I’m a great believer in the power of seeing an author / illustrator live to spark kids’ imagination and excitement about reading. So you can imagine how much I like the idea of The Children’s Bookshow, an organization which arranges an annual tour of children’s authors and illustrators across the UK.
The tour takes place in the autumn and its aim is to foster a lifelong love of literature in children by bringing them the best writers and illustrators to inspire and guide them. One of this year’s featured author/illustrators is the Belgian illustrator Carll Cneut.
Born in 1969 in a small village on the Belgian/French border Carll did not grow up dreaming of being an children’s book illustrator. In fact, he seriously considered a career as a circus artist before eventually settling down to study Graphic Design at the Saint-Lucas Arts School in Gent, the city where he still lives today.
Following graduation, Carll worked for a publicity agency but a chance meeting let to him being asked to illustrate a children’s book, Varkentjes van Marsepein (Piglets of Marzipan), in collaboration with Flemish author Geert De Kockere. This was the start of something unexpected and exciting for Carll, his first major project as a children’s book illustrator. Now he has more than 30 books to his name! Several of these have won prestigious prizes in the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and France and in 2010 Carll Cneut was one of five illustrators shortlisted as finalists for the Hans Christian Andersen Award.
My kids and I have been familiar with Carll Cneut’s work for some time now, having several of his Dutch language books. When I saw he was coming to the UK as part of The Children’s Bookshow I jumped at the opportunity to interview him. Here’s how our conversation went…
Playing by the book: Hello Carll!
I write about children’s books at Playing by the book and I’ve a special interest in books translated into English from other languages, so it’s a real pleasure for me to be able to put a few questions to you ahead of your visit to the UK as part of The Children’s Bookshow.
What role did books play in your childhood? What were your favourite books? Given how popular comics are in Belgium, and that you went on to study Graphic Design (a route into creating comics), were comics indeed part of your childhood (as it happens my two girls love Suske en Wiske – we’re a bilingual English/Dutch home)?
Carll Cneut: Comics like Suske en Wiske and Jommeke are part of every child’s upbringing here in Flanders. I especially liked Jommeke as his adventures were more based on real life. And early on I started to draw the Jommeke character everywhere. I consider those – together with Mickey Mouse – my first attempts to drawing.
From an early age I started collecting illustrated fairy tale books, intrigued as I always was by the actual book, meaning the beautiful object a well published book can be; and the images. And although I didn’t read very much as a child, I owned tons of books, to just look and feel them.
Playing by the book: Elsewhere you’ve described how you didn’t start out aiming to be a children’ book illustrator but now you are very happy to be exactly that – can you share with us some of what you enjoy so much about being an illustrator (and perhaps how it is different from what you imagined)?
Carll Cneut: As it is – I can’t even imagine being anything else than a book illustrator even though I never planned to become one. As a book illustrator you have the chance to create time after time an entire universe between two bookcovers. Also a book has a long life, opposed to editorial illustration. But the biggest difference from what I imagined it to be, is that it is not a solitary job. I’ve been travelling a huge amount the past years, meeting the public, doing readings or presentations. The time that being a bookmaker meant sitting behind your drawing or writing table seems so far behind us. I equally enjoy all the meetings with the public as much as sitting behind my desk. It keeps me balanced.
Playing by the book: I’ve read that your first name came about possibly by accident – your father added an extra “l” when he went to register your birth. What role (if any) do accidents play in your illustrations? I’ve heard other illustrators say that key details in their work are sometimes the result of an accident (and how this is perhaps becoming less common as more illustrators move to the computer); your work, however, seems painstaking and precise, without room for “mishaps”.
Carll Cneut: I’ve always believed that there are 2 kinds of book illustrators, one type who works from the heart, and the other one who constructs books from the mind. Both are equally valuable, but I definitely belong to the second category. I construct. So coincidence rarely happens, as everything is decided whilst making the dummy of the book. I don’t have the natural ability of drawing easily, so I work with several layers whilst drawing, to bring al the different elements together in the final illustration.
That said, coincidences do happen whilst painting, like finding a new way to paint, or having different brands of paint conflicting with each other bringing a weird effect to the result. A good example of a coincidence in my work are the backdrops in the book ‘Het geheim van de keel van de nachtegaal’ (The secret of the nightingale’s throat ) where I needed a Chinese inspired feel to the book. I created the backgrounds by dragging different layers of paint with an old piece of board over the paper, which was an accidental find whilst cleaning my working table.
And I do love the sense and smell of the material, the white scary paper before starting an illustration. I would miss it too much if I moved to the computer.
Playing by the book: Even though your work is meticulous and has the quality of “fine art”, you enjoy leaving it somehow “unfinished”, to create a space for viewers to add their own contribution. Was this aspect of your work something you consciously worked on, or is it something that has become apparent by itself over time? I guess this is a lead in to asking how do you think illustrators can and do develop their own style – and how do you discuss / teach this, in your current role as a teacher of illustration at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent?
Carll Cneut: It is something I always have found very important as I always believed a picture book should leave room for interpretation by the reader. A reader who should actively participate and be part of the book. I try to drag the reader into the book. A good example is the first illustration in my book Willy. On the first page you see a piece of a trunk and two feet, and no background. It is a human reflex to complete the drawing in your own head. Everyone sees an elephant, although he isn’t shown.
It is like drawing without a pencil. At that moment the reader becomes the third maker of the book. I also try to create the same demand to contribute through many other things, like often only showing the main characters in profile, but having their emotions shown through how they hold their bodies, so the reader enters into this character to imagine the facial expression. Or by spending time on the outfits of the characters, working through many layers of paint to give the clothes some life and history, so the reader should wonder why the character might wear these specific clothes, and why the clothes don’t look brand new, leaving space for the reader to imagine where this character comes from, how his life was before he ended up in this book etc… Or by adding little stories in the illustrations which have nothing to do with the main story. The funny thing is that children notice these extra little stories very quickly, whilst adults almost never notice them
I think the most important thing I can teach my students about book illustration is ‘everything which isn’t written in the text, is the freedom of the illustrator’. Of course everything should correspond correctly with the written story, but there is so much freedom which can be used to make the book more interesting, or more layered. As for developing their personal graphic style, that is a matter of thorough research of materials and their use, and of course some luck too.
Playing by the book: We’re lucky at home because we read your books published both in English and in Dutch. Do you think the books of yours available in English are representative of your work in general? Which of your books not available in English would you like to see translated?
Carll Cneut: I would have loved for “Het geheim van de keel an de nachtegaal” (The secret of the nightingale’s throat) to be translated, but I guess it is an a-typical book, in the sense that it is much more text than a regular picture book, and aimed at older children. I also did a book called Dulle Griet, where the story is based on the painting De Dulle Griet by Breughel. It has an entirely black cover, and the story talks about hell, and the devil , and even death. I am aware that this book would cause a scandal in the UK, but it might initiate a discussion about the use of children’s books, in these times where we have to box up against the digital world. I also should say that children only pick up from this book what they are able to assume, so most kids don’t pick up on the suicide thing, they just think the monsters and skeletons in the book are very cool But that said, Belgian picture books are aimed at slightly older children then they are in general in the UK.
I really would love to see “Een Miljoen Vlinders” (One million butterflies) translated into English.
Playing by the book: Can you share some of your experience about how children’s publishing is different in the UK and/or US as opposed to Belgium? What sort of thing works well in the UK, but not in Belgium?
Carll Cneut: I feel the biggest difference is the approach towards picture books. In Belgium we have this huge array of different graphic styles, and themes . Heavy subjects are not avoided; subjects which are often unthinkable in other countries (like death, or suicide etc). A lot has to do with the fact that picture books are aimed at slightly older children than they are in the UK. But – and I am not sure about this – also to the fact that books are often used here [in Belgium] to initiate a discussion with children, raising questions for children, rather than simply being bedtime stories.
Playing by the book: When you started doing shows about your work, you surprised yourself with how much you yourself enjoyed them. Can you tell us a little about what you’ll be doing at your Children’s Bookshow event? How does the show work, what do you do with the children who attend? Is there anything you’d like attending children to have done in advance of coming to one of your shows to “get them in the mood”?
Carll Cneut: For the moment I think I will mainly work with the energy of the crowd, not knowing where I will end up. But one thing is sure, the whole show will be worked around three books of mine which I will show and read aloud: Ten Moonstruck Piglets, Willy, One Million Butterflies.
Playing by the book: What are you working on at the moment? Another collaborative work? More costume design? What’s your next book to be published in English and/or any language?
Carll Cneut: At the moment I am working with a young Italian writer on a picture book, called ‘The Golden Birdcage’, a story about a cruel princess who collects birds. As for the English/US market, most likely it will be “One Million Butterflies”, but I do have to stress that that is still unsure for the moment. As for other languages: De Blauwe Vogel (The blue bird) and Fluit zoals je bent (Whistle as you are) are shortly coming up in Italian and French, along with a few other languages.
Playing by the book: Thank you Carll, I hope you have a great time this year on the Children’s Bookshow.
Find out more about the The Children’s Bookshow here. Anybody can book tickets for any of the events, and schools can also book free workshops with the authors and illustrators taking part in the tour.