'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Friday 15 November 2019

Guest Post: Helene Magisson on The Secrets Behind Illustration

When reading one of my latest picture books, a 10-year-old little girl asked me this question:

‘What do you tell in your illustrations that is not mentioned in the text?’

I was amazed by the relevance of this interesting but rarely asked question. 
And yet it is exactly this question that gives my profession its fascinating spark. 

Illustrating is not translating words into pictures but rather building on the text to tell a story in parallel, being between the lines and saying with pencils and brushes what the text does not. It is a way for me to enrich the child's imagination, to invite him to question himself, to make him react, and nourish his visual and artistic language.
In the book Miss Eliza Flowerdew Can Nearly Touch the Ceiling, published by Red Paper Kite, Lucy has just turned 5 and she thinks that the older we are, the taller we are.
Her grandfather himself is so tall!

Her neighbor Miss Eliza Flowerdew is 99 years old, but Lucy has not had the opportunity to see her yet.
Curious, Lucy decides to meet her. 

She goes on her little adventure and will meet a very surprising Miss Eliza. 
But what you may not know, not even my publisher Red Paper Kite, is that I myself met Lucy mentioned by the author Brenda Gurr in her manuscript and everything that is told with my brushes was actually whispered by Lucy.

I would like to reveal here some secrets about the story of Miss Eliza at a specific moment of her life.
With the magic of a few words, Brenda Gurr makes us understand that Miss Eliza once had a life full of adventures.
So I tried to emphasize this trait of her personality and enrich her character through my illustrations.
On one of the pages Brenda Gurr writes these words:
'She boomed summer-sweet music into the dusky night.’

So here I am with my brushes, watercolors, gouaches and some pastel pencils. 

In a corner of the page we see Miss Eliza showing photo memories to Lucy who seems captivated (as much as the cat by the way, who is not mentioned in the text, but Lucy absolutely wanted him to be represented on each page).
So Lucy imagines...
She imagines a group of musicians standing on the roof of a van, lost in the deep night in the middle of a lunar landscape.
‘Could it be somewhere in the Australian desert?’
A man applauds them with eyes full of admiration.
‘Is he a lost camper too? Where does he come from?’ 

The van with its hippie look tells us that we could be in the 60s / 70s when this trend inspired young generations.
On the roof we see Miss Eliza playing the bass. One plays the trumpet, another the clarinet and the singer brandishes in the sky a tool that looks like a microphone. 

'But who are they?’
Maybe some of Miss Eliza’s best friends with whom she loved to travel all over the world, and one of them might even have been his life companion as we see him on a photo posing with Miss Eliza just beside. 

Also Miss Eliza kept in her memories a flyer that indicates the name of her band: the 'Bribie Band' (a little wink to Lucy who is Australian). 
They probably had some success as the flyer mentions 'Sold Out'. We can also notice it on the pole just next to the van. Nothing is left to chance.

‘But why are they on the roof? How did they ever end up like this?

The van is old, which is revealed by a subtle detail that will not go unnoticed to the sharp eye of some readers: one of the tires is flat, worn out by miles of road-tripping across the country. They are traveling through Australia, playing in villages and cabarets during their long adventure. 

So, we can imagine that on that particular day, late in the night, they found themselves stuck in the middle of nowhere, entangled with this old van. And instead of lamenting themselves, they created a magical moment, thanks to their youth, their spirit of adventure, their imagination and their joie de vivre.

They set up lanterns, arranged old chairs, the van's roof turned into a stage, the stars became the lights of an enthusiastic audience, with the camper as the main fan.

Voila. I wanted this illustration to convey a whole story on its own thanks to Brenda Gurr’s magic words.

‘But then, what happened after this impromptu concert?’

That, I leave to your imagination, and let us listen to them instead. 

Helene Magisson started her artistic career as a painting restorer in Paris, where she was also trained in the art of medieval illumination. Helene has lived in Africa, France and India. She is now settled down in Australia with her family. Her travels both inspire and enrich her work.
In 2013, she started a new career in children’s book illustration. Since then, she has illustrated several books including classics like The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams Bianco and more contemporary stories like Slowly! Slowly! by T.M. Clark, CBCA 2018 notable picture book of the year. Helene is an award winning illustrator (first prize CYA conference 2013).