A master of the illustrator’s art

Wolf Erlbruch makes existential questions accessible and manageable for readers of all ages. With humour and warmth deeply rooted in humanist ideals, his work presents the universe on our scale. He is a master of the illustrator’s art who honours tradition whilst opening new creative doors. Wolf Erlbruch is a careful and caring visionary.

The Citation of the Jury

“Most important in drawing or writing for children is to be honest about your own feelings and tell about yourself also.”, says Wolf Erlbruch.

Wolf Erlbruch is a German illustrator and picturebook author. Born in Wuppertal in 1948, he studied graphic design and worked mainly as an illustrator for magazines such as Stern and Esquire before beginning to teach. Erlbruch has held professorships in illustration at the University of Wuppertal and the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen. He has authored some ten books and illustrated nearly fifty titles by other authors.

Wolf Erlbruch’s career as a children’s book illustrator began when a publisher spotted some lions he had drawn for an advertisement and recognized him as a potential picture book artist. In 1985, Erlbruch published his first book, The Eagle That Would Not Fly, with text by James Aggrey. He has said of his debut work that he wanted to show his then-infant son a children’s book made by his father.

Five years passed before the next book appeared, with the long German title Vom kleinen Maulwurf, der wissen wollte, wer ihm auf den Kopf gemacht hat (1989, The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business) and text by Werner Holzwarth. The book broke with some established taboos, telling the story of a little mole who gets an unexpected delivery of poop on his head and tries to track down the anonymous sender. The book was an enormous success. It was translated into around thirty languages and established Wolf Erlbruch as an illustrator and creator of children’s picturebooks.

Erlbruch’s style as an illustrator grows out of a long and robust tradition reaching back to the early twentieth century and is characterized by strong lines combined with graphic precision. Erlbruch has pushed the envelope of tradition in many directions, making significant use of collage and experimental graphic techniques to convey narrative meaning.

Tracing the course of his work over time, it is clear that Wolf Erlbruch navigates by the light of his own artistic curiosity. He has said it is important for an illustrator not to get stuck in an expressive rut, and that he achieves his best creative work by cultivating a broad interest in his surroundings.

Animals – especially bears – make frequent turns in his stories as characters and protagonists. But Erlbruch looks past the traditional, facile, often clichéd metaphors that use animals as cute personifications of human traits. He notes: ‘Animals are actually not beautiful, they are phenomenal. They fascinate us through their earnest essence. I wish to retain this phenomenal element. Animals should not be “tamagotchi-ed.”’

Like many of his peers, Wolf Erlbruch is skeptical of pigeonholing books by age or target audience. He has said that he is not so concerned with making books especially for children: his greater concern is to be honest about his own feelings and convey this in his work.

A frequent moral of Wolf Erlbruch’s stories is that we should all try to see ourselves with some perspective, and accept even our unattractive qualities – we all have them, and perhaps it is really these qualities that make us special. Die fürchterlichen Fünf (1990, The Fearsome Five) explores this existential puzzle by assembling five animals – a hyena, a spider, a bat, a rat and a turtle – whose looks we traditionally find ugly or frightening. The characters all share the trauma of social isolation and being rejected by the world around them. In the story, the five friends try together to find recognition and acceptance of all their qualities, both in themselves and in others, despite their peculiarities.

In his characterizations of the ‘fearsome five,’ we see Erlbruch the illustrator working at the height of his imaginative powers. There is a conscious nod to director Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, in the austere, Asian-inspired backgrounds that call to mind Japanese woodblock prints.

Many of Wolf Erlbruch’s books have autobiographical elements. His little mole wears a pair of round glasses, just like his illustrator. Leonard (1991, Leonard) is not only the title of one of Erlbruch’s books but also the name of his son. We sense that the book’s topic – fear of dogs – was a concern for the real-life Leonard, whose father, coming up with a solution as unexpected as it was effective and ingenious, decided to turn it into a book.

Frau Meier, die Amsel (1995, Mrs. Meyer, the Bird) features a distracted husband, also with round glasses, absorbed in himself and his artistic endeavors and unreceptive to the possibilities and miracles of everyday life. His wife, by contrast, stays open to the aspects of reality that pass her husband by, and in the end it is she who literally makes life lift off.

Erlbruch often embarks on existential journeys. In books such as La grande question (2003, The Big Question), Frau Meier, Die Amsel and Ente, Tod und Tulpe (2007, Duck, Death and the Tulip), he poses important questions about the meaning of life and death with humor and clarity. He does not instruct or moralize, but invites readers to join him in pondering questions whose answers he is also seeking. Erlbruch has said that one important goal of his work is to inspire dialogue between parents and children who read together.

Ente, Tod und Tulpe has been hailed as a modern classic. It is a simple and refined meditation on the nature of life and the omnipresence of death. The story is a modern take on the medieval motif of the danse macabre, which ultimately brings people of every age and station face to face with death. Erlbruch treats his theme with gentleness and love. He finds tenderness and intimacy in the relationship between the duck and death, lightening the darkness that so often surrounds dying.

One of the most controversial titles Wolf Erlbruch has illustrated is L'ogresse en pleurs (1996, Die Menschenfresserin), with text by Valérie Dayre. In the guise of a dark fairy tale about a woman desperate to devour a child, the story addresses difficult issues in parent-child relationships in allegorical form; such as symbiosis and freedom, love and the fear of loss. The book’s magical realism has an almost nightmarish intensity that lingers long after the covers are closed. It is a difficult book to forget.

A good example of Wolf Erlbruch’s ability to open up fresh, unexpected pictorial worlds is Der Bär, der nicht da war (2014, The Bear Who Wasn’t There and the Fabulous Forest), with text by Oren Lavie. The bear, a favorite character, reappears here in bolder and more stylized form, but Erlbruch’s use of colour and in particular his rendering of the forest feels overwhelmingly new. Surely no picture book ever gave us a forest like this: so much forest, so rich in color and form, so green and fragrant.

Wolf Erlbruch often uses advanced collage techniques to build up images that call to mind a theater set. The feeling is enhanced by the purely visual separation he creates between his actors and the background and scenery. Set against strict, abstract background elements, his characters’ movements and physicality gain emphasis and intensity. Erlbruch can also achieve this emphasis by placing his actors against pure white or lightly tinted pages, as in La grande question. Many of his books have in fact been adapted for the theatre, including Ente, Tod und Tulpe, Das Bärenwunder (1992, The Miracle of the Bears), and Die fürchterlichen Fünf, to name a few.

Wolf Erlbruch’s compelling and innovative visual language is an inspiration to his colleagues and echoes in the work of contemporary illustrators around the world. He has received a great number of prizes and awards. In 2006 he received the Hans Christian Andersen Award from IBBY International. He was awarded the Deutscher Jugendlitteraturpreis in 1993 for Das Bärenwunder and again in 2003 for his complete works. He has received two Bologna Ragazzi Awards, one in 2001 for Das Neue ABC-Buch (2000) and one in 2004 for La grande question. The 2017 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award laureate has also won recognition for his deliberate and expert attention to the form of his books, receiving the City of Leipzig’s Gutenberg Prize in 2003 for his achievements in the graphic arts.