Meet Kitty Crowther

   'What’s a great book? Luckily we just don’t know. No recipe. But I do believe in honesty. I do believe in art.' Kitty Crowther, photo by ©stefan_tell

   'What’s a great book? Luckily we just don’t know. No recipe. But I do believe in honesty. I do believe in art.' Kitty Crowther, photo by ©stefan_tell

When Kitty Crowther won the 2010 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award the overwhelming response in the English-speaking world was: Kitty who?  The English-speaking world is now beginning to appreciate her genius. August she will be a guest of this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival where she will join Shaun Tan in conversation. You can book tickets by clicking here. Kitty will also be part of a major exhibition celebrating 50 years of French publisher l'ecole des loisirs, which runs though August. Kitty has published more than 35 books in a career beginning in 1994 and won numerous awards in Europe.

Born to an English father and Swedish mother, Kitty Crowther is Belgian-raised, educated in French-speaking schools and published first by Pastel/l’ecole des loisirs in France.

TATE Publishing has released four books in the Poke & Mia series, with more to come. Later this year US publisher Enchanted Lion releases Scritch Scratch Scraww Plop. Until this recent rush, only one book had been published into English: 15 years ago Hyperion in the US published Mon ami Jim as Jack and Jim

I’m fascinated by the presence of mythology and folk tales in your stories (Annie du lac, Mere Medusa, Petite homme et dieu). Do you sense a deep well of stories that you draw upon in your stories?

I’m fascinated by mythology and folk tales in stories too! Actually, when you look at it, you realise it’s everywhere. I believe that stories never die. They come back and they’re dressed up differently, but the root is the same. I wouldn’t write or draw the way I do if I hadn’t had all those wonderful books as a child. I also believe that books shape you, and bring to light parts of yourself that you need to remember. I even think that the stories choose you. 

                        Lutin Veille by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Kitty Crowther, Pastel/l'ecole des loisirs, 2012.

                        Lutin Veille by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Kitty Crowther, Pastel/l'ecole des loisirs, 2012.

                        Detail from Lutin Veille.

                        Detail from Lutin Veille.

From an English-language perspective your books are starting to come through. Do you have any thoughts why English-language publishers have been so slow to pick up your work?

There’s loads of talk about it on the net and in the papers. There are many answers, and yet it’s impossible to pick one or two answers. I just don’t know. (I felt a little sad though because I am half English. The Swedish – my other half – have published many of my books, even before the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.) 

You could say that the English are very conservative, very eager to prevent the parents/teachers/kids from being scared or shocked. To be able to sell as much as they can so that the companies survive. The bad news is that those books can be very boring. Could be sugar-coated. And they will be totally forgotten in 30 years time.

Parents remember what they loved as kids (so do grandparents), but kids today are not the kids of 20 or 30 years ago. I always get irritated when adults project onto kids. They project what the kids see, which I think is impossible to do.

On that point, I miss not being able to read to kids around me (mine are big teenagers). I just love the quality of listening while reading them a great book. 

What’s a great book? Luckily we just don’t know. No recipe. But I do believe in honesty. I do believe in art. And to have ‘good’ art, it needs to come from far away. You need to dig so deeply. Even if the story looks very simple. It takes a long time to bring a story to the paper. Sometimes I carry stories inside me for ages. 

It’s also so strange to say ‘children’s book’ – like it should please them all. I believe that the teachers should start their classes by reading a book or a chapter (for 0 to 18 year olds) without asking them to think about it, explain it or work on it. Or even if they don’t have to listen to it, they could draw! I used to have a French teacher (I did all my school years in French because I was living in the French side of Belgium). We would have two hours of French literature. And he would read aloud for an hour and a half… at least. It’s a wonderful way to travel, just by sitting on your chair. 

I also believe that you need some brave publishers who have a real vision (so thank you Roger Thorp, who picked up my work for TATE Publishing). There is also discussion about books that are too beautiful for kids, or too difficult. There are still adults out there who think that kids are not that smart.

And another point is that the English publishers hardly ever buy foreign books…Just to make this clear: Each publisher makes books – then they go once or twice a year to an international book fair (Frankfurt in Germany and Bologna in Italy). At the fairs, they try to sell rights to foreign publishers (this is to have a low cost on the print run; it’s cheaper to have three publishers paying to print one book). This is how you have the same book in different languages. 

What I’ve heard is that the English are eager to sell rights, but not so keen to buy rights. 

Click on the image below for a selection of Kitty Crowther's recent books not available in English.    

Do you think the picture book business in Europe is creative and healthy right now? (Do you think it’s going through a good period? Who should English-language readers be looking out for?)

Yes, I do think it’s very creative, but mainly the pictures. I think we have a lack of strong powerful stories. We need more storytellers, not just people who write beautifully. One of the ‘problems’ is that I have seen so many children’s books. It’s difficult to appeal to my tastes.

Also, I am looking for books that make me want to work. I am not looking out for books for my kids anymore (I do, but novels which I read too).

I’ve found that adults love children’s books more and more. People need fiction, to be able to dream about their lives. 

Where is the border between a children’s book and a piece of art? I really think we need the best for the children. I think they need to see a lot of different things (hooray, we have libraries!!!) I wish that the libraries could be a wonderful place where people could be together. The building would be a warm, friendly, amazing place. A place where people who struggle with writing and reading could go to have some " lessons "– and tea, coffee, a piece of cake. Books in a few different languages... 

There should be as many libraries as there are churches. A place where you could go and read the newspaper. Listen to music. I spent ages in libraries as a kid and teenager.

There are so many great books everywhere. I advise the English to go to these blogs to start with:

blog.picturebookmakers.com, and: lookbookreport.com

And if you are interested in the illustrators’ world, there is this new book made by a fantastic photographer. 

You can see it here: 

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/jake-green/the-bookmakers-studio

When you were starting out, you studied Graphic Arts at the Institut Saint-Luc in Brussels. What did your time at art school give you in developing your work?

Meeting two wonderful teachers. I was very lucky. Marianne de Grasse. She told me from the very beginning that I would do books. (She died a few years ago; I wish she would have known that I got the ALMA prize. She would have been very happy.) She always pointed out the meaning of all of this. What the pictures say. In many ways, she was very intellectual, and yet very organic: intuitive. The other teacher was Luc Lamy for drawing and sketching. He was quite tough. He made us work hard. 

 First of all, time. I had time to work. I even went to evening classes, to learn etching, which help me a lot. I experienced a few different techniques. And allowed myself to get lost. I had a lot of doubt. 

I met the father of my children there! 

Who do you count as your biggest influences (or inspirations) in making picture books?

 Well, the ones who fed me as a child were Beatrix Potter, Astrid Lindgren, Arnold Lobel, Tomi Ungerer, Leo Lionni, Maurice Sendak, Richard Scarry… 

The Wind in the Willows, The Secret Garden, Jane Eyre… Later, Maira Kalman, Gabrielle Vincent, Anna Höglund Nadja, Harriët van Reek, Blexbolex, Tove Jansson, Eva Lindström, Paul CoxBenoit Jacques

I think I found freedom, which is very inspiring in work. I do read a lot. I love nature, which I find very inspiring. 

Painting, music, people…

I love the natural worlds that you create in books like Poka et Mine: À la pêche, Petite homme et dieu, Mere Medusa and others. The natural world seems so alive! How do you connect the natural world of plants, water and animals to your art?

 Maybe because I am in love with them. It’s time to really take care of them. I think it’s one of our roles: to take care of all the living things. And not in terms of profit. 

        From Le petit homme et Dieu, Pastel/l'ecole des loisirs, 2010. This elegant and wry story of a meeting between a             man and god challenges the limits of a picture book. It's all done with the lightest of touch.

        From Le petit homme et Dieu, Pastel/l'ecole des loisirs, 2010. This elegant and wry story of a meeting between a             man and god challenges the limits of a picture book. It's all done with the lightest of touch.

You have won numerous awards in Europe, but the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award is the big one – what did winning this award mean to you?

That I was right to be myself. I have worked very hard. I didn’t always do easy books. (I couldn’t have done it without the help of my first publisher, Christiane Germain.)

It gives you a big confidence in yourself. It really helps you out financially. It’s very difficult to make a living, just making children’s books. It’s also to be connected to Astrid Lindgren, who is an extraordinary author.  

Some people were quite shocked to discover the amount of money I won. Like, no way someone who does little drawings and little writing should get that much money. Some journalists said: “it’s enough to make you want to start making books.”  

Be my guest! Sweden believes that children’s books are very important. This is one of the reasons why they decided it would be like a Nobel Prize. 

What are you working on now?

A new Poka and Mine… Mine is looking for a shell for her grandmother to send it by post. During the night, the shell seems to be alive; there is someone in there. 

I am also working on an activity book about drawing. I have done so many workshops for children and adults so it’s nice to put them into a book. 

What are you looking forward to seeing or doing in Australia?

Discovering the nature. People. I will also go to the museums to see Aboriginal art. 

 

                                                Detail from Poka and Mia: Football, TATE 2014

                                                Detail from Poka and Mia: Football, TATE 2014

 

Questions written and edited by Mike Shuttleworth, with thanks to Kitty Crowther and the Melbourne Writers Festival.