Britta Teckentrup is a fascinating example of a person who lives comfortably in two languages and two cultures, a topic we returned many times during our conversation. She came to study in England when she was 18 and then lived here for 17 years before moving back to Germany with her partner and son ten years ago. Her formative years as a young adult were spent in London and it is a city (and a children’s publishing world) that she is very comfortable with. Her career as a children’s book illustrator started at her St Martin’s degree show when she was approached by a publisher and asked to illustrate a children’s book. This was James Sage’s Coyote Makes Man, which was followed by a further three books for the same publisher, who made the suggestion that she start writing her own books. At this point, Britta saw children’s publishing as a way of earning money, but her intention was to become a fine artist. She did a Masters at the Royal College, where she never mentioned her publishing work. For many years she saw her books and her fine art as two separate areas of her life. She still continues with both but now acknowledges the art in her illustrations, that her illustrations have just as much ‘soul’, and is very happy to be part of the children’s book world.
Britta normally writes and illustrates the majority of her books herself, a process that she prefers, although she has illustrated the work of others. Her experience has generally been one of working on a text given to her, rather than a collaborative process with an author, though she would be interested in this as a creative experience.
Britta says that she finds it much easier to write in English, that she finds many more words to express the same ideas or emotions. Her language fluency is influenced by where she is living. When in England she felt her spoken English became stronger than her German, but this is now reversed. Before I Wake Up… was originally written in English. It was difficult to find the same tone in the German and in the end it was re-written, and as a result has a different, more playful, tone, though importantly it is still a rhyming text. It is a magical book with a wonderful sense of flow and pace including different sizes of illustration, some wordless pages and powerful endpapers reflecting the dark of the night and the bright light of the morning. The child’s magical dream journey is from dark to light through forest and sea with a series of adventures in the company of a lion, her toy lion from her bedside in the first image. This provides a sense of reassurance, as indeed does the pattern of the rhyming language. Britta describes in a fascinating blog how this book developed out of another idea which she could not make work, but which she now can see developing – the idea of children in the city retaining only a residual sense of colour. Before I Wake Up… and the wonderful The Memory Tree (written after the death of her grandmother, but guided as Britta says by her spirit) are her favourites of the books she has so far written, she thinks because they are both so personal to her.
Her artwork is always exciting. In this book, mood is evoked with a powerful use of colour and texture. She works by a mix of handmade and digital techniques, by created collage, using wonderful papers and prints, which are then worked on digitally, giving freedom to change. Her artwork invites close looking and detailed observation.
Since settling in Berlin, Britta has observed great changes in the children’s publishing world in Germany. She has found a growing willingness to be experimental, which was apparent in the Bologna exhibition of German illustrators this year. Interestingly, but maybe not surprisingly in this context, Germany was the last country to buy co-editions of her work and despite her numerous children’s books dating back to 1993, the first was not published there until 2011. Previously her ‘style did not fit’. The German market is not as driven by the need to sell co-editions and by sales figures and is willing to produce small print runs. This means, for example, that Before I Wake Up … breaks with conventions and is, unusually for a picture book, 56 pages long. This and the beautiful paper that it is printed on add to its magical qualities, the attention to detail perhaps reflecting the fact that Prestel is mainly an art publisher.
The new Alle Wetter is even longer at 168 pages. Britta says working on a book of this length opened things up for her and gave her a freedom and a space that she has never had before. She had originally conceived this concept as four books. We discussed being published simultaneously in the UK and Germany, which is for her very exciting. Britta’s work is published by a number of publishers in the UK, more the norm in Germany, and she says that her brilliant agent has always been clear to distinguish the specific kind of work she does with each of her publishers.
Britta has a very extensive range of books in print and is published in over twenty countries. Her work is particularly popular in the South Asian market, and in France and Spain. Grumpy Cat was selected for one of the Bookstart collections, introducing her work to many. There are a lot of new books to look forward to: Alle Wetter has been bought by the Canadian publisher, Owlkids Books, so we will get to see an English version; another book with Prestel which is the story of a crow called Oskar, again in English and German; a 200 page book exploring the kinds of philosophical questions that children ask; a follow up to Tree, this one called Bee; a follow up to The Odd One Out: a spotting book; more with Nosy Crow, who will publish Don’t Wake Up the Tiger. She is a really busy person, full of ideas and enthusiasm and a pleasure to discuss books with. Look on her website to explore her full list of books in print. There is so much to enjoy.
Pam Dix is a former librarian and chair of Ibby UK.
Before I Wake Up… ,Prestel, 978-3-7913-7246-4, £9.99 hbk
Alle Wetter, Jacoby & Stuart, 978-3-9427-8752-9, £18.82 hbk
Grumpy Cat, Boxer, 978-1-9054-1770-4, £6.99pbk
The Memory Tree, Orchard Books, 978-1408326343, £6.99pbk
The Odd One Out: A Spotting Book, Big Picture Press, 978-1783701902, £6.00
Tree: Seasons Come, Seasons Go, written by Patricia Hegarty, Little Tiger, 978-1-8486-9181-0, £6.99 pbk
Don’t Wake Up the Tiger, Nosy Crow, 978-0857637192, £10.99