A book that changed my life
Porculus, by Arnold Lobel, and a novel for children, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
How I came to realise the importance of reading
From the outset, I have always been completely captivated by stories of all kinds. They develop you internally, they fine-tune your senses. They are like an act of breathing: in, out; in, out. Some people have an irrepressible urge to go out walking. But I had this irrepressible urge to walk inside my own head. I need to explore, down to the tiniest detail, because the spirit needs a full spectrum of possibility to make choices. How can you leave the room if you cannot even imagine a door? For me, that is what reading is. Writing has had a huge impact on our civilisation, to the point where we read without even being aware of it. But reading really only works if there is an element of mystery or magic about it, whether that is a matter of form or of narrative. And that is why I regard reading aloud as being of paramount importance. Reading powerful books.
And the importance of the story-tellers. Recently, I went to Lebanon. In a classroom there, I met a boy of 11 years age, a real ray of sunshine. He had taken part in a story-telling contest. I could not help imploring him to tell me a story. It was sublime. It was a terrible tale about a great bear that ate up a whole family. It is so good to laugh in the face of something horrible.
I became aware of the beauty of the written word that day I first had the impression I was hearing my own inner voice reading me a story.
The power of art
What a big question. To start with, I have a lot of trouble with the word ‘power’. Let me respond with a bit of word play. Let’s not talk about le pouvoir de l’art (the power of art). Instead, let’s talk about l’art pou(r)voir (art helping you to see things).
There are so many different forms and levels of art, and what point is there in saying that this is good and this is not? I am often impressed by people who have a visceral love of things that contrast with the things I love. But is not that all of the richness of human existence? It is sad that art is becoming entangled in a kind of snobbery.
What I particularly like about art is its silent language, its language of the soul. It is like this with music too. I mean, you hear a melody behind the melody. I think that it is essential to provide the ‘best’ to children. But how can we tell what is the best?
I do not understand people who say that such and such a book or piece of music or exhibition is too lovely for children.
Children must be left free to form their own thoughts, to like things or not like them. We should not impose a vision of art on them – this is art, this is not art. Such a question always boils down to good or bad. Do not force things on them.
I believe that the things we get as children, we seek as adults. Perhaps this is the reason for the importance of vintage, in all things, in our lives. Rediscover the savours and sensations of childhood? Perhaps an adult is somebody who is seeking, in various ways, the road back to childhood? I also notice that more and more adults are buying children’s books for their own reading.
That reassures me about the way of the world. Not that this is any more infantile than wanting to be more powerful than your neighbour, or wanting a bigger car, or wanting to look like a living Barbie doll, and so on.
Importance of contact with readers and the public
I don’t quite know what to make of that. I draw a sharp distinction between the Kitty Crowther who draws and writes and the Kitty Crowther I am outside my work.
It bothers me. I find it very easy to talk about my own work (although I may have been overdoing it recently and am beginning to ramble; I need to return to a zone of silence). But I note that in the numerous conferences I have done, people were able to feel that they had a window on my world. Some can enter it without problems and others not at all. But I ask myself, is it the job of my books to do this work? No.
I like books that demand something of the reader, where things are not glaringly obvious, because I say things that don’t seem to mean much.
To not grasp everything, to not understand everything, because mystery looms large in our lives. It is better to get used to it and live with it as soon as possible.
I like having children around. I like all those energies that go into it; these are real encounters. I know that I have this privilege of being a little grain of sand, and may be able to take them to a different door in one way or another.
In Lebanon, again, in a classroom in a school in the mountains, in a country that has been in a state of war for a long time. You see signs of it everywhere. A particularly beautiful little girl with a gaze that was slightly awry, slightly cross-eyed, asked me with the utmost simplicity and without fear of being judged by her friends (bravo), ‘Can a book change your life?’
I was taken aback because, coming from her, it was a real question.
What was I going to reply to this little Lebanese girl in a convent school perched on a mountain?
I regained my breath and waited to see if some kind of alarm within me would go off, along with an impulse to say ‘no’. But nothing happened, there was no drum or gendarme or Bengal tiger, but only a heartfelt response. ‘Of course ... I’m sure it can.’ What wouldn’t I give to be able to convey the radiance of her face.
Let’s just say what I do best is books. So I think I would be wiser just staying desk-bound.
My definition of quality
Quality, I would say, is commitment, total sincerity. Honesty. I do not write or draw for children; I write and draw the way I do because it is my personal language.
No question that I am deeply interested by children. I love their freshness, their spontaneity, their humour, their displays of wisdom. They are much more real than the many people who hide behind so many filters that they have forgotten who they are. They go through the Moulinex blender of society without noticing it. And it is not necessarily the fault of society (which usually gets the blame for everything). Is it the job of artists to wake them up?
My views on children’s right to culture
It’s not just children. This is the right of everybody. That is why the little local libraries are of huge importance; with non-sedentary activities where the generations are mingled.
What struck me in Sweden is that you have these little cafeterias right at the heart of the library. Areas of serenity where you can read the papers, giving the children the run of the shelves, letting them lap up the pictures.
It saddens me that people talk in the street alone. There are fewer and fewer places where you can talk. The little markets are disappearing and being replaced by huge, squalid supermarkets like soulless hospitals where you pay machines (I’m not even talking figuratively here). Human contact is disappearing.
What has the award meant for you?
My son Théodore (now 14) asks me ‘What could you win next?’ (I have been rather spoilt in winning prizes.) I said, ‘This is it. You can’t have a bigger one.’ So he said, ‘Well why don’t you create one?’ So maybe one day, after my death, there will be Kitty Crowther awards. Who knows?
A few years ago, I didn’t know it existed. When I heard about it, I thought, ‘I am too young.’ Outside the English world, it is very difficult to make a living as an illustrator. But I never wanted to do anything else. So money was a bit scary, like quite a lot of jobs. But I always trusted life and I’ve always been lucky. This prize came and said, ‘See, you are going in the right direction.’ Another forty years to go. It’s wonderful.
It’s been an amazing story, just ... wow! You ask yourself, ‘Why me? Why not him or her?’ But then you shut up, and say, ‘Enjoy! You have worked hard. And you’ve always been very honest with yourself.’
I am connected to Astrid. She is an incredible person. I can almost feel her smile. It’s a huge honour to be related to her. I am extremely proud. And because I am half Swedish, it’s like a welcoming back home sort of thing. But I am enjoying every bit of it. All the wonderful people I have met and all the countries I have been to: Mexico, Japan, Serbia, Norway and soon, Jerusalem, Lebanon.
And the other interesting part of this prize is, how can an illustrator get such a prize? For many people, the children’s world does not deserve to get that level of interest. But children of today are the ones who will be adults one day.
I am very tired of certain adults who have very strict ideas about what a child should like, read, see, play. How about listening to them?
It has been a very busy time. And I am longing to get back to my desk for days and days.
What are you working on at present?
I am working towards a Christmas concert on 23 December. Doing paper puppet scenery with le théâtre du tilleul with the National Orchestra of Belgium. I shall be drawing live. There will be music by Bartok, Tchaikovsky, Moussorgsky, Debussy, Janacek, Prokofiev. It’s a Christmas tale where most of the European Christmas characters meet up for a party. And one of the principal characters is Saint Lucia.
And I am going to work on a story by Astrid Lindgren, but have had very little time to start it. So this is my next wonderful project. I am looking forward so much to this. It’s also kind of a Christmas tale, with a wonderful tomten, in the snow, in the darkness of the winter deep in the forest in a lost time.