Putting in the bits the author forgets, Lesley Moyes

Beaten by a Balloon
Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jonathan Allan
Hamish Hamilton, $29.95,
ISBN 0 241 13 778 0

The Bump
Joy Cowley, illustrated by Linda McClelland
Scholastic, $12.95,
ISBN 1 86943 345 9

Nicketty-Nacketty Noo-Noo-Noo
Joy Cowley, illustrated by Tracey Moroney
Scholastic, $12.95,
ISBN 1 86943 360 2

The Mouse Bride
Joy Cowley, illustrated by David Christiana
Scholastic, $11.95,
ISBN 0 59047 504 5

The Dump Giants
Norman Bilbrough, illustrated by Mark Dower
Cape Catley, $14.95,
ISBN 0 90856 167 9

According to one child, the definition of the illustrator’s role in the creation of picture books is that of “putting in the bits the author forgets”. While this is not an exact job description, it summarises the interdependence of author and illustrator in the creation of a successful book: the writer originates the idea which the artist completes. Ideally the end product becomes a whole expression of the idea and more than the sum of pictures added to words.

In Beaten by a Balloon by Margaret Mahy, Jonathan Allan’s large, colourful, deceptively simple illustrations create a successful partnership with the delightful text. This story is food for thought for children who are not allowed to play with toy guns and whose parents do not realise that chocolate cake can be a dangerous weapon. Mr Appleby refuses his son Sam’s request for a toy sword or water pistol and instead buys him a balloon and a sunflower in a pot. The woman at the stall gives him a rose with thorny stem. Hacky Mackie, owner of sword, dagger, and slingshot and armed with plastic laser space-gun taunts Sam. Mr Mackie smirks. But the Applebys find themselves using weapons of a different kind when the spring-heeled bank-robber Buckbounder bounces into the story. Buckbounder and the Mackies are wonderfully vanquished and Mr Appleby concedes that a dangerous weapon depends on “who happens to be holding what and when”.

In the illustrations each character has a similar shape, each face is a simple oval, but their personalities are clearly defined by the details of clothes, hair, expression and body stance. The peace-loving Mr Appleby is shown dreaming of ballooning and growing roses and sunflowers but, in a later picture, small changes in the lines of eyes and mouth and angle of head express a surprising change of heart. The relationships of the fathers and sons and the comparison of each group with the other are depicted in the double-page spread showing a bank queue. On the left Mr Appleby rests his hand protectively on Sam’s shoulder. On the right Mr Mackie, with hands in his pockets, looks over his shoulder and laughs at the Applebys; in front of him, Hackie points and waves his laser gun. On the final page Sam, “grinning from ear to ear”, says he will use his new water pistol to water his sunflower, but the illustration shows him looking directly out of the picture as if in collusion with the viewer over something unstated.

In The Bump by Joy Cowley and illustrated by Linda McClelland, unnecessary “forgotten bitsgive to the story an unpleasantly sentimental emphasis. Sickly colours reinforce this impression. The bump is an expected second child, and the story deals with the sister Anna’s acceptance of the baby and with her own place in the family. The Bump is told from Anna’s point of view and as she talks to the adults the illustrations show her thoughts. Anna’s mother uses the simile of butterflies emerging from cocoons to describe the creased look of newborn babies; the illustrator depicts the vision as a huge lavender pink baby with pink bow tied around its waist and multicoloured butterflies circling its head. The choice of moments to illustrate in a story determines the focus, and in a long text such as this there is scope to avoid the tricky bits without losing meaning. Later the text describes the baby with “eyes as dark as his hair”, and his Mother predicts that they will be brown like Anna’s. In the illustrations both children appear to be fair and blue-eyed.

Nicketty-Nacketty, Noo-Noo-Noo by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Tracey Moroney (paperback edition), is based on a Scottish song and is the story of an ogre imaginatively outwitted by a “wee woman”. The Scottish flavour and unseriously scary atmosphere is reflected in the illustrations soft evening colours and in the depiction of the characters. The dim-looking ogre Gobbler Magoo is dressed in tartan shirt and hat, his shape like his name hinting at the greediness which leads to his sticky downfall. The unnamed wee woman in apron and shawl looks slightly put out by being abducted into the ogre’s kitchen, but thereafter moves calmly through the story in clear control. Most of the illustrations are set in Magoo’s kitchen but the variation in design, scale and viewpoint on each page maintains visual interest within the static setting and accentuates the text. A close-up of the woman is shown at the moment when the ogre’s fortune is about to change, the pot of stew in the foreground is significantly large, it comes off the edge of the page. The rhythm of the text calls for reading aloud, and the pictures keep time, progressing easily from the moment the woman walks into the ogre’s territory until she walks out again into the night-time landscape. (The hardback edition was a finalist in the 1997 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.)

Another adaptation by Joy Cowley is The Mouse Bride, illustrated by David Christiana. A mouse sees herself as small and weak and longs to be something else. Understanding that this is impossible, she searches for the strongest husband in the world in order to have strong children. The sun, cloud, wind and house explain in turn why they are not strong and cannot marry her. But in a cellar there is a tiny creature strong enough to cause a house to collapse. Could this creature change the mouse’s perceptions?

The title page, dedication and first page show a sequence of pictures, which begins with an adult’s finger pointing to a child. The child looks chastened and walks into another room (a preview of the story is shown by the inclusion of mouse and skirting board with mouse hole); the child points to a dog; the dog chases a cat up a tree and the cat chases the mouse. This forms a visual introduction to Come here and I will tell you a story”. The story begins as the mouse puts on her wedding veil in preparation for her quest and looks at her reflection in a spoon stapled to the wall; the sense of scale is wonderfully convincing: this is a mouse’s viewpoint. The depictions of the sun as a smiling face and the cloud and wind as fantastic ethereal figures mix easily with the realistic and beautifully drawn landscape and buildings. However, in the depiction of the mice there seems to be a confusion of style. In close-up they are rather grotesque, and why do they have human arms and hands?

There is no partnership of words and pictures, no enhancement of text in The Dump Giants by Norman Bilbrough and illustrated by Mark Dower. Giants Bert and Henry live in a cave under Wellington’s rubbish dump. After a terrible wet winter they begin to throw discarded whiteware at each other, endangering themselves and Nigel and Kevin, the two council workers. Thinking that the giants must be lonely, Nigel and Kevin send for two female giants who have been causing trouble at the Christchurch dump. When the women arrive in Wellington further trouble occurs.

This book is listed as suitable for beginning readers but references in the story and the cartoon illustrations suggest that it could be intended for reluctant older readers. The illiterate letter written to Kevin by the female giants could cause reading difficulties for all beginners. Comprehension in general will not be helped by the illustrations, which confuse by their lack of scale. The story is about giants after all. On the first double page Nigel and Kev appear on the left, Bert and Henry on the right. This is not intended to be a double-page illustration but the arrangement of the text causes the two pictures to appear to be connected. Lack of other reference means that all four figures seem to be the same size, and the refrigerator Henry throws at Bert’s head looks like a toy. Illustrations have to convince in whatever style or medium – no shortcuts. The unattractive cover, the poor layout with arbitrary page breaks and the confusion caused by the pictures could deter anyone from discovering whether the story is worth reading.

From an illustrator’s point of view it is possible to imagine the normal process of picture-book-making reversed. In this situation the artist creates the idea in pictures; the writer illustrates it with words. The artists concerns might be: Would the writer get the point, would the words be inappropriate, bungled, boring? Would the writer put in the bits the artist had forgotten? It is easy to feel sympathy for an author, sending out a story to be processed by publisher, designer and illustrator and waiting to see the results. As the traditional originators of picture-book ideas, do authors realise the extent of their dependency on others for their stories to work?

Lesley Moyes is a Wellington illustrator. Her book Alphabet Apartments won both the Children’s Choice and Picture Book categories of the 1998 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.

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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature, Review
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