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Saturday, August 4, 2012

Illustration Woes

Illustrations. The one aspect of picture book making that has made me cry, holler, pull my hair out, snort and despair, in no particular order. Because of my constant persistence on going beyond the obvious when thinking up illustrations for each frame, I have ended up rubbing people the wrong way each time. Here’s why:

a)      Because of a general resistance from most illustrators to go (even) one level deeper than simply paraphrasing the words. If the text reads-and the birds flew away-we need to go way way deeper than just showing the birds taking off. We need to make our visuals so rich and engaging (not the same as cluttering the page; not at all) that the child forgets there are words too on that page. We need to make eyes that speak a thousand unsaid words, wings that invite children to climb upon them into those magical flights of fancy, we need to show the eager sky opening its doors to the child to step in and get lost, we need to show what the birds that didn’t take off are missing, we need to show what else in the universe joins our child and that flying bird in their out-of-the-world soar. We also need to show that part of the world that our child and the bird are leaving behind once they’ve taken off. And I haven’t even started on the million possibilities of parallel stories around the beaming sun! In an ideal picture-book-world, the page should not even say that the birds flew away. Unfortunately, what we get instead are terribly unidimensional frames with too many extra words (authors and editors, are we listening?) and too few visual elements to allow for a multi-layered reading of the picture book. What new will the child explore on a page each time where there is nothing left to explore after the first (two seconds of) reading!

I’m not saying we need to end up with cluttered over-crowded pages which attempt to show so much that they fail to say anything at all. Indeed, there’s a certain irresistible charm in picturebooks with minimalistic illustrations. But not everyone gets it right. A fine balance, and we can have a captive audience in our young explorers.

b)      Because talented and accomplished illustrators resent being ‘told’ (even by way of gentle suggestions) what to do. I have been asked a couple of times in not-so-polite-terms to mind my business. I have to remind them, in polite terms, of course, that it is my business to have a spectacular book out. Creative freedom and space are great virtues (and rights) to fight for, but not at the cost of a book. Certainly not at the cost of the book.

c)      Because most illustrators tend to forget that when working on a picture book, they are not just brilliant artists who can conjure up the most fascinating (and aesthetically sublime) and breathtaking frames. No. They are there to assist the author in telling a story. Actually, more than the author, it is the illustrator who should be able to create depth and multiple layers of reading / interpretation through their illustrations. By often ending up preparing (just) artworks that can draw the oohs and aahs of connoisseurs at art exhibition, I feel, we are cheating our children. Illustrators, dears-and I know henceforth I will be totally shunned by one and all-you need to disassociate the talented mind-blowing artist within you with the story-teller that’s crouched in there, just waiting to burst onto the fore. Don’t silence the latter. Please.   

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Types of Picture Books

First things first. I am no academic on picture books. But my love for them has made me explore this genre of children’s books to dizzying depths, and what I hope to share with you are learnings I’ve gathered over the years…The age indications are just that – indications. There are children who take to reading chapter books at 5; there are many 7 year olds who are reasonably happy with the early reader in hand.  

Baby Books (0-1 year):
These are for infants, with very few words, at times wordless, and in a format that is easy for their little fingers to hold on to and their rascal gnawing teeth to bite into! Bath books, gum soothers and rattles with little books hanging at the end, or books that give out music when pressed are good examples.    

The Concept Books (0-3 years, Toddlers):
These could be board books or regular books. Typically, meant to introduce a particular concept to a child with examples from her immediate familiar surroundings. Titles like ‘I Like Shapes’, ‘Colours’, or ‘In The Playground’, In The Market’, and so on. The number of words on each page is minimal, at times just about one or two, and the subject matter is often picked up from the child’s immediate (familiar) surroundings. Often these are board books that kids can chew on, stand on, go wild dancing on, throw around the house, and for that occasional missing-diaper situation, also pee on. The best friends a toddler can have. I have tried to not get into this zone, unless there’s an exceptional concept book out there on the shelves. 

The Classic Picture Book (3-7 years):
The raison d’etre of this website and my all-consuming passion! These are, in my view, THE most important set of books in a child’s life because these are what lay the foundations for a child’s lifelong affair with books.

A quintessential picture book will be crafted for the under 7s, will come in a 32 page format (multiples of 8, so we also have them as 24 pagers or 40 pagers), carry well under 1000 words (500-600 is ideal), and no marks for guessing this right – have the pictures do most of the talking. These books are meant to be read aloud, so extra care goes into putting just the right (and enough) words on each page. Regardless of whether the story is set to a rhyme or in prose, the sentences MUST have a rhythm to them.

Unfortunately, in India, this happened to be one of the most ignored genre in the publishing industry, until less than a decade ago. It was only in the late 90s, with independent houses like Katha, Tulika and Tara introducing picture books to the Indian reader, rooting the stories within local settings. We are still taking our baby steps, for as a collective industry, we are yet to imbibe the essence of a classic picture book.
p.s – I have used the term picture book throughout this website to mean the classic picture book. I have deliberately kept the other kinds outside the purview of this book site. Except the few exceptional illustrated story books (see below) that are impossible to resist and it’ll be a shame if this website misses to feature them.

Illustrated Story Books (5-7 years):
Books where illustrations are used more for ornamentation than for telling the story. In other words, the story can well be read and understood even in the absence of the related illustrations. The bulk of children’s books in our country falls into this category – typically, retellings of mythological tales, folk tales, fairy tales and so on. Even books that set out to be picture books often end up as illustrated story books because of unimaginative illustrations and the heavy use of text.  

Informational Picture Books (4-7 years)
These are non-fictional books (with varying degree of complexity) with visually-aided information on subjects of a child’s interest – like On The Farm / In The Jungle/ On The Road, and so on. 

Early Readers (5-6years)
Books meant for encouraging independent reading by children. The words remain few (as in picture books), but may tend to be easier (also written for a phonological learning) for them to read on their own. These short-story books are shaped more like a chapter book than a picture book.   

Early Chapter Books (6+)
Longer than the early readers, these make for the ideal transition tools between early readers and the longer, meatier chapter books, and the story has natural breaks in the form of chapters. These allow the child to bask in the very important feeling of growing up, to be seen with books that look pretty much like the novels their older siblings never tire of showing off!

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What ails the picture book industry in India?

Let me put it bluntly: we are making picture books just for the sake of making picture books, and a lot of crap (pardon my impoliteness) is going out in the name of picture books in India.

So there, I have just managed to make more enemies back home (I am now based out of Lagos, Africa, so can rest assured there won’t be any physical harm to meJ) than accomplices. And I can now safely bury my big dreams of authoring a thousand picture books in this lifetime! But I can’t help it. I find myself sitting on a pile of about fifty picture books, and barring a few relatively good ones, the rest fall flat, to the point of being pointless.

A lot of what is coming out in India is mediocre. Not because there is lack of talent, but because the authors and illustrators and the publishers are rushing too fast into getting that book out. For a good picture book, it takes years (yes, years) to get just the words right. You have to dish out a draft, read it aloud a hundred times to see the rhythm (I mean rhythm, and NOT rhyme), mark out words that don’t quite sound right, reassess if the story has a soul (even a teeny weeny bit, yes, even outrageous slapsticks can have it) close the draft for a few weeks (even months) and let it ferment in your mind, which is when you come back to it and start the process all over again with a second draft, until you reach that near-perfect thirtieth draft. And then repeat the process all over again for a few more. Don’t believe me? “A picture book of 500 words may take two years or more to perfect, and may consist of over forty drafts,” writes the award-winning Australian author Mem Fox on her website ( I’ll be surprised if we are doing even three drafts sincerely, and with care.

Am I mad to be saying our books are not good enough? Can’t you see how far we’ve come, woman? What about all the awards, the recognitions, the… Fine, so more than a decade ago, we managed to break through the band of the first generation picture books of basic folk and fairy tales. We introduced the art of frugal text, of cute fun spunky quirky illustrations, and widened the horizon to a near-infinite set of subjects, and we took our books to a global platform. But is that enough? Are we ready to move on from there? In my opinion, what I’ve listed below are (some of) what’s preventing us from going onto the next level. 

(The purpose of these pieces is not to belittle all the humongous amount of genuine efforts that’s being pumped into this genre by some equally genuine picture-book fanatics. I am one of them, am one of you, and I myself haven’t succeeded in weeding out most of the dampners that I’ll be talking about here. Far from it. Yes, it is easier said than done. And I know very closely the kind of problems that stare at us with each book. But I also believe that we are not doing enough collectively to raise the bar for picture books in India. And I hope to be able to reach out to some with whom my opinions and concerns will find resonance.

1) We are not reading it aloud. Reading Aloud to Ourselves? But Why? Because there simply isn’t any other way. You HAVE to read it aloud (see the paragraph above). As a writer, read it aloud to see if the words are just right and perfect; as an editor, read it aloud to see if the book you are going to slog over has the words that are just right and perfect; as an illustrator, read it aloud to see and hear if the words are right and perfect enough to bring alive your illustration; as a publisher, read aloud to see if what you are shelling those big bucks for, sounds just right and perfect; and as a parent, read aloud the book to see if what you are paying for sounds just right and perfect. Because if you haven’t, and chances are you haven’t, the children will not come back to it on their own a second time.

2) We have failed to set ourselves a size-zero target, as far as the text is concerned. Authors and editors, please, for heaven’s sake, let’s cut the oppressive flab out of the text. Words, words, and more words in a picture book = disaster. Let’s aim to keep it under 600, please. Please.

3) The bulk of the content of picture books that we have in India is more or less situational in nature – situations that last barely a few minutes to a few hours. The scope gets limited. Once the child has known how the problem at hand has got solved in the book, the story holds no more mystery for her. The very closed-ended nature of our books, therefore, also tend not to operate at multiple layers, which is self-defeating as far as picture (actually, any) books go. You get what you see, you see what you get out of the story. With a book like that in my hand, I would feel terribly cheated. Which is more-or-less what we are doing, at the present moment. I am yet to come across a single picture book that I could say, without hesitation, would glide into being a timeless classic for years and years to come. And it’s not easy to come anywhere close to getting that timelessness intact from start to finish in the picture book (ask me, I should know. I set out to do so with several unfinished stories, and failed with each). 

4) We tend to play safe with conflict zones – and so keep it childish (if I may say so), ‘cute’, palatable, and narrow. But there are wider and far deeper challenges and conflicts that our kids can handle pretty well, only if we allowed ourselves to believe they are capable enough to do so. Sure, we must make it a conflict that a child can identify with, but kids face nearly all the conflicts we are faced with – loss, separation, nervousness, jealousy, anger, despair, love, loneliness…then why do we keep our stories sanitized? Our stories are not satisfying enough because beneath the superficial cloak of cuteness, humour, fun, silliness, giggles (all of which are very very important), we forget to provide the most critical ingredient that makes a story resonate with children– a substance at the core, the ‘kernel of significance’ (not my phrase), that can make the book worth the while for the child. Not the preachy in-your-face ‘Thou shalt not lie’ kind of substance, but a subtle deeper peg around which the child’s real or imagined world can hang.

4) We have to let the child / protagonist solve the conflict and find his or her way round the tricky situation. Are we doing enough of that with our picture books? Am not so sure. And this is a mistake I made in my own book, Best Friends Are Forever, where I take the help of an adult to make two parting best friends see beyond the immdediate crisis of separation. In hindsight, I probably rushed with the ending, without sleeping over it for months to figure out how else the conflict could have (should have) been resolved by the girls themselves.
Moreover, our conflicts tend to be more manufactured in nature than coming across the pages naturally. Children will find it enjoyable once, twice, if you’re lucky, even thrice. After that? The book lays forgotten on the bookshelf.  

6) Our picture books have words that are but, merely words. You heard that right. We are not giving them words that are delicious, tasty, really really yummilicious that will make them crickle and crackle and beg for more. We have to give them words that are so contagious that the kid and the mama and the papa and the nasty little sibling go chomp chomp on them, chewing them, spewing them, repeating them, chanting them…and if you’re truly brilliant…even dreaming them!

7) The illustrations. Everything that we can do wrong with a picture book illustration, we are going ahead and accomplishing with aplomb. Having worked closely with illustrators for a while now, I can confidently declare that I have earned myself far more foes from within this circle than anything and everything else put together in this world. And since there is danger of my crib running into pages, I’ll keep it for a separate write-up (read Illustration Woes).

8) Where’s the money, honey? And that’s the sad reality. This is where most of the problems originate from, and this is where it all ends. Picture books are expensive to produce. In the West, a ballpark figure for a well-made picture book is about USD50K, but at the same time, they are priced high at sale point. We’d be insane to even suggest something like that (50k!!! phew!) in the Indian context in either case, but yes, it still is a lot of rupees that goes into getting one picture book out in the market. The most obvious (and largest chunk of the) outflow is the illustrator’s fee. Our illustrators feel they aren’t being duly compensated for the kind of efforts they put in, the publishers rely on the market dynamics to arrive at the general ‘going rate’ and bingo! we have a perfect recipe for confrontation. Plus, the reader will probably not be willing to shell out more than Rs 150 for a book with less than a thousand words (‘dear, but I see no value-for-money in this’). There are many (murkier!) details that are best left unsaid here. But often, these are not the happiest of behind-the scenes for a book which strives to bring the widest of grins on our childrens’ facesJ

9) Great ideas and execution + poor production = terrible book. In India, we see loads of this combination. Loads. Don’t get me started on it. Trust me, you wouldn’t want to know how far the production quality can make or destroy a book.

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