The Sunday Magazine

Daring, delight and a little darkness: A conversation with some of Canada's top children's book illustrators

Canada has always punched above its weight in the world of children's books, but we seem to be in a golden age right now, with Canadian illustrators winning international awards, hitting bestseller lists and changing tastes.
From left to right: Canadian children's book illustrators Eric Fan, Sidney Smith, Jillian Tamaki (Michelle Quance; Steve Farmer; Emma McIntyre)

In the best children's picture books, illustrations and text meld together to create transcendent worlds. 

Canada has more than its fair share of such rich visual talent. A remarkable group of young illustrators is taking the kids' books genre by storm, winning many prestigious awards internationally and here at home.  

The Sunday Edition guest host Kevin Sylvester sat down with three of them to talk about what makes a great children's book.

The illustrators cautioned that parents ⁠— in the past and now ⁠— tend to underestimate the sophistication of their children.

From the Fan brothers' illustrated book "The Night Gardener" (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)

"When you go back to turn-of-the century picture books, which were all sort of morally instructive for kids, they taught lessons," said Eric Fan, who illustrates and writes in tandem with his brother, Terry. 

"The kids would go out on their own and buy penny dreadfuls on the street ⁠— they're like the equivalent of horror stories ⁠— because they wanted that stimulation of something that was a little bit scary," Fan said, adding that writers such as Maurice Sendak tapped into this in books like Where the Wild Things Are

"That's what we loved: a little bit of darkness and sort of fear in the book." 

In 2017, Eric and Terry Fan were awarded a Sendak fellowship. That same year, their book Ocean Meets Sky was shortlisted for the 2017 Governor General's Award and was on the shortlist for the 2018 Kate Greenaway medal ⁠— the British literary award for children's illustration. 

Sydney Smith, another prominent Canadian illustrator thinks the spectrum of emotion is also far wider during childhood.

Sydney Smith won a Governor General's Award for his 2015 wordless picture book "Sidewalk Flowers" (House of Anansi Press)

"You don't have the skills or the tools that you build as you grow older of compartmentalizing, of being able to say, 'Oh, this is sadness, I'll experience this later,' or 'I'm experiencing grief, I'll do this in my privacy of my own home in my bedroom,'" he said.

Smith has illustrated 10 books and his 2015 wordless picture book Sidewalk Flowers earned him a Governor General's Award. Last year, he also won the Kate Greenaway medal for Town Is by the Sea

"When I go and do readings at schools or bookstore visits," Smith added, "I sometimes have a kid ask me what can I do to be an artist … The truth is, I kind of believe that you have to go through a really rough time in your childhood." 

Illustrator Jillian Tamaki believes that "adults underestimate children in general." 

"They Say Blue", Jillian Tamaki's first picture book, won the 2018 Governor General's Award (House of Anansi Press)

Her first picture book They Say Blue won the 2018 Governor General's Award. And in 2014, she won a Governor General's Award for illustrating the Young Adult graphic novel This One Summer.  

"There is a desire to keep this innocence bubble that doesn't really exist," she told The Sunday Edition. "I mean, kids are going through very dark difficult things, some of them. And [there is] this desire to keep kids in this 'safe environment' when really a book is a safe place to grapple with some of those things or explore those ideas." 

To hear the full interview, click 'listen' above.


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