Sunday, September 28, 2008
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Orbis Pictus: Drawn Into the World
Dedicated to Jan Amos Komensky (Comenius) 1592-1670
It is too ambitious to compare myself to this great thinker and educator, but I cannot help but be proud that he is considered the author of the first ever illustrated picture book, which was published 350 years ago. Like me, he was born in Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic) in the middle of a conflict which eventually led him into exile, yet he believed in a better world through learning, education and books….
So forgive me if I am trying to find connections between this great man and my work. There are not that many Moravians in the world of picture books, after all.
As a child you have no control over where you are born. But even though you don’t realize it- you are only a baby- you are born into history, into a story. I was born in the middle of the century, in the middle of Europe. I was also born just when the communists took over Czechoslovakia, but I did not know because I was a happy little boy surrounded by a loving family in the dark city of Prague. Then our family history unexpectedly collided with that of a faraway part of the world, changing my life forever. My father, a young filmmaker, was drafted into the army and sent to Communist China to teach documentary filmmaking. He told my mother he would be back for Christmas (which he was, but quite a few years later…). China was building a road through the Himalayas to Tibet. It would be the highest road in the world. My father and his Chinese students were in the middle of making a film about the building of the road when a huge piece of the mountain broke off, the road was blocked and the crew were stranded and lost. Through his wanderings, my father ended up meeting the then 19 year old Dalai Lama. I wrote a book about his adventures called “Tibet Through the Red Box” to celebrate the magic and mystery of Tibet which became a part of our family forever. But already as a child I drew the stories I heard from my father. Maybe it was a way of counterbalancing the communist indoctrination I got at school.
I drew and drew. The more repressive the outside world became, the more freedom I found in drawing, in creating a world for myself. I decorated the whole house we were living in from top to bottom, the light switches, the door of the fridge, the chairs. I drew at school, through all my classes, even math and physics (so don’t ask me about electricity, or how to count). My art highschool was a wonderful time of my life. Life was relatively freer than it had been, with the advent of the Beatles, the summer of love, and The Prague Spring. What wonderful synergy. Then the soviet tanks rolled in to Prague, and everything crashed down. It is hard to see what is happening as it happens in history. You go with the flow, and only see things clearly many years later.
I was trying to tell my stories. It was hard under the increasingly oppressive regime. Drawing did not work. Painting was censored. Animated film seemed the best way to go. I could tell stories in motion! A seven-minute animated film took me a whole year to make. I made several, and they started garnering prizes in film festivals. This opened the world beyond the Iron curtain for me.
After winning the Golden Bear award in West Berlin I became an export article for the National Organization of Czech Film. Travel to Switzerland, London, Los Angeles. I left for Hollywood, ostensibly for just a few months, to make a film celebrating the brotherhood of man, the 1984 Olympic Games. I had almost finished the film when the Soviet Union and the East Block countries decided to pull out. I was called back home. But I wanted to finish my film. And I did. But by then I was afraid to go back. I had overstayed my travel permit. Hard to explain to young people today. I decided then and there that I would become extremely successful so that when I did go home I could say that I did it all for my country.
I naively thought that I could spin stories out of my childhood adventures, turn them into books and films. Me who didn’t grow up with pizza or baseball! It was hard going. Just when I thought I couldn’t make it, I got a push from Maurice Sendak. Thank you!
Publishers found my stories awfully exotic. I developed a special pen and ink drawing technique which involved shadings made from hundreds of thousands of little dots. It didn’t leave any time for a social life. I was given other people’s books to illustrate, and was told by the editors that the faces I drew were too European, that I needed to change all the details. Those were hard years. I was without a country or a passport. But then more and more I was encouraged to do books of my own. The subjects paralleled my own discoveries of the new world I was in- people exploring streets, elevators, beaches. Then books about explorers- Columbus, Welzl. Exotic places like the island of Komodo. Places I wanted to go but for now could just draw.
I got married and had two children. As soon as they were born I started to make stories for them. I could not possibly tell stories in a language which was not quite my own, with no references to my own childhood. So I told my stories mainly in pictures. And tried to talk about people who could make us see things in a different way, like Galileo or Darwin.
The books led to new ventures. More film, posters, large scale mosaics in public places. My children are growing up. What will they remember? I imagine myself as a storyteller traveling on the old silk route, spinning tales by the fire. Tales of different cultures I have seen and imagined. And tales now too of my childhood for my children to tell to others.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
"What I love about this image is that it really does look plausible--until you think about it very much. Heath Robinson always presents it all in such a reasonable, well-executed way..."
Yes, of course (in the illustration, from "How to Live in a Flat," the laundry lines are all being held aloft by balloons).
Couldn't have ever said it better.
Monday, September 15, 2008
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Saturday, September 13, 2008
Here are some yummy links to find out more about Roald Dahl day, and start preparing for next year's celebration. Since Mr. Dahl gave us Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda (and so much more) it's a darn good thing lots of kids and their adults are finding ways to fete him.
- The Roald Dahl Day Website
- Puffin Parties on with Roald Dahl
- The Official Roald Dahl Website. This is a goodie.
- WikiDahl. This is one long wikipedia entry, a testament to how much our Mr. Dahl got done...which, we now find, was even a bit more than we had suspected (hmmm....perhaps Dahl was the real James Bond?)
Friday, September 12, 2008
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Sunday, September 7, 2008
Whyfore blog? Maybe because it's just another memory file. Which brings one more chance for me to tout Jonathan Cott's seminal "Pipers at the Gates of Dawn: The Wisdom of Children's Literature." Oh yeah. Love this book. (For movie love, click here. Later.) So, Iona and Peter Opie are sitting at the table, and J. Cott is transcribing:
Jonathan: In 'Lore and Language,' you have a section devoted to how children mishear things. Could you give me an example?Peter: Iona had on the other day.Iona: There are hundreds of examples, that's the trouble.Peter: I'm afraid we can't remember.Iona: We have no memories, we only have filing systems. Because the traffic is going through at such a rate, all we remember is from our own childhoods, and then only the ordinary things that any one lifetime has acquired in the way of memories. But everybody else's childhood is coming at us, so we can't remember all the things we hear.Peter: That's true, we just write them down. But I also have a thing even against memory as such. If you have a memory, you tend not to be very good at creating. Pope has a line on this, which I'll give you....I always keep it on me because I can't even remember what the quotations are that say that it's a disadvantage to have a good memory. If there were no writing, I'd be lost...If Peter Opie is right about memory, I'm getting more creative every day. Goodie.photo, above, from the doll museum in rothenburg
Saturday, September 6, 2008
In an early disclaimer on this blog, I noted that sometimes the posts would be...well, not all about children's lit. That's pretty obvious, these days, and this post is just about a blog I happened upon several months ago, when I was but a wee blogger (as if I am SO much a grown-up blogger now; see post below on growing-up theme).
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
- Witchcraft in the Wild Things!
- Eurocentric Snobbery in Babar!
- A Black Rabbit and a White Rabbit...Together, In Print!
- The Rapscallious William Steig shows an Animal with Tobacco!
- Actual Children who Are Not Punished for Being Mean on the Playground!
- And...gasp...Red Riding Hood Brings a Basket, with Wine and Food in it, to Her Grandmother!
Keep your words sweet.You may have to eat them.
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
A. Maurice Sendak. I talk to him every Sunday, and he always provides the best chuckle of the week. He's the only person with whom I can just blurt, uncensored. And he does the same thing. We're like two wicked children. It's a delight..."
Monday, September 1, 2008
The Lewis Carroll Scrapbook Collection. 'Nuf said.