marsupial, as well).

Mopoke is quiet and unassuming, clearly one who relishes peace and tranquillity. The Australian bush at night, however is rife with annoyances forcing Mopoke to assume various airs of tolerance until finally, he makes a dramatic move.

Covertly comical and clever, one could interpret this picture book as a subtle poke, pardon the pun, at our social media addictions and the intrusive way they interrupt our daily lives. Of course, none of this will matter to readers under seven or so. They will simply be enthralled by Mopoke’s milk chocolate coloured marvellousness. An experience to be savoured.

Omnibus Books February 2017

my-friend-tertiusMy Friend Tertius by Corinne Fenton and Owen Swan

Until I’d open the sepia hued covers of My Friend Tertius, I had no clue this zoo/war time story even existed. Fenton has, however not just written an historical, fact based picture book. She has encased the true-life story of a British Intelligence covert living in pre-war Hong Kong with that of Tertius, a small-orphaned gibbon into a kind of love story.

Told from Arthur Cooper’s point of view, Tertius soon becomes an inextricable part of Cooper’s life. Together they work and savour the steamy tropical pastimes of Singapore and Hong Kong until the onset of World War II finally forces Cooper to evacuate to Australia. He is loath to leave his best mate behind, though so smuggles him into the country before having to surrender him to the Melbourne Zoo.

This is a story of turbulent times, separation, and unconventional friendships that somehow endure. Despite Tertius’ imperfect circumstances, one cannot help but feel a certain warmth for his relationship with Cooper. A fascinating picture book for older readers revealing yet more amazing wartime alliances thoughtfully illustrated by Swan.

Allen & Unwin February 2017

one-keen-koalaOne Keen Koala by Margaret Wild and Bruce Whatley

Not since One Woolly Wombat have I come across an animal counting book that is so full of bounce and spirit, I thought I might have to a lie down after reading it. Wild’s wondrous way with words is so pleasing to read, you’ll wish this continues beyond the count of 12 happy possums. Light, breezy, and bristling with Australiana, her verse escorts young readers from numbers one to twelve whilst gently stimulating them with the notion that new beginnings are indeed enjoyable. The appeal for new pre-schoolers or primary schoolers is therefore ten out of ten.

Whatley’s illustrations are soft and unobtrusive albeit awfully cute and fun. He even manages to inject new life into an old favourite, the perennial wombat.

One Keen Koala is a counting / back to school book that almost makes me want to troop back off to Kindy. Highly recommended.

Scholastic Press February 2017

Stay posted for another instalment of animal inspired reads, soon.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Aussie Appeal – Picture Book Reviews

Worrisome wombats, bouncing bilbies and even talking gumnuts may not be your de rigueur when it comes to picture book characters. Yet their antics make up a substantial percentage of picture book storylines and provide vital introductions and links between Aussie kids and our rich, endemic Australian flora and fauna.

Look around and you’ll find dozens of titles touching on everything from spoonbills to fruit bats, puggles to possums and jacanas to joeys. Many are by authors you know and trust offering true works of art worthy of coveting and collecting. Here is a tiny selection of some of the more recent releases.

One Woolley Wombat ReadersPerennial author illustrator, Kerry Argent, has a tatty new First Reader series out now tailored for pre-schoolers. Small colour-popping paperbacks perfect for little hands and new readers feature old mate, Woolly Wombat, his bestie, Bandicoot and a swag of other Aussie birds and beasts in easy-to-read adventures. Beautiful introductions to counting, colour, rhythm and language conventions. Scholastic Australia March 2014

The Bush Book ClubBook club nuts along with reluctant readers will adore Margaret Wild’s and Ben Wood’s The Bush Book Club. It has a little bit of brilliance on each page; rhyme, comedy, cuteness, colour and galahs! Bilby sorely needs to slow down and smell the ink but he is too busy and bouncy to read let alone actually enjoy a book until one fateful night he discovers what it’s like for his head to be ‘full of words and stories’. A marvellous look at what it takes to appreciate the wonderment of stories and a must in the classroom and home. Modestly adorable. Omnibus Books March 2014

Possum's Big SurpriseRhyming picture books are not always easy to digest (when produced badly), but done well they glide across our palates as smoothly as birthday cake frosting. So it comes as little surprise that Possum’s Big Surprise by celebrated duo, Colin Buchanan and Nina Rycroft, is a feast for 4 + year-olds and above. Fun, frisky, teasing verse coupled with super-rich, eye-pleasing water-colour illustrations, an Aussie bush backdrop and a perky possum named Flossy, give kids plenty of reasons to keep page turning. Scholastic Australia May 2014

Karana EmuSlightly more serious but quietly impressionable is Karana: the Story of the Father Emu, by Brisbane and Wakka Wakka leader, Uncle Joe Kirk and Sandi Harrold. In spite of the unwieldy title, this cyclical story is written in simple rhyming verse which unfolds easily leaving the reader fulfilled, enlightened and emphatic towards father Emu as he assumes the role of parent, nurturer, and chief educator for his chicks; just as father figures in many indigenous cultures do. An enjoyable tale to share with children because of its simplicity and heart but it was the emus’ eyes that clenched it for me; cute and clever! Scholastic Australia May 2014

 A Feast for Wombat features another Aboriginal author, Sally Morgan and first time picture book illustrator, Tania Ezinger.

A feast for WombatWombat is your typical underground slumber-champion with a strong predilection for his burrow. He rarely surfaces. When he does he encounters the goodtime antics of his friends, Goanna, Magpie and Dingo but is slow to join them in play until their persistence and kind-hearted surprise re-instates how much they value Wombat’s friendship.

Sounds a little trite and ordinary I know, however Morgan attempts to balance Wombat’s self-depreciating, woe-be-gone attitude with a questioning optimism that he displays by complimenting his friends’ various talents and by trying to replicate them albeit with little success.

I was pleased Wombat’s self-doubt is finally conquered and replaced with a greater sense of self-worth however felt a little muddled by the oscillating attitudes of Wombat’s friends towards him; sometimes generous and grateful, sometimes hurtfully frank. Four year-olds are unlikely to dwell on this (it is after all how true friends can be) gaining immense pleasure instead from Erzinger’s spirited acrylic based artwork. Keep an eye out for the hapless little spinifex mouse on each page too. Gorgeous! Omnibus Books April 2014

Snugglepot and Cuddlepie's Underwater AdventureWhether these titles stand up alongside such favourites as May Gibbs’ Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, Narelle Oliver’s Don’t Let a Spoonbill in the Kitchen! and Fox and Fine Feathers, Yvonne Morrison’s The Emu that Laid the Golden Egg or Jackie French’s Diary of a Wombat to name a few, time will tell. But like the tiniest creature in the Aussie bush, there is bound to be a spot for them in your heart and on your book shelves.

 

Doodles and Drafts – An Interview with Lucia Masciullo

At a time of year when there are more new children’s book releases than autumn leaves drifting about, it’s nice to grab a cuppa, sit back and remember that what makes a book brilliant is the genius behind its creation.

Lucia Masciullo Today we meet one of those geniuses, the quietly charismatic illustrator, Lucia Masciullo. Her story is fascinating. Her style is utterly beguiling. And thanks to her clever connection with my addiction to marshmallows, her name is no longer impossible for me to pronounce!

So grab that cuppa and prepare to be absolutely delighted…

Q Who is Lucia Masciullo? Describe the illustrator in you and what sets your work apart from other Aussie illustrators.

First of all I’m Italian and this is why you probably can’t pronounce my surname (by the way it’s quite similar to marshmallow but with no sugar: ma-shu-llo). I am born and bred in Livorno (Leghorn on English maps) on the coast of Tuscany and I moved to Brisbane in 2006 with my partner Vincenzo.

More than an illustrator I like to think I’m a visual explorer: I love to experiment always new styles and new techniques. Maybe because I started to work as illustrator only 7 years ago, but the more I learn about illustration and visual art, the more I want to know.

I’m also a Biologist and maybe that’s the reason why I like to study things I’m passionate about. I keep the same enthusiasm I had at the Uni, but instead of learning about cells, animals and plants, now I want to learn things like what the best color to represent an emotion is or how to balance words and images in a composition.

Family forest LuciaQ What is your favourite colour, why and how does it influence or restrict what you illustrate?

I have several favourite colors. It depends on my mood, I guess. I like Amber in the morning, Cool Grey when I’m wistful, and Apple Green when I’m hungry and so on.

I think your personal perception always influences your art, especially while working with colors. It’s inevitable. So I try to feel the same mood that I want to depict. The colors choice is easier this way and listen to music with the same mood I want to represent helps me a lot. It’s probably like being an actor: an actor can pretend to be sad or happy, but it’s way more believable if he can really feel the emotion he wants to convey.

Q What, whom persuaded you to illustrate?

When I was a child I was pretty good at drawing, but I was also good at swimming, math and amongst other things, sprinkling water from my mouth. So I wasn’t encouraged particularly to pursue art.

Maybe I felt that my dad wouldn’t easily accept me doing art as a job. Furthermore drawing was something so important for me, that I couldn’t accept failure or critiques: I didn’t want to show my drawing to anyone. So whatever the reason I ended up studying Biology.

But few years later I realized that if I wanted to do something useful with my life, if I really wanted to make the difference in this world, I had to do something that I really cared about. So I bet on my passion for art.

I would say that learning how to illustrate professionally has been a wonderful experience, but the truth is that the main reason I’m an illustrator today is because of my partner Vincenzo. He encouraged me and supported from the very beginning, giving me the strength to keep going the times when I wanted to give up.

Q Are you a natural or have you had to study your craft? If so where?

I have always been quite good at figuring out simple forms and basic lines out of complex images. Some people may look at a picture and imagine a story or (piece of) music. Others may look at a tree and figure how to climb it. When I look at utility pole, a building or a face of an old woman, I can easily imagine how to reproduce that image using simple lines and shapes. This is my natural talent and that’s probably why I’m good at drawing.

But of course this is only the beginning of the story. You need to perfect your skills: in other words you need to practice. A lot. I attended a three years course in Illustration in Florence and I started drawing and painting 24/7 since. I was caught by the art bug. And I still am.

Q Was it a work opportunity that prompted your move to Australia?

Yes and no. It was a work opportunity for my partner: he won a European Endeavor Award in 2006 that allowed him to work at the University of Queensland for one year. I came in Australia as his partner, so you could say it’s love that brought me to Australia.

The initial plan was just to stay one year, but (lucky us!) things have gone differently.

The Boy and the Toy illoQ How do you develop your illustrations? Do digital computer programs feature significantly in what you produce?

For each illustration I start by drawing a rough sketch of the scene I have in mind with pencil and paper. Just to get the feeling of it and to evaluate if it’s a good idea or not. Then I draw the final scene, defining the characters and the background. Always with pencil and paper. I draw the same scene few times, until I’m happy with the composition.

At this stage I scan the drawing and refine it digitally using a tablet. It saves me a lot of time. I can change rapidly the scale of the elements, correct mistakes and balance the composition (when I’m not sure if an image is well balanced, I flip it right/left and make adjustments until the original and the flipped image look both nice).

Then, when everyone is happy with the drawing (myself, the publisher and the author sometimes) I make a few digital colored sketches and use those as a guide to paint the final artwork.

Different media may give different effects and moods to the same illustration. For picture books I like to use acrylics or watercolors to which I add details with pencil or ink.

I like the transparency of watercolors and the joyful effects water creates when mixed with pigments. I also love acrylics because they work on every surface and they are great if you want to add a textural element to the illustration.

Q Where has your work appeared?

I’ve illustrated six picture books, three young adults’ novels and I also did little black and white illustrations for the popular series Our Australian Girl.

I’m also the co-founder of Blue Quoll, a digital children’s book publisher company and I’ve illustrated the first two titles.

I have exhibited my works in Brisbane in a number of occasions and I’m very proud that two of my illustrations have been selected for a National exhibition titled ‘Look! The art of Australian picture books today’ that showcases the best of children book illustrations in Australia: my works have been presented among those of some of the most important names in the Illustration industry.

The Exhibition was set at the State Library in Melbourne in 2010, and has been moved subsequently to Brisbane, Canberra and to several Regional Galleries since. Now it’s going to be held for the last time at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery until April 2013.

Q What children’s books have you illustrated? Do you have a favourite?

These are the children’s books I’ve illustrated:

Queen Alice’s Palaces by Juliette McIver ABC 2013

Come down, Cat! by Sonya Hartnett Penguin 2011

Family Forest by Kim Kane HGE 2010

The Boy and the Toy by Sonya Hartnett Penguin 2010

When No-one is Looking – On the Farm by Zana Fraillon HGE 2009

When No-one is Looking – At the Zoo by Zana Fraillon HGE 2009

No, I don’t have a favourite. I always try to do my best when I illustrate picture books, so I really like them all: they are my little creatures.

Q How long, on average does it take you to complete illustrations for a picture book?

From the first sketches to the final artworks it takes four to six months.

Q Do you draw every day? What is the most enjoyable part of your working day?

I draw almost every day, but I also have a part of my day dedicated to the routine: emails, online activity, parcels to send, events and meetings to attend … even though I’m usually quite good at procrastinating all the things that do not concern drawing.

I think the best part of my working day is when I find solutions to my problems. It may be the right color palette for a scene, an original point of view, the right expression for a certain character. Sometimes problems seem complicated, they absorb all my thoughts and sometimes even my dreams. But the bigger the problem, the bigger the satisfaction when I find the right solution.

Oh and of course I like to receive positive feedback from publishers: I can’t stop smiling in front of an enthusiastic email!

The accidental Princess LuciaQ It’s accepted that writers often scribble ideas on the back of takeaway menus, napkins, bus tickets, whatever they can when ideas strike – is this the same for illustrators? When you get a shot of inspiration and desire to draw, what do you do?

Oh yes, it’s absolutely the same for illustrators. I always bring with me an A6 notebook where I can scribble and sketch freely. My favourite subjects at the moment are utility poles, people and cups. Leafs and trees, sometimes. I also take note of all the sensational ideas I have for my future best seller picture books.

Q I can barely master a stick drawing. Do you like to dabble in the written word and if so, have you consider writing your own (children’s) book?

To illustrate my own story is something I really would like to do. As I said I like to collect ideas for future books, but when I go to Libraries and Bookshops and I see all the amount of beautiful books already done, I just wonder why should I write another children’s book? I guess I’m waiting for the right story, the story I really would like to tell.

Besides I’m not very confident in my writing skills. Probably I’d use more pictures and no much text.

Q Which Aussie children’s book illustrator do you admire most and why?

There are many Australian illustrators I like: Gus Gordon, Freya Blackwood, Robert Ingpen, Kerry Argent only to name a few, but the one I admire most is Shaun Tan, even though his books are technically picture books and not children’s books.

When I first arrived in Australia I found everything was different from my Italian life: food, buildings, trees and my English was quite poor and it wasn’t easy to make new friends. I felt a bit lost. So when I read The Arrival, it hit me personally: not only the pictures were astonishing and sensational, like the kind of pictures I’d like to create, but the story was my own story. I had the feeling that he had written this book for me!

Then I met Shaun in 2010 at the Bologna children’s book Fair and I really liked him as a person: he is a very nice guy, friendly and generous (he helped me in obtaining my Australian permanent visa). A truly inspirational illustrator.

Lucia Aurealia AwardQ Name one ‘I’ll never forget that’ moment in your illustrating career so far.

Well, of course I’ll never forget the moment I received the first ‘yes’ by two Australian Publishers. The first one was by Hilary Rogers at Hardie Grant Egmont; the second one was by Jane Godwin at Penguin.

In both cases they sent me a manuscript, asking me some preparatory sketches: characters design and a couple of background scenes. I did my best and I sent them back my sketches. Amazingly for me, they liked them and they asked me if I was interested in working with them, illustrating the entire picture book.

After years of frustration and hardworking, trying to refine my artistic skills, finally someone was giving me a chance. This was the only thing that I was waiting for, the possibility to show what I could do. I remember I began jumping all over the house because I couldn’t contain the enthusiasm. And I’m happy now Hilary and Jane couldn’t see my lack of professionalism.

Queen Alice's PalacesQ What is on the storyboard for Lucia?

In December (2012) I finished to illustrate a lovely picture book that will be published in April, titled Queen Alice’s Palaces, based on a hilarious rhymed story by Juliette McIver.

These days I’m working on a breathtaking manuscript by Sonya Hartnett, a challenging one. I love her stories, but I hate them at the same time, because they are so intense I can’t stop thinking about them until I’ve illustrated them.

I for one can’t wait to see them.