Armin Greder is well-known for his thought-provoking, challenging and highly impactful picture books for older readers and adults. His book The Mediterranean was an Honour Book in the 2019 CBCA Picture Book of the Year Awards. Born in Switzerland, he migrated to Australia in 1971, but now lives in Lima, Peru. In this article he introduces a key character in his haunting picture book The Island.
One difference between a novel and a stage script is that the novel is complete in itself while the stage script is dependent on others – the actors – to be given its final form. The playwright accordingly leaves room in the text for the actors to fill – the writer leaves the adjectives to the actors, as Helen Garner once put it.
Now if I replace actors with illustrators, I have the exact same situation for picture books: if all is to turn out well, the text must allow room for the illustrations to do their part. Some authors don’t understand this and consequently propose texts so descriptive that illustrations become superfluous. But if they know what they are doing an apparent loss becomes a gain: words and pictures multiply each other.
In The Island a refugee arrives on an island. The xenophobic inhabitants put him in an isolated place far from their village and leave him there. Then one day he appears in town. That scene occupies a double spread with a single line of text, ‘Then one morning the man appeared in town’, and an image of a woman.
The text is explicit – it leaves no doubt whatsoever about what is happening but it is prosaic, even dull. The image, on the other hand, is expressive enough: a woman of a certain age, panicking. But if the picture says plainly what is happening, it doesn’t say why. It is only when the reader creates a bridge between the picture and the words – an exercise in creativity that demands joining two apparently unrelated elements – that the story explodes: the banal words are suddenly infused with emotion and the whole extent of what ‘the man appeared in town’ means is revealed.
Readers will see in the image of the woman The Scream by Edvard Munch. They are not wrong: after all, if Munch drew his character in this attitude and not in another it was because he couldn’t conceive of a more effective way to express bottomless anxiety. Neither could I. One difference, though: Munch’s character is deathly serious; mine is a caricature and as such can’t be taken seriously. Which is precisely the point: the panic of the woman is unreasonable.
In The Inheritance the technique I used is compressed charcoal and pastel. The compressed charcoal allows me the necessary control to get my pictures to do what I want them to do without killing the expressive quality of the drawing. And the pastel because it is a cousin of the charcoal.
The Island by Armin Greder is published by Allen & Unwin, 978-1741752663, £11.99 hbk
The Inheritance by Armin Greder is published by Allen & Unwin, 978-1911679219, £12.99 hbk