Hervé Tullet’s much-loved picturebooks were first published in his native France but are now translated into more than 25 languages. Hervé’s books hit a zanily subversive spot that has immediate child-appeal yet always retains its depth and integrity: there is never a compromise between enjoyment and substance. Hervé has something important to say about curiosity and art and life, but he says it with an intuitive understanding of children and a playful lightness of touch that ensures his books are never dull.
During his recent artistic residency at Seven Stories – the UK’s national centre for children’s books in Newcastle upon Tyne – Hervé was invited to leave his mark on the building. Working with visitors he directed an ‘art attack’ on the centre’s gallery walls, as well as sharing his books and workshops with local schools. Since his residency, staff and family visitors have been buzzing with possibilities and nothing will ever be quite the same again – which, for Hervé, is definitely a job well done. More than anything else, Hervé believes his books should have an impact. They should spark something, be the start of a conversation, cause people to think and wonder and begin to change and grow.
With the publication of Mix It Up, the latest picturebook on his rapidly-increasing English-language list, Hervé continues to delight his audiences with an exploration of colour. They’re invited to unleash the magic within by tapping the pages and shaking them – even slamming them shut – and as with his other titles, an intuitive and open-hearted approach is the way to get the best out of the book. Mix It Up follows Press Here, which sets up a similar imaginative conceit in which the reader’s physical interaction with the book causes coloured dots to move and multiply. To harness a child’s understanding of the possibilities of the touchscreen and subvert it in the service of something quite different is pure Tullet, whose early career in advertising gave him insights that, coupled with his naturally improvisational nature and a desire to enter the mind of a child, helped him develop his approach. Advertising also convinced Tullet that nothing could be as important or challenging or necessary as the creation of a picturebook for a baby, and when his first son was born he gave up his job as an Art Director to focus his attention on the books that had been, until that point, an engaging hobby.
‘Babies are more intelligent than adults but they don’t tell us,’ jokes Tullet; ‘they’re too modest.’ Interestingly many of his younger titles have a much wider appeal, reinforcing the idea that his books tap into something really quite profound. But then, babies need ‘creative food’, as Tullet puts it, and so do their adults: something to ‘advance things, change things, surprise things, wake things up.’
Driven by a belief in the importance of really good visual material for developing minds together with a compulsion to take his ideas as far as they will go, Tullet explores colours, shapes and other concepts in ways that challenge fundamental notions of ‘what a book should be.’ From giant sculptures and mirrored pages to shadows playing along a bedroom wall, Tullet’s Game books – and many others – cannot be ‘read’ in the traditional sense of the word, but when he shares his books with an audience, Tullet demonstrates just how powerful such an experience can be. His readings are physical affairs in which books are blown on, twisted around, dropped on the floor and snapped shut. Children are given cues and conducted in an almost orchestral way throughout the reading and Tullet makes full use of intonation, gesture and the expectant pause.
‘I feel a huge excitement to communicate,’ says Tullet, describing his approach as an attempt to ‘create a dialogue with the audience; a space in which an experience can happen.’ Tullet does not intend an adult to use his books to communicate an idea to a child; rather, he would like them to explore it and make sense of it together.
What is a book, when all’s said and done, and what could it be? Tullet obviously enjoys pushing the boundaries of his artform and finds creative inspiration in pursuing these and other questions. His interest in the individual moments of a book experience, rather than a sense of unfolding narrative, together with his preoccupation with the imaginary space in which that experience takes place reflect his own artistic interests and influences. Tullet says that he can be ‘ill at ease with the idea of a drawing on a wall’, for example, but finds installations potentially much more memorable and arresting.
Tullet’s own creative process can be uncomfortable. A large amount of thinking and exploration time is required for each book. Once the book is ready to emerge it can happen quickly, partly because at this point Tullet works with an urgency that can feel quite oppressive. Press Here, for example, took shape over the course of only two days. Luckily for Tullet, he accepts and even welcomes the making of mistakes. Describing himself as the ‘Master of Errors’, part of Tullet’s creative process involves playing with improvised marks to inspire the work that follows.
Given Tullet’s need to be constantly challenged and intrigued, it’s no surprise that his technique and choice of media vary from book to book. He can take a graphic and painterly approach – on Alphabet Poem with Michael Rosen, for example – but many of his other books have no graphic representation at all.
‘Each book stands for itself,’ he says. ‘I’m not a theoretician or an educator… but a maker of books that explore an idea.’ And while he’s working on a book and taking its content and execution as far as it will go, he’s already thinking about the next.
Above all else, Tullet wants his readers to sit up, take notice and engage with his work. Time is always short, but ‘there’s still an enormous amount to do’, and one of the biggest satisfactions of the job is seeing children ‘running for the pencils’ once he’s finished a reading or a workshop and is leaving the room.
Carey Fluker Hunt is Creative Projects Manager of Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books.
Mix It Up, Chronicle Books, 978-1452137353, £9.99
Press Here, Chronicle Books, 978-0811879545, £9.99
Alphabet Poem, Milet Publishing, 978-1840593938, £10.99
The Game in the Dark, Phaidon Press, 978-0714864853, £7.95
Seven Stories welcomed Hervé Tullet as their Artist in Residence during September 2014. In an explosion of colour, paint and creativity, he launched a series of Artist in Residencies at their Visitor Centre by creating an installation which culminated in a vibrant celebration. Enthusiastic 18-25 year olds were offered the opportunity to support Hervé during his residency, in a unique chance for visitors to work alongside a major international artist and creator of picturebooks. The first in a new series of Baby Blop messy play sessions for the very young took place, leading to memorable sights of babies let loose with paint on the gallery walls. Further sessions will take place throughout the autumn.
In celebration of European Languages Day, Hervé also accompanied Seven Stories into Easterside Primary School in Middlesbrough where they were delivering special Reading For Pleasure in French workshops, sharing French picturebooks with English-speaking children to stimulate their curiosity and visual awareness as well as promote real-life foreign language learning.
Seven Stories’ Artist in Residency programme will continue in January 2015 when the centre welcomes rising star and award-winning author and illustrator Yasmeen Ismail. See www.sevenstories.org.uk