“Victor V. Vulture the Vaudeville Ventriloquist. Versatile Virtuoso of Vociferous Verbosity. Vexatiously Vocalizing at the Valhalla Variety Venue.” That’s the letter V, in famous English alphabet book Animalia, created by Graeme Base — first published in 1986 and that, since then, has already sold three million copies. Thirty years later, the author is now heading to Beijing for the launching of Animalia, with a new version that includes flip cards in Chinese explaining the meaning of the words.
In an interview with mART, on the sidelines of a session included in the programme of The Script Road – Macau Literary Festival, the Australian author of children books talks about the creative process behind his work and the children who read it. He mentions how he adds layers of meaning to his books, making them suitable to the understanding of different ages, passing on several messages.
By Luciana Leitão
Which ages do your books target?
Mostly, they’re for older children. Crucially, what I do is to put layers into the books, so that a young child might read a book — there’s one called The Water Hole and, at a very simple level, it’s a counting book from one to ten, but there’s also a small story, a drama, where the water hole shrinks and shrinks, and what’s going to happen? Of course the rains come, the cycles change and happy ending. A little drama for slightly older kids. There’s a counting game in reverse — there’s one rhino and all the animals build to ten, meanwhile there’s ten frogs that gradually go down to zero. That’s important, because frogs are like an early warning system for the environment. If the frogs vanish from any ecosystem, it’s a sign that things are going wrong. If you don’t hear frogs, it’s not good. And there are also hidden animals in every page, so there’s a main animal, like one rhino drinking at the water hole and there will be ten other animals to find. And you can also find their names, so there’s a natural history lesson there for all the children. The deepest level — the most important level, perhaps — is that the water hole travels; in the first page, there’s one rhino drinking at the water hole, at the next level it’s two tigers; suddenly, we’re not in Africa anymore, we’ve gone to India. The water hole takes a new meaning: it’s about the environment as a whole. And the interconnectedness of all water in the planet as the elemental resource we must cherish and share. Those are layers that I put into the books — I don’t need or want a young child to bother with those, they are not ready for it. But if an older child reads it and they’re able to see those things, that’s great. And also for a parent. It’s a wonderful image to have a parent, sitting and reading with a child, and I know myself as a parent — sometimes, my kids want me to read a book, in which for me there’s nothing. You read it because it’s for them. So much better, if it also does something for you.
Do you have this concern in all your books?
Yes, that’s right. It comes quite naturally. The books are done for myself, they are done for the child in me and also for a 58-year-old man.
When I was young, I was doing these books for myself. Everything changes when you’re a parent. Suddenly, I wanted to take this little bit of power that I have and use it for good. So, in a book like The Water Hole, I’m very pleased that it’s saying something important as well as entertaining. There’s no better way to teach anyone or anything than entertaining.
For children’s books, would you say that illustration is indeed the most important thing — more than the text itself?
For the young, yes. And it’s the interaction and relationship between the two. A good picture book is one in which the text leaves room for illustration. You don’t need to describe what’s going on, because you can see it in the pictures.
That’s for older children or all children?
For all children. The thing about children’s books texts, though, is that people often think ‘oh, it must be very easy, because they are very short and you can do it before breakfast’, but the less words you have, the harder it gets and the more careful you have to choose them.
Have you tested your books with your own children?
No, because then they will criticise them. I worked on a television series, based on Animalia, and in America they desperately needed to try it and to test the names of the characters and I hated that whole process. It’s so important — for me, as an artist, to do it for myself. I just resist the idea to try to find a market and testing things.
Depending on the ages, aren’t there certain themes that you’re not supposed to touch, such as death?
I did a book called Uno’s Garden — it’s a person who comes to the forest and it’s beautiful, there’s ten of everything, he builds his house; unfortunately, he builds it on one of the rare species and that’s it, then there’s nine of everything, then the house becomes a village, becomes a town, becomes a city. Before you know it, the reason why everyone came here is gone. The forest has vanished. It’s about Uno realising what has happened and having to make a Noah’s ark of all the animals and plants. In the second half of the book, it’s the repopulation and the regeneration of the forest. Half way through, it was important that Uno dies, he becomes old and dies, and it’s up to his children to carry on his work, which is the story of hope for the future. It was very challenging to the publisher to deal with the book, in which the hero dies. But it couldn’t be any other way.
How do you explain death to a child?
I know… That is the job of the parent or the teacher. The children have goldfish that die; their pet rabbit will die. It’s something that at any age a child may suddenly have to deal with. It’s not dramatic in the book, it’s very soft.
Which one do you prefer — illustration or authoring?
I never wanted to be an author. As a kid, I only drew. I worked very briefly in advertising, went through three jobs and got fired. It’s very hard to get good work, when it doesn’t mean anything to you. That’s when I started working in publishing. The reason I started writing is so that I could draw what I wanted to draw and not what other people told me. The other thing I did quite like at school and was ok at it was English and writing. So, I thought, I could write a story.
I was born in England by the way and I lived in Australia, because my parents were really interested in nature. The subject matter of animals was quite natural to pursue — my first book did modestly well and then I did a book called Animalia, which was a huge success. From than on, I could do both. But always, for me, the initial inspiration is visual.
So, the story comes after the illustration?
The most recent book is called Eye to Eye and it was inspired by an amazing experience — we went to Antarctica and we were a couple of days into the trip, coming down the West Coast of the Antarctic peninsula and our ship was surrounded by killer whales. And the captain let us go out on a little landing craft, very small, with the whales all around us. One of these huge whales came back alongside our craft and it was right outside the water, and he was just looking, and the eye was just this big, close enough I could have touched. These little inspirations that I would encounter visually, I find a story mechanism so that I can do the artwork.
Animals are a common feature on your books. Do you prefer them to people?
It’s what I love. It’s what I’m inspired by. I rarely do people. Everyone knows what people look like — if I make the eyes too far apart or the arms too long, you realise it’s not quite right. I was actually quite pleased — in the last book, I worked hard on this child character and it was the first time that I really thought that I had successfully drawn people.
Also, I use animals, not really because I love them and they are good for telling stories about the environment, but they’re good for telling any story. It’s a way of telling a story to do with us, to do with the human condition, with a little more charm and a little more fun.
Your book Animalia sold three million copies. Were you expecting such a huge success?
It took three years of my life and I remember thinking over and over ‘why am I doing this, this is mad’. Who in the world would think there is room for yet another British language alphabet book? So, every book that I’ve done I’ve been really slightly empowered by it — that sense there was room for one more alphabet book. One of these alliterations in Animalia… “Victor V. Vulture the Vaudeville Ventriloquist. Versatile Virtuoso of Vociferous Verbosity. Vexatiously Vocalizing at the Valhalla Variety Venue” — I remember my publishers at the time said it was pretty difficult, we should simplify. I just said ‘no, it’s not to do with what it means, it’s to do with what it sounds’. It’s music. I was very grateful because the publisher listened to me, accepted that and went with it, because the book would have been half the book. If it had been done today, I might not win that argument. The world is more conservative, not prepared, much more scared of getting it wrong.
Maybe, it’s also because people are reading less.
That’s true, but maybe because they’re being fed less, lesser things. The worst thing you can do with a child is talk down. If you aim above a child’s head and challenge them to rise to the occasion, they will respect you and they’ll get so much out of it.
Many of your books have been translated into different languages, but Animalia no, right?
No. It’s untranslatable into the English language. We’ve made an app, going deeper to the potential of the book and we’ve made a television series. Another thing that has happened, and I’m going to Beijing in a few days time, they’re publishing in English, but they’re putting it in a box — and when you lift out the book, underneath there are all these flip cards where all the things from the book are in English and in Chinese, with the pictures, so that kids learn.
Your books are very targeted towards the English-speaking children. Will a child in Beijing understand your books?
I don’t know. Certainly the books I write come inescapably from a Western mind.
They’ve been published in Taiwan successfully for ten years, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia. Whether Mainland China is going to prove very differently, I don’t know. I think it is going to be the most challenging market. I think 11 titles are coming out just there [in Mainland China] — some have been out for a couple of years, translated in simple and complex Chinese, but Animalia is brand new.
Why only now is Animalia reaching the Mainland China’s market?
I have no answer, except perhaps I’m not a very good businessman. They’ve sold foreign rights, there have been some books in Taiwan, for ten years — and perhaps it’s true everyone is nervous about publishing in China, how to keep tabs on what they are really selling, perhaps they are more open and easy.
Would you imagine doing a story in China?
I would love to.
Do you have any idea?
No, the reason why I don’t have it is because my ideas would be simplistic, what I need to do is to find a Chinese editor who can help me understand what is and isn’t appropriate and possible. I would love to see if there was a book that could marry my Western concept of dragons, which are traditionally evil, with the Eastern concept of dragons, which is different. There’s an interesting potential there. The zodiac, the wonderful stories and legends around the zodiac and all these animals.
I have meetings set up. There are two publishers in China — one in Shanghai and one in Beijing, I want to meet them and try to find a connection.