Belgian illustrator Kitty Crowther won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2010 when the jury commended her as ‘a master of line but also of atmosphere’ adding that ‘in her world, the door between imagination and reality is wide open. She addresses the reader gently and personally, but with profound effect.’ Here she talks about her Poka & Mia books, stories about two little insects, and discusses the influences on her work.
There are seven books in the Poka & Mia series, four of which are now available in English, thanks to Tate Publishing. I began the series ten years ago.
Once a year, I would work on a book with a powerful subject matter, tackling strong themes that might be serious or profound, tinged with the kind of mystery that exceeds my own understanding most of the time. I often talk about how I don’t feel as if I choose my stories.
But in between those books dealing with big topics, I felt the need to talk about the charms of daily life (rather in the vein of the Japanese, who know how to do this so well); the day-to-day pleasures and troubles that make what’s happening around us so compelling. Isn’t it always a matter of how we look at things, how we position ourselves in relation to events? As a mother of two fantastic boys, I was keen to talk about the ‘big’ adventures of everyday life, which play such an important part in our childhoods
I adore the tenderness and complicity of Arnold Lobel. He makes it possible for the readers to understand what the characters can’t. I devoured Frog and Toad Are Friends when I was a little girl. I have boundless admiration for Tove Janson, but sadly I cannot copy her (it would be wrong to borrow her clothes without her permission, and without her knowing). I was captivated by her ability to draw her Moomins with no mouths. A reminder that when we draw a character, in two or three strokes, we have to be completely present in order to bring it alive. I’ve always had a high regard for the sense of anxiety that stalks Tove Janson’s work. As a child, I can remember those famous lurchings between security and a sense of danger.
The two other sources of inspiration for Poka & Mia are Ernest and Célestine, by the great Belgian author illustrator, Gabrielle Vincent (which are stories about the many single-parent families in our societies); and Olof and Lena Landström’s Nisse books.These are all about the wonderful tenderness and magic of everyday life. And then, isn’t the most interesting thing on earth our bond with someone else? The very first bond: with one’s mother and/or one’s father? This influences us for the rest of our lives.
So I wanted to capture all of this in the Poka & Mia stories. I could have drawn the characters as mice, or cats. But, for one thing, I love inventing new worlds. Secondly, I like to set myself a challenge: how could I make insects endearing? And, above all, how could I recreate worlds that were rarely frequented, or loved. Children often ask me what sort of insects they are. My answer: ‘No idea. Does it matter?’
Insects are the most prolific form of animal life on the planet. There are 1.5 million species of insect on this earth. And every day, new varieties are being discovered. So I decided it was fine to invent another one. This is also my way of saying: look around you, under a stone, or between the roots, and see how it’s teeming with life out there. It’s fascinating and beautiful (I promise you).
These moments are like Russian dolls: you think you know a little about the world around you, and then you discover that you know hardly anything.
The Poka & Mia books are published by Tate Publishing Ltd. The latest two, Poka & Mia Wakey-Wakey and Poka & Mia At the Bottom of the Garden come out in February, £6.99 each hbk.
Thank you to Sarah Ardizzone for translating Kitty Crowther’s article from the French.