As the Bologna Bookfair approaches now seems a good time to hear from Professor Martin Salisbury, Course Leader, MA Children’s Book Illustration, Cambridge School of Art and enjoy his optimism about the shape of the picture book scene here in the UK.
A gentle breeze of change seems to have been blowing through the UK picturebook publishing landscape over the last couple of years. It has gathered momentum and is now beginning to resemble more of a brisk wind- a very welcome blast of fresh air. We have a magnificent and long-standing tradition in children’s book illustration in the United Kingdom and in particular the art of the picturebook, a tradition which we have every reason to be very proud of. But for a variety of reasons, it has been clear in recent years that we have fallen behind many other countries when it comes to the picturebook as an object of beauty- in terms of illustration, design and production. A visit to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair would invariable induce for this writer at least, a feeling of envy when visiting the stands of the French, Belgian, Czech, South Korean and German publishers. As a member of the international jury for the Ragazzi Awards and the International Illustration Awards in recent years, I have often found myself facing a barrage of questions from fellow jurors (publishers, artists, designers, critics) about the reasons why comparatively few British books were entered for awards, why so few overseas titles were imported and translated into English, why our picture books seem so much ‘less artistic’, ‘edgy’ or creatively ambitious. I would find myself torn between, on the one hand, the impulse to point out the fact that our books have to appeal to a far wider audience and need to sell more copies than is the case for many of the publishers in other languages and, on the other, the temptation to agree that we have been just a little insular.
Taking my MA Children’s Book Illustration students to Bologna every year has been an interesting experience too. I designed the course in 2000 and student numbers have grown at an astonishing rate. We are now at absolute capacity, accepting around forty full-time and twenty-five part-time students each year, from far higher total numbers of applications. They come from all over the world. On graduation, most return to their native countries but all aspire to be published in English. Visiting Bologna gives them a real insight into the range of picture book cultures around the world. And in previous years, a visit to the British halls would sometimes act as ‘wake-up call’ that they may need to rein in their creative ambition if their hopes of being published in English were to be realized. My colleagues and I often chuckle over a recent experience of a graduate being told earnestly by a British publisher that her work was ‘too posh and too French’.
But almost overnight, we seem to be entering a new ‘Golden Age’. It surely started with the award winning visual publishing house, Nobrow. Worshiped by art students for their highly innovative output Nobrow has evolved from a little print studio into a significant player in the publishing scene. Their children’s book imprint, Flying Eye, was launched in 2013 and has been responsible for a stream of deliciously produced books, culminating in the richly deserved Kate Greenaway Medal 2015 for William Grill’s Shackleton’s Journey. Now we are seeing numerous imprints springing up with newfound confidence in the potential for books that demonstrate real concern for quality design and production. Of course much credit must also go to Tate Publishing, V&A Publishing and now Thames and Hudson- all of whom have moved into children’s publishing in recent years. At last we are seeing the work of artists such Beatrice Alemagna and Isabelle Arsenault in our bookshops. And a special mention is needed too for Julia Marshall at Gecko Press in New Zealand, who has chipped away by introducing international picture books into the English language.
So for the illustration student, these are exciting times. But the illustration student must also take some of the credit for these changes. As more and more of our students arrive form overseas, there is more and more cultural and stylistic diversity on show at graduation exhibitions and in portfolios at Bologna. Our own MA students and graduates have been consistently prominent in the awards at Bologna, the Waterstones Prize, the Macmillan Prize for Children’s Picture book Illustration (our students have taken the top prize for the last five years), the V&A Illustration Awards, New York Times Top Ten Picture books, and in the shortlists for the Greenaway Medal among others. What is also noticeable though is the range of countries that they hail from. In the above awards and shortlists the individuals’ nationalities include Iceland, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Norway, Romania, Spain, Taiwan as well as the UK. They are all bringing a rich diversity of visual diet to our culture of picture book-making and helping to drive standards up.
The fertilization process is not just one-way however. With our students attending Bologna and, in the last few years, having the opportunity to present their work at our Cambridge School of Art stand, it has been interesting to see how many of them have gained their first publishing contracts from overseas publishers. Of course this can sometimes mean that print runs and advances are relatively low. But getting into print is a huge advantage in terms of having something tangible to show other potential future publishers. The work of a significant proportion of our graduates has made its debut in languages other than English, or in English but in other lands like New Zealand and the USA.
The following selection of just six of our recently published graduates at Masters and PhD level is relatively arbitrary but contains a range of nationalities and may give some insight into the ‘new internationalism’ that appears to be gaining a toe-hold.
Simona Ciraolo completed her part-time studies on the MA course in 2014 and after interest from several publishers at her graduation show, opted to sign with Nobrow/ Flying Eye, having long been an admirer of their work. Simona is originally from the island of Sardinia. She studied animation at the Film School in Turin and worked as an animator here in the UK for some years before joining the course. The training in animation has stood her in good stead, underpinning her acute, sensitive character observation with secure draughtsmanship. She is a natural storyteller and her first two picturebooks, ‘Hug Me’ and ‘Whatever Happened to my Sister’ were both developed as projects during the final stages of the Masters course. Stylistically, there is a hint of mid-Twentieth Century retro but the work rises above trend or mannerism through its depth of sincerity and complete absence of sentimentality. Both books are rendered with simple old-fashioned marker pens. ‘Hug Me’ tells of a lonely cactus who yearns for physical contact. ‘Whatever Happened to my Sister’ is a touching story of the a little girl’s bemusement and sadness as her big sister grows away from her.
Carolina Rabei hails from Romania. As a student, Carolina particularly took to screen-printing in our excellent printmaking workshops. This ancient process originated in China and was used commercially over the years for large-scale poster printing and for printing onto T-shirts and e.g. metal packaging. For artists, it is a medium that forces one to learn a lot about the layering of colour. Prior to her first visit to Bologna, Carolina printed a batch of small scale, double sided, folding ‘concertina books’ depicting the Little Red Riding Hood story. Printed in two colours, these delightful objets were used as self-promotional handouts to lucky publishers. One such recipient was Faber children’s Books who were looking for material for their new picture book venture, more specifically to work on a picture book based around Walter de la Mare’s poem, ‘Snow’. Carolina’s work had just the right feel. The second in the series, ‘The Ride-by-Nights’, has just been published. Carolina’s artwork is now generated digitally, for reasons of practicality and speed, but is greatly informed by her experience of screen-printing.
Maisie Shearing hails from marginally less exotic Hull, via an undergraduate degree in Illustration at Edinburgh College of Art. Her work is edgy, witty and occasionally dark. These and other characteristics won her the $30,000 First Prize in the 2015 Bologna International Award for Illustration, sponsored by the Spanish publishers, Fundación SM. The prize also came with a contract to develop for publication the book project from which the winning illustrations had come. This was a graphic novel format book, based on Maisie’s mother’s recollections of schooldays, once again originally developed during the final stages of the Masters course, which she completed in January 2015.
Becky Palmer is currently working on a project with one of the UK’s leading publishers but her debut came in the form of a stunning graphic novel for the French publisher, Sarbacanne. She did not study Art & Design at undergraduate level but had always drawn compulsively. Currently researching the boundaries between the picturebook and the graphic novel in the form of a practice-led PhD, Becky was an early winner of the Sebastian Walker Memorial Award- a prize sponsored by Walker Books specifically for an outstanding Cambridge School of Art MA graduate. She is in increasing demand as an illustrator, author and teacher.
Yu-Wen Huang – The eye of the émigré artist can often be particularly acute when exploring and describing another culture (think Miroslav Šašek’s ‘This is …’ books for example). Yu-Wen Chuang’s personal sketchbooks teem with anecdotal observational drawings of the everyday life England and her native Taiwan. One of her final student projects on the MA course was in the form of a visual tour of London that combined observation, pattern and narrative in a rich mélange of painterly colour.
Originally from Greece and from an academic background in Chemistry, Katherina studied illustration at the University of Kingston and the Royal College of Art before successfully undertaking a practice-led PhD at Cambridge School of Art. Her research centred on the role of animal character design in children’s picturebooks. This was a fitting topic for an artist who has always populated her work with an array of creatures, when working primarily in the arena of editorial illustration. Katherina’s first picturebook, Zoom Zoom Zoom, was developed as part of her PhD research and subsequently published by MacMillan in 2014 and was one of a small number of books to be selected for exhibition at Bologna that year. The visual characteristics of Katherina’s work are rooted in her work as a printmaker. The bold, flat, screen-printed colours would perhaps have been deemed ‘too European’ for the UK market until recently.
Follow the artists on twitter:
@MaisieParadise, @Kmanolessou, @_BeckyPalmer, @CarolinaRabei