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Inside A Fuse #8 Production

The Birth of Les Maîtres de l’Imaginaire and the Vast Importance of International Children’s Book Art

DelessertIn 2014 I wrote a piece on this blog containing thoughts about picture books created in other countries and how they are received when they are brought to American shores.  The end result was that illustrator Étienne Delessert read the piece and on April 18, 2015 I was allowed to take part in the presentation Where the Wild Books Are alongside such luminaries as Leonard Marcus, Junko Yokota, David Macaulay, and more. This was the brainchild of Étienne himself, a man who has worked with Ionesco and Jean Piaget in the past. Just to give you some context, in 2011 the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art featured him with the show What a Circus! The Art of Étienne Delessert. You also may wish to read this Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast feature on him as well.

Why tell you all of this? Because one of the things I admire most about Étienne is his ability to make amazing things happen. In 2015 it was that speaker series. In 2017 he created the Swiss foundation, Les Maîtres de l’Imaginaire. Its aim?  To assemble a rich collection of original art by some of the best artists who have worked on children’s books, here in the States, in Europe and soon in Asia with an eye to South America and Africa in the future.

When Étienne told me about this project I was intrigued. So he kindly acquiesced to an interview about it. He is of strong opinions and pointed insights. Come for the commentary. Stay for the killer collection of art after the interview:


Betsy Bird: We live in a land of nationalism. It is considered de rigueur for large mobs of Americans to chant “America First!” Our own president rejects the international community with what can only be described as passion. And here, even in our own beloved American children’s book community, the collective desire to look beyond our borders to other countries by exploring international literature for youth is minimal at best. What can you tell me about your foundation Les Maîtres de l’Imaginaire? What is it? Why do you feel it is necessary?

Étienne Delessert: Ever since the Neanderthal era tribes have tried to protect their families and territories. Today, thanks to dramatic nationalist politics, we step back 400,000 years. The damage is evident: children are listening to the way leaders speak and think!

The slow degradation of the concepts and tales introduced by contemporary picture books, and the multiplication of titles offering the same numbing “entertaining only”stories have, in my opinion, for effect the disparition of this media, within a very short period of time: there is a flow of easy, lazy money being made, I predict that it will dry out; no more books, only games and cell phone chats. Within ten years. And all children will wear brown shirts and red caps!

Why not publish picture books that make a child question the world around him, feel profound emotions, or the desire, in a modest way, to improve the way people live?

New generations of illustrators ignore the work of important artists who came before them. Our Foundation is gathering originals from these artists, going back 50 years. But we are also featuring some young Masters.

They are coming first from the States and Europe, and soon the circle will include the work of South American, Asian, and perhaps African illustrators. It’s a cliché to assert that some of the most important creators came-and still come from abroad: Steve Job’s father was Syrian.

A country needs ideas from everywhere, just like mushroom rhizomes help the forest to grow. Below the surface.

Three years ago, Betsy you were part of a small group of experts, on a Saturday afternoon in New York, who addressed 500 people of the children’s publishing trade, to present some”wild books” from other countries.

ImaginaireBB: Who are the artists included? And how did you make your selections?

ED: At present 35 artists have joined Les Maîtres de l’Imaginaire, with enthusiasm. I alone make the selection: I am old enough to know the field, and have precise ideas of which illustrator-author can transform reality with his-her imagination. Many people can draw, few have something original to say. I recall also how Walter Herdeg, the Swiss publisher of the famous Graphis Magazine, was choosing every piece included in his publication, all by himself.

The collection is, evidently, a mirror of my taste: showing very different styles…

Here is the list of the artists who were exhibited last spring in Strasbourg, at the Malraux Médiathèque, and in Paris last fall, at the superb gallery of Les Libraires Associés. The next exhibition will be held in April, 2019 in Bologna, at the Palazzo d’Accursio, in parallel with the Bologna Book Fair. It will hang for a month. There is a good chance that it will travel to China in 2020, invited by the Swiss Embassy in Beijing.

From Randall Enos’s crazed interpretation of the real Moby Dick to the “medical” illustrations of David Macaulay (for The Way We Work), from the humor of André François to the pictures by Sarah Moon’s Little Red Riding Hood-in black and white or to Lisbeth Zwerger’s dreamy images, we are trying to cover the moods and inventive spirit of children’s book illustration throughout recent decades:

Marshall Arisman, Jean-Louis Besson, Guy Billout, Ivan Chermayeff, Seymour Chwast, Nicole Claveloux, Jean Claverie, Etienne Delessert, Heinz Edelmann, Stasys Eidrigevicius, Randall Enos, Monique Felix, Andre François, Henri Galeron, Letizia Galli, Laurent Gapaillard, Alain Gauthier, Roberto Innocenti, Gary Kelley, Claude Lapointe,Alain Le Foll, Georges Lemoine, Emanuele Luzzati, David Macaulay, Sarah Moon, Jörg Müller, Yan Nascimbene, Chris Payne, Jerry Pinkney, Eleonore Schmid, Chris Sheban, Elwood. H. Smith, David Wiesner, Lisbeth Zwerger, and Zack Rock

BB: What are some of the exhibitions of these works? Where could people see them in the future?

ED: The Les Maîtres de l’Imaginaire Foundation was created in 2017 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Its mission is to develop a long term Collection of original artworks of the last 50 years by renowned illustrators of picture books from around the world. It will be a very eclectic Collection, with diversified imagery and styles. The works will be documented in many publications, archived, and exhibited individually or in groups.

Imaginaire1BB:  As I understand it, there’s a collaboration with Haute Etudes Pédagogiques (HEP) as well. What is that? How are you pairing together and to what end?

ED: Les Maîtres de l’Imaginaire is also a unique, ambitious pedagogic venture, in partnership with the HEP/Vaud, a Swiss state university which educates nearly 3,000 future teachers and over 10,000 teachers in continuing education programs.

Since we are often surrounded by intelligent, educated people who lack a visual sense, the Foundation will become a collaboration of artists, critics, analysts and specialists of children’s literature working together to acquire ideas on how to read and interpret narrative images. It will present a large range of Illustration Art, inspired by the Imaginaire to new generations of children and adults.

BB: What are your ultimate dreams for this project?

ED: It’s about time that we notice that there are just good or bad images, in Fine Art or in Illustration Art. And Graphic Art is often much more of a reflection of the mood of a nation. Critics talk about illustration as a”commercial”art. Today, there is no more of a crass commercial venture than Fine Art! And remember that until recently great paintings and sculptures were always created on assignment. Forty years ago Jean Dubuffet gave his wonderful collection of Outsider Art to the City of Lausanne. This collection has blossomed all over the world. Already quite a few people compare us to his generous gift.

My dream? That, over the years, the Art of picture books will be honored and cherished as well, on every continent.


And now, a sampling of some of that art:











A thousand thanks to Étienne for introducing me to this program. To those of you who are able to see it, you have my envy. My overwhelming envy.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. “And here, even in our own beloved American children’s book community, the collective desire to look beyond our borders to other countries by exploring international literature for youth is minimal at best.”
    I’ve always thought that one way to help change this frame of mind is to make the Caldecott Award open to foreign illustrators, as long as the book is originally published in the U.S.

    • I happen to agree with you. When the Caldecott was founded they had very good reasons for excluding picture book imports. Namely, a desire to promote American children’s literature as worthy in its own way. These days the situation is quite reversed. American books have no problem getting international attention. It’s the books from other places that need a leg up.

      That said, I suspect we’ll not see this change in my lifetime. Still, one can dream . . .