In 1983 the Bodley Head publicity calendar had for illustration a lively picture story showing how a book is made. It was informative, colourful and witty; it also contained instructions for cutting and folding which, if followed, turned the illustration into a miniature book. Such thoroughness in pursuing an idea to its logical conclusion is characteristic of the artist who designed and drew the calendar: it was Aliki.
In October How a Book is Made, much expanded from the calendar, is published in book form. Pat Triggs talks to Aliki about her approach to information books for children.
Aliki is an American artist who has lived in London since 1977. She has a string of delightful picture books to her name and has illustrated stories by her husband, Franz Brandenberg; but in particular she has a unique and distinctive way with information. It is a style which has been developing steadily since her first information books were published in the USA in the sixties.
Returning from Europe to the States, Aliki and her Swiss husband, Franz, settled in New York. She took her art school training into advertising and found she hated everything about it. Looking for a way out she took her portfolio around the publishing houses. The book business was booming and before long she was being offered the chance to produce a book about Dinosaurs. She said, ‘I don’t know anything about Dinosaurs.’ He said, ‘Great.’
Looking back to that incident and that book Aliki says, ‘Now I know what he meant. I have a friend who knows everything about birds. His books are not successful because he knows too much; he doesn’t know what his readers don’t know.’
So Aliki started to find out about dinosaurs and the resulting book, My Visit to the Dinosaurs, has about it the freshness of a child’s first encounter with those compelling, awe-inspiring fossils. How many facts to include, how to present them, what to do about specialised language: these are all problems facing the creators of information books. What goes into an Aliki book is determined by her remarkable ability to see and feel like a child. No matter how exhaustive the research, and it is frequently as extensive and detailed as it would be for an adult book, when the book is being planned, written and drawn Aliki is writing for herself, but with a part of herself which can still conjure up the perspectives, the preoccupations, the responses of childhood. So that first dinosaur book acknowledges that huge dinosaur skeletons can be frightening, that eating and survival and having 1,600 teeth are interesting. Here also are the first of the little jokes and asides that now regularly punctuate the illustrations in an Aliki book, lightening the tone and offering additional information: in the museum beside a notice requesting ‘Quiet’, children shout and jump with excitement.
In addition to that carried by the pictures and the main text, information Aliki-style comes in speech bubbles, supplementary hand-lettered text, labels, notices. She knows that children are put off by large, dense blocks of words; spreading the commentary on the pictures among different sources makes it possible to simplify or amplify, to smooth out complications, engage interest, point up details. The readers can take as much or as little as they feel able to handle. ‘Books are so expensive,’ Aliki says, ‘you should be able to go back to them again and again and find new things in them.’
That’s a criterion her books certainly meet. In the early days her response to a request for a second dinosaur book was, ‘Beside their names what is there?’ Now it’s more a case of when to stop. She is a dedicated researcher. On a visit to London (the one that convinced them to stay) the whole Brandenberg family, but especially children Jason and Alexa, got very excited about the Egyptian mummies in the British Museum. ‘I was going to do a book just about unwrapping them – then I found there was so much more.’ The ‘so much more’ which found its way into Mummies Made in Egypt includes information about Egyptian history and religion as well as highly detailed accounts of embalming, tomb building, funeral ceremonies etc. The illustrations are all in the Egyptian style, many adapted from paintings and sculptures found during the research. For this meticulous attention to detail Aliki blames one of her American editors, Barbara Fenton. `She’s the kind of person who goes inside of you and takes out so much more than you think you have. She adds so many facets to whatever I thought I could do. The more questions she asks the more I discover. Now we try to outdo each other with how much more we can get into and out of a book.’
A Medieval Feast was commissioned in New York and suggested because of Aliki’s love of cooking and baking. ‘That book was a direct result of our move here. I wanted to do a book about England and English history. I visited churches, castles, houses with my sketch book. I read and read and read – there was so much I didn’t know about flowers, plants, what people grew and ate in the Middle Ages. I’m passionate about gardening too so that was another pleasure.
The problem of how to present all this for children was solved with the idea of someone coming to visit. ‘A neighbour told me about royal visits and how expensive they were for the hosts.’ There was the shape of the story and the cue for the less than delighted expressions on the faces of the lord and lady of Camdenton Manor as they receive news that the king and his court are intending to stay for a few nights. ‘Everything in that book comes from a specific source except for the kitchen. I couldn’t find a picture of a kitchen. I nearly put a cat in, although I had never seen one in a medieval manuscript. I’m glad I didn’t; I’ve since discovered that cats were bad luck and they were never put into pictures.’
With How a Book is Made Aliki must have won the competition for ‘getting things in’ hands down. There is everything in it from the author getting the idea to the book in the library and bookshop and eventually in the reader’s hands. There is technical information about computerised typesetting and the four-colour process, the off-set printing press and book binding, about selling, marketing and publicity. Yet it remains a book that can be enjoyed by children of all ages – younger children can skip the complex bits.’
‘I did most of the research for the calendar and being in books myself 1 knew some of it very well. But’ (familiar caveat) ‘I needed to go into some things in greater depth.’ The printing process for example. ‘I had to understand it completely. I don’t have that kind of mind. I used to draw very superficially until Jason was born. He never sat on a see-saw; he was always underneath it finding out how it worked. I’ve learned so much from him. For this I had to understand exactly how the paper went through, why the paint didn’t smudge. Lots of people helped me.’
How a Book is Made has a cast of cats. ‘I thought it would make it less serious. It could have become very dreary; I thought the cats would allow me to give it more humour, more lightness.’ It also meant not having to draw her editor – though everyone in the book is modelled on a real person and sometimes the resemblance is strong, ‘even though I didn’t intend it to be.’
Almost the first thing Aliki did for How a Book is Made was to write the book The Sunny Day which is described `being made’. That’s typical of a thoroughness that won’t sell children short. If the books are successful it is because so much care and thought has gone into them, often years of thinking and mulling over. ‘It takes a long time for a book to come out; the yeast has to rise, you can’t force it. When I start I still don’t know what will happen until the pen hits the paper. If it’s the right time the manuscript comes quickly and I go on to making the dummy, that’s the most creative and exciting part. After that it’s just a question of perfecting the message.’ And perfecting … and perfecting …
My Visit to the Dinosaurs, A & C Black, 0 7136 1148 0, £2.50
Fossils Tell of Long Ago, A & C Black, 0 7136 1360 2, £2.50
Digging Up Dinosaurs, Bodley Head, 0 370 30441 1, £4.50
Mummies Made in Egypt, Bodley Head, 0 370 30322 9, £4.95
A Medieval Feast, Bodley Head, 0 370 30979 0, £5.95
How a Book is Made, Bodley Head, 0 370 31003 9, £6.95