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‘We learn to listen through story’: Ruth Paul

Ruth Paul

Ruth Paul   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

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Ahead of Bookaroo, the annual fest of children’s literature, New Zealand-based illustrator Ruth Paul on picture books and their place in children’s lives

Having come to Delhi all the way from her straw-bale home, on a farm just outside of Wellington in New Zealand, illustrator Ruth Paul, will be in sessions at the Bookaroo Festival of Children’s Literature this Sunday. It’s been 15 years now since she started writing and illustrating her own picture books. Ahead of her first visit to India for Bookaroo, she talks about how she does it, and the importance of picture books over animated stories. Edited excerpts.

How much of an advantage is it to write and illustrate your own vision for a book?

Being able to both write and illustrate a picture book story gives me much more control. I can change the words as I illustrate, or change the illustrations as I write, to keep the two forms weaving together. I feel that by doing both, I have only myself to disappoint if I don’t get the mix right.

You’ve illustrated books of writers before. What was that experience like and have you stopped doing that?

I am currently illustrating a series about a miniature horse called “Mini Whinny” written by Stacy Gregg and published by Scholastic NZ/Australia. We are making the third book in the series now. Generally, I like to write my own stories as I have more creative control and that can be quite satisfying. Also, by doing both I earn twice as much! But I can only fit in one book series that I haven’t written myself as I take quite a long time to illustrate. I wish I had a faster technique but my process is quite labour intensive.

A lot of your stories are about animals. Considering children in cities today are so cut off from them, what are the kinds of reactions you’ve encountered from children and their parents?

The use of animals in picture books is often anthropomorphic — they exhibit characteristics or traits of humans and play out human stories. I guess one reason they are used so often is because they can visually cross race, age, and gender barriers. No-one asks what colour skin a crocodile has, or whether the jellyfish is male or female. Then again, the animal is often central to the story and awareness-raising. For instance, I am doing a series with Penguin RandomHouse NZ at present and the main character is a New Zealand’s Hectors dolphin, the smallest dolphin breed in the world and an endangered species in our local waters. By using Little Hector as a main character I can address threats to his life and environment such as fishing nets, plastic waste and natural predators, quietly passing on information about them but doing it through a (hopefully) engaging story for the very young.

‘We learn to listen through story’: Ruth Paul

You’ve described your process before, but how long does a book typically take – is it intense and over quickly or is a long process?

Oh, sadly I’m a dawdler. I take time to think things through and get really impatient with my process. I have worked out now that Stage 1 of my process is to grind out thoughts and drawings on paper with a pencil until I get a whole set of legible scribbles down for each page. This can take a month or more. Then I move to Stage 2 which involves throwing away Stage 1 and starting again. I can do the same for Stage 3 also. I wish I was one of those artists who had a wonderful, fluid style that comes naturally and painlessly but I’m not that person. I keep thinking I have to reinvent the wheel, and imagine I am doing so stylistically, but when I see all my books together I realise they have a similarity of style that is surprising to me.

Do you find in your interaction with children that when a child is told stories they tend to read more or be better storytellers?

It’s not that children become better readers or storytellers, but that they become better people! We learn to listen through story, how to work out problems and to understand the world through metaphor. I think the method of delivering the storyis less relevant than the quality of that presentation and the connection it has with it's audience. However, I think picture books are and very different to an animated video, as they task young children to make mental connections between the pages and images, developing their brains’ capacity to create a narrative.

Do you always work with water colours? What is it about them that you like?

I think colour is very instinctive and my perception of it might be different to others. I love colour, I love the balance and interplay of colours with each other. I can spend a long time trying to create the perfect colour balance, only later realising that maybe other people don’t even notice! I can’t get my head around what it would be like to be colour-blind, or fully blind and not to think in colour, although I know this is common for many.

Are books that win awards also the most popular with kids?

Not always. Books that win awards are not always the books that sell abundantly, and vice versa. Books about farts and bums and other rude things always sell well but are generally not recipients of literary awards. I think it is good that awards are given for merit and not sales tho, as sometimes we need to encourage and support the wonderful meaningful stories that will not get told if we rely solely on market sales as the deciding factor in publication. Most big publishing houses keep a healthy balance between their less-award-wining blockbuster sales books and their more boutique potentially award-winning publications. They are businesses after all, but most people in those business are there because they love reading in the first place. The big win is when a book is both a blockbuster and an award winner!

Typically, we see picture books as books for young children. Have you considered doing them for older children who are ‘supposed to’ be reading, but may be just more visually inclined?

In our library, these picture books for older readers were called “sophisticated” picture books. Graphic novels, or comics, also cover this group and in recent years have become very respected in the literary and publishing worlds. I seem to be doing the opposite, working towards much younger audiences as I get older, so by the time I’m 80 I should be making brilliant books for babies.

What are you most looking forward to, at Bookaroo?

Surviving! I’ve never been to India so know nothing about the heat or the dust or the crowds or wonderfulness that will come. I hope I can share something fun and colourful under the Kahani Tree, but each time I tell a story it is different and totally depends on the audience. I also can’t wait to see all the Indian-published stories and illustration and will probably go home with a very heavy suitcase.

Bookaroo Festival of Children’s Literature, November 30th - December 1st, 2019, 10:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m., Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts

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Printable version | Dec 15, 2019 11:32:29 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/we-learn-to-listen-through-story-ruth-paul/article30123645.ece

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