The Fan brothers: Books we'd love to illustrate

The Antlered Ship is a new book illustrated by Toronto artists Eric Fan and Terry Fan.

The Barnabus Project is a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award

Eric Fan (left) and Terry Fan are award-winning illustrators based in Toronto. (

Eric Fan and Terry Fan are brothers and frequent collaborators on children's books. Their books include The Night Gardener and Ocean Meets SkyThey also illustrated The Darkest Dark by Chris Hadfield.

Their latest is The Barnabus Project, which they wrote and illustrated with their third Fan brother, Devin.

The Barnabus Project features a secret underground lab, genetically engineered creatures and a story about freedom. Barnabus and his friends live in this lab but they are deemed imperfect and might never see the outside world. But Barnabus yearns to be free and decides that it's time for he and his imperfect friends to make the perfect escape.

The Barnabus Project is a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — illustrated books.

Below, the Toronto-based artists each share five books they'd love to illustrate.

Terry Fan: 5 books I'd love to illustrate

Journey to the West

This novel, written during the Ming Dynasty in China, is attributed to Wu Cheng'en. It is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature.

"Journey to the West is a classic Chinese mythological novel written during the Ming Dynasty based on traditional folktales. My dad bought me a set of these as a birthday gift when I was younger. It was the first time I had ever read a Chinese folktale and it opened up a whole world to me. It's such a visually rich tale with amazing characters and naturally lends itself towards a visual interpretation.

"In the East, this classic has been adapted into film and television. It's very popular and well-known there, yet growing up in North America I had never heard of it. It made me realize at a young age that there was a clear bias in the educational system towards European literature and history. It prompted me to seek out literature from diverse cultures, especially folk tales."

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi by Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling, pictured above in 1928, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

"This was a short story written by Rudyard Kipling in The Jungle Book anthology about the adventures of a young mongoose named Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. He is adopted by a British family living in India as a pet and protection from cobras. I'm not sure if it was Kipling's intention, but to me it's an allegory for British Imperialism with the cobras representing the 'savage' Indigenous population.

"Although the mongoose is depicted as the hero, my sympathies lie entirely with the cobras. I would love to turn this story upside down and tell it from the cobra's perspective. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is rather an obnoxious character and basically slaughters an entire cobra family, including un-hatched baby cobras, all in the service of his British masters. The cobras are simply protecting their natural habitat and home. I think it's about time to tell their side of the story."

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

In this 1952 picture, Ernest Hemingway is reading a letter informing him he has won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Old Man and the Sea. (AFP/Getty Images)

"This classic tale recounts the epic, lonely battle between an old Cuban fisherman, Santiago, and a giant marlin in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Florida. It's a poignant rumination on the power of resiliency and hope even in the face of impossible odds. This was the last story published by Hemingway and I suspect it mirrored his own tortured and defiant feelings about the relentless encroachment of time.

"Even though Santiago loses everything at the end, it's the struggle itself that gives the old man's life purpose and defines who he is. The old man and the marlin are like two sides of the same coin and in a sense it's a battle against himself. Hemingway's text is as spare and direct as the sea itself. I'm picturing it as a wordless picture book. Any text would just get in the way. I think it would be even more powerful with just the imagery telling the story."

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Eric Blair published iconic novels like Animal Farm and 1984 under the pseudonym George Orwell. (Canadian Press)

"I love all of Orwell's work, but the one that attracts me the most as an illustrator is his brilliant political satire, Animal Farm. Like Orwell, I consider myself a democratic socialist and this book is a wonderfully clever and imaginative critique of fascism/totalitarianism. Unfortunately it has a lot of resonance to what's happening politically at the moment. Although horrifying in its cruel absurdity, the story also somehow manages to be entertaining and wryly humorous. The animated adaptation of this is wonderful, but it would be very cool to see this in picture book format as well."

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

American novelist Herman Melville, author of the classic seafaring tale Moby-Dick, is pictured above circa 1850. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"I confess, I haven't actually read the entire book, but would love to illustrate some form of this classic tale. I promise one of these days if my workload ever eases up I'm going to sit down with a bottle of scotch and read the whole damn thing. I'm rather obsessed with whales/the sea, as most people probably know by now, so this is right up my alley. As with Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, I'd like to put a twist on it and do a picture book from the whale's perspective."

Eric Fan: 5 books I'd love to illustrate

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Invisible Cities is a book by celebrated Italian novelist Italo Calvino, who died in 1985 at the age of 61.

"I don't really think this book needs to be illustrated because the cities it describes exist primarily in the mind as imaginative spaces, and they should provoke in the reader the same sense of their phantasmagorical, imagined existence, rather than being shown in any concrete form. That said, apart from being quite a challenge, I imagine the book would be a joy to illustrate. There's an enormous wealth of lyrical description and imagination at play — fantastic, impossible cities that speak to my love of the surreal and dreamlike."

Axolotl by Julio Cortázar

Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 69. This photo was used in an exhibit at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth in 2014. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

"It's a very strange little story, but it provokes such strong images that I can already see it as an illustrated book of some kind, with a few choice full page illustrations or spots. The story itself is very arresting and atmospheric, and one I've always remembered even though I read it years ago. I recall it now mostly as a series of images: the hushed silence and darkness of the Jardin des Plantes aquarium with its lone, bemused guard and unnamed narrator, the mysterious and beautiful axolotl within, occupying their murky tank and shimmering with terrible beauty and mystery. There are precise physical descriptions of the axolotl that dovetail perfectly with the more poetic, metaphysical contemplations of them. It's also a humorous story in the way it walks between the mundane and the miraculous. Reading it is a little bit like crossing a seemingly solid floor that is rigged with hidden trapdoors: 'You eat them alive with your eyes, hey,' the guard said, laughing; he likely thought I was a little cracked. What he didn't notice was that it was they devouring me slowly with their eyes, in a cannibalism of gold.

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang is pictured above at the Los Angeles premiere of the film Arrival, which is based on a story from his collection Stories of Your Life and Others. (Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures International)

"I guess there's a pattern here, in that I seem to be drawn to stories of the fantastic. Almost every story in this collection would be interesting to illustrate, starting with the opening story, Tower of Babylon, with its unimaginable structure reaching into the heavens — so tall that stars collide with it near the top and sizzle into the stone, much to the amazement of the workers who are making their slow trek to the roof of the world, dizzied by the frightening height. At moments like these Chiang is at his best, and he'll drop a description like this which is the perfect synthesis of the concrete and the imagined: It burned and sizzled, and was too bright to look upon. Men considered prying it out, so that it might resume its course, but it was too hot to approach closely, and they dared not quench it. After a week it cooled into a knotted mass of black heaven metal, as large as a man could wrap his arms around. 

"He makes the impossible tangible and the incredible almost believable. There's a little bit of everything in this collection — aliens, destructive yet miraculous angels, England reimagined as a steampunk world powered by animated golems."

Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

Pinocchio, a creation of Italian satirist Carlo Collodi, first began appearing in children's magazines in 1881. Enrico Mazzanti illustrated the first edition of the book (the above picture is not the original cover, but features an illustration by Mazzanti). (Amazon)

"The original story is already perfectly illustrated by Enrico Mazzanti, and there have been numerous wonderfully illustrated versions since, but I would still love to take a crack at this classic children's tale. The original is much darker than the Disney film. At heart, it's quite a moralistic book and seems designed primarily as an instructional guide for children, but there's also something hilarious and subversive about the irresponsible puppet himself and his picaresque adventures. He goes through the entire book NOT learning anything, until the very end. It's almost as if Collodi is at war with his own impetuous, misbehaving creation throughout the narrative. It's unlike any children's book that could be written today and for that reason it would be interesting to try to approach it visually."

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

A portrait of Austrian-born surrealist writer Franz Kafka, circa 1915. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"I'm pretty sure Kafka said the insect in Metamorphosis should never be illustrated, but as an illustrator it's an irresistibly strange and poignant image that cries out to be illustrated. It seems like a book to which you could take a very different approach than with a children's book, and yet it shares some of the same qualities as a children's book, which is maybe why I was so drawn to it when I was younger (and the fact that I was also going through a bleak, existential stage in my life). It's fable-like, for starters, and involves transformation, which is a recurring trope of fairytales. As a narrative, it seems like it would push me to stretch past my usual work and do something radically different — woodcuts maybe, or dark, inky prints. It also shares something with the rest of the stories in this list — at least two others involve transformation — along with the same magical themes and images that continue to inspire and delight me with their strangeness."





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