Six years ago I discovered a book which to this day remains one of the most important, shocking and moving books I’ve ever read. It broke many conventions. It’s honesty was brutal. It distressed me and it refreshed me.
It showed me that books can have an immense power and a terrifying ability to make us reflect on who we are and how we behave. That books was The Island by Armin Greder.
First published (in English) in 2007, The Island has only become more relevant and more frightening in the intervening years: it shows a refugee arriving on an island only to be met with hostility and suspicion, without respite. There is no backdown. No change of heart. There is no space for kindness or generosity. Instead the refugee is cast back out onto the sea and the inhabitants of the island set about creating a yet more defensive fortress of their home.
When Greder wrote and illustrated this book, he could not have known that the island I now call my home would appear so like the one in his book. One that is voting in just over a month on whether to cut itself off from a larger community and turn itself into more of an isolated ‘fortress’, one where the political narrative is heavily influenced by fear of people from ‘outside’, where there is apparently almost no space for those most in need, fleeing war or simply (and legitimately) looking for a better life.
How refugees and people on the move are treated is a theme Greder returns to in his recent book Australia to Z. This highly unusual alphabet book is both a searing mirror and eye-opening window into Australia, how Australians perceive themselves and how they may be perceived by others. It is arresting, engaging and exciting, and packs an uncompromising punch. It’s provocative and funny and disturbing and, like The Island, reminds us that illustrated books can be as incendiary and breathtaking as any other form of creativity. They are not just something for the pre-school crowd.
So who is this author and illustrator who creates such bold, challenging and remarkable books?
Armin Greder has no website, no wikipedia entry, no presence on social media. He is, however, the recipient of a Bologna Ragazzi Award (in 1996, for his illustrations in The Great Bear, written by long term collaborator Libby Gleeson) and a Biennial of Illustrations Bratislava Golden Apple (in 2003), and in 2004 he was nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award.
After illustrating some learning-to-read books in the 1980s, his first picture book book, Danny in the Toybox (written by Richard Tulloch) was published in Australia in 1990. A fruitful collaboration with author Libby Gleeson followed (resulting in several award-winning books), overlapping with the publication of The Island, Greder’s first book as author and illustrator. Although Greder continues to collaborate with authors, recent years have seen him spending more time working on books he himself has written.
Danny in the Toybox (written by Richard Tulloch, 1990)
Big Dog (written by Libby Gleeson, 1991, Winner of the Australian Multicultural Children’s Book Award)
Uncle David (written by Libby Gleeson, 1992)
Sleep Time (written by Libby Gleeson, 1993)
The Princess and the Perfect Dish (written by Libby Gleeson, 1995)
The Great Bear (written by Libby Gleeson, 1999, Children’s Book Council of Australia – Short-listed book)
An Ordinary Day (written by Libby Gleeson, 2001, Children’s Book Council of Australia Picture Book of the Year in 2002)
I am Thomas (written by Libby Gleeson, 2011)
Flight (written by Nadia Wheatley, 2015)
Italia – Z (written by Goffredo Fofi, 2015)
Lemmings (written by Richard Matheson, 2016 in Italian as Lemming)
As both author and illustrator:
The Island (2003 in Spanish as La Isla)
The City (2009 in Italian as La città)
The Foreigners (2012 in Italian as Gli stranieri)
Work: il lavoro dalla A alla Z (2014)
Australia to Z (2016)
The Very Lonely Snake (to be published in Italy as Il Serpente tanto Solo, 2016)
Following the UK publication of Australia to Z last month I was very fortunate to enter into a conversation with Armin and to find out a little more about his life and work and I’m honoured and excited to share our exchange with you today.
Armin Greder was born in 1942 in Biel, Switzerland and books and drawing played an important role in his life from early on.
“My mother – an avid reader – used to bring me books from the local library, about expeditions to faraway places with names in strange languages that would transport me. They opened my horizon. There was more to the world than Switzerland. Later I began to travel and came to some of these places: the Uros, floating islands in lake Titicaca ; the Potala in Lhasa; The Registan in Samarkand; the Gobi desert; Bukhara; Xian and its Terracotta Army; the Uyuni salt lake in Boilivia; the burning ghats of Varanasi. It was each time an epiphany: so it does exist after all, and greater and better than what I had been imagining. I realised that there were other ways of looking at the world, and even if they didn’t agree with me that didn’t necessarily mean that they were wrong.”
“My first ten years were dominated by my mother’s fear of being evicted by the landlady who was living beneath us, if I made any noise. Maybe that is where I learnt to draw. It was a silent activity and since there were very few children in the vicinity with whom to mingle, I did a lot of it. It allowed me to create worlds that were far more attractive than the staid reality of my suburb. I would bring to life Dalai Lamas, Amazonian headhunters, Genghis Khans, Incas, Mayas. I would outfit them with their paraphernalia of Potalas, shrunken heads with lips sewn shut, wooly Bactrian camels, Machu Picchu stone work, tumis, obsidian knifes dripping with blood, and so on – all carefully rendered because the more realistic the drawings were the more I could believe in them. And since if you do something intensively and for a long time you are bound to become good at it, I became good at drawing. And at seeing, which is half of drawing.”
“Some of the credit for my facility for drawing belongs to Miss Haudenschild, my kindergarten teacher. She would keep me supplied with the necessary utensils. Once or twice she would even get out the sacrosanct silver and gold pencils and let me use them. Then came school, and with it my Calvary at the hands of a string of teachers. I took a belated revenge on them in Libby’s I Am Thomas.
Nevertheless I persisted and continued drawing past the age at which most children stop doing it. People were impressed. So when I was asked what I intended to do after school I said Something to do with drawing. Now an ability to draw well inspires admiration (mathematical ability, on the other hand, will at best rate a polite Oh, really?), but when it comes down to it that admiration turns to scorn: don’t be silly; drawing is not work, I was admonished. So I became an apprentice in an architect’s office (There! That’s better, and architecture involves drawing too). But I am not very good at organising and unable to give orders, so I ended up building models instead of designing buildings and supervise their construction.
From there I drifted into graphic design and with the resulting portfolio of work I bluffed my way into a job in an advertising agency in Australia. Admittedly I had support: In the early seventies Australia, down there at the end of the known world, suffered from a severe inferiority complex, and I came not only from Europe but from Switzerland, and we, the Swiss, had invented the Helvetica typeface which was very fashionable at the time. Eventually I landed a job as a teacher at an art college where I got involved in mounting an illustration course that turned out quite successful. I taught there for twenty years.”
Having listened with delight to some of Armin’s personal history, I ask him some braver questions. I admit to him that I find several of his more recent books quite a challenge to read. They often subvert what many people expect from a “picture book”, with content often for older readers – unashamedly offering up reflections of the darker aspects of ourselves, of conflict and fear. I wondered how it makes Armin feel when he hears people describing his books as “subversive”, “unexpected”, “provocative” and even “antagonistic”? What does he hope his books make their readers feel and reflect upon?
“Over the years I have come down to earth, at least to some degree (a friend once said to me in her desperation ‘You are on this earth but not of it’). Now my imagination is no longer a vehicle for escape but a means to to deal with reality. Illustrating Libby’s stories I have learnt to write, to digest observations and to turn them into stories. The characters that populate these are no longer exotic wonders but live next door. With this has come a change: Libby’s writing is very mindful of her audience of children and young adults, and my illustrations of her stories respect this. On my own I am rather an egoist: what interests me above all else when I write (and draw) is the story and how to do it justice. The result are books that do not necessarily conform to the accepted notion of picture books.”
“You mention a certain subversive quality of my later books. I never saw it like this, but now that you mention it, the notion does please me. The last I would want my books to be seen as is lovely, wonderful, nice and the like. My stories are always critical of some aspect or other of this society. And if this subversive quality should affect the accepted concept of the picture book too, that much the better.
I wrote ‘The Island’ sometime in the nineties in Australia (in English, the language I am most comfortable with when it comes to writing). It was considered unpublishable, because back then a picture book was a children’s book and my story was not a children’s story. Europe had less qualms about this, and the success of the book over there, together with a relaxing of the distinction between children’s and real literature eventually made it publishable in Australia as well.
My other books all have a similar disregard for the accepted (and acceptable) concept of the picture book. However, there is one notable exception: ‘The Very Lonely Snake’ is a book for the very little ones. A long time ago I did it in a home made version for my grandchildren. I mentioned this in passing to Fausta Orecchio, the Italian publisher, and she encouraged me to revive it. I obliged, and now this accidental book is to be published in four languages.”
The Very Lonely Snake will be published later this year, and I do hope it finds an English language publisher. Till then, I probe a little further into the darker aspects of Armin’s work, noting that hope isn’t something that is always present in the pages of his books, even though in some form it is not only normally a prerequisite in picture books, it is also something I personally find essential to creativity and keeping going when the news around the world day after day is often so terrible. So how does hope fit into Armin’s work, his life?
“I think that any story that is worth the paper on which it is printed goes back to a personal experience of the author. If this is so, the character of the author will be inevitably reflected in the story, and I believe that this is true in my case. I am a pessimist, agreeing with the Spanish author Perez Reverte that the best of the twenty-first century is that we won’t be around when it ends… So you are correct: hope is not an abundant commodity in my stories. They are critical, not meant to give people pleasant dreams but rather to keep them awake, perchance even to make them think.”
Wishing to lighten the mood a little, I ask Armin about his creative processes, how and where he works, and the boundary (if any) between play and work. I’m curious if any books have inspired him to play, like they do here on Playing by the Book.
“The world around me provides the impulse and the material for my stories. This is true for all of of the books I have done on my own, and it has influenced much of my work with Libby. Books I read inspire me otherwise: some twenty years ago I spent a half a year travelling around China as a result of Sven Hedin’s books about the Gobi desert that I had read as a child, and Paul Theroux’ Riding The Iron Rooster. And my fascination with arid landscapes originated in a kraft paper wrapped book with a hand written number on its spine that my mother brought me from a lending library and in which I encountered for the first time the desert and its silence and solitude.”
“For me being creative is above all else playing. Playing with found bits and pieces, trying to put them together into something that is more than the sum of its components, as the commonplace has it. In this I am fortunate: I have a pension that keeps me afloat and saves me from having to waste time on what is commonly called work. When I hit an impasse in this play I don’t agonise very long; I go on to something else and wait for the solution to announces itself. With Libby’s ‘I Am Thomas’ we got stuck when the ending kept eluding us. After a while of fruitless efforts we gave up and buried the whole thing. I withdrew the grant application I had made based on this project. Some time later – I don’t remember if it was months or years – the solution came to me while I was swimming laps. It had been there all along, staring us in the face. But as my compatriot Robert Walser said: if you want to see the mountain you are better off in the valley.”
“Once or twice a year I receive a manuscript for consideration. So far I have rejected all of them bar two, and only one of these came to pass (Flight). The reason is always the same: the text is so visual that it leaves no room for the illustrations. What Helen Garner has to say about script writing – the script writer must leave the adjectives to the actor – goes equally for the writer of picture books. In Libby’s ‘The Great Bear’ the text was such that in the second half of the book there was no other way for the illustrations than to repeat the words, and that is heresy to me. So I put it to Libby to drop that part of the text. Libby, forever the unpossessive author, saw the point and agreed. But words or not, it was still her story.”
On a very practical note I ask Armin about his use of charcoal – he works a lot in it and my kids are curious as to why he likes it (they dislike drawing with charcoal because they find it so messy).
“Indeed in my illustrations I use mostly charcoal – compressed charcoal sticks, to be precise (I sharpen these on a piece of coarse sand paper). This has a very practical reason: in a picture book continuity presents a problem; a character has to remain the same throughout, in any mood or situation. This needs tight control over the drawing process, and tight control tends to lead to rigor mortis of the image. Charcoal offers me that control without killing off the spontaneity that is the life of any drawing. However, recently I have done a number of books in which continuity was not an issue. So I went for brush and ink. This is a rather unforgiving matter. Spontaneity is all: you either get it right or you don’t; there is no correcting afterwards. Consequently four out of five attempts ended in the bin.”
Apart from making sure he has an empty bin and not being afraid to fill it, does Armin have any rituals for starting his art? Does he use music, for example, to set a mood?
“No, I don’t have any particular rituals and I don’t listen to music while I work. It is all fairly straight forward and undramatic; there is no wringing of hands or gnashing of teeth. Only at the beginning of something new there is always a certain reluctance to start, like in going for a swim in cold water. I stand there, dithering, until eventually I find the necessary courage to take the plunge.”
As our conversation draws to a close, I’m deeply moved by how much Armin has shared. He strikes me as a private person and his gentle generosity is humbling and hugely appreciated.
“Yes, I am a fairly private person and have a deep aversion to the social media (who in the end pays so that someone can become a multi millionaire by offering a cost-free service, as Zuckerberg does with Facebook?). Since nobody has found it necessary to write a Wicky page on me I don’t have that either and I have not yet felt the need for a web page or a blog. I don’t even have smart phone. And the cat I once had taught me that you don’t have to answer the phone if you don’t feel like it.”
I’m indebted to Armin for taking the time to exchange ideas and experiences with me. I raise him a glass and even if they break my heart a little, I really look forward to reading and reflecting on what he next writes and illustrates.