Place for fascinating discoveries

The Browsers Ecstasy

Place for fascinating discoveries

Picture book:  From ‘Suburbia’.

Later, examining our loot over chaat and coffee, I’ll pass these books around to show them what they missed. After flipping a few pages hastily, they always pause and flip back the pages to look more closely at the illustrations, and nine times out of ten I’ll see a new respect in their eyes. I’ll see hands caressing the pages from a need to get close to the drawings. One friend burst out with: “This is a work of art!” After a slight pause he said, “You know, I’ve grown tired of looking at photographs; now I’m drawn to pictures.”
Some of the most beautiful and artistic books I’ve had the pleasure of encountering lie amidst piles of mediocre children’s literature. And they are invariably deeply discounted or dumped in bargain bins. I’ve found at least four Maurice Sendak books. I’ve had the joy of feasting eyes on the work of dozens of other brilliant illustrators, only they are not as widely known.

Many contemporary artists working in the picture book genre are sophisticated graphic novelists who leave behind all the dark stuff they do for adults and imagine something gentle and funny and happy. For instance, the work of Maira Kalmam: She has a series with a dog named Max Stravinsky who is a dreamer and a poet. And in Swami on Rye, Max the poet-dog takes off to India. There he meets a garrulous guru, a suave swami who introduces himself as: “Vivek Shabaza-zaza-za, that’s za-zaaa- za, not za-za-za-za or za-za za za za, please.”

Shabaza-zaza-za then declares that Max is “an old soul and that life is a wheel.” Max thinks: “What, I’m wearing old shoes and life is a banana peel?”
Everywhere Max goes he sees huge movie poster hoardings. One is for a major motion picture titled ‘Guru To Go’, with hand illustrated faces of Sri Devi and Rekha. And Max says, “You have to be a real falooda not to love a movie.” He also goes around exclaiming: “Holy Madras!” Or the enchanting Library Lion. A a book I’m tempted to thrust on everyone.

“One day, a lion came to the library,” is how it begins. Written by Michelle Knudsen and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, Library Lion is a children’s picture book that will beguile adults as well. I break into a broad grin each time I see Hawkes’ magisterial, loveable lion, which must now be counted as one of literature’s unforgettable characters. Knudsen’s text is witty, moving, and bookishly imaginative. The perfect tribute to books, libraries and reading.

Perhaps the most staggering picture book I have ever seen, a masterpiece unlike anything else in the genre, is Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. Spellbound I turned the pages, unable to believe anyone could imagine up and draw the things Tan had. The book is wordless. Tan uses a mix of hyper-real and surreal illustrations to introduce us to a world that is old and new. Familiar things lie side by side with strange things. The Arrival is a story of the immigrant disguised as science fiction. We see a man leave his family and enter a world he has never seen before.

In the apartment he takes residence in he discovers a flatmate who looks like a cross between a fish and a cat. Though they cannot speak each other’s language, the fish-cat is friendly and makes the man feel more comfortable in this new city he hopes to find work. The colour throughout is sepia and indeed the images resemble old family photos. The challenge is to draw a city that is both old and new to every reader on the planet, and Tan’s imagination and artistic skills astonishes us page after page.

I have to make special mention of Robert Sabuda, the prince of pop up artists. The pop up book is the one kind of picture book that is seldom seen in our bookstores. (If you see a few, they are invariably second hand and damaged enough for the pop ups not to work). A pop up book is basically the work of a paper engineer. The garden variety has illustrations that open out in a three dimensional way (they pop up when the page is opened), and of course most adults dismiss it as kid’s stuff.

Ah, but there are pop up books and then there are pop up books. The work of the genius paper engineer Robert Sabuda simply astonishes and pushes the boundaries of the pop up book beyond what any paper engineer has dared or imagined. He’s done mind blowing pop up versions of classics like Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, a science series on prehistoric animals, and several different Christmas fables and famous fairly tales. His greatest achievement is his last, The Chronicles of Narnia.

I also delight in the work of Peter Sis, Sara Fanelli, Elena Odriozola, Oyvind Torseter and Maurizio Quarello, to name only a few among the hundred or so brilliant illustrators at work today. And, of course, like most everyone around the world, I love the drawings of EH Shepard (Winnie the Poo), Beatrix Potter (Peter Rabbit), Arthur Rackham (Grimm fairly tales) Quentin Blake (Roald Dahl), and John Tenniel (Alice in Wonderland).
 Between all the picture book artists I’ve mentioned here, there is so much stylistic variety and vibrancy, with each illustrator bringing his own graphic language to the book, her own visual eloquence. Which is why Sendak once said: “The stars of picture books are illustrators.”

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