Have you noticed the way children’s books in India have become more aesthetically appealing over the last few years? Talented illustrator Priya Kuriyan has been a strong contributor to this slow visual revolution toward making children’s books more child-friendly. Read our interview with Priya Kuriyan, in which she talks about the importance of visual thinking skills and what it means to draw for children.
Excerpts from the interview:
You have done wonderful illustrations for several children’s books. What inspires you to draw for children?
Each time I see a child enjoy something that I’ve drawn, my heart takes a giant leap of joy! There’s nothing more satisfying than that. It makes me very happy because even though it may be in a really small way, I feel like I’ve played a tiny part in bringing a bit of joy into their childhood. Also, working on children’s books lets me briefly inhabit the world that the characters from the story live in. This world is usually a more magical and optimistic world than the one we live in. It’s also a constant reminder in many ways about simple things in life, like trying to be a good and kind person (grown-ups need that reminder more often, really).
Tell us about a book that you loved as a child and that you revisit even today.
I can re-read almost all of Roald Dahl’s books, but Matilda is perhaps my favourite. I love all of Dahl’s characters in the book – Agatha Trunchbull, Miss Jennifer Honey and, of course, Matilda. Quentin Blake happens to be one of my all time favourite illustrators. So, that’s a big bonus. I can’t help but root for Matilda each time I read the book. I love the mean humour Dahl employs in his writing, and Blake in his illustrations.
Name three contemporary illustrators whose work you admire and feel that children will love and enjoy.
1) Emily Gravet – I love the way all her books are designed, with so much attention even to things like the end paper and the back cover that form an essential part of the story.
2) Oliver Jeffers – He takes the simplest topics and makes the most beautiful stories out of them. Stuck is one of my favourites.
3) Jon Klassen – I love his extremely graphic style and the way he uses monochromatic colours so beautifully. I love the deadpan (and slightly dark) humour in all his books, especially I Want My Hat Back.
Which are five books that every school library must own?
1) A Monster Calls – Written by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay, this book tackles the difficult theme of coming to terms with losing a parent. It also challenges notions of what children’s books should look like.
2) The Little Prince – One of those books that can be read at many different levels of meaning, depending on how old you are or whatever is going on in your life at that point.
3) The London Jungle Book – Bhajju Shyam’s imagination is as vivid as a child’s. There’s an illustration of the London Underground imagined as giant snakes burrowing holes in the ground, which is a favourite of mine.
4) The Lorax – This is one of the best books about the perils of not caring enough for the environment. I love the way Dr. Seuss takes a dig at not-so-nice political characters through his wacky drawings.
5) Mayil Will Not be Quiet – Indian teens and pre-teens will relate to this book. There were always many American and British books about the lives of teenagers. It was high time someone wrote a book in the Indian context about the feelings of young teens and pre-teens. Incidentally, Mayil becomes a teenager in the second book from the same series – Mostly Madly Mayil.
While exploring books with children, we often tend to focus more on the text while not tapping fully into the potential of pictures. What are ways in which we can explore the visual narrative with children more effectively?
Picture books – in the true sense – are books that use text very economically and briefly (or not at all). While making picture books, illustrators must ensure that their illustrations aren’t just decorations to the text. They must improve upon the story by adding details that the writer might not have included in the text. Basically, the illustrator must own the story too. This encourages a child to go through the book again and again, notice details she might not have seen during the first reading, and create her own sub-plots within the story. This is what leads to improving their visual thinking skills and also spurs creativity in them.
Publishers, illustrators and librarians need to communicate to parents the idea that visual literacy is as important as learning new words because ultimately it is they who choose books for their children. Publishers should also experiment with more formats – where the design of the book is closely linked with the story and it’s not always about just having illustrations and a story between two covers. Also, I say this a bit sheepishly, but to truly explore the visual narrative, more Indian illustrator need to also start writing their own picture books. It will definitely bring in very different results.
If you could become any book character for a day, who would you choose to be?
Willy Wonka? I’d love to own a crazy chocolate factory.
Priya Kuriyan is an illustrator and animator. Born in Kerala, she grew up in numerous towns in India. A graduate of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, she has directed educational films for the television show Sesame Street, India as well as a film for the Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI). Over the past few years, she has illustrated numerous children’s books for a number of Indian publishers, the latest being ‘Rooster Raga’ for Tulika, Chennai. She currently lives and works in Delhi.