Reading Guide to Petit, the Monster

by Isol

Laureate of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award 2013

Written by Ulla Rhedin

About the author

One of the interesting things about Isol, the Argentine picture-book author, is that everything she says and does is unusually well steeped in theoretical reflection. She speaks, for instance, of how important it is that “we illustrators take up our rightful position as authors by assuming all the responsibility and freedom that that entails. According to Isol, a picture book has either a single author, who creates both words and pictures, or dual authors, who work together to create a common story in words and pictures. Traditionally, the writer of the words has been more widely acknowledged as the author, the person who “came up with the plot” – a notion that Isol challenges:

The plot is often reasonably simple and linear: Here comes a girl. She walks across the yard, where she meets … Compare that with the illustration, the graphic concept, the surrounding narrative, the shaping of space, character, attributes, composition, light, the artistic technique, colour palette, typography, format, layout … the entire design. The general public has no idea how many thousands of options the illustrator has to sort through.
(Panel discussion at Kulturhuset, Stockholm, 21 May 2013)

Her own oeuvre comprises a dozen or so picture books that are entirely her own creation and several works on which she collaborated with other authors. Asked to identify the difference between the two categories, she points to how, in her own picture books, she lets the pictures carry the story in combination with the words; hence it is not possible to guess what is happening from the pictures alone. In the books based on texts by other authors, she takes a freer approach to her illustrations and may introduce her own narrative lines.

Isol is a multidisciplinary artist. Born Marisol Misenta in 1972, she grew up in Buenos Aires. Her early childhood coincided with Argentina’s military dictatorship (1976–83). Those were difficult times in Argentina, but she recalls enjoying a secure and creative upbringing in an artistic family. Her father was an artist, her mother a singer, her grandfather wrote scripts for the comic books that were so popular in Argentina at the time, and her younger brother went on to become a musician. Isol herself trained as an art teacher and later studied painting and graphic art at the Academy of Fine Arts. She is also a professional singer and has made a name for herself as a soprano on both the classical and the modern music scene in Argentina. As well as creating picture books, she is active as a poet, composer and singer in the modern electronic duo SIMA, alongside her brother Zypce (available on YouTube).

Her picture-book career was kickstarted in 1997 by an honourable mention in a Mexican picture-book competition. The illustrations to her story – about a boy who loves his dog so much that he wants to be a dog himself – were so expressively and powerfully drawn in oil pastels that the publisher felt the need to ask her to tone down the expression. After receiving the honourable mention in the competition, the book, Vida de perros (1997, A Dog’s Life), was published with minor changes and turned out to be a successful debut work. Ever since, Isol’s main publisher has been Fondo de Cultura Económica in Mexico, an 11-hour flight from her home in Argentina.

About the book

In Petit, the Monster, the pictures and the text are mutually dependent and equally crucial to the reader’s understanding of the narrative. The book has a low-key, intentionally pale colour palette, where Isol not only builds on the double outline of her figures, but also gives certain figures a “body double” or uses their shadow to display their hidden characteristics. On a technical and practical level, she also deliberately plays around with the actual format of the book by varying the size of the images from one spread to another and placing the images in frames that reinforce the content.

Just as in Isol’s debut work from 1997, here too a confused little boy puts his mother on the spot. How come you can be praised for tidying up your toys one minute, and criticized the next minute for keeping them so tidy that you won’t lend them to anyone? And why do the girls in the class always complain about you pulling their hair, when moments later they want to sit next to you? He knows that it’s stupid to tell lies, but that it’s nice to make up stories to tell young children. When his mother fails to give him any credible explanation, while herself appearing both kind and stupid, he concludes: “Maybe I’m a kind-stupid sort of boy. Since Mum’s like that, perhaps it runs in the family.”

In this book, Isol displays her masterful ability to tackle life’s big questions behind the facade of a completely everyday story. Her method is to start from the eye level of a child, empathetically observing the world from a consistent juvenile perspective. This often provokes wordless recognition among the young readers who are listening: “That’s exactly what it’s like!”

Points to consider

What does Petit’s name mean? How would you express the same idea in English?

Look at the cover illustrations and consider what they tell you about the book’s content. Note how the colours orange and green play off each other, like two separate worlds surrounding Petit, and discuss which objects fall into which world. What does the colour yellow represent? What do the title, Petit’s clothes, the animals and the plants tell us?

Follow up your study of the cover by studying the front endpaper (flyleaf). What information does Isol add here? What do these images tell us about what happens in the book? What does the arrangement of the colours tell us?

In the same way, you can discuss the title page and the very last illustration (“The End”) – colour and shade.

After this initial analysis, we can ask the interpretive question for the first time: What is this picture book all about?

The book can be divided into three sequences and a conclusion. The first sequence tells the reader about some of Petit’s “kind” and “stupid” characteristics in words and pictures. What do we learn from the pictures that deepens our understanding of Petit’s personality and the dilemma he is facing? What is the effect of the shadow figures, coupled with the various colours and shapes that frame the pictures?

The first sequence ends with a scene where we meet the mother, who asks the dumbfounded Petit a question.

In the next sequence, the issue is explored in more depth under the heading “It really is hard to know!”, which brings us to a scene where a confused Petit is sitting brooding with his dog. What is the significance of the absence of a frame in this scene? What do the (pseudo-)shadows in the image tell us?

In the third sequence, headed “There are things that confuse him”, Petit himself has to deal with a difficult friend and lists some further examples of what he sees as life’s double standards. Here too there is a full-bleed image to discuss, showing the friend standing in the naughty corner. How is colour used here? What time is it? How are the colours distributed between the two boys?

This sequence concludes with a full-bleed image showing Petit outside with his dog. Where are they going? What difference would it make if they were headed in the opposite direction? How does the fact that the shadows are now gigantic affect us as readers? In the last picture of the sequence, Petit again meets his mother in a question-and-answer scene, almost identical to the first one, but this time Petit is doing the talking. How can we sum up the passage of time between these two images? Does one in fact take place moments after the other?

In the third full-bleed spread, Petit summarizes his own analysis. Why has Isol placed him on the far right in the picture? How do the colours affect the mood in the room? How are his room and the toys that were once so important portrayed?

What is the book about – in actual fact?
What kind of picture of the relationship between children and adults does the book paint?
And the relationship between boys and girls?
Do these depictions differ from how the same relationships are depicted in our own culture? How can we describe the juvenile perspective in the book?

This Reading Guide was written by Ulla Rhedin, member of the jury for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. It was first published in February 2014.


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