‘I don’t think he knows about rulers, it’s a Japan thing.’ So says Seamus (aged 7) in Children Reading Pictures*. Kathy (also 7) has another theory: ‘… he might wiggle a little bit ’cause he is worried about it, that he’s going to do it wrong, so he’s a bit shaky.’ The children are referring to the distinctively hesitant and yet at the same time secure line of Satoshi Kitamura, a line that has become familiar to generations of such children since shortly after the artist first arrived in England back in 1979. He has been here pretty much ever since. Over coffee at the British Library Satoshi told me how tickled he had been to read the observations of those children, and how bemused he is by some of the more earnest adult interpretations of his work. ‘It is very difficult to analyse children’s responses because they are taking things in through the pictures that they are perhaps not ready to put into words. There is always a danger that children will say what they think an adult wants to hear.’
A good many children, though, share a devotion to Satoshi’s books with their wonderfully expressive line. It is a line that, along with perfectly applied watercolour washes, contains a strong hint of the Japanese graphic tradition while frequently describing quintessentially English land and townscapes. A favourite of mine from the Kitamura gallery is a full page, full bleed image from Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing (1995). It is an atmospheric overhead view of a corner of Victorian London, with a glimpse of a railway arch and passing train. The night scene is executed lovingly with every brick, chimneypot and architectural curiosity carefully placed under a warm grey darkening wash. I wanted to know how this kind of image was arrived at, how much direct observational drawing was involved. ‘That was Southwark,’ Satoshi told me. ‘I would walk around with a sketchbook and record these details. I like to keep sketchbooks or notebooks of drawings, characters and ideas.’ These ideas, he says, often lie around in half conceived, half written form for long periods of time. Sometimes a story idea will evolve from a scribbled doodle of a character, sometimes from a concept jotted down in words. Knowing that he served his apprenticeship as an advertising artist back in Japan, rather than taking a formal art training, I wondered whether he had always had stories and ideas of his own. ‘Yes, I think so. I always had a few stories. But I really learned how to structure a picture book through illustrating other writers’ texts. I always wrote too long. I still do write too long. I’m getting better at it, getting more concise. Once the pictures come of course, much of the text needs cutting.’
A long and fruitful relationship with Andersen Press began when Klaus Flugge saw Satoshi’s work in the early 1980s. Flugge came to an exhibition of the artist’s drawings at the Neal Street Gallery in Covent Garden and showed him a text. It was for Angry Arthur by Hiawyn Oram. Satoshi took on the job of illustrating it and won the Mother Goose Award for the most exciting newcomer to children’s book illustration. The book also won him the Japanese Picture Book Award. On the completion of that book he had returned to Japan to resume his work in advertising, not convinced that he could make a living entirely from book illustration. He returned for the award ceremony and, numerous books and further awards later, is still here. ‘I’ve lived here for most of my adult life now so I think I must like it. My work is certainly better known here, though my books are published in Japan too.’ Because of his origins in such a contrasting visual culture, Satoshi is well placed to observe the comparative attitudes of the English and Japanese to their respective graphic traditions. ‘If Beatrix Potter or Edward Ardizzone had been born in Japan they would have galleries or museums devoted to them. It was the hundredth anniversary of the publication of the first Peter Rabbit book a couple of years ago and it passed very quietly here in England. A Lewis Carroll museum in Oxford would surely be big business. Did you know that Brian Wildsmith has a gallery in Japan? There is such a rich tradition here. I do sometimes think the English are a little bit embarrassed by pictures. Reading comic books for example is not considered to be something adults should do. Publishers over here seem to think that picture books are just for small children now.’ These insights are delivered in a respectful manner, with genuine concern for our undervaluing of the image and of our abundant history of indigenous graphic artists. ‘The classic English and American illustrated children’s books are more evident in Japan too. For example, people like Charles Keeping are still in print.’
As a child in Japan, Kitamura grew up with comics, and these have been a significant influence on his work. Of the western comic artists with which he is familiar, the ones that he speaks of most highly are George Herriman (Crazy Kat) and the great Winsor McCay. This empathy with the comic book form is evident in many of his books. His understanding of the sequential framed image and its potential for expressing time, or changing pace, is used to great effect in many of his picture books. In Comic Adventures of Boots (2002), Satoshi goes the whole way and presents the book in picture strip form, little slapstick comedy cameos interspersed with highly inventive visual ‘gags’.
There is a great sense of humanity in all of this work, in the drawing and in the essential good nature of the characters, and this is something I am conscious of in his company. I cannot detect an ounce of ego in Satoshi Kitamura, only a genuine love of drawing and of telling stories and a pleasure in the possibility that people might want to look at and read them. The esteem in which he is held by peers is illustrated by one of his most recent projects with Andersen. Once Upon an Ordinary School Day is a picture book published this month. It is written by fellow illustrator/author, Colin McNaughton, and is an uplifting tale of the effect that an inspired and unorthodox teacher can have on a small child. It’s about dreaming, and the book should be made compulsory reading for all SATs supporters. I was intrigued to know the story behind this collaboration. ‘I have known Colin a little bit for quite a time. We would meet now and again. Colin came to Andersen Press and said that he would like me to illustrate this. I think he felt that it was too personal for him to do. He was a little too close to it.’ It is always a painful experience for an illustrator to give an idea over to another artist to visualise. I wondered whether Colin had expressed strong views about how his text should be handled. ‘No, but he did insist that Mr Gee, the teacher, drive a Morris Traveller.’ The book is a gem, revealing a more lyrical side to the artist’s repertoire. It is an example of what can be achieved when two highly visual minds come together.
Animals with distinctively large and rather mournful eyes populate many of Kitamura’s books. There have been dinosaurs (A Boy Wants a Dinosaur, 1990) and goldfish (Goldfish Hide-and-Seek, 1997), but what is it about cats and sheep that he likes so much? ‘When Sheep Cannot Sleep was the first book that I wrote myself, and of course it came from the whole idea of counting sheep. Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing grew out of my having got carried away with the counting book, and introduced too many characters. The wolves arrived and the counting stopped and the story took over. So years later I remembered and adapted it.’ These deceptively simply drawn sheep seem somehow as convincing when represented grazing in a meadow as they are when shown in the more improbable scenario of cruising in Gogol’s open-top Bentley. The artist believes totally in them as characters so it is easy for us to. ‘And cats are so independent that they just make great characters.’
Illustrating poetry requires a particular sensitivity and empathy with words. Listening to Satoshi Kitamura on this subject reveals why he is so good at it. He talks with passion about the writers’ work. ‘John Agard’s poems give me ideas. It’s something about the way he writes. He is interested in ideas – science, maths, equations – but he’s also lyrical. Have you ever heard him read his poems? It’s like listening to music at a concert.’ He also enjoyed working with Roger McGough. They both, he says, ‘invite you to think and play with words. Illustrating poetry inspires you to think around the text. In Japan two hundred years ago, there was a tradition where poets would get together and one would write a poem and another would write a response. It feels a bit like that.’ With Agard’s Einstein, The Girl Who Hated Maths (2002), Kitamura took over the whole design of the book to create a total word/image interplay. The artist’s understanding of and respect for the writer’s words make this an extremely satisfying book.
As for working routine, a matter much discussed between illustrators, he is decidedly a morning person. ‘I get up very early. I used to get up late but now I start work by 6.00 am. Also, I need the daylight for colour work. In summer I follow the light and work much later, but at this time of the year, in the winter it’s frustrating.’ As far as working space is concerned, he tells me, ‘I live in a flat and pretty much the whole place is arranged like a studio.’
As we draw our meeting to a close, I am privileged to be shown an album of examples of two less well known strands to this artist’s work. The first of these is in the form of an interest in the illustrated letter and envelope, and he has amassed a collection of beautifully decorated correspondence between himself and other illustrators, in particular David McKee. The second unexpected treat was the discovery that Satoshi had recently held an exhibition of his experimental drawings and paintings at the Nirei Gallery in Yokohama. On show were a number of beautiful abstract works, complex patterns and shapes, unfamiliar and yet instantly recognisable. It’s something about that line.
Martin Salisbury is Course Director for MA Children’s Book Illustration at APU Cambridge.
Some of the many books
(published in hardback by Andersen Press and in paperback by Red Fox unless otherwise stated)
Angry Arthur, with Hiawyn Oram, 0 86264 017 2, £9.99 hbk, 0 09 919661 1, £4.99 pbk
A Boy Wants a Dinosaur, with Hiawyn Oram, 0 09 983490 1, £4.99 pbk
Comic Adventures of Boots, 1 84270 033 2, £9.99 hbk, 0 09 945623 0, £5.99 pbk
Einstein, The Girl Who Hated Maths, with John Agard, Hodder, 0 7502 4288 4, £4.99 pbk
Goldfish Hide-and-Seek, 0 86264 745 2, £9.99 hbk, 0 09 942307 3, £5.99 pbk
Hello H2O, with John Agard, Hodder, 0 7502 4289 2, £9.99 hbk
In the Attic, with Hiawyn Oram, Andersen Press, 1 84270 358 7, £4.99 pbk (May 2004)
Me and My Cat?, 0 86264 925 0, £9.99 hbk, 0 09 942307 3, £5.99 pbk
Once Upon an Ordinary School Day, with Colin McNaughton, 1 84270 309 9, £10.99 hbk
Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing, 0 86264 585 9, £9.99 hbk, 0 09 961081 7, £5.99 pbk
What’s Inside? The Alphabet Book, Andersen Press, 0 86264 756 8, £4.99 pbk
When Sheep Cannot Sleep, 0 09 950540 1, £4.99 pbk
As part of their 10th birthday celebrations this year, Happy Cat Books are bringing out new editions of classic picture books including Satoshi Kitamura’s Lily Takes a Walk (1 903285 57 7 £4.99) and Captain Toby (1 899248 81 1, £4.99).
* Children Reading Pictures by Evelyn Arizpe and Morag Styles, RoutledgeFalmer 2003, 0 415 27577 6, £18.99 pbk