As a child did you ever flip through a storybook just to peek at the pictures first? Fewer the visuals, the more boring the book must be. Did you ever find yourself having arrived at that universal children's conclusion:
While a story is a magical thing, half the fun is in how it comes alive through visuals? And what do you know? It's actually a clan of adults who are doodling away to spark a child's imagination. Illustrators of children's books in India may not be festooned with the kind of recognition as word slingers, but their talent is nothing that can be ignored.
How do these artists manage to tell stories sans words; that too to children? M Kathiravan has recently demonstrated this by bringing to life a charming cute cricket maniac called Anirudh in the children's story Cricketmatics.
"I heard the story and gave my publisher Karadi tales, three options as Anirudh and they picked the option that I liked the most myself," he reveals.
Hailing from a background in animation where he has to draw a movement frame by frame, the sketches came easy to him, he confesses. After which he added colour on the computer with a software called Paint. The time-frame it took him to finish the book was about 15-20 days.
While this is Kathiravan's first whole book, Nina Sadnani, a professor at IIT, Bombay has been working on children's books since the early 90s, mostly with Tulika as her publisher. Sadnani whose first book was about the digit zero called All About Nothing, likes to experiment with her styles.
In her book My Mother's Sari she has mixed photographs of real saris with paintings/drawings of little children playing with it. In her recent work Home, she has scanned different bricks and then developed them on the computer, she says.
Unlike Kathiravan and Sadnani, artist Indrapramit Roy likes conjuring visuals the old school way – painting by hand. Roy explains that his book the The Very Hungry Lion has illustrations inspired by the Warli style of tribal art on handmade paper from Pondicherry, while a few other books follow a Greek style.
Not only has The Very Hungry Lion been requested by the Getty Museum for display it has also been translated into five international languages, he says.
But does a child really dissect a book and discuss the illustrator's style? "Children are not aesthetically inclined art critics," says Sadnani chuckling. A book has to reach out to a child.
"You have to simplify a story. While you have to say more than the text, you still have to leave room for the imagination. Do less to get more," she continues. Kathiravan nods that an illustrator must never say what the writer is already saying. Anita Roy of Young Zubaan Publishing house tackles the question: "The illustrations must spark the imagination of a child. They must express different kinds of emotions and the narrative should let the child imagine."
"An illustrator must make sure there's a connect between the text and the illustrations," chips in Gita Wolf of Tara Books.
Asked about the quality that an illustrator for children's books needs to possess, the clique responds identically: Their answer composing of traits such as patience, imagination and continuous reinvention of style.
Atanu Roy, one of India's most respected illustrators for children's books who is currently working on a book of collected stories by Ruskin Bond and a couple of books for the National Book Trust offers his views:
The most important skill is not to be condescending towards children and to have a good sense of humour. It is also very important to feel for the needs of each age group and create a style. A lot of background work for the right references to be visually accurate and use of detail and action to grab the child's attention is essential. A child is more interested in the content and not your name or fame."
Is illustrating for children a viable career option? Can the job of visual storytelling put food on the table? Sabnani lends some no-nonsense advice. "Have another job," she says, before explaining, "It's like any other creative profession. I probably make one month's salary working on a book. Also publishers might want different styles, they won't give you an assignment all the time. It's really not a factory"
With experience backing him, Roy writes in his email, "One has to pursue it as a passion and not depend on it as a full time career till one is established. It is a slow process. If you are good in drawing, especially sketching and feel for kids then there is loads of work."
According to Anita Roy it would be extremely rare for any illustrator to be solely dependant on illustrating, "I've met a lot of international illustrators at the Bologna Children's Book Fair, Italy, an annual international meet and I've never come across anyone who is completely dependant on illustrating for children books as a livelihood.”