Today I’m delighted to bring you an interview with the Finnish author/illustrator, Hannamari Ruohonen.
After first reading her wonderful book It’s Snowing in Animal Town I wanted to find out more about her and her approach to illustrating and she very kindly agreed to being interviewed here on Playing by the book. Here’s what we talked about…
Playing by the book: Hi Hannamari, it’s very exciting for me to be talking to you today. Your book, It’s Snowing in Animal Town has been our favourite book for the last month of so – we’ve been reading it everyday! Can you tell us a little bit about how you developed your illustrative style and approach to storytelling?
Hannamari Ruohonen: My first book Eläinten kaupunki (Animal Town) is the product of my masters degree at The University of Art and Design in Helsinki; I graduated as Master of Arts in 2007 from the Department of Graphic Design. I concentrated on making books (art books etc) and illustrating for almost all my master studies, even though at times it was a little difficult, because not many courses in illustration existed. Infact, I even took some of the courses again, if a new teacher was appointed.
Playing by the book: So, as well as a formal training in illustration and design, do you come from a family of artists? Have you also studied storytelling or writing? What key experiences helped you develop confidence in your work?
Hannamari Ruohonen:I’ve been making picture books all my life, telling stories with both text and picture, never text alone. So I’m more of a picture maker than a story teller I suppose. I haven’t studied storytelling or writing, although I think it would be interesting and useful for me to do so.
When I began with the book Eläinten kaupunki I first had the thought that this book is a possibility for me to make something I really want to do, without any clients or restrictions; at first I did it only for myself. I had just started the first pictures when at the same time I sent my portfolio to a few publishing houses to get a job as an illustrator. WSOY [Finland’s leading publisher of general literature in Finland] contacted me – I had put these first pictures in my portfolio, and they became interested in my style and the story behind the pictures, and after sending the story line and more pictures they decided to publish my book.
So the story behind the idea is that I wanted to make something I wanted to read when I was a little girl. I loved (and still love) picture books, and always had difficulties when reading a book; somehow I couldn’t concentrate on the picture when text was involved. When reading a book, you read the text first, (at least when I could already read myself), then look at the picture. But you have this feeling that you should turn the page pretty quickly after reading the text – you don’t want to interrupt the story line by concentrating on the picture for too long.
This was the idea behind my own book; I didn’t want to interrupt the story that grows and develops in the mind of a reader when looking at the picture (funny how I use this word ”reader” even when no text is involved). I didn’t want to be the one who dictates that ”this is the story you should concentrate on” by writing text in the picture, or by having helpful questions at the side of each picture, as they first suggested in the publishing house. (They were quite nervous in the beginning – the grown-ups thought that without any text to follow children would not be able to see the stories or the idea behind the illustrations. Then they had this group of adults one time look at the pictures I had already made and they just started to tell stories behind the pictures, pointing out little jokes to each other; they understood that it is not so hard to find your own imagination.)
I also thought that if there is no text in the book, then the child becomes the story teller. An adult can ask questions if needed, such as ”why do you think this bird is crying” and so on, but usually the child wants to begin to tell his/her own story. I had this idea that somehow the child can experience that his/her ideas and stories are just as important and true as the stories the adult could tell by looking at the same picture. No one can truly say that ”no, that’s not what it’s happening in the picture.” Instead, the child gets approval and encouragement from the adult when she/he is telling stories of his/her own and using his/her imagination.
I think it’s important for a child (and adults, too) to be heard,for somebody to listen to your ideas and give you feedback just by listening. With this feedback I do not mean that an adult must or even should ”hype” a child’s ideas or thoughts or story telling; it would be dishonest and fake to overreact. Rather, I think it’s enough when an adult is listening and maybe asking questions, to show that she/he wants to hear more, that this story told by a child is really worth listening to.
Playing by the book: Well, I can certainly say that what you write about your hopes for your books has come true with my own children – they become the storytellers when we read your book, they decide when we turn a page and they love this experience.
It’s Snowing in Animal Town is one of three books you’ve written and illustrated featuring largely the same characters (Animal Town /Eläinten kaupungissa, and Eläinten kaupunki matkustaa / Animal Town is Travelling being the other two). Given that they feature anthropomorphic characters going about their lives, Richard Scarry and his Busytown immediately come to mind. Which authors and illustrators would you say influence and inspire you?
Hannamari Ruohonen:It always feels so confusing when somebody says that my books reminds them of Richard Scarry’s books – he is a legend to me and has done such marvellous work with children’s books. I can definitely say that his books have influenced me; I loved them as a child and still love them. In my work I try to concentrate on making sure my characters aren’t too cute; I want them to have their own personality and history, their own faults and mistakes.
Alongside Scarry my favourite illustrators and story tellers are Janosch, Inger and Lasse Sandberg, Tove Jansson and Camilla Mickwitz. I think their characters tend to have charisma and layers both in personality and history.
Playing by the book: As well as writing some of your own books, you have illustrated books for other authors, including one shortlisted for the 2010 Finlandia Junior Prize, Tapani Bagge‘s Maalla (“In the country”). I’m always interested in how authors and illustrators work together – how do you find the process of working with an author as opposed to illustrating your own work? What’s the best part of working with a separate author? What’s the hardest part of illustrating your own work?
Hannamari Ruohonen:The hardest part of illustrating my own work is also the best part of illustrating other authors’ text – the loneliness. When I do my own work, I have to make all the decisions on my own; the publishing house doesn’t have time to help me with my ideas before I have already decided on my own. I have been surprised by the fact that the authors I’ve worked with have been really open minded to my drawings and ideas – it has really been much easier to illustrate other’s text than I expected. Maybe I’ve just been working with nice people so far…
At first I usually draw the main characters of the story – this tends to be a nice way to start working with an author. Usually the publishing house also wants the cover page of the book to be done first. These decisions set the tone for the atmosphere of the book and pictures in it.
Playing by the book: Finnish authors and illustrators are not very well known in the UK. If I could translate and publish any Finnish children’s picture books (in addition to yours of course!) who would you suggest?
Hannamari Ruohonen:All the Tove Jansson picture books are already published in almost every language that exists, but I think she is the best (and now I mean the original books, not those made in Japan with terrible pastel pictures). Then the series Heinähattu ja Vilttitossu by Sinikka and Tiina Nopola, illustrated by Markus Majaluoma is marvellous.And I really love all the pictures made by illustrator Matti Pikkujämsä and also the work of illustrator Katja Tukiainen.
Playing by the book: Thanks for the tips Hannamari – I’ll certainly look out for these authors and illustrators, and hope that some English language publisher discovers them too! But now back to you and your books – what are you currently working on and what’s the next book of yours to be published?
Hannamari Ruohonen:I’m working on two books, one is Tapani Bagge’s next book in the series of a girl named Kaisa (it’s the second book following ”Maalla”, which was shortlisted for the Finlandia Junior Prize 2010). This next book is called ”Maailmalla”, and it will in bookshops in March 2011. I’m also working on a picture book called ”Masa ja Maija – Ambulanssipartio”, with the author Aira Savisaari. The story is about a pig and a lamb who start to work together as ambulance patrol team. It will be published (by WSOY) in autumn 2011 as the first book in a series.
I’m also beginning to rework two old ideas I’ve had – one about a little girl who gets a toy monkey that is a little bit too wild, and the othe a baby book that parents use to fill with memories and photos but a little bit more like a scrap book. Both books will be published (if everything goes as planned) by WSOY.
Playing by the book: I look forward to seeing them, Hannamari! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions, and more importantly for having created a book that now has a special place in our family.
For more information about Hannamari Ruohonen you can visit her page at her publishers, WSOY.
And there’s still time to enter the Moomin Mug and Plate giveaway by clicking here and leaving a comment (European addresses only).