Every month, Literati features original artwork by a distinguished illustrator introducing the theme. Subscribers receive this artwork made exclusively for Literati kiddos inside their monthly deliveries. In preparation for May, we had the distinct pleasure of chatting with one of our favorite illustrators, Graeme Base, based in Melbourne Australia.
You’ll likely recognize Graeme as both author and illustrator of the 1986 masterpiece Animalia, the alliterative adventure through the alphabet with vibrant, intricate spreads that has kept kids — and adults — immersed for hours, and has been in print for over thirty years. And he hasn’t stopped there. With a growing bibliography of books he’s either illustrated for another author or he’s written and illustrated solo, we can’t get enough of the strange and lively creatures in Graeme’s world. Naturally, we had to know more.
All of your illustrations are so incredibly detailed and vivid, and some include rather elaborate narrative elements as well. I’d imagine it varies by the project, but generally do you find that the words and story come first, or imagery?
For me everything begins with images – sometimes just one strong mental picture that I become fixated on and eventually develop into a book. The inspiration is very often travel-based – whenever I go somewhere new I am pretty sure I will come back with another book idea.
What made you take the leap from advertising to creating picture books?
Getting fired! I was hating what I did and it showed. As soon as I go the flick I started going around to publishers looking for work doing book jackets or illustrations for other peoples’ texts – within a year or two it tumbled to me that if I wrote the text as well I would be able to draw what I liked rather than what someone else told me – and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
What makes a great children’s book?
Not writing it for children. The worst thing you can do is talk down to kids – far better to aim above their heads and encourage them to leap.
What’s your favorite interaction you’ve had with a child about your work?
I got a letter from kid many years ago as follows: ‘Dear Mr Base, I really like your book Animalia – I nearly bought a copy.’ That’s hard to beat.
Do you have any advice you’d like to pass on to children who aspire to write and illustrate?
Passion, Perspiration, Patience, Persistence and Pizza.
Which book really captured your imagination as a kid? What about as an adult?
The first book that really grabbed me was J. R. R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ way before it became a series of movies. I was given it in paperback form – all three book in one – and it was 1065 pages long. I thought to myself I would never get through it. When I finished I had only one complaint: it was too short. I still love it as an adult.
What about a book of your own you’re pleased with, or that is especially close to your heart?
It’s hard not to love Animalia – still in print after all these years – who could have guessed an alphabet book could hit the nerve like that? Maybe it’s because I followed my own advice from Question 3! I’m also very fond of The Waterhole – a sweet project that just flowed so well – and more recently Eye to Eye which was inspired by a close encounter with a pod of killer whales of the coast of Antarctica.
You said creating the Literati May illustration was easy for you because the idea just came to you. What does that feel like?
It’s that ‘one strong mental picture’ thing I was talking about in Question 1 – sometimes an image arrives fully-formed and you just to follow the five Ps from Question 5 until what you see in front of you looks as close to what you imagined in your head as possible. It feels good when you get close.
Your characters’ personalities jump off the page and feel so real — almost human. If you were an animal character in the world of one of your books, what would you be?
I’d be an elephant. But without the memory. What were we talking about…?