A. I prefer to draw using pencil and watercolours. The images are then scanned into the computer and then the pages are designed.
Q Do you take an interest in designing and overseeing the production of every picture book?
A. I draw and design every single book that I work upon. I hand over the ready-to-print files to my publisher where the editors then pitch in. For instance, in the Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears, I had scanned pages from old books to create the withered background feel on the pages. The editors began to proofread the pages and discovered that the writing from the scanned pages was still visible! So it had to be scrubbed off. Or in The Rabbit Problem the editors had to actually count every single rabbit on every page including on the last pop-up page.
Q. Why work only with picture books? How long does it take to conceptualise and finish a picture book?
I prefer to work with illustrated form of books. I love image and text that are integrated. You can do anything with a picture book even though it has a strict format. Of the books published so far, I have only done the shout-along Monkey and Me which is in the big book format. It can take me anywhere from a few hours (Orange Bear Apple Bear) to a few weeks (Wolves) to over a year (The Rabbit Problem).
The Rabbit Problem emerged after I heard a radio programme on the thirteen century mathematician Fibonacci. There was an annual competition conducted to figure out “the rabbit problem” and what as the solution for the number of rabbits proliferating in the fields. Fibonacci solved it by creating the Fibonacci series that took into consideration an idealised situation of a pair of rabbits, assuming that no rabbit died, he created the Fibonacci sequence where the rabbits are able to mate at the age of one month and then reproduce again after the second month. (It was known much earlier to Indian mathematicians like Pingala too.)
I do not have a head for mathematics and was about to turn off the radio but this conversation caught my attention. It set me thinking and I created The Rabbit Problem. It took me over a year to make the book. Every single rabbit in the book had to be drawn and painted; each page had to be checked for consistency in the drawings (of the generations) and every rabbit had to be counted to confirm if the number of rabbits on each page conformed to the Fibonacci sequence. Even the little pieces pasted on to the pages like The Fibber newspaper, or The Carrot Cookery Book took some weeks to prepare. For the sake of authenticity, I rummage through old bookshops, garage sales and second-hand bookstores to discover old clippings, old cookery books. Then I try and imitate the design in to my picture books. Since I am not very good at identifying the font being used or what would be the most appropriate one to use in the picture book, when I work on the design, I collaborate closely with an art director.
Q. How many books have you published so far? Do you collaborate with anyone?
I have published fifteen picture books, all of which I have written, illustrated and designed myself. I have only collaborated once with Julia Donaldson on Cave Baby. I was really pleased with the result, and very glad I did it as it was a great experience and a challenge as I’m used to both writing and illustrating.
Q. In India it is difficult for illustrators to make a living off their chosen career and of picture books it is definitely not possible. So how do you sustain yourself as a full-time illustrator of picture books?
I have been very lucky in all my projects. The first book I published–Wolves–while still at university. It got me a three-book contract with an advance that allowed me to remain afloat for a year. Once it became evident that my books were selling well worldwide, the advance against royalties for a book helped me concentrate on my work at hand. Now the royalties are flattening out but they still allow me the leisure to focus on my ideas and picture books.
Q Your choice of stories for the picture books seems to be a play on well-known folk lore and children’s literature –Blue Chameleon (Eric Carle); Wolf Won’t Bite! (Three Little Pigs); Dogs ( Seuss); Meerkat Mail ( Country Mouse, Town Mouse). Is this a conscious decision?
A. Wolf Won’t Bite! is a play on a story that children are already familiar with – The Three Little Pigs, otherwise I do not actually work with well-known tales consciously. I do love wolves, the actual animals and also they have this storytelling mythology woven around them. It must sound bad, I don’t often think of children but of what I like when I am working on an idea. Yes, you do get the feeling inside your stomach, a mixture of excitement that fairy tales generate.
Q How well do picture books translate into other languages? Do you oversee production and design?
A. It is a challenge translating a picture book. The result varies depending upon the language of destination and the script used. If it is a Romance language like French that uses the Roman script, then the translation is more or less easily done. If it is a pictorial script like Chinese or Thai then adjusting the script and illustration takes time, but I am not involved in the process. I only receive the finished copies. But the most intriguing translation has been that of Orange Bear Apple Bear into Catalan. I am unable to read it but the original text is a play of five words, but the translated text consists of a string of words spread across the pages. It definitely has a lot more words!
Q Who are the illustrators whom you admire?
A. Quentin Blake, Raymond Briggs, Posy Simmonds, Polly Dunbar, Anthony Browne, Alexis Deacon and Edward Ardizzone.
Q The technical details in your picture books are a delight – end paper, copyright pages, use of a comma etc.
A. I love the structure of a book. So whether it is designing the copyright page of Blue Chameleon in the shape of the reptile or working on creating little images and details on the end papers as in the Odd Egg and Again!, I love it. It even extends to playing with the use of a comma and five words in Orange Bear Apple Bear. I enjoy making these details.
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist