Read To Win

Ten fabulously illustrated books for young readers that adults will enjoy just as much

Illustrator and graphic artist Priya Kuriyan picks her favourites.

If there’s one go-to person for getting recommendations on illustrated books for the young (and that’s anyone of any age), it’s children’s book illustrator, comic book artist and animator Priya Kuriyan. A graduate of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, Kuriyan directed educational films for the Indian avatar of Sesame Street and the Children’s Film Society of India before she decided to focus on her, well, illustrious career of drawing.

Kuriyan has illustrated numerous well-loved books for children of various ages (Bookasura and Princess Easy-Pleasy were my young nephew’s particular favourites), in addition to doing the bread-and-butter book cover and editorial designs. She’s currently working on a book with no words, a graphic novel about her grandparents (tantalisingly titled Ebony and Ivory) and filling her sketchbooks with strange caricatures of the residents of wherever she is located (currently, Kochi, where she’s spending time in the old family home.)

Before we get to the ten “mindblowing” books that are your all-time favourites, I’d like to ask you about the illustrator’s process – or at least your process, since the specific is so much better than the general! You have worked on several graphic features pieces or stories. Do you want to tell us how you work with a writer on these?
What I do after reading the text is, first, I use these post-its to structure the story. Not panels or anything yet. Just what image comes right after the other. I’ll make a rough scribble of the main image on a post-it, and then ask myself what comes immediately before or after. And once I know that this is the way the story flows, I can then divide it into panels. So, important bits might look best on a single page, as a large spread. The rest would be broken down into panels, once the story has been visually translated into images. I also, sometimes, use sounds. In my head, the rains in the story might start with a crack of thunder. So, when I’m reading the story, there are also these accompanying sounds I hear in my head.

That’s very interesting. Would you like to walk us through your list now?
So, for this list, I could include every kind of illustrated book – graphic novels, too?

Of course. Also, books like Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck, which you introduced me to. I don’t know what to call it.
Picture book-meets-prose. It really is an extraordinary book, with two parallel stories, one in prose, one only in pictures, meeting somewhere in the end.

Which was the first graphic novel you ever read?
Persepolis. I got into comics and graphic novels pretty late. I mean, by the time I read Persepolis I had left NID. I was in my early twenties, had just started working.

Was there any one book that made you want to be an illustrator? That made you want to give up your lucrative career as an animator and embrace the poverty of the illustrator’s life.
I think it was always there – this wanting to illustrate. I used to read a lot of these Russian picture books. It began from there. Because of the Communist connections, these Russian books were available everywhere in Kerala (and Bengal too I think?). The other major influence was this children’s magazine called Target. It had some of the most talented Indian illustrators designing for it. Even as a kid, that’s the job I wanted. There were these two artists – Atanu Roy and Suddhasatwa Basu – and I pored over their illustrations. I remember their stuff. And now I am, sort of...

In the same community as them?
Exactly. It never ceases to surprise me. I’ve met them. They’ve shown me their artwork, some of which I had seen as a kid. At that time I never actually thought that these were real people. You know?

Yes, the pictures were so perfect one never thought of the process behind creating them!
Their sense of composition, for instance, was so incredible that you actually tried to find out who the illustrator was. In addition to Atanu Roy and Suddhasatwa Basu, there was Jayanta Banerjee, there was Ajit Ninan – all these people were my heroes. And mind you, it was all original content. Somewhere between those Russian stories and Target I found my niche.

Shall we attempt our list?
Yes. We’ll start with an author-illustrator I really like: Shaun Tan.

The Arrival, Shaun Tan

Tan is an Australian artist, and though I choose The Arrival for the purposes of our list, I also really like The Lost Thing.

The Arrival is a beautiful, completely silent novel about a man who must migrate from his old town to a strange new place, in search of better prospects, and then have his family follow him there. Both places are sort of dystopian. But he must make his way to the new place where he doesn’t quite understand anything, and even find a new trade.

Basically, it’s about being an alien in another culture. Australia is a country of migrants anyway. What happens when somebody comes into a strange place? The book has got these really fantastical illustrations – and there are no words, it’s completely silent. It’s beautifully told and the imagery is so powerful that you don’t need words. In fact, a lot of my favourite books have no words, or few words. In addition, I really like Shaun Tan’s voice. He tells these essentially sentimental stories – so you relate to the characters easily – but using a beautifully stark format.

The Red Book, Barbara Lehman

The Red Book is another silent book; with a very interesting story structure. There’s this kid. She – well, she’s somewhat androgynous so you never really know whether it’s she or he but the flap says she, so we’ll go with it – finds a red book lying buried in the snow. She picks it up and starts reading it. She brings it to school and opens it to find a map of a tropical island somewhere far away. Through a series of frames, we find her spotting a child her own age on that island, also finding a red book (buried in the sand) and viewing the first child’s snowy city. Now his pictures zoom in and he finds her looking at him in the book and then out through the classroom window. They are looking at each other’s realities. That’s the amazing thing about picture books. It might seem it’s for young readers – but, you know, I would buy it for myself (and I have).

Flotsam, David Wiesner

Another book without words. Flotsam is about this geeky, science-fancying boy who finds a lost, almost magical camera at the beach, as he examines the flotsam that has drifted up. The underwater camera has a film in it. The book is about what the pictures turn out to be: these fantastical images of that slightly unreal world, images that you can just look at and be glued to. It’s amazing for young readers.

At the end, one of the last pictures in the book is of a person holding a photograph of another person holding a photograph of another person holding a photograph – there is a whole chain of people who have added images to that world. So, the boy understands what he has to do. Basically, he must take a photograph of himself and leave the camera for someone else to discover. In terms of story structure, it’s interesting as you can see, but visually it is just out of the world. Absolutely brilliant.

I cannot help but recommend his other book too, called Art and Max, which is about two chameleons, best friends, Max and Arthur, who are having great fun creating art. Arthur is an accomplished painter, Max is an amateur. Max’s first attempt at using a paintbrush sends the two friends on a whirlwind adventure with side effects they didn’t anticipate. Very Dali-esque, this scintillating book about friendship, creativity and their encounter has little bits and bobs of dialogue, and it’s completely crazy.

Wolves, Emily Gravett

Rabbit borrows a book about wolves from the library. Soon, though, a sinister figure with sharp claws and a bushy tail starts to appear off the pages. What do you do? (Especially if you’re a rabbit!) Brilliant, funny, with artwork to die for and not one but two surprise endings, Emily Gravett’s Wolves is an outstanding picture book. I like books for children that are slightly edgy, and Wolves falls right into this segment.

In her case, the entire design of the book is as important as the story itself. The back cover would have these scratches, or it’s been bitten off – maybe because there’s a rabbit in the book...things like that. I love the tension that is built up in Wolves.

Gravett had actually come to India and run a small workshop for illustrators which I attended. She talked about how she came to illustrating very late. Only after she’d had a kid. She was doing things like pottery before she became an illustrator. It was very interesting to see her ideate and then, quickly, begin to work up her genius.

Building Stories, Chris Ware

In terms of format, Building Stories changes everything. It’s not a book; I don’t know what to call it. It’s like a story box. If you look at Chris Ware’s drawings, there is a simplicity in it yet there is so much detail. Almost like iconography. The box has these separate pieces. You read through one “zine” and then you find that one of its characters has appeared in another story. It follows the inhabitants of a three-flat Chicago apartment house: a 30-year-old woman who has yet to find someone with whom to spend the rest of her life; a couple who wonder if they can bear each other’s company for another minute; and, finally, an elderly woman who never married and is the building’s landlady.

The ambition, the sophistication and the detailing of this project are astonishing.

London Jungle Book, Bhajju Shyam

This one is a picture book by a Gond artist. (The publishers, Tara Books, based out of Chennai, work a lot with folk artists.) He travelled to London to paint murals at an upscale restaurant, and based on his adventures in the city – first trip abroad via first plane ride in his life on the first-ever passport – and after he returned, he did a depiction of London in the Gond style, with the freshness and curiosity of a child discovering the utterly unfamiliar. For instance, the snake and the earthworm, popular motifs in Gond art, are used to reinterpret the subway. The rooster, the symbol of time in Gond Art, is fused with the image of the Big Ben, which Bhajju Shyam says is the symbol of time in London! I really like his interpretation of the city.

Shyam, who worked as a gardener, security guard and electrician until he trained with his uncle, the famous Gond artist Jangarh Shyam, has created several other books, which have now been published all over the world and are as memorable as London Jungle Book, which, however, remains my favourite.

A Visit to the City Market (Bazaar Ki Sair), Manjula Padmanabhan

When I was a kid, the inimitable Manjula Padmanabhan had done this wordless picture book called A Visit to the City Market. It’s very Indian, and at the time in the 1980s, you never got to see a representation of your own reality. In terms of characterisation, it was very original and fresh. Quite radical at the time. As Padmanabhan continues to be, of course.

And you know, it’s not village India. There were still references to village India but very very few to the cities so many of us lived in. The 1980s are captured in all their details: the clothes, the packaging, the glass jars on the counter for example, the faces with their tics, the way the women have worn their churidar and dupattas. I wonder if one can still buy it off the National Book Trust bus.

I Want My Hat Back, John Klassen

It’s a slightly evil book about a bear who’s lost his hat. He goes about asking everyone for his hat back. Finally, he meets this rabbit who’s got the hat on his head. He asks the rabbit, “Have you seen my hat?” The rabbit, who’s wearing the hat says, “No. Why are you asking me? I haven’t seen it. I haven’t seen any hats anywhere. I won’t steal a hat. Don’t ask me any more questions.” The illustrations are delightful.

What I love is the ending, creepy as it is. Someone asks the bear, now re-hatted, if he’s seen a rabbit wearing a hat. His reply is slightly sinister. “No. Why are you asking me. I haven’t seen him. I haven’t seen any rabbits anywhere. I would not eat a rabbit. Don’t ask me any more questions.” It’s a bit dark for a children’s book – but then again in my experience, children love morbid stuff.

Duck, Death and Tulip, Wolf Erlbruch

Duck, Death and the Tulip is the creation of award-winning German artist and writer Wolf Erlbruch, who has chosen the darker, more uncomfortable aspects of childhood as his subjects. The book introduces children to the idea of death – but in a fun away. Death is following Duck, but instead of being creeped out, she befriends him. It’s a really charmingly illustrated story about something very difficult to speak to children about.

Epileptic, David B

A powerful European graphic memoir, Epileptic, written by David B, is the story of his brother’s long battle with epilepsy – and its impact on the whole family. To the author, the guilt of hating the brother for taking away all the attention of the family for himself was a very complicated emotion to handle but it is very powerfully translated in the visual form.

Particularly interesting for me was the whole journey of the family from one attempted cure to another, from acupuncture to spiritualism and macrobiotics. That has a lot of resonances with the Indian temperament.

I do feel that Indian graphic novels are yet to take off. Compared to the stuff that has been published in France, we’re not quite there yet. I quite liked Munnu,
which I read recently, and there are, of course, works I admire. But on the whole, I am still waiting for the revolution.

That’s 10, for now, and I know there are all these books that I have forgotten to include which I’ll remember tomorrow!

Priya Kuriyan’s work can be viewed here and here.

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