Pleasantly Grotesque: Drawings by Reinis Pētersons

Mufa: Stāsts par Āfrikas balto degunradžu' (Muffa: Story of the African White Baby Rhinoceros") by Juris Zvirgzdiņš. Riga, Liels un Mazs, 2011.
Mufa: Stāsts par Āfrikas balto degunradžu‘ (Mufa: Story of the African White Baby Rhinoceros”) by Juris Zvirgzdiņš. Riga, Liels un Mazs, 2011.

Believe it or not, Reinis Pētersons, who is originally from Latvia, has really only just begun his career as an illustrator of children’s books. His drawings were first published in book form in 2007–that’s not even a decade ago! He’s got stiff competition in the Hans Christian Andersen Award competition; many of the nominated illustrators have careers spanning 30 or 40+ years.

Pētersons is, I think, an exciting illustrator to watch. He’s one of the few artists whose books manage to surprise me–I never know what to expect when I crack them open. Just consider the contrast between the soft, pleasant, and almost watercolor-like image from “Muffa,” above, and the stark, precise, red-and-black cover of “Buffalo Bill,” below.

Mans draugs Pērsijs, Bufalo Bils un Es ("My friend Percy, Buffalo Bill, and I") by Ulf Stark. Riga, Liels un Mazs, 2011.
Mans draugs Pērsijs, Bufalo Bils un Es (“My friend Percy, Buffalo Bill, and I”) by Ulf Stark. Riga, Liels un Mazs, 2011.

Pētersons is capable of evoking a different mood with each one of his drawings. Often, that mood might be described as “pleasantly grotesque.” Now what could that possibly mean? Well, consider the portrait of the skeleton driver, below, whose meek decrepitude is captured by his unsure smile, hopeful (yet dead) eyes, and an almost apologetic tip of the hat. How appropriate that this character should appear in a book called “Horror Bus,” a title that evokes feelings of both dread and elementary-school adventure.

Šausmu autobuss ("Horror Bus") by Paul van Loon. Riga, Liels un Mazs, 2013
Šausmu autobuss (“Horror Bus”) by Paul van Loon. Riga, Liels un Mazs, 2013

And in addition to the seemingly friendly bus driver, there are other horrors lurking in wait, such as the nebulous, sharp-toothed inky monster who drags away a screaming child to an uncertain fate. Would this illustration be be considered appropriate for children in the United States? The likely answer is no. But in Latvia, Pētersons’s country of origin, children are lucky enough to view his charming, yet troublesome, creations.

image from Sausmu autobuss
image from Sausmu autobuss

Not even the moon is safe from monsters in Pētersons’s imagination. Upon seeing the cover of “A bite taken out of the moon,” readers will rightly wonder why the forlorn moon is missing a chunk of its softly golden-glowing sphere.

Mēnesim robs ("A Bite Taken Out of the Moon") by Ojārs Vācietis. Riga, Liels un Mazs, 2008
Mēnesim robs (“A Bite Taken Out of the Moon”) by Ojārs Vācietis. Riga, Liels un Mazs, 2008

The answer is soon provided…

Menesim robs, image

Which brings me to my favorite book illustrated by Pētersons: Zelta Pods (The Crock of Gold). Pētersons’s drawings highlight the magical and wonderful aspects of James Stephens’s collection of short stories on Irish Mythology. I’m assuming that the stories are magical, that is; I haven’t read the book, but now it’s on my to-read list!

Zelta pods (The Crock of Gold). An illustrated book by James Stephens. Riga, Liels un Mazs, 2007.
Zelta pods (The Crock of Gold). An illustrated book by James Stephens. Riga, Liels un Mazs, 2007.

And two of those drawings…

from Zelta Pods
from Zelta Pods

I hope you enjoyed viewing some of Reinis Pētersons’s amazing work! As a reminder, this is part of a series I’m doing on outstanding children’s book illustrators nominated for the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award. You can view previous entries by clicking the permanent link to “children’s literature” on the right side panel. The winner will be announced on March 24th!

Albertine’s Whimsical & Wonderful Illustrations

*Click each image to view full size

Albertine’s drawings are, to put it simply, the type that make everyone smile.

How could you not fall for the chaotic cleverness of the unstable skyscraper in Les Gratte-Ciel or the inquisitive black cat in Le Chat Botté?

That’s precisely the right word to describe her drawings: clever.

Take, for example, her seemingly simple book Ligne 135, depicting a lime-green bullet train racing through ever-more fascinating and unusual settings. Here, it speeds through a forest filled with impossibly tall trees; one can only imagine where the tree tops begin–and what about those mysterious walkways?

Ligne 135, image

Albertine’s dossier (by which I mean the biographical packet assembled for the Hans Christian Andersen Award 2014 Jury) is, amazingly, available online here should you care to read it. If, however, you don’t feel like sifting through the 20-page document, allow me to share the following. 

Born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1967, Albertine, like many notable children’s book illustrators, received formal artistic training before embarking on a career in press illustration. After a few years, she met her husband, Germano Zullo, a writer with whom she collaborates on many of her books.

To better understand the clever humor in Albertine’s work, consider this illuminating quote:

“When asked about her work, Albertine immediately refers to the world of games; a serious game, she likes to add. She argues that we all too often forget the extreme importance that games play, namely, to understand the world.” –dossier prepared by the Swiss section of IBBY for the HCA Jury

Her book Les Gratte-Ciel (“The Skyscraper”) is nothing if not a game:

Les Gratte-Ciel, coverEach page shows two neighbors’ competing skyscrapers growing taller and more complex. The reader instinctively  knows that adding all those unnecessary details–like a baffled tiger–will lead to a massive collapse.

Les Gratte-Ciel, image

But when will the structure collapse? When the drawing reaches the top of the page? And more importantly, what else can be added before then? It’s up to the reader to guess. [Note: “The Skyscraper” has been published in English as “Sky High” and a more complete summary is available here.]

La Rumeur de Venise (“The Rumor of Venice”) is also a witty game, as well as an illustration of the pervasiveness of gossip. Rumors about a giant fish caught by a fisherman float from one dwelling to the next; each re-telling brings an increasingly bizarre description. And will this silly rumor turn out to be true?

La Rumeur de Venise, image

In addition to the games and cleverness, there’s also an innate sense of what can only be described as happiness running through Albertine’s work. A whimsical, wonderful happiness that comes in the form of tigers & helicopters, neon-lime trains, and adorable depictions of black cats.

In Le Chat Botté (“The Black Cat”), Albertine draws on the classic Italian-French fairy tale “Puss in Boots.” In her version, the cat is witty, refined, and slightly bourgeois, quite unlike the puffed-up, swashbuckling character that has permeated popular culture thanks to Shrek. Here, the clever kitty gives advice to a young man down on his luck.

Le Chat botte, image

I didn’t include as many biographical details in this post, since Albertine is very well-known compared to some of the other illustrators I’ve featured. But if you’d like to see more of her work,

As always, check back next week to see the next illustrator in this series. The Hans Christian Andersen Award winners will be announced in late March, and I still have 5 illustrators whose work I have to share before then! (Click “Children’s Literature” on the right side panel for previous entries). Cheers!

Lunar Meditations: Drawings by Xiong Liang

*Click each image to view full size. 

The more children’s books I examine, the more prominent I realize the preoccupation is with all things lunar, especially in the work of Chinese illustrator Xiong Liang. Moons and storms: these are the subjects of Liang’s books for children.

Liang’s drawing technique, i.e., ink wash, lends to his illustrations a soft and shadowy tone. Unlike the work of many of the European illustrators I’ve examined, there is no nightmarish edge to Liang’s work, though its minimalist palette does lend it a moody vibe. Instead, his drawings border on the whimsical and remind me of the soft-focus effect that seems to bathe the world following a summer rainstorm.

The Toy Rabbit Story
The Toy Rabbit Story Heryin Books, Inc., USA, 2005,
Chinese edition

Why the focus on the moon, though?

It’s fairly hard to find information about Xiong Liang online, which is unsurprising given 1). The Western-centric focus of children’s literature publishing and 2). Liang’s language and country of origin. By which I mean, there are few resources in English about him.

Luckily, I stumbled across a China Daily article and a short academic paper that shed light on Liang’s style, influences, and motivations.

First, a quick history of the children’s book industry in China. Though small picture books have been popular among children in China for hundreds of years, starting in the 1970s the publication of children’s books in China dwindled to almost nothing. For 20 years the market was dominated by imported stories. Concerned with the lack of Chinese-generated stories available for children and teens, in the early 2000s Xiong Liang and his brother Xiong Lei positioned themselves as pioneers in the publishing industry, determined to create and share essentially Chinese stories and drawings with the children in their country. Even now, 90% of the market is occupied by foreign picture books. [2] Liang’s first book, The Little Stone Lion, was an important step in correcting this national deficiency.

The Little Stone Lion
The Little Stone Lion Heryin Books, Inc., USA 2005, Chinese edition

The Little Stone Lion is about a common cultural character in China–i.e., the lion after whom the book takes its name. As you flip through the book, you watch as the lion withstands all sorts of weather from rain to shine to snow and storms.  He remains stoic throughout, a slight smile on his face as he protects the village in all seasons. The professor whose paper I read compared the book to Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree because of its themes of love and solitude.

Liang has said that “It is very important to introduce Chinese culture to our children. Nowadays, Chinese children lack national identity…They are unfamiliar with Chinese customs and legends, and even younger children know western Christmas more than native Spring Festival. This is a worrying phenomenon.” [2] Theories about nationalization in children’s literature aside, Liang makes an important point: the children of every culture, nation, and/or society are the inheritors of cultural memory, and it is wrong to deny them knowledge of their heritage.

The Monster of Monsoon SDX Joint Publishing Company, Beijing, 2010 (Chinese edition)
The Monster of Monsoon (also known as “Drizzle Monster”) SDX Joint Publishing Company, Beijing, 2010, Chinese edition.

Closely related in tone and sentiment is The Monster of Monsoon, full of dreary precipitation and a monochrome setting. It is supposed to convey a Buddhist attitude; namely, the importance of enduring suffering without complaint. [2] Stylistically, the minimalist streaks of rain convey a sense of openness and negative space, and stand in sharp contrast to the overwhelming illustration style that often characterizes picture books sold in the United States. Think, for example, of the almost neon illustrations of Dr. Seuss, the brighter-than-life drawings of Eric Carle, and the intentionally mind-boggling Where’s Waldo? series that originated in Australia.

In Liang’s own words, “From ancient times til now, stories [have] preach[ed] [the] ethics and values of a competitive society…[By reading these books] children tend to value gain and loss too much and forget about seeking happiness.” [1, emphasis added]. In other words, there is a subtle anti-capitalist tone to his work, evidenced by its slow, soothing qualities and lack of overstimulation.

And Last: Tea Time on the Moon SDX Joint Publishing Company, Beijing, 2012, Chinese Edition
Tea Time on the Moon SDX Joint Publishing Company, Beijing, 2012, Chinese Edition

My favorite book of Liang’s is, by far, Tea Time on the Moon. This is one of those rare cases where the cover of the book [above] is just as stunning as the illustrations inside.

The plot of the book, according to Liang:
“In the story “Teatime on the Moon,” every time the moon [completes a full rotation], a rabbit dies. Each rabbit writes a diary during their life. It so happens that the main character of the book can understand the previous rabbits by reading their diaries. During this rabbit’s lifetime, it is the moon’s birthday. She invites guests from different places. The guests all have different understandings of time and space, as well as how to celebrate the Moon’s birthday. All of these creatures with different backgrounds, who are unable to understand each other, all sit around one table. Through this story, I wanted to express that we all live in the same universe.” [3]

Beautifully put, no?

from Tea Time on the Moon
from Tea Time on the Moon

I hope you enjoyed this post about Hans Christian Andersen nominated illustrator Xiong Liang. In the run-up to the announcement of the winning author & illustrator on March 24, I’m featuring the work of a different illustrator each week on my blog. Click the “Children’s Literature” link in the right side-panel to view more.



[1] Jia, Mei. “Captivating Characters.China Daily 14 August 2012.

[2] Tan, Fengxia. “To Give Chinese Children ‘a Memorable China’: the Trend of Chinese Indigenous Picture Books.” Journal of Cambridge Studies Vol. 7, No. 4, pp. 143-151.

[3] Dossier on Xiong Liang prepared for the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Jury. (not available online)

The Dark & the Dreary: Illustrations by Carll Cneut

*Click each image to view full size

Remember how I said I was going to feature a new illustrator each week in the run-up to the Hans Christian Andersen Award announcement in March? Well, I sort of lost track over the holidays. But I still have tons of gorgeous illustrations saved on my computer that are aching to be shared with a small slice of the Internet.

This week, I’m focusing on the work of Belgian illustrator Carll Cneut. Like many of the well-regarded illustrators in the world of children’s literature, Cneut received formal artistic training at the Institute of Fine Arts of St. Luke in Ghent. Also like many illustrators, Cneut worked in a different field–in his case, advertising–before he was able to devote himself full-time to children’s literature. But we–and children–are very lucky that he eventually did!

Heksenfee ("Witchfairy") 1999. By Brigitte Minne
Heksenfee (“Witchfairy”) by Brigitte Minne

Many of Cneut’s illustrations feature lonely characters staring forlornly at a full moon, such as in Heksenfee (“Witchfairy”), above. The fairy in question, Rosemary, is tired of being good and instead dreams of becoming a witch. When she starts behaving badly, however, her mother disowns her. Suffice it to say that it’s a tale of independence with lots of parental troubles thrown in.

Het geheim van de keel van de nachtegaal ("The secret of the nightingale's throat"). Original story originally by H.C. Andersen; adapted by Peter Verhelst.
Het geheim van de keel van de nachtegaal (“The secret of the nightingale’s throat”).                Original story by H.C. Andersen; adapted by Peter Verhelst.

The cover of Het geheim van de keel van de nachtegaal (“The secret of the nightingale’s throat”) is similar in style and setting. A young boy’s sad silhouette is etched against a gleaming moon and silky blue-black darkness. There’s a prevalent sentiment that children in their natural state are happy, but Cneut’s illustrations give children credit for being multidimensional, capable not only of naive jubilance, but also detachment and melancholy. (You can read the original story by Hans Christian Andersen here).

De blauwe vogel ("The Blue Bird") by Do Van Ranst.
De blauwe vogel (“The Blue Bird”) by Do Van Ranst.

Even more disturbing are the illustrations in De blauwe vogel (“The Blue Bird”).  I remember reading a version of this story as a kid–it’s a classic French (or Russian?) fairy tale full of romance and deception. In this version, a desperate mother has to travel to the Land of Memories in an attempt to save her daughter. I can’t read Dutch, but the Land of Memories is, I presume, the setting of the image above. Ghosts, black cats, fire spirits, walking teacups, wolves, and mobile bags of sugar–De blauwe vogel has all manner of bizarre creatures.

Nachten vol angstaanjagende schoonheid: gruwelverhalen van Edgar Allan Poe (Nights of terrifying beauty: horror stories by Edgar Allan Poe)
Nachten vol angstaanjagende schoonheid: gruwelverhalen van Edgar Allan Poe

My favorite of Cneut’s drawings come from an illustrated anthology of Edgar Allan Poe stories. What can I say apart from the fact that they are marvelous? The decaying man on the cover is certainly frightening, as is the hazy castle with its crooked black trees and dreamlike, amnesiatic atmosphere.

“Nights of terrifying beauty: horror stories by Edgar Allan Poe”

Last is the blurry gathering of a skeleton, a pumpkin-head, ghouls and goblins and other chimerical creations in a darkened room with falling light, as though Cneut discovered a photographic negative and decided to fill it in with blues and grays, keeping the original fully & fantastically intact.


To view the work of the other artists in this series, just click the “Children’s Literature” link in the right sidebar.