Illustrations: a visual support to a book

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Children books become all the more interesting when they have attractive illustrations. Infact, illustrations breathe life into children’s books. Here, Manisha Chaudhry, editorial head, Pratham Books, shares her views on the role of illustrations in children books and the quality of illustrators in India, in conversation with Varsha Verma.

What is the role of illustrations in children books, what their major attributes are and how the work of Indian illustrators is evolving, shares Manisha Chaudhry, editorial head, Pratham Books.

ABP: What is the role of illustrations in children books?

Manisha: Illustrations breathe life into children’s books. When a child first encounters a book, (whether she can read or not!) she begins by ‘reading’ the pictures. It is by looking at the pictures again and again and perhaps talking about them and asking questions or imagining things around them that she becomes ready to read in the formal sense of the word. At that stage, the illustrations support her own individualistic way of reading the book. Sometimes the illustrations provide direct visual support to the story and help her connect to characters and situations. For some children, they provide a take off point to add to the story using their own imagination. Children like books where the story and illustrations perfectly complement each other.

ABP: Is the story more important or the illustrations, considering the fact that when a child picks up the book, it is probably the illustrations that attract him?

Manisha: That is a bit like asking whether water is more important or food! Both are needed for a memorable reading experience for the child. It depends on the age and print readiness of the child and cannot remain constant. Since we use the word ‘children’ for anybody between the ages of 3-14 years, we cannot make such generalisations. Even in developmental stages of childhood, the ability of a child to read visuals and language capabilities grow simultaneously.

When children experiment with language, they also narrate experiences, real or imagined, which is probably their first taste of a story. Even if a child is first attracted towards a book because of the illustrations, she looks at them to make up her own personal story.

As publishers of children’s books, we all work on both aspects so that the book gives joy to the child and trigger a positive interest in the act of reading.

ABP: How do you rate the quality of Indian illustrators vis-a-vis foreign ones?

Manisha: Indian illustration is a very broad and varied category. Quality also depends on the publishing house. There has to be a willingness to allocate a good illustration and book design budget and invest in good production. India has very fine illustrators who do excellent and imaginative work if they get the required support from publishing houses.

Usually, when people refer to ‘foreign’ illustrators, they mean illustrators working in western countries. Many western countries have had a longer track record of children’s publishing and very supportive policies towards the creation of children’s books. In the Scandinavian countries, France, Poland, Switzerland and so many others, there has been such tremendous support for children’s books with illustrations and consequently there is a market which has led to such a variety of books. I’m sure there must be some books of indifferent quality also, but we get to see the best and boldest in terms of illustration and design.

I think we need to look beyond measuring ourselves against others. We have a wealth of traditions of visual representation in India as also young designers coming out of design schools. If book illustration and design received greater attention from publishers, I am sure a lot more exciting work will get done. There are many excellent Indian illustrators who are transforming the landscape and will do even more interesting work in the future as the children’s books segment continues to grow.

ABP: What are the various attributes that should be kept in mind while including illustrations in a children book?

Manisha: Illustrations are essentially a creative interpretation of a story or a situation by the artist. They have to stand on their own within the overall framework of the book. Depending on the type of book being illustrated, such as a picture book, text book, comic book, the attributes may change. They have to serve the purpose of the book. The obvious things to eschew would be any form of stereotyping whether relating to race, class or gender, although that can depend on the context of the story. Any disturbingly graphic depictions of violence are usually kept out.

Clarity and a visual balance with the text is another very important attribute specially in beginners’ books, picture books, etc. If there is the possibility of communication between the illustrator and editor and author and if there is a specific audience in mind, it becomes easier to decide the attributes. Whether detailed or with bold lines, black and white or coloured, the idea is to create an ideal package to draw a child into the world of books.

ABP: Since you have worked with a lot of illustrators, brief us about any particular illustrations which have touched your heart?

Manisha: It is very difficult to pick favourites. There are so many illustrators who have touched my heart. Some of them directly and others whose work I admire.

I love Bindia Thapar’s illustrations. She illustrated a book called City of Stories for us and I feel happy as soon as I spot that book. Her cityscapes, her characteristic style makes the book shine in a different light altogether.

I also love Priya Kuriyan’s work. She has illustrated many books for us and I will always look upon the Rituchakra series with great fondness. Maya Ramaswamy’s work in titles such Nono, the Snow Leopard, King Cobra, The Adventures of Philautus the Frog is outstanding.

Ruchi Shah’s work is really interesting too. Nina Sabnani, Shilpa Ranade, Tapas Guha all bring a great sense of individual style to the books they illustrate. I also admire Atanu Roy, Shuddhasatwa Basu, Taposhi Ghosal, Anita Balachandran.. I could go on with so many other names….

ABP: Any message for our readers.

Manisha: Publishers have to play their part if we want to see more and better children’s books in all Indian languages. They have to support illustrators and recognise that even the simplest picture books and early readers have a far reaching impact on a new generation of readers.

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