Specifically let’s talk Fables, a collection of Aesop’s tales by Editions Milan, illustrated by one Jean-Francois Martin. When Cristina from The Tea Box asked me to join her in sitting in on the discussion, I wasn’t certain how interested I would be. I knew that Fables was one of the few books to win the coveted 2011 Bologna Ragazzi Fiction Award (Honors this year went to Hyacinthe et Rose by Francois Morel, paintings by Martin Jarrie and The Iron Man by Ted Hughes, illustrated by Laura Carlin). Aside from that it was an unknown entity. I just knew its name, really. The fact it had anything to do with Aesop had eluded me entirely.
In this particular discussion you had a panel consisting of Antonio Faeti, Chairman of the Jury, along with the editorial director Sophie Chanourdi, Mr. Martin the illustrator, and the moderator Marcella Terrusi of the University of Bologna. There was also Super Translator Woman, a human being capable of taking notes on what everyone said and then translating them into English and French respectively. And let me tell you, these weren’t one sentence answers either. Some explanations or discussions went on for thousands of words. This translator was next unto a god at this talk.
First let’s talk a little about the book. In spite of the fact that an Aesop fable recently won a Caldecott Award, I’ve always felt that they’re difficult beasts to illustrate. Like nursery rhymes, an Aesop fable’s length is its strength when working in an oral medium, and its weakness when viewed on the written page. Too short to justify full picture books per fable (unless you rewrite them or do away with the words entirely) the collections are also difficult to put down. Often I’ll see the same layout time and time again, where an illustrator places the fable on one page and an illustration of that fable on the other. In graduate school, library science students studying children’s literature will be given a list of core titles from the canon. Aesop is usually on there (my own personal favorite versions being the Arnold Lobel and the Barbara McClintock).
What’s remarkable about Martin’s version is that it solves a lot of the difficulties I’ve perceived in the editions of the past. True, the book also follows the format of having the text on one page and the story on the other, but thanks to a clever design team that layout is broken up nicely.
This is a version of Aesop where anthropomorphism is taken to an extreme. The animals here look as if they’ve stepped out of propaganda posters from the 1930s. They are displayed in a bold palette of browns, oranges, reds, blacks, and yellows. As for the figures themselves, each animal is the pinnacle of elegance. They wear tailored suits, bowler hats, spats, top hats, the works. This nicely contrasts their base actions and desires against their appearance. Time and again these pictures were referred to as “flat”, perhaps alluding to their poster-like presentations. Indeed, that’s hardly a coincidence considering the illustrator’s background. Martin has worked in the design world primarily, doing very few books for children. A link was also drawn in the course of the talk between the illustrators of books for kids and the artists behind manifestos and posters. As the panel pointed out, all these types of artistry require an ability to break down an idea into a central idea and, almost more importantly, present it on a large scale.
Antonio Faeti, bearing a mild resemblance to the actor Tom Bosley, has been the president of the Ragazzi Award since 1999. To the question of whether or not kids would be able to wrap their heads around such a book as this, Faeti pointed out that it was Piaget who said that children want complexity. It is for this reason that books for children are some of the most difficult to write. When you create such a book, then, you are essentially creating “complexity that is broken down”.
The word “typography” began to be bandied about at this point. Never have I heard the term used so often though, as you can see, not without just cause:
The publisher explained that they were going for a marriage of text, image, and typography with this book. I was impressed to hear that the illustrator decided on what all the typography would be (something that I don’t think would necessarily be a given with every publisher).
Cristina assured me that the quality of the paper of the book is also of the highest caliber. That got me to wondering about who in America would even be capable of reproducing it here. The best that I can figure is Candlewick. When it comes to high-quality paper stock they are without compare, and of course they might be willing to take a chance on something new and different and beautiful.
Back to the book, there was some mention made of the fact that this title consists of wholly new translations of the original stories. The result isn’t as sweet and innocent as some Aesops in the past. Still, it was this thin vein of cruelty the publisher was looking for.
All in all, it was just the most interesting discussion. I feel we don’t see too many picture books here in the States that have been influenced by posters in any way. Even as I say that, I suspect that I am forgetting something obvious. A little help?
Here’s what the jury said about this book:
“Countless illustrators have returned down the ages to the ancient magic of the fairytale. Here it seems that Felix Valloton in his halcyon years has returned to instill a new pace into a time-honoured tale, without, however, diminishing its power. The splendid illustrations resonate to mysterious melodies. Allusive line-work, intriguing faces and a subtle blend of ochre and grey tones are all bathed in a captivating surreal light that draws everything together. A truly magnificent “tale of all tales”, this book is a typographical masterpiece blending to perfection beautiful type faces with an unusual yet extraordinarily harmonious amalgam of delicate almost unsubstantiated hues.”
And here are some final images you’ll find within: