Our guest: Bristol, England-based author, illustrator and cartoonist Joe Berger collaborated with author Rick Walton on Girl and Gorilla, out this week from HarperCollins. He also illustrated Timothy Knapman’s Superhero Dad (Nosy Crow, 2015) and Candlewick’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang series, written by Frank Cottrell Boyce. As writer-illustrator he is the creator of the Bridget Fidget series, published by Puffin. He is also one half of the cartoon team Berger and Wyse.
The Proust-Esque Questionnaire is based on a set of 36 standardized questions designed by Marcel Proust in the 1890’s to give an overview of the respondent’s personality. Our goals are less lofty, but hopefully will provide some insight into how your favorite authors and illustrators work and what they love.
1. WHAT IS YOUR EARLIEST MEMORY OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
The earliest picture books I remember seemed to have a magical, enveloping quality to them when I was very young – too young to read them to myself, I’m sure. The titles and authors are mostly lost in the mists of time, though the images remain. One I do remember being entranced by is A Lion in the Meadow, by Margaret Mahy, with fabulous, very 1970s illustrations by Jenny Williams. I seem to remember it involved a purple dragon in a matchbox.
2. WITH WHICH CHILDREN’S LITERATURE CHARACTER DO YOU MOST IDENTIFY?
I’ve always secretly longed to be a private detective – it could have been reading the Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators series as a child that sparked that. I made me and my two pals business cards with the three question marks on them (I was Jupiter Jones, naturally) though I don’t think we ever solved any mysteries.
I also adore Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin… The detective angle again. My parents probably identified me with the Boy who Cried Wolf, as I was known for my outrageous lying. I’ve mostly stopped that now, but I’m currently writing a graphic novel based loosely on those times, All the Lies I’ve Ever Told.
3. WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE CHILDREN’S BOOK AUTHOR? ILLUSTRATOR?
So difficult to choose just one! Maurice Sendak is someone whose work I have always admired hugely, both writng and drawing, which are so intrinsically linked in his work. The ‘otherness’ of his stories made them utterly compelling to me as a child; reading In the Night Kitchen was like being in someone else’s dream. I also love humour in picture books. I think Mo Willems books are tremendously funny and fresh.
4. IF YOU WERE TO THROW A KINDERLIT PARTY FOR FIVE GUESTS, WHO WOULD YOU INVITE?
Posy Simmonds (left), Emma Chichester Clark, William Steig, Lynda Barry and Raymond Briggs. All five straddle the worlds of
children’s literature and cartooning to some degree, which is a crossover I find really fascinating. Gosh, maybe it would just be really awkward…
5. WHICH QUALITY DO YOU THINK IS MOST IMPORTANT IN GOOD CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
Sophistication; perhaps that’s not the right word. I don’t mean complexity, but I do think children are capable of processing and understanding a lot more than we credit them with. Big, interesting ideas can sometimes get ironed out of children’s books for fear of alienating readers and harming sales, which is a shame.
6. IF YOUR OWN WORK HAS A DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC, WHAT WHAT IS IT?
It’s probably humour (I make no claims as to the quality of the jokes). My other job is as one half of cartooning duo Berger & Wyse, and I enjoy making people laugh tremendously. Making children laugh in books is harder than I’d imagined – they can be a tough crowd.
7. IF YOU WERE TO DIE AND COME BACK AS A CHARACTER FROM CHILDREN’S LITERATURE, WHO WOULD YOU LIKE IT TO BE?
That’s is an interesting question… Perhaps Ratty from Wind in the Willows, or Fantastic Mr Fox. Not sure why I’m drawn to non-human characters here; feels like an opportunity to branch out! Otherwise Perhaps Just William or Nicolas: A life of endless roguish adventures appeals. That actually might be quite exhausting and stresslful.
8. IF YOU COULD GO BACK AND REDO ONE THING IN YOUR WORK, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Almost every project I do, be it book, cartoon or animation, has some element that I look back at and wish I’d done differently. But I’m not sure that’s a bad thing… In fact, I’m fairly sure it’s essential. It means I’m always wanting the next thing to be better.
9. WHAT IS THE GREATEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU WERE EVER GIVEN?
Copy! My mum was always finding illustrations she liked in Vogue and other magazines, and asking me to make a copy for her in pastels, watercolour, pen and ink – for her to hang on the wall. It was a brilliant way to learn techniques, unpicking the process like a detective. Not plagiarising but learning from those whose work you admire. Bits of your own personality will gradually seep in and you’ll start to grow into your own style.
10. DESCRIBE YOUR WORK PROCESS.
When I receive a picture book text, I always start with the characters. They are the heart of any story, and it will usual take a few days of thinking and doodling before I feel I’m getting somewhere. Once I’m happy, I’ll do some colour samples of the characters – perhaps with reference to scenes in the text, perhaps imagining them in a scene that doesn’t feature but that might suggest a life beyond the story.
While the publisher looks at these, and shows them to the author, I start to think more about an overall visual approach that will complement the story – though this will have influenced the character design already. This might mean drawing in pencil rather than ink for a softer feel, or designing overall page layouts that compliment the pace of the story – I always want to try something new that I haven’t tried before.
Once I have feedback on the look and feel, I will do rough thumbnails of the page layouts and add colour on the computer – the colour palette for the book will start to emerge. The trick at the rough stage, that it’s taken me a long time to learn, is to keep things loose enough to still be making discoveries at the final artwork stage; if the roughs are too finished I can find that the final artwork stage is unexciting and the results are bit flat.
There’s often a gap of six months, a year or even more between finishing a book and it hitting the shelves. By the time you hold the actual book in your hands you will have forgotten a lot of the struggles, and can judge your work on its own merits.
You hope to be pleasantly surprised!