The big news is out. The Governor General's Awards were announced this morning and the winning book for the category of children's book illustration is...Bella's Tree, with illustrations by Jirina Marton! The text is written by Janet Russell.
Jirina worked in oil pastel to create renderings of a young girl's winter world as she searches the woods for a Christmas tree for Nan. Flipping through the book, it's hard to believe that the pages are flat — Jirina's illustrations are so visually textured that it almost seems possible to step through the pages and out into the cold, bundled up with Bella and her dog, Bruno.
What does winning the GG mean to Jirina?
"It's beautiful because as an artist, I'm in my studio working nearly every day by myself," she told me over the phone from her home in Toronto. "It's beautiful to discover that not only you and your family and your friends, but also other people believe in what you're doing."
Jirina has always been an artist, from the time she grew up in Prague and then relocated to Paris before settling in Canada in 1985. However, it was a suggestion from a friend that led her to illustration work.
"She suggested, 'Why don't you illustrate children's books?' And she was right," Jirina says. "I started thinking about it when I was 35."
"It's not so easy for the first book. You need to knock on so many doors and for a publisher, it's very difficult if you have nothing published." Jirina laughs when she thinks about the first book she illustrated, calling it "terrible."
So what does it take to create the award-winning illustrations of Bella's Tree?
"When you are looking at one illustration, it must invite you to turn the page," she says, citing colour and composition as key things that must change from page to page.
"There is a movement and tension also, when you wonder what's on the other page. It's exactly the same as with the text, actually. Of course, with illustration, you must put the information you have from the text. If it is about a little girl, you must put a little girl and if she has blonde hair, you must put her blonde, but if not, it's very good to put more than is in the text," she says.
Jirina says that part of celebrating with her friends and family will be the relief of being able to let them in on the knowledge that she'd won, which she has had for a little while, but had to keep secret.
"We will have a little glass," she says in response to a query on how she'll celebrate. "Don't tell the little kids."
Congratulations, Jirina, on the beautiful artwork and a well-deserved prize.
Tomorrow I'll speak to the winner of the Governor General's Award for children's literature in the text category, author Caroline Pignat...stay tuned!