Today sees the publication of two new books by Petr Horáček.
Petr was born in Czechoslovakia and trained at the Academy of Fine Art in Prague in the early 1990s before moving to the UK. His first books were published in 2001, and that year he received the Books For Children Newcomer award. In 2006 his book Silly Suzy Goose won a slew of awards and commendations in the US, and the Dutch language version of his A New House For Mouse was Picture Book of the Year 2006 in the Netherlands. His work goes from strength to strength and last year his Puffin Peter was shortlisted for The Kate Greenaway Medal.
Recently I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview Petr, and here’s how our conversation went:
Playing by the book: It’s a treat for me to be interviewing you in celebration of the publication of your two newest books, Time for Bed and Honk Honk! Baa Baa!, both board books for the youngest of children. Board Books, as distinct from picture books for slightly older children, are something one could say you specialise in – what is it about this format that appeals to you? What particular challenges do you find in creating successful board books – what is different from the challenges of making a picture book?
Petr Horáček: I think the difference between board books and picture books is similar to the difference between a novel and perhaps a poem. People may think that writing a novel is more difficult, because a novel is longer. The opposite may be true. When writing a poem you have no space to mess around. You have to make good use of every word and verse.
This is similar to working on board books. I try to have a story or simple message in my board books. Of course, children like bright colours and images they can identify with, but children are not stupid and just random pictures in the book won’t do.
Playing by the book: Holes, flaps and unusually shaped pages often play a role in your books. I love the way these features stress the physicality of your books – they are not “just” images, nor “only” a story to be listened to, but really an object to interact with. What do you like about the novelty aspects of your books? Are there novelty features you’d like to include in future books but haven’t yet been able to persuade a publisher to take on (perhaps because of complexity and cost)?
Petr Horáček: I’m very lucky to be published by Walker Books. Walker Books care about the books they publish and the quality of these books. As you will see the Baby Walker series board books are beautifully produced. The books have a great feel, they even smell right, you just want to hold the book and open it. Of course to make a book of such quality is expensive and publishers are having a hard time, but we shouldn’t save money on the quality of children’s books.
I’m not exactly fond of touch and feel board books, mainly because basing a book on different textures, materials and squeaky plastic at the end is not enough for me. It’s a bit lazy. My board books have shaped pages, holes, cut outs and so on, but I don’t use these novelty aspects in my books just for sake of it. It all has to have purpose and meaning. I like the child to be involved with the book as much as possible.
I would like to think that children are also learning to like books as an object. The next time, when a child sees a book, he will want to open it and have a look inside.
As to other novelty features, I do understand, that there are certain safety rules we have to follow. I have also published books with slightly more complicated pop-ups, but they are intended for older children.
Playing by the book: Your illustrative style, with lots of colour and collage and holes, echoes Eric Carle – the creator of perhaps the best-known board book of all time – The Hungry Caterpillar. Did you know Carle’s work as a child when you were growing up in then Czechoslovakia? Were his books available? Can you remember when you first came across his work? Do you have a favourite book by him?
Petr Horáček: No, Eric Carle’s books were not published in communist Czechoslovakia.
The very first time I saw one of Eric Carle’s books was around the time my oldest daughter Tereza was born. The book was The Very Hungry Caterpillar abd I loved this book. I loved the colours, texture, collages, the story – the whole lot. I wanted to produce a book like this one-day myself. Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar was really the book that got me started.
My favourite book by Eric Carle (apart from The Very Hungry Caterpillar) is Dream Snow.
Playing by the book: Apart from Carle, who else do you admire, particularly with respect to board books? If you had to choose a library of just five board books for babies, which five would you choose? (You can of course include your own!)
Petr Horáček: This question is more difficult to answer than you’d think. I don’t look around much. I deliberately try not to look at other authors’ work; it’s so easy to unknowingly copy somebody else’s idea.
I went to a local Waterstones the other day just to look at what board books are in the shop, so I can answer your question properly. I realised, that they don’t stock my board books; in fact, they hardly keep any board books.
Board books are usually stuck on a shelf by the floor. They are often versions of more successful picture books published in board book (smaller) format. There were only a couple of board books and the theme was counting in two cases and the alphabet in another. It’s not that good board books don’t exist, but the bookshops don’t take them seriously. They are not important and they take up too much space on the shelf. That space can be used for stocking celebrity style books instead…
Playing by the book: When creating the art work for your board books, what scale do you work on? I read that when you were an art student you created canvases as big as double beds and I wondered whether you still enjoy that expanse, or whether there’s more freedom in something smaller scale.
Petr Horáček: I always use the scale 1:1. I want to see the picture as it is, as it will be in the book. You can make a bold picture even on a small scale.
Playing by the book: I’ve mentioned your use of collage. You also use acrylic, watercolours, and wax crayons. But can you tell us about the role pizza plays in your work? 🙂
I started using polystyrene plates for printing when I was working on A New House For Mouse . They are the bases underneath pizzas you buy in the supermarket. It’s easy to scratch, even draw with pencil into the polystyrene. I use acrylic paint for printing. You have to work quickly, because the acrylic paints dry quickly.
I don’t like pizza, but I know people who do, so I had a great supply. I probably pinched the idea of printing with pizza bases from one of the toddler groups, where I used to take my daughters when they were little.
Playing by the book: And what about the role of accidents? (I ask because I was fascinated to read your comments about this in an earlier interview, and I’m collecting cases of illustration where accidents have played a role, as I wonder if this will become less common as more art/illustration is done digitally.)
Petr Horáček: I don’t use computers for my illustrations. I do my collages by hand. I like the moment when things shift a bit on the paper.
For example, I could draw a certain character for my book. I may even be happy with the result, but than I would chop off the head and arms and legs and try to reposition them a little differently. You would be surprised how different the results are when you twist the head a bit to the side. These are things I wouldn’t be able to work out just with a pencil. I like this moment of surprise.
Also, because I cut out the image I’ve already painted with a knife, I actually create an extra drawing. The cut is hardly ever the same as the original pencil line. I like to show the original line too.
I sometimes hope that whoever is looking at my illustrations will consciously or unconsciously notice these details and perhaps will be inspired to be creative themselves.
Playing by the book: You write books in a language other than that which you grew up with (English rather than Czech). You create art for a medium you didn’t train in (you trained as a painter at the Academy of Arts, but are now an illustrator). Do you think being an “outsider” (in some sense) plays a role in your work?
Petr Horáček: I consider it to be an advantage. I don’t have to think about what the teachers told me, or what is considered to be a good or bad idea.
I enjoying illustrating also for that reason and that I’m always learning something. Every time I work on a new book, I discover something new. A new technique or new material. It’s still fun.
The truth is, that I studied design and art. Illustration is also about composition, colour, and a feel for materials, so things I’m not so unfamiliar with.
Writing, however, is a different discipline. I don’t have a problem coming up with a story, but writing a good text for a picture book is harder than you think. English is my second language and I didn’t speak English when I came to England. I’m still struggling with English, especially with the spelling, but I believe, that I can tell if the text in the book sounds clumsy or if it works.
Here again, I’m lucky with my publisher Walker Books. I work with really good editors.
Playing by the book: In preparing for this interview I was struck by comments you’ve made about children’s art (“They don’t think there are things that are impossible. They don’t feel like they have to take into account perspective. They make the important things bigger than those that are not important.“) and wondered if something like that actually applied to you – you are free to break / ignore “rules” or traditions, in a way some illustrators and writers may not be able to. What do you think? Does this perhaps help you to retain something of the childlike eye on the world?
Petr Horáček: Yes, I love children’s drawings and find them most inspiring. If a child draws two people holding hands for example and it happens that the people are too far from each other, the child just draws two long arms across the whole paper. No problem, the result is the same. The people are holding hands and nothing can stop them.
I do drawings like this in my little sketchbooks and occasionally I copy some children’s drawings, but using it in a picture book is a bit difficult.
It would be tempting to knock out “arty-farty“ books with images like this, but I always have in my mind the fact that I do books for children. They want a book they can understand and children are not interested in me showing off.
Playing by the book: You’ve recently returned from a trip to Prague to celebrate the publication in Czech of one of your books (Did you play any role in translating your book into Czech?). Which Czech illustrators working today do you recommend we look out for? Are there any wordless Czech picture books you could recommend?
Petr Horáček: A Czech publisher translates my books into Czech, but luckily they let me have the final say, so yes I do participate on the translation.
I never thought that it would be so difficult to translate my own English text in to my own language. I suppose, it’s because the text for picture books, in both languages must be just right. It’s impossible to just translate it word by word. The book has to be sometimes rewritten, so it makes sense.
I noticed two very good publishers in the book festival in Prague “Baobab” and “Meander”. Lots of very talented artists live in the Czech Republic . Unfortunately, the Czech Republic is a very small country. It’s hard for the illustrators to make themselves visible abroad or to make a living illustrating books only.
Playing by the book: I believe you often work to music. What would you put on a play list for an enjoyable day – and could you tell us a little why you’d choose these musicians / pieces of music?
Petr Horáček: I love music and I’m always listing to something. My wife plays the cello and viola de gamba. She loves baroque music and she is responsible for my education in classical music.
I listen to Bach and Monteverdi when I need to calm down, when I’m writing, or before I go to bed. I also like Stravinsky very much.
From Stravinsky it is just a step to Frank Zappa. Zappa was a real renaissance man. He wrote from modern classical music and jazz to rock. His music is full of great ideas and fun. One of his recordings I like to listen to in bed is Civilization Phase III.
I like creative music like My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, Radio Head, Pink Floyd, Aphex Twin. The music is full of texture, hidden ideas; you have to listen to it to hear it all. I also like Jimi Hendrix, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Nick Cave.
I mentioned that when I’m printing and painting papers for my collages I need to work fast, so I play music very loud. Things like Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails or The Mars Volta. Apart from pop music (which I have to listen to in the gym unfortunately) I play almost everything.
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