Knowing Nothing, Understanding Everything

Meet four creatives changing the face of children’s picture books.


Nobody wants to be defined as a children’s illustrator, and those who’ve produced an abundance of kids’ titles will protest that it’s not all they do; that they’re capable of more. Even great names like Tove Jansson, Quentin Blake and Tomi Ungerer harboured designs on other careers before embracing the profession that made them famous — although Jansson never quite recovered from sidelining her fine art practice and Tomi Ungerer kept himself entertained with the prolific creation of erotica.

“I am not a children’s illustrator,” asserts Hervé Tullet, arguably one of the most experimental and progressive masters of the medium to emerge from the last two decades. “I’m a children’s illustrator also, but an illustrator first — I’ve done illustrations for magazines, advertising, all sorts of stuff. Now I feel I’m someone who conceives of children’s books, who sets them up. But I’m not a children’s illustrator.”

Katja Spitzer feels the same; “I’ve never wanted to be a children’s illustrator and I don’t consider myself a specialist. I make work for all sorts of different purposes. Like for adults as well.” It’s an issue that crops up with all four of the practitioners I speak to for this article; Hervé Tullet, Katja Spitzer, Jürg Lindenburger and Maggie Li. Having approached them for their engaging and unique contribution to the field I discover that none of them want to be pigeonholed by a term they feel is pejorative, overly prescriptive and limits the way that other areas of the industry perceive them. Either that or they insist they slipped into making kids’ books quite by accident.

“Illustration was always something I wanted to do as a kid,” says Jürg. Since April 2014 he’s been chief illustrator for London-based kids’ magazine Anorak, creating covers for their books and magazines and illustrating their regular features. “When I was really young I always thought it would be so cool to do that with my life, but I never thought it would be a possible career. Later on when I did manage to make a living out of it the style of work I was producing didn’t really apply to anything other than kids stuff. Lots of clients would tell me that everything was too childish for them. So I think I just naturally fell into this.”

Jürg Lindenburger

Maggie Li tells a similar story. “It’s funny because when you first emailed my initial reaction was ‘Oh shit, it’s children’s stuff!’ but it’s just something I fell into. When you do an illustration degree there’s always a standard children’s module where you have to come up with a story, illustrate it and send it to a publisher. Mine was rubbish and I really didn’t want to do it, but other people were really good at coming up with stories and making picture books.

One of the main frustrations with the children’s book industry is the lack of will shown by publishers to experiment with what they produce. Books are made to appeal broadly to a stereotypical idea of childish interests and to deal with subjects that kids’ parents will feel comfortable with. “They think they know what children want or are supposed to want,” says Hervé, “and they just give them what they’re supposed to need.”

Maggie concurs; “British children’s book publishing is frustrating because it’s really limiting in terms of what they accept. They want conventional ideas and for everything to have a happy ending. Parents don’t want to give their children a book about death because they’re supposed to be protecting them and not exposing them to things like that. But ultimately it means a lot of interesting books don’t get published and you shy away from subjects that have the potential to offend.

“If you compare books that get published in France or Germany they’re much more adventurous and interesting. Duck, Death and the Tulip is a German book that deals with death in a really interesting way but nobody took it on here because of the colour palettes, the subject; it was just really subdued. Even if a small publisher will release it places like Waterstones won’t take it, the supermarkets won’t take it, and they pretty much dictate everything in terms of what’s published.”

Hervé Tullet worked in advertising for over 12 years before becoming an illustrator. Tired by the lack of creative freedom in his work he traded ad-land for a freelance career and has never once looked back. As a native Frenchman he acknowledges the rich history of illustrated books in Europe, but insists that producing great work still depends on finding the right kind of publisher. “I was very lucky because from the start I met fantastic publishers, and this is a very important part of making things work. I met people who made me feel free to think and didn’t have a specific idea about what a book for children should be. More than that, they were conscious of the fact that a book for a child could be something totally new; something that had never existed before and could be all about experimentation.”

Maggie Li

When his first book launched in France Hervé achieved immediate success, but finding a publisher overseas proved difficult. “Bookshops would say my work was too French and that it wouldn’t work for a UK audience. When I did finally find a publisher it was a small one called Milet and for a year it didn’t sell. It wasn’t until the Tate opened and the bookshop bought some of them that it started to do well. Then they bought more and more and it started to do really well. But at the beginning the market was closed to new authors like me.”

This closed-mindedness is something Katja Spitzer believes is a modern problem. Growing up in the German Democratic Republic her greatest influence was Heinrich Hoffmann, a psychiatrist-turned-author who’s violently satirical book Struwwelpeter cautioned children against the dangers of misbehaviour. “The books I knew from my childhood were rough. There were dogs from hell and skinny horses that were creepy and fascinating, but I didn’t grow up into a psychopath; it wasn’t wrong to show me those kinds of images. Today we are too scared. The publishers are afraid to make books that aren’t lovely and nice and have sweet stories. They’re afraid to make better books, or braver books, or rougher books. They’re afraid to even show a knife or a gun in a book out of fear that parents won’t buy it because they don’t want to show their children how the world really is. You can’t even show a kid standing on a stool because it’s not safe.

“The books from my childhood, from the 1970s and 1980s, are more interesting. They aren’t so controlled like they are today. You could do more as an illustrator whereas now you have to avoid things and be careful because of the publishers. They just don’t want to make unusual things anymore.”

Hervé believes that children are capable of understanding more than both parents and publishers are prepared to give them credit for and have a resilience that we rarely acknowledge. “I am sure that children don’t know anything, so they understand everything, or they are able to understand everything. They are here to experiment, and if they don’t know anything then anything could be possible and everything is good — except pornography. They’re able to learn about everything — a Hieronymous Bosch painting or whatever — because there are no rules. And I like to make books that have no rules.”

Rule-breaking is certainly Hervé’s forte. His most recent book Press Here, turns the concept of a children’s book on its head, removing characters, storylines and moral conditioning in favour of pure tactile enjoyment. Page one features a single dot that you’re invited to touch. On turning the page the dot has changed colour and you’re asked to press again. From then on a whole array of interactions occur with the book that affect the composition of coloured dots on the subsequent page — which has a profound effect on readers of any age, inviting a leap of imagination from children and a suspension of disbelief from adults.

Maggie believes this level of freedom is vital to a great kids’ book. “Kids are amazing; they’re like blank canvases and they’re not stifled like adults. Allowing kids to interpret things on their own is really important otherwise you’re just spoon-feeding them these really regular stories.”

Hervé Tullet

As art director of OKIDO magazine she’s had plenty of experience publishing work for children with total creative freedom. When OKIDO started seven years ago it was a direct response to the lack of educational and exciting material available to the founders’ children. “There just weren’t enough publications out there that were interesting and creative and not completely patronising. We tried really hard not to patronise our kids and not force-feed them information. We’d have a comic strip of something gross and people would ask what it meant. But really it doesn’t matter. Kids will colour it in and enjoy it, so what it means isn’t really important.”

She also cites the importance of creating work about subjects with practical applications. “One subject we covered in My Head-to-Toe Body Book was going to the toilet, and we were told this would be really difficult because Americans hate talking about poo — which I thought was weird. But kids of about five talk about going to the toilet very freely, and they should. They shouldn’t be embarrassed about it and we’re capable of talking about it very normally. But we still ended up discussing how we could cover the subject in a way that wouldn’t offend people. We had a drawing of a poo in the toilet and we had to take the poo out. I suppose poo is a little bit taboo here, and in America people get shy about stuff.”

Jürg believes that maintaining creative freedom and preserving his childlike mind makes it easy to create work for kids without over-thinking it. “I’ve never really made a whole kids book,” he says, “but when I’m working I don’t really try to imagine the audience. I just do what I like.

“I definitely think that I’ve never really grown up and never let myself become an adult. When I went to work in an office I just thought ‘My God! This is not what I want to do,’ and so I’ve always tried to keep away from that kind of environment. That’s why illustration was always so appealing to me; to let me be free in more ways; like if the sun is shining I can go out and explore. I just really never wanted to be involved in the adult world.”

Katja Spitzer

Hervé’s motivations are slightly different and he aims to involve kids in his world more than the other way round. “I don’t really make books for children, I make books for me. Also I create books for reading and reading is an experience that’s shared between a child and an adult; the book is just something in the middle. It’s the same as when adults and kids go to a museum, there’s a picture on the wall and their interaction with it is a shared experience. So my books aim to create a similar kind of interaction. I mean, there’s no text — the text will be written by the readers.”

This experimental approach goes beyond printed matter. For years Hervé has run workshops in schools where he encourages kids to express themselves creatively in an environment that sounds pretty chaotic. “I’ll be barefoot outside on a sunny day, the music is loud, there’s paint everywhere and the children are just walking and running around like it’s San Francisco in the 1970s. In many ways I feel very related to the 1970s as a period of freedom in music and experimentation. It was a very modern time — more human.

“From the very beginning I was invited into schools to promote my books and I tried to work out what my job would be when I got there. I started to realise that I could provide something more for the kids, that was separate from promotion. It was then that I discovered improvisation.”

This hands-on approach to creativity feels at odds with an industry that’s embracing digital media without hesitation. Kids today spend huge amounts of their time connected to devices on which they’re encouraged to both learn and play. But while it’s easy to mourn a generation lost to electronics it’s a debate that crops up with each new form of technology and one with which few of our illustrators have much interest in engaging.

For Maggie that’s because OKIDO are currently in the process of developing a television series for the BBC, and, “translating the magazine into digital content is great for spreading the word about what we do, and kids with iPads isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Things have to move on and change, but we can use these devices to make them creative and curious too.

“I’d love to do a digital game for one of my books; something that really brings it to life. Sometimes you make things that you’d love to see animated and it’s interesting to explore that side of digital, to see what it can do to your work.”

Jürg Lindenburger

Katja is of a similar mind; “What’s interesting about new media are all the possibilities. If you look at something like Christoph Niemann’s Petting Zoo app, it’s not just an animated eBook. He’s actively made things that you can’t create in print. There’s a giraffe that licks you through the monitor and all these other amazing effects. For me this is fascinating and in the future would be a challenging thing for me to do.”

Even Hervé has produced an iPad version of Press Here, although he insists that there’s no point in repeating yourself digitally. “Of course I have done apps but as with all my work it’s about finding your own way to create the rules. I’ve created things that belong to me and to my way of thinking, which is great. But in terms of just turning books into apps and creating digital effects that look like a turning page I don’t see the point. Apps should be deep and when you copy a book it’s all surface. There are many wonderful apps out there but you have to find ways of turning them into something different.”

It’s only Jürg who really worries about a generation of kids addicted to digital devices. “I hope they learn how to deal with the internet,” he says. “It all seems very challenging at the moment for us and the generation before us. It feels like a difficult thing to escape from; the way people find themselves addicted to Facebook. Maybe it’s great that kids can have the internet as part of their lives but I hope they still enjoy going outside and being offline.”

But that doesn’t seem surprising for a man who’s illustration philosophy is as simple as they come. “Kids can’t just learn how to be good at maths. They also have to learn how to live their lives and have fun, and that’s the most important part of what I do.”


Originally published in Printed Pages Summer 2014.

Photographs by Jake Green