When are you going to write a proper book? It’s a question most children’s writers ask themselves in their careers, but not as much as picture book authors and illustrators.
Picture books are the first books a child meets, their first taste for literature, poetry and, in many cases, their first taste for art. They leave a lasting impression on children, and many adults still remember the picture books from their childhood: Beatrix Potter, Dr Seuss, Richard Scarry and Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans.
Contemporary Irish picture book authors and illustrators are acclaimed around the world for their work and outstanding international sales. Oliver Jeffers has sold over 14 million copies of his books, in 46 different languages, and Niamh Sharkey’s I’m a Happy Hugglewug has been turned into a hit animated show on Disney Junior. Chris Haughton has won awards around the world, from the Ezra Jack Keats Award in the United States to the Orion Shobo Picture Book of the Year Award in Japan, as well as numerous Irish Book Awards, including the Children’s Books Ireland Book of the Year .
Would you like a banana from Yasmeen Ismail? won the 2020 World Illustration Award Professional Children’s Book Category in the USA and is considered one of the most innovative picture book designers working today. Other notable Irish picture book authors and illustrators making waves internationally include PJ Lynch, Mary Murphy and Belfast newcomer Flora Delargy.
Yet ask the average Irish adult who these people are and they will make a blank. Ask them to name an Irish adult writer and they’ll have no problem coming up with names – Sally Rooney, Roddy Doyle, Anne Enright, Sebastian Barry – even if they haven’t read a book by the writer in question. Ireland’s Wikipedia entry contains pages for adult writers but no categories for children.
Why is children’s literature often considered less important than adult literature? That’s a question former UK children’s winner Lauren Child explores in a recent manifesto written for a talk she gave at the Foundling Museum in London. She says, “There is a common and lazy assumption that creating work with children in mind is easier or less demanding, and that a writer or artist would approach it with a lesser degree of seriousness or sincerity.” than if he was creating for an adult audience. . I don’t believe this to be true. One might as well suggest that shorter books are less meaningful than longer ones, or that large paintings are better than small ones.
During the early years, we try to give our children the best of ourselves: the best food, lots of fresh air and exercise; we teach them to read and write. We understand how and why these things are important. The books we read to them and the illustrations we share with them also matter; childhood experiences become part of who we are. The child puts it beautifully when she says that “the experiences of our early years are in our bones”. So why wouldn’t we place more value on picture books, the very first children’s books?
The general belief is that making books for young children is ‘easy’, that it is an indiscriminate audience, and if a celebrity can knock one out for a few months in confinement, how bad can it be. difficult to write? What many people don’t realize is that there is a team of highly experienced professionals who help write and illustrate these celebrity books. In some cases, celebrity credits these people – well done Joe Wicks who freely credits his Belfast-based co-writer, Vivian French, and illustrator, Paul Howard (not just Paul Howard!).
This perception, that anyone could write a picture book, is far from the truth. Picture books are one of the most difficult forms of literature to master. Chris Haughton’s books have been compared to Samuel Beckett by Simon O’Connor, director of MoLI, the Irish Literature Museum. Purple Squirrel: The Stories of Chris Haughton is currently underway at the museum and in a recent Radio MoLI podcast interview with Haughton, O’Connor says that Haughton’s work has a lot of similarities to Beckett: “an incredible saving in terms of language, multiple tasks occur, obstacles “.
Haughton says, âCommunicating with very young children is so interestingâ¦ you have to communicate in pictures, they don’t have language fluency yet. But they can understand if the jokes work visually. You need to figure out where the eye falls and what is captured and communicated on each page.
Haughton’s Picture Book Shhh! We Have a Plan has 102 words and each one is carefully chosen. The book took him two years to create. He likes to play with the “pre-language” noises in his books, like “Hush” and “uh”, noises “so universal that they seem to indicate where language may have evolved”. He often uses repeated choruses or a chorus and onomatopoeia is also a hallmark of his work, such as the âtic-a-tacâ and âsplish-splashâ of crabs in Don’t Worry, Little Crab.
Every word, every sentence, every sentence is carefully and lovingly crafted, like a poem. However, unlike a poem, a picture book must appeal to two different audiences, the child listening to the story and looking at the illustrations and the adult interpreting the text. None of these demands are made on the poems of Eavan Boland or Seamus Heaney.
Similar forensic work goes into the creation of the illustrations. Haughton deliberately directs the gaze to certain places on the page, a technique known as visual hierarchy. He identifies where he wants the eye to land. In A Bit Lost, he wants the viewer to spot the little owl falling from its nest, so he makes it almost black and white against a colored background. In Oh No, George the dog (George) is a simple orange shape and Haughton uses the dog’s exaggerated eyes to convey his emotion; he sees George as a clownish character, Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd, actors who also used their eyes to convey drama and emotion.
Haughton’s books are considered some of the world’s best books for babies and toddlers, mini works of art, but he thinks Irish picture books don’t get enough esteem.
Former na nÃg laureate Niamh Sharkey agrees. She says: “When you see Steve Doogan’s illustrations for Tree Dogs, Banshee Fingers and other Irish words for nature, or Up On The Mountain by Peter Donnelly, and all the other picture book makers working in Ireland today? Yeah, you must be thinking that Ireland is hitting above its weight. I don’t think people are quite aware that we have this wealth of talent here.
His new illustrated book with Owen Churcher, A Field Guide to Leaflings, took years to create. After years of doodling Leaflings in her sketchbook, Sharkey presented the idea at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in 2019, and the book has just been published.
Churcher says, âLike other shorter forms of literature – poems, short stories, etc.
Multi-award winner Mary Murphy also believes people have no idea how much work it takes for picture books. âIn particular, they don’t know that many illustrators take about a year to illustrate a book. In a way that is gratifying, since we want to disappear from history. We want the child to go straight to the book, as if the writer and illustrator don’t exist, but the book exists.
She was frustrated by this but now accepts “that people just don’t understand the area”. She believes that âthe Irish are not the most visually literate and unfortunately some adults still regard illustrated books as ‘too young’ and keep children away from them. However, picture books are certainly more popular than in the past, and there are now some top notch Irish picture books. “
I leave the last word to Haughton. “I think [picturebooks] are just as important as adult literature, and given their foundation, there is good reason to argue that they are more important.
Chris Haughton, Niamh Sharkey, Owen Churcher and Mary Murphy, PJ Lynch, Flora Delargy, Oliver Jeffers and many other acclaimed Irish authors and illustrators are all in attendance at WonderFest, the online children’s book festival that takes place from the 17th to November 21. For more information: wonderfest.ie