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.
Our guest: Petr Horacek is a Czechoslovakian-born, England-based writer and illustrator of children’s picture books. His next book, The Mouse Who Reached the Sky, will be published in August by Walker Books.
1. WHAT IS YOUR EARLIEST MEMORY OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
I grew up in Czechoslovakia, so I will talk about the books that most people wouldn’t probably know, but those who are seriously interested in books for children may have heard names such as Jiri Trnka (right), or Vojtech Kubasta.
Czechoslovakia as a communistic country didn’t give many chances to good artists and writers. Many of them emigrated, and those who stayed tried to make a living in any way they could. One of the opportunities some of them took was to write for children’s magazines and write, or illustrate, books for children. People often did this under different names. For some reason the censorship and interest of state police didn’t go as far as to care for children’s books.
This fact meant that really good artists and writers were involved in children’s literature.
Czech illustration has a great tradition and I grew up with good books with amazing illustrations and also great animated films. One of the best animators was Karel Zeman.
My first book I remember was a concertina book written by Josef Kozisek and illustrated by Ondrej Sekora. It’s called Polamal se mravenecek. The book is about a little ant who gets ill. The doctor tried to make him better by prescribing him sugar, but it didn’t work. His friends come to see him and it helped. One of them blew on his broken shoulder, stroked his head and next day the ant was fine again! It was written in verses and I remember the poem to this day.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I also have days when I eat everything I see and then I’m quietly suffering, waiting for the changes to happen.
3. WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE CHILDREN’S BOOK AUTHOR? ILLUSTRATOR?
I’ve just mentioned The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Eric Carle’s an inventor of picture books for the very young age. His illustrations are timeless. I love very much the illustrations by Sara Fanelli and Lucy Cousins. These people are real artists who are not afraid to try something new. Looking at their work makes you want to draw and paint.
My favorite Czech illustrator is Jiri Šalamoun and I love books done by Kveta Pacovska.
4. IF YOU WERE THROWING A KINDERLIT PARTY FOR FIVE GUESTS, WHO WOULD YOU INVITE?
I think I would panic for while. I have met a couple of illustrators in the past and most of them are really nice people. I would also have my editors from Walker Books any time. I never met Sebastian Walker. (Editor’s note: Sebastien Walker was the legendary founder of Walker Books.) He sounded like an interesting guy.
So let’s say – Sebastian Walker, (British author) Judith Kerr, Eric Carle, Jiri Trnka and Kveta Pacovska.
5. WHICH QUALITY DO YOU THINK IS MOST IMPORTANT IN GOOD CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
I write and illustrate for young children, so let’s talk about picture books. Picture books are often the very first contact a child has with visual art. The artwork should be good quality and should inspire a child’s imagination and creativity.
In a good picture book the text doesn’t need to necessary repeat what is already shown in the picture. The text has to be well written, should have a good rhythm and be in balance with illustrations.
I think it’s important for the book to have some message and moral, but at the same time I can’t stand it when children are patronized.
6. IF YOUR OWN WORK HAS A DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC, WHAT WHAT IS IT
Different use of materials, collage, texture and color.
7. IF YOU WERE TO DIE AND COME BACK AS A CHARACTER FROM CHILDREN’S LITERATURE, WHO WOULD YOU LIKE IT TO BE?
As I already mentioned, I grew up in Czech Republic. We had great short animated films for children. One of the animated films was a story of two friends: Mach was a boy and Sebestova was a girl. These two one day helped an old guy to find his lost spectacles and the old man gave them an old fashioned telephone receiver.
It turns out to be a magical receiver of course. If you wished for something and said it in to the phone, it happens. The two of them (and their dog Jonathan) had great adventures.
I wouldn’t mind to be one of these two children. Preferably Mach. I’m used to being a boy.
8. IF YOU COULD GO BACK AND REDO ONE THING IN YOUR WORK, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
I’m very lucky to publish with Walker Books. With this publisher come great editors. They wouldn’t let out a bad book, so I don’t have many regrets, but if I have to choose a book I would like to redo it would be probably my first novelty book Flip’s Snowman.
It’s not that it’s a bad book, it’s just that it is my first and as somebody who had no experience in illustrating books before, I was under a pressure. I was trying to please everybody, making compromises.
I also think it would be good fun to see how I would do the same book now.
9. WHAT IS THE GREATEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU WERE EVER GIVEN?
Do what ever you like, but always be ready to take responsibility for what you have done.
10. DESCRIBE YOUR WORK PROCESS.
I paint, draw and make notes in to my sketchbook. When I get back I work with these notes. I make thumbnails and start to work on the text.
I use to make full colour mockups of new ideas for a book, before I presented it to my publisher. We’ve been working together for a long time now and it’s not necessary anymore to do so. These days I just make a thumbnail storyboard.
I do the sketches in colour, because colour is an important part of my work.
Once we have finalized the text and the story I do other sketches, usually just in pencil 1:1 scale.
I draw the main characters from the whole book in one go. It helps me keep continuity of the characters. I do each of them a couple of times and I choose the best one for the final pictures. I cut them out and keep them on the side ready to collage them into the pictures.
Then I start working on the final pictures. I often start with the picture I’m most excited about. It could be a picture in the middle of the book or the very last spread.
My working day looks like this: Mornings are slow. I do emails and all necessary things, I prepare for the day. I go out to have a game of tennis, go to the gym or go on a bike ride. Working at home is good, but one has to be sure that he gets out and have some exercise us well.
I start working on books usually after lunch and I work in the evenings, finishing at nine or ten o’clock.
Of course not every day is the same. It depends on how close I am to the deadline.