Jan Ormerod (1946 – 2013)
Jan Ormerod the author and illustrator has died after a short illness. Jan grew up in Western Australia. After art school she taught in secondary schools before moving to the UK in 1980. Her first picture book, Sunshine, drew on her experience as a mother and established her distinctive warm style that immediately draws the reader into the child’s world. It won the Mother Goose Award, was voted Book of the Year by the Children’s Book Council of Australia and was to be highly commended for the Kate Greenaway Medal. It was a wonderful start to Jan’s picture book career – she went on to publish over over fifty titles.
Her friend Jana Hunter remembers her.
It was Penguin who introduced Jan and I to one another in the late eighties. We shared a passion for children’s books, a love of ballet and a totally irreverent sense of humour, which quickly developed into a lifelong friendship.
Jan’s entry into children’s books in 1981 was so ground breaking that its resonance is still felt. Her lyrical and sensitive line set against neutral space, juxtaposed with startling areas of flat colour was Japanese in influence. This for children’s books was visually original, but it was also Jan’s breaking up of fleeting moments into separate frames, not unlike film frames, that was different. Jan saw everything as a film director, capturing moments and melding them together to form a visual narrative. She would also use split frames to show concurrent flashes, including those happening in different places. This was beautifully shown in Chicken Licken where two separate narratives take place. A boldy-coloured story of children putting on a play is contrasted below by the black and white silhouette drawings of the audience. The sneaky thing is, a baby escaping from its basket is crawling towards the left in direct opposition to the narrative and page turning sequence of the book. It sounds simple, but like everything Jan did, it was deceptively clever and her mantra of ‘less is more’ would make her work over and over again until she had distilled a complex idea into a simple picture, where every line played its part.
Jan was a professional in every sense. As an avid admirer of her work, I was often dismayed at the gems she threw out, but Jan was a perfectionist.
And as a perfectionist, there were sometimes crises. One time I watched as Jan dumped a whole series of spreads into the bath. I was aghast. But as the coloured water floated off the paper, Jan worked swiftly. She laid the pages on the floor, blotted them and dried them with a hair drier. The result was just what she’d wanted. The dark colour of the little girl had been too strong, and now diluted it was perfect. ‘We have to make camera-ready images,’ Jan would say, ‘how we get there does not matter’. So, in those pre-Photoshop days, she would paint over things with white out, cut and paste paper and scratch off to erase. Her fearlessness was inspiring.
When the illustrator Sue Porter and I opened Bear Studios, Jan became a frequent visitor. Bear studios was a meeting place and it was here she met and became friends with Carol Thompson who was to illustrate Jan’s final book, Looking for Rex. At Bear Studios illustrators and writers would discuss projects, offer suggestions and prop up one another. Advice was not always easy to take, but the mutually supportive atmosphere helped, and the guidance was rarely wrong.
Jan was brave in both her advice and her creative journey. Although her work was classic, she continued to cross boundaries, using different techniques and treatments. In When An Elephant Comes to School she used an intricate and delicate cutting of paper collage. Known for her line, in Kiss it Better she dared to go into flat blocks of colour without outline. She explored pattern and texture, light and shade and negative spaces. She employed novelty concepts. And she began to write. When she wrote Lizzie Nonsense, the story of her own grandmother, she knew that this chronicle set in the heat of the Australian landscape needed a new approach, and that was painterly. So she set to work, exploring brushstrokes and paint spraying. She was tireless in her search for the right answer. She also did weeks of research on life in early Australia. She discovered how pioneers used rusted cans for bathing a baby, how the inside of their homes were dark caves against the bleached out colours of the landscape and how the heat was pitiless. She knew that water was a cherished commodity (later to be used in Water Witcher) and there was a constant threat of wild creatures. She drew pages of corsets until she understood how Lizzie’s mother would stand, the shape of her, her weight and balance, how she would move and the curving arabesques of her lines. The result was arrestingly beautiful and was an Australian IBBY Honour Book.
The legacy Jan Ormerod leaves is enormous, but as she would say the most important part is that small, quiet moment where a child engages with a book, alive to new experiences. She is survived by two daughters and two grandchildren. She will be much missed.